This lesson discusses Thomas Paine and two of the most important pamphlets of the Revolutionary Era. Learn more about Paine’s life and the influence of his writing, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Thomas Paine
thomas paine

The Life of Thomas Paine

Early in his life, there was little to suggest that Thomas Paine would become one of the most influential writers of the 18th century. He was born in England on January 29, 1737, and dropped out of school by the time he was 12. He had little success as an apprentice to his father, a corset maker. As a tax officer, he was fired twice. However, his life changed when he met Benjamin Franklin in London in 1774. Franklin helped him move to Philadelphia, where Paine worked as a journalist. While there, he wrote two of the most important works of the Revolutionary Era, ‘Common Sense’ and ‘The American Crisis.’

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When Paine returned to Europe, he was branded an outlaw for supporting the French Revolution and imprisoned in France for disagreeing with Louis XVI’s execution. Paine returned the U.S. in 1802 but died in 1809 with few friends due to his criticism of Christianity.

Pamphlets in the Revolutionary Era

If someone wanted to make a statement in Colonial America, chances are that it was through a pamphlet. Over 2,000 of these publications were printed during the Revolutionary Era. They were popular because even though they were smaller than books, they allowed authors to fully explore an issue. It also helped that pamphlets were cheap to print. Pamphlets usually fell into one of three categories. Some pamphlets responded to an event or an act the British imposed on the colonists. The Stamp Act, for example, resulted in a flurry of pamphlets. They were also used to make an argument or respond to an argument from another pamphlet. Pamphlets were also written to celebrate an event, such as when an unpopular act was repealed.

Common Sense is Published

Paine wrote ‘Common Sense’ to make an argument. The argument was that the colonists should break away from England and declare independence. When Paine published ‘Common Sense’ in January 1776, the colonists were far from united in their opinion about what should be done about England. Many wanted to remain loyal to the Crown, many wanted to break away, and many others were not sure what they wanted to do. ‘Common Sense’ helped sway the opinion of the large contingent of the colonists that were undecided. Paine criticized the monarchy and claimed that it made no sense for a small island nation like England to rule America. He also warned the colonists that America would be dragged into British wars that had little to do with them thousands of miles away on another continent.

The Response to ‘Common Sense’

If there had been a bestseller list in 1776, ‘Common Sense’ surely would have been at the top. It was an instant sensation, selling over 100,000 copies in its first three months of publication. Eventually, over 500,000 copies were sold. Given that the total population of the colonies was around two million, ‘Common Sense’ is one of the best-selling works in American history. Paine’s message obviously resonated with many of the colonists, because within six months of the publication of ‘Common Sense,’ Thomas Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence and the war for freedom was on. ‘Common Sense’ did not bring Paine notoriety, though. He published the pamphlet anonymously, signing it simply as ‘Written by an Englishman.’

The American Crisis

‘The American Crisis’ is a series of 16 pamphlets that Paine wrote between 1776 and 1783. Also published anonymously, this time using the pseudonym ‘Common Sense,’ Paine lifted the morale of both the colonists and the troops under the command of General George Washington. ‘These are times that try men’s souls,’ Paine famously wrote in the first pamphlet as he continued to make the case for American independence. Washington, looking for a way to inspire the Continental Army, ordered that the first pamphlet be read aloud to his hungry, cold, and tired troops at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.

Paine was very direct in his assessment of the Tories, who were loyal to England. He wrote that they were ‘cowards.’ As for the war, which did not start off well for Washington’s army, Paine acknowledged that it was not easy but insisted that it was a war worth fighting.

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • State some key points of Thomas Paine’s life
  • Recall the reasons pamphlets were used in Colonial America
  • Name and summarize Paine’s two most important pamphlets
  • Discuss the response to ‘Common Sense’ and ‘The American Crisis’