Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, 1776

Advisor: Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature and Criticism, Columbia University, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2014

How did Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense convince reluctant Americans to abandon the goal of reconciliation with Britain and accept that separation from Britain — independence — was the only option for preserving their liberty?

Understanding

By January 1776, the American colonies were in open rebellion against Britain. Their soldiers had captured Fort Ticonderoga, besieged Boston, fortified New York City, and invaded Canada. Yet few dared voice what most knew was true — they were no longer fighting for their rights as British subjects. They weren’t fighting for self-defense, or protection of their property, or to force Britain to the negotiating table. They were fighting for independence. It took a hard jolt to move Americans from professed loyalty to declared rebellion, and it came in large part from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Not a dumbed-down rant for the masses, as often described, Common Sense is a masterful piece of argument and rhetoric that proved the power of words.

Common Sense

Text

Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
[Find more primary sources related to Common Sense in Making the Revolution from the National Humanities Center.]

Text Type

Literary nonfiction; persuasive essay. In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 9-10 complexity band.

For more information on text complexity see these resources from achievethecore.org.

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.

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Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6 (Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.)

Advanced Placement US History

  • 3.2 (IB) (Republican forms of government found expression in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.)

Advanced Placement English Language and Composition

  • Reading nonfiction
  • Analyzing and identifying and author’s use of rhetorical strategies

Teacher’s Note

This lesson focuses on the sections central to Paine’s argument in Common Sense — Section III and the Appendix to the Third Edition, published a month after the first edition. We do not recommend assigning the full essay (Sections I, II, and IV require advanced background in British history that Paine’s readers would have known well). However, students should be led through an overview of the essay to understand how Paine built his arguments to a “self-evident” conclusion (See Background: Message, below.)

Activity: From Resistance to RevolutionActivity: From Resistance to Revolution
Compare Paine’s message and rhetoric in 1776 with that of a moderate Patriot in 1768.

We recommend the first interactive exercise, From Resistance to Revolution, to lead students into the revolutionary mindset of 1776. Comparing Paine’s radical call for independence with a Patriot’s moderate plea for resistance in 1768 illuminates the dramatic transition that occurred in the eight years preceding the Declaration of Independence.

Lead students through an initial overview of the essay (see Background). To begin, they could skim the full text and read the pull-quotes (separated quotes in large bold text). What impression of Common Sense do the quotes provide? What questions do they prompt? Then guide students as they read (perhaps aloud) Section III of Common Sense and the Appendix to the Third Edition (pp. 10-19 and 25-29 in the full text provided with this lesson).

Proceed to the close reading of three excerpts in the Text Analysis below. (Note that part of Excerpt #3 is a Common Core exemplar text.)

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and a follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive worksheet that can be e-mailed, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide

Background

Common Sense

The man at right does not look angry. To us, he projects the typical figure of a “Founding Father” — composed, elite, and empowered. And to us his famous essays are awash in powdered-wig prose. But the portrait and the prose belie the reality. Thomas Paine was a firebrand, and his most influential essay — Common Sense — was a fevered no-holds-barred call for independence. He is credited with turning the tide of public opinion at a crucial juncture, convincing many Americans that war for independence was the only option to take, and they had to take it now, or else.

Common Sense appeared as a pamphlet for sale in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776, and, as we say today, it went viral. The first printing sold out in two weeks and over 150,000 copies were sold throughout America and Europe. It is estimated that one fifth of Americans read the pamphlet or heard it read aloud in public. General Washington ordered it read to his troops. Within weeks, it seemed, reconciliation with Britain had gone from an honorable goal to a cowardly betrayal, while independence became the rallying cry of united Patriots. How did Paine achieve this?

1. Timing.

Timeline to the Declaration of Independence
Over a year elapsed between the outbreak of armed conflict and the Declaration of Independence. During these fifteen months, many bemoaned the reluctance of Americans to renounce their ties with Britain despite the escalating warfare around them. “When we are no longer fascinated with the Idea of a speedy Reconciliation,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in mid-1775, “we shall exert ourselves to some purpose. Till then Things will be done by Halves.”1 In addition, there remained much discord among the colonies about their shared future. “Some timid minds are terrified at the word independence,” wrote Elbridge Gerry in March 1776, referring to the colonial legislatures. “America has gone such lengths she cannot recede, and I am convinced a few weeks or months at furthest will convince her of the fact, but the fruit must have time to ripen in some of the other Colonies.”2 In this environment, Common Sense appeared like a “meteor,” wrote John Adams,3 and propelled many to support independence. Many noted it at the time with amazement.

“Sometime past the idea [of independence] would have struck me with horror. I now see no alternative;… Can any virtuous and brave American hesitate one moment in the choice?”

The Pennsylvania Evening Post, 13 February 1776

“We were blind, but on reading these enlightening works the scales have fallen from our eyes…. The doctrine of Independence hath been in times past greatly disgustful; we abhorred the principle. It is now become our delightful theme and commands our purest affections. We revere the author and highly prize and admire his works.”

The New-London [Connecticut] Gazette, 22 March 1776

2. Message.

What made Common Sense so esteemed and “enlightening”? Some argue that Common Sense said nothing new, that it simply put the call-to-war in fiery street language that rallied the common people. But this trivializes Paine’s accomplishment. He did have a new message in Common Sense — an ultimatum. Give up reconciliation now, or forever lose the chance for independence. If we fail to act, we’re self-deceiving cowards condemning our children to tyranny and cheating the world of a beacon of liberty. It is our calling to model self-actualized nationhood for the world. “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”

Common Sense

Paine divided Common Sense into four sections with deceptively mundane titles, mimicking the erudite political pamphlets of the day. But his essay did not offer the same-old-same-old treatise on British heritage and American rights. Here’s what he says in Common Sense:

Introduction: The ideas I present here are so new that many people will reject them. Readers must clear their minds of long-held notions, apply common sense, and adopt the cause of America as the “cause of all mankind.” How we respond to tyranny today will matter for all time.

Section One: The English government you worship? It’s a sham. Man may need government to protect him from his flawed nature, but that doesn’t mean he must suffocate under brute tyranny. Just as you would cut ties with abusive parents, you must break from Britain.

Section Two: The monarchy you revere? It’s not our protector; it’s our enemy. It doesn’t care about us; it cares about Britain’s wealth. It has brought misery to people all over the world. And the very idea of monarchy is absurd. Why should someone rule over us simply because he (or she) is someone’s child? So evil is monarchy by its very nature that God condemns it in the Bible.

Section Three: Our crisis today? It’s folly to think we should maintain loyalty to a distant tyrant. It’s self-sabotage to pursue reconciliation. For us, right here, right now, reconciliation means ruin. America must separate from Britain. We can’t go back to the cozy days before the Stamp Act. You know that’s true; it’s time to admit it. For heaven’s sake, we’re already at war!

Section Four: Can we win this war? Absolutely! Ignore the naysayers who tremble at the thought of British might. Let’s build a Continental Navy as we have built our Continental Army. Let us declare independence. If we delay, it will be that much harder to win. I know the prospect is daunting, but the prospect of inaction is terrifying.

A month later, in his appendix to the third edition, Paine escalated his appeal to a utopian fervor. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he insisted. “The birthday of a new world is at hand.”

3. Rhetoric.

“It is necessary to be bold,” wrote Paine years later on his rhetorical power. “Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it. Say a bold thing that will stagger them, and they will begin to think.”4 Keep this idea front and center as you study Common Sense.

As an experienced essayist and a recent English immigrant with his own deep resentments against Britain, Paine was the right man at the right time to galvanize public opinion. He “understood better than anyone else in America,” explains literary scholar Robert Ferguson, “that ‘style and manner of thinking’ might dictate the difficult shift from loyalty to rebellion.”5 Before Paine, the language of political essays had been moderate. Educated men wrote civilly for publication and kept their fury for private letters and diaries. Then came Paine, cursing Britain as an “open enemy,” denouncing George III as the “Royal Brute of England,” and damning reconciliation as “truly farcical” and “a fallacious dream.” To think otherwise, he charged, was “absurd,” “unmanly,” and “repugnant to reason.” As Virginian Landon Carter wrote in dismay, Paine implied that anyone who disagreed with him “is nothing short of a coward and a sycophant [stooge/lackey], which in plain meaning must be a damned rascal.”6 Paine knew what he was doing: the pen was his weapon, and words his ammunition. He argued with ideas while convincing with raw emotion. “The point to remember,” writes Ferguson, “is that Paine’s natural and intended audience is the American mob…. He uses anger, the natural emotion of the mob, to let the most active groups find themselves in the general will of a republican citizenry.”7 What if Paine had written the Declaration of Independence with the same hard-driving rhetoric?

AS JEFFERSON WROTE IT:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

IF PAINE HAD WRITTEN IT:

NO man can deny, without abandoning his God-given ability to reason, that all men enter into existence as equals. No matter how lowly or majestic their origins, they enter life with three God-given RIGHTS — the right to live, to right to live free, and the right to live happily (or, at the least, to pursue Happiness on earth). Who would choose existence on any other terms? So treasured are these rights that man created government to protect them. So treasured are they that man is duty-bound to destroy any government that crushes them — and start anew as men worthy of the title of FREE MEN. This is the plain truth, impossible to refute.

Text Analysis

Excerpt #1

Close Reading Questions

Imagine yourself sitting down to read Common Sense in January 1776. How does Paine introduce his reasoning to you?
He announces that his logic will be direct and down to earth, using only “simple facts” and “plain arguments” to explain his position, unlike (he implies) the complex political pamphlets addressed to the educated elite. His audience would understand “common sense” to suggest the moral sense of the yeoman farmer, whose independence and clear-headedness made him a more reliable guardian of national virtue (similar to Jefferson’s agrarian ideal).

Why does he write “I offer nothing more” instead of “I offer you many reasons” or “I offer a detailed argument”?
“Nothing more” implies that Common Sense will be easy to follow, presenting only what is necessary to make his argument. (Paine considered titling his essay Plain Truth.)

How does Paine ask you to prepare yourself for his “common sense” arguments?
Be willing to put aside pre-conceived notions, he says, and judge his arguments on their own merits.

What does he imply by saying a fair reader “will put on, or rather than he will not put off, the true character of a man”?
He implies that any reader who would refuse to consider his arguments is narrow-minded. With the “on”–”off” contrast, he suggests that you, the individual reader, are open-minded and thus a fellow man of honor willing to consider a new point of view.

Activity: The Common Sense of 'Common Sense'Activity: The Common Sense of Common Sense
Examine Paine’s “common sense” reasoning in his arguments for complete independence.
In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense: and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader than that he will divest [rid] himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer [permit] his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves: that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day.

PARAGRAPH 55

 

This paragraph begins with one of the most famous hyperboles in American writing. A hyperbole is an overstatement or exaggeration to emphasize a point. What are the two examples of hyperbole in this paragraph?
1. “the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth
2. “posterity… will be more or less affected, even to the end of time

With the hyperboles, how does Paine lead you to view the “cause” of American independence?
View it, he says, from an overarching global perspective, not the narrow perspective of American colonists in the late 1700s. The hyperboles are ultimates — the most worthy of worthy causes, affecting the future now and forever. The American cause can lead mankind toward enlightened self-determination, driving forward the progress of civilization. Paine says this directly in his introduction: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” We’re not just talking taxes and representation, people.

What tone does Paine add with the phrases “The sun never shined” and “even to the end of time”?
A biblical and prophetic tone. The sun shining down on human endeavors suggests divine endorsement of the American cause — a cause that will bring light and freedom (“salvation”) to the world. Resisting the cause, Paine implies, would be resisting divine will.

Let’s consider Paine as a wordsmith. How does he use repetition to add impact to the first part of the paragraph?
He includes two repetitive sets:
1. “’Tis not” to begin sentences 2 and 3 [anaphora]
2. the phrases “of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom” and “of a day, a year, or an age” [prepositions with multiple objects].
Read the section aloud to hear the insistent rhythm that elevates Paine’s prose to a rousing call to action (his goal in writing Common Sense).

Paine ends this paragraph with an analogy: What we do now is like carving initials into the bark of a young oak tree. What does he mean with the analogy?
A. This is the time to create a new nation. Our smallest efforts now will lead to enormous benefits in the future.
B. This is the time to unite for independence. Discord among us now will escalate into future crises that could ruin the young nation.
Answer: B.

The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ’Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent – of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed time of continental [colonies’] union, faith and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.

PARAGRAPH 58

 

Paine includes multiple repetitions in this paragraph. What word repetition do you find?
The adjective “new” in a “new area” and a “new method.” [anaphora]

What sound repetitions do you find?
Alliteration: argument/arms/area/arisen
plans/proposals/prior/April
Consonance: politics/struck
method/thinking/hath
matter/argument/arms

Read the sentences aloud. What impact does the repetition add to Paine’s delivery?
A stirring oratorical rhythm is achieved, like that of a solemn speech or sermon meant to convey the truth and gravity of an argument.

Paine compares the attempts to reconcile with Britain after the Battle of Lexington and Concord to an old almanac. What does he mean?
He means the idea of reconciliation is now preposterous and that no rational person could support it. No one would use last year’s almanac to make plans for the current year! Also, as an almanac ceases to be useful at a specific moment (midnight of December 31), Paine implies that reconciliation ceased to be a valid goal at the moment of the first shot on April 19, 1775. (Paine often alludes to aspects of colonial life, like almanacs, that would resonate with all readers. They include references to farming, tree cutting, hunting, land ownership, slavery, biblical scripture, family and neighbor bonds, maturation, and the parent-child relationship; see “The Metaphor of Youth” below.)

By referring the matter from argument to arms, a new area for politics is struck; a new method of thinking hath arisen. All plans, proposals, etc., prior to the nineteenth of April, i.e., to the commencement of hostilities [Lexington and Concord], are like the almanacs of the last year which, though proper [accurate] then, are superseded and useless now. Whatever was advanced by the advocates on either side of the question then, terminated in one and the same point, viz. [that is], a union with Great Britain. The only difference between the parties was the method of effecting it — the one proposing force, the other friendship; but it hath so far happened that the first hath failed and the second hath withdrawn her influence.

PARAGRAPH 59

 

Paine compares the goal of reconciliation to an “agreeable dream [that has] passed away and left us as we were.” Why doesn’t he aim harsher criticism here at the goal of reconciling with Britain?
With this paragraph, Paine begins his argument against reconciliation and does not want to insult or alienate his readers at the outset. Everyone can hope, he implies: there’s nothing wrong with that, but we have to move on if a hope proves fruitless.

With this in mind, what tone does he lead the reader to expect: cynical, impatient, hopeful, reasonable, impassioned, angry?
Reasonable. The two sentences resemble the opening of a legal argument that promises a balanced appraisal of two options on the basis of known evidence (“principles of nature”) and honest ordinary reasoning (“common sense”).

How does his tone prepare the resistant reader?
Paine means to deflect challenges of bias or extremism by inviting readers to give him a hearing. “If I’m being fair in my writing, you can try to be fair in your listening.”

While Paine promises a fair appraisal, look how he describes the two options in the last sentence.
Option 1: “if separated” from Britain
Option 2: “if dependent on Britain”

Why didn’t he use the usual terms for the two options — “independence” and “reconciliation”?
First, INDEPENDENCE and RECONCILIATION sound like equally plausible options, but Paine wants to convince you that independence is the only acceptable option. If so, then why did he choose SEPARATION instead of INDEPENDENCE? By January 1776, INDEPENDENCE carried the drastic connotations of war and treason. It was an irrevocable decision with unknown consequences. In contrast, SEPARATION seems less drastic, and even positive. In human development, separation from one’s parents is the natural and long-sought step to full adulthood. That’s the self-image Paine wants to foster in his readers. Are we adults or children? [See the activity below, “The Metaphor of Youth”.]

In this vein, Paine chose DEPENDENCE instead of RECONCILIATION for Option 2 (staying with Britain). RECONCILIATION suggests the calm and rational agreement of two grownups, but Paine wants you to view reconciliation as the defeatist choice of spineless subjects who could never take care of themselves. In other words, DEPENDENCE.

[Note: Paine does call the two options “independence” and “reconciliation” elsewhere in Common Sense, but he meant to avoid them here.]

As much hath been said of the advantages of reconciliation, which, like an agreeable dream, hath passed away and left us as we were, it is but right that we should examine the contrary [opposing] side of the argument and inquire into some of the many material injuries which these colonies sustain, and always will sustain, by being connected with and dependent on Great Britain. To examine that connection and dependence, on the principles of nature and common sense, to see what we have to trust to [expect] if separated, and what we are to expect if dependent.

PARAGRAPH 60

 

Activity: The Metaphor of YouthActivity: The Metaphor of Youth
Study Paine’s metaphors that compare the colonies’ readiness for independence to a child’s maturation into adulthood.

Here Paine rebuts the first argument for reconciliation—that America has thrived as a British colony and would fail on her own. How does he dismiss this argument?
He slams it down hard. “NOTHING can be more FALLACIOUS,” he yells. The argument is beyond misdirected or short-sighted, he insists; it’s a fatal error in reasoning. So much for calm and reasoned debate. But Paine is not having a temper tantrum in print. His technique was to argue with ideas while convincing with emotion.

Paine follows his utter rejection of the argument with an analogy. Complete the analogy: America staying with Britain would be like a child _______.
“America staying with Britain would be like a child remaining dependent on its parents forever and never growing up.” And who would want that, Paine implies? By writing “first twenty years of our lives” instead of, say, “first five years,” Paine alludes to the general consensus that a twenty-year-old is an adult.

Paine goes one step further in the last sentence. What does he say about America’s “childhood” as a British colony?
He “answers roundly” (with conviction) that the colonies’ growth was actually hampered by being part of a European empire. They would have been more healthy and successful “adults,” he insists, if they had not been the “children” of the British empire. This was a radical premise in 1776, but one that buttressed Paine’s argument for independence

I have heard it asserted by some that as America hath flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, that the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But even this is admitting more than is true; for I answer roundly that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power had anything to do with her.

PARAGRAPH 61

Excerpt #2

Close Reading Questions

Here Paine challenges his opponents to bring “reconciliation to the touchstone of nature.” What does he mean? (A “touchstone” is a test of the quality or genuineness of something. From ancient times the purity of gold or silver was tested with a “touchstone” of basalt stone.)
Test the chances of reconciliation against what you know about people’s reactions in similar crises throughout history, not against your own hopes and fears during this particular crisis. In other words, use common sense.

At the start of this paragraph Paine mildly faults the supporters of reconciliation as unrealistic optimists “still hoping for the best.” By the end of the paragraph, however, they are cowards willing to “shake hands with the murderers.” How did he construct the paragraph to accomplish this transition?
He poses two challenges to the supporters of reconciliation. If they can honestly answer each challenge, he asserts, and still support reconciliation, then they are selfish cowards bringing ruin to America.

Paraphrase the first challenge (sentences 2–5).
“Ask yourself if you can remain loyal to a nation that has brought war and suffering to you. If you say you can, you’re fooling yourself and condemning us to a worse life under Britain than we suffer now.”

Paraphrase the second challenge (sentences 6–11).
“Have you been the victim of British violence? If you haven’t, then you still owe compassion to those who have. And if you have, yet still support reconciliation, then you have abandoned your conscience.”

With what phrase does Paine condemn those who would still hope for reconciliation even if they were victims of British violence?
They are men who “can still shake hands with the murderers,” i.e., men who have betrayed their fellow Americans and thus become as evil as the British invaders. There is no nuance in this condemnation, and thus no way for the reader to avoid its implications.

Note how Paine weaves impassioned questions through the paragraph: “Are you only deceiving yourselves?” “Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands?” How do these questions intensify his challenges?
Addressed to “you” directly and not a faceless “he or they,” the questions deliver an in-your-face challenge that allows no escape. Here’s my question to you: Answer it! or your silence will reveal your cowardice.

Rewrite sentences #4 and #11 to change the second-person “you” to the third-person “he/she/they.” How does the change weaken Paine’s challenges?
The reader is off the hook. Since the challenges are deflected from “you,” the reader, to the third-person “other,” no immediate personal reply is demanded. The reader can blithely read on and avoid the aim of Paine’s questions.

Worksheet: The Question as a Rhetorical DeviceWorksheet: The Question as a Rhetorical Device
Use this worksheet to examine Paine’s use of questions as persuasive devices throughout Common Sense, specifically the rhetorical question and the hypophora (questions with implied or stated answers, used for rhetorical impact).
Men of passive tempers [temperaments] look somewhat lightly over the offenses of Britain and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, “Come, come, we shall be friends again for all this.” But examine the passions and feelings of mankind. Bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature and then tell me whether you can hereafter love, honor, and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land? If you cannot do all these, then are you only deceiving yourselves and by your delay bringing ruin upon posterity? Your future connection with Britain, whom you can neither love nor honor, will be forced and unnatural, and being formed only on the plan of present convenience, will in a little time fall into a relapse more wretched than the first. But if you say you can still pass the violations over [ignore or underrate them], then I ask, Hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of [without] a bed to lie on or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and, whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward and the spirit of a sycophant.

PARAGRAPH 77

Excerpt #3

Close Reading Questions

At this point, Paine pleads with his readers to write the constitution for their independent nation without delay. What danger do they risk, he warns, if they leave this crucial task to a later day?
A colonial leader could grasp dictatorial power by taking advantage of the postwar disorder likely to result if the colonies have no constitution ready to implement. Even if Britain tried to regain control of the colonies, it could be too late to wrest control back from a powerful dictator. “Ye are opening a door to eternal tyranny,” Paine warns, “by keeping vacant the seat of government.”

What historical evidence does Paine offer to illustrate the danger?
He states that “some Massanello may hereafter arise” and grasp power, alluding to the short-lived people’s revolt led by the commoner Thomas Aniello (Masaniello) in 1647 against Spanish control of Naples (Italy). The Spanish ruler granted a few rights, but Masaniello was soon murdered, ending the uprising and its short-lived gains for the people.

As his plea escalates in intensity, Paine exclaims “Ye that oppose independence now, ye know not what ye do.” To what climactic moment in the New Testament does he allude?
While suffering on the cross before his death, Jesus calls out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34); that is, his crucifiers do not know they are killing the Son of God. With this compelling allusion (which most readers would instantly recognize), Paine warns that opposing independence is as calamitous a decision for Americans as killing Jesus was for his executioners and for mankind.

Paine heightens his apocalyptic tone as he appeals to “ye that love mankind” to accept a mission of salvation (alluding to Christ’s mission of salvation). What must the lovers of mankind achieve in order to save mankind?
They must establish the “free and independent States of America” as the sole preserve of human freedom in the world. A desperate fugitive, “freedom” has been “hunted” and “expelled” throughout the world, and it is America’s mission to protect and nurture her. America’s victory will be mankind’s victory, not just the feat of thirteen small colonies in a distant corner of the world.

NOTE: “A government of our own is our natural right” asserts Paine at the beginning of this excerpt. Six months later Thomas Jefferson asserted the same right in the opening of the Declaration of Independence. This Enlightenment ideal anchored revolutionary initiatives in America and Europe for decades.

A government of our own is our natural right, and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now, some Massanello* may hereafter arise who, laying hold of popular disquietudes [grievances], may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, finally sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge. Should the government of America return again into the hands of Britain, the tottering situation of things will be a temptation for some desperate adventurer to try his fortune; and in such a case, what relief can Britain give? Ere [before] she could hear the news, the fatal business might be done, and ourselves suffering like the wretched Britons under the oppression of the Conqueror [William the Conqueror in 1066]. Ye that oppose independence now, ye know not what ye do. Ye are opening a door to eternal tyranny by keeping vacant the seat of government….

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her.—Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.


* Thomas Anello, otherwise Massanello, a fisherman of Naples, who after spiriting up his countrymen in the public marketplace against the oppression of the Spaniards, to whom the place was then subject, prompted them to revolt, and in the space of a day become King. [footnote in Paine]

PARAGRAPHS 104, 107

Follow-Up Assignment

  1. Write a how-to essay on persuasive writing using Common Sense as the focus text and this statement by Thomas Paine as the core idea: “Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it. Say a bold thing that will stagger them, and they will begin to think.” –Letter to Elihu Palmer, 21 February 1802.
  2. Write an essay to summarize and evaluate Common Sense using one of the quotations below as the organizing concept. Use the metaphor in the quotation as a rhetorical device throughout the essay. (Paragraph numbers refer to the full text of Common Sense with this lesson.)
    Quotation Para. Metaphor
    “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.” 58 light, newness, glory
    “The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries
    “‘TIS TIME TO PART.”
    73massacre, suffering
    “Reconciliation is now a fallacious dream.”79illusion, vain hope
    “It is now in the interest of America to provide for herself.”144adulthood, self-reliance
    “Independence is the only BOND that can tie and keep us together.”163tying cord, unity for survival

  3. See colonists’ and newspapers’ responses to Common Sense in the primary source collection Making the Revolution (Section: Common Sense?) to examine how Paine turned public opinion in 1776. Note the critical pieces by John Adams, Hannah Griffitts, and others. What can be learned about Paine’s effectiveness by studying his critics?

Vocabulary Pop-ups

[including 18th-c. connotations]

  • posterity: all future generations of mankind
  • superseded: replaced something old or no longer useful
  • precedent: an action or policy that serves as an example or rule for the future
  • touchstone: as a metaphor, a test of the quality or genuineness of something. (in the past, the purity of gold or silver was tested with a “toughstone” of basalt stone.)
  • relapse: a return to a previous worse condition after a period of improvement
  • sycophant: someone who acts submissively to another in power in order to gain advantage; yes-man, flatterer, bootlicker
  • precariousness: uncertainty, instability; dependence on chance circumstances or unknown conditions
  • deluge: a cataclysmic flood

1. Benjamin Franklin, letter to Silas Deane, 27 August 1775. Full text in Founders Online (National Archives).
2. Elbridge Gerry, letter to James Warren, 26 March 1776.
3. John Adams, autobiography, part 1, “John Adams,” through 1776, sheet 23 of 53 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. www.masshist.org/digitaladams/.
4. Thomas Paine, letter to Elihu Palmer, 21 February 1802; cited in Henry Hayden Clark, “Thomas Paine’s Theories of Rhetoric,” Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, 28 (1933), 317.
5. Robert A. Ferguson, “The Commonalities of Common Sense,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d. Series, 57:3 (July 2000), 483.
6. Landon Carter, diary entry, 20 February 1776, recounting content of letter written that day to George Washington. Full entry in Founders Online (National Archives).
7. Robert A. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820 (Harvard University Press, 1994; paper ed., 1997), 113.

*For a helpful discussion of Paine’s response to the “horrid cruelties” of the British in India, see J.M. Opal, “Common Sense and Imperial Atrocity: How Thomas Paine Saw South Asia in North America,Common-Place, July 2009.


Images courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Library.

  • Portrait of Thomas Paine by John Henry Bufford (1810-1870), engraving by Bufford’s Lithography, ca. 1850. Record ID 268504.
  • Title page (cover) of Common Sense, 1776. Record ID 2052092.

Benjamin Franklin’s Satire of Witch Hunting

Advisor: Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor of Law, Literature and Criticism, Columbia University Law School, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2014

How does Benjamin Franklin’s satire of a witch trial argue that human affairs should be guided, above all, by reason?

Understanding

Many people in the eighteenth century, especially the educated elite in Europe and America, believed that truth was discovered through reason, through the application of principles discovered through science, observation, and experimentation. In “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly” Benjamin Franklin asserts the primacy of reason by satirizing the efforts of those who would seek truth through superstition and irrationality.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1746
Harvard Art Museums

Text

Benjamin Franklin, “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly,” 1730, from Founders Online, from the National Archives. Suggested secondary sources from “Divining America: Religion in American History” from the National Humanities Center: Deism and the Founding of the United States by Darren Staloff and The First Great Awakening by Christine Heyrman.

Text Type

Informational text: Literary non-fiction, satire.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR complexity band. For more information on text complexity see these resources from achievethecore.org.
 
Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.

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Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.6 (Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).)
  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.9 (Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.)

Advanced Placement English Language and Composition

  • Reading nonfiction
  • Analyzing satire and how an author’s rhetorical choices achieve a particular purpose

Teacher’s Note

In addition to illustrating how satire works, this piece could be used to highlight cultural differences between the educated elite of the eighteenth century who were influenced by Enlightenment thought and the common folks who were not. The publication date of 1730 places the piece on the earliest fringe of the First Great Awakening, which had its initial manifestations around New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Thus the satire could be seen as foreshadowing the attitude many among the elite took toward the religious emotionalism, which they called “enthusiasm,” of those caught up in the Awakening’s fervor. Although Franklin later befriended the preacher George Whitefield, a major figure in the First Great Awakening, he remained suspicious of the revival’s enthusiasm throughout his life. In 1730, as a twenty-four-year-old, his firm embrace of the rationalistic philosophy of Deism could easily have moved him to take aim at the irrationality of enthusiasm as it might manifest itself in a witch hunt.

We provide the text in its entirety. Franklin wrote it as a single paragraph. We have numbered the sentences to make it easier to teach. For close reading we have analyzed the article through fine-grained, text-dependent questions. The first interactive activity asks students to do three things: identify words and phrases that make the piece a satire, explain why the language they chose is satirical, and compare their choices and rationales with ours. You may want to make these tasks, or at least the first two, a pencil-and-paper assignment. This exercise lends itself well to whole-class discussion with projection on a screen or smart board. The second interactive asks students to draw a conclusion from the piece. The student pdf also includes links to the interactive exercises.

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and a follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive worksheet that can be e-mailed, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions, and the follow-up assignment.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide

Background

Background Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

The Pennsylvania Gazette was founded in Philadelphia in 1728. A year later Benjamin Franklin and a business partner bought it and in the following decades turned it into one of the most popular publications in the American colonies, printing reports from other papers as well as local news. In eighteenth-century America people hung on to newspapers, especially in inns, because paper was precious. They circulated widely, and with high literacy levels in Philadelphia, we can assume that the Gazette had a substantial general readership. Franklin frequently contributed articles, as he did for the October 22, 1730, edition when he published, anonymously, a satire datelined “Burlington, Oct. 12.”

Untitled when it appeared, a nineteenth-century editor dubbed it “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly.” The brief narrative describes the determined efforts of a mob in a small New Jersey town to find a man and a woman guilty of witchcraft after they had been accused of making sheep dance and hogs sing. In a normal proceeding only the accused would be tried, but in this one the accused cut a deal to put their accusers, also a man and a woman, on trial as well. The mob decides upon two tests. In the first the men and women will be weighed individually against a “huge great” Bible. If it outweighs them, they are witches; if they outweigh it, they are not. In the second test they will be cast into water. If they sink, they are innocent; if they float, they are guilty. The inclusion of the accused in the tests makes the proceedings less a trial and more an absurd experiment in which scales and water are used to detect virtue and vice. The tale is told by the sort of narrator who often appears in satire, an urbane, witty figure who coolly observes the action with an amused, tolerant attitude.

The article, presented as local news, is a literary hoax, similar to two others Franklin published in the Gazette. As far as scholars have been able to determine, he was neither reporting on nor responding to an actual event, certainly not a witch trial. No one has found records of one in New Jersey or Pennsylvania in or around 1730. Franklin may have written the piece to underscore themes in two other articles that appear in the October 22 issue. The lead story — datelined Paris, February 27 — describes the ridicule visited upon a Monsieur Languet, a bishop and a member of the esteemed French Academy, for a biography he wrote of a nun who died in 1690. The author of the article denounces Languet as a “Fanatick and a Visionary” for retailing stories of apparitions the nun claimed to have experienced. In language that echoes “A Witch Trial” the narrator notes that Languet’s book is surely “the Amusement and Diversion…of the thinking Part of the People of Paris.” The other article — datelined Oxford, July 30 — recounts the comic struggle that broke out over the body of a murderer named William Fuller after it was cut down from the gallows. As officials try to get the corpse out of town, they must fend off a mob and then a determined band of “gownsmen,” Oxford medical students, who want to carry Fuller off for dissection. The officials fail, and Fuller ends up serving science at Christ Church College. At one point the mob tosses Fuller’s coffin into water, and the gownsmen leap on it “like Spaniels,” much as a sailor in Mount Holly leaps on one of the men on trial as he floats in the local mill pond.

In addition to sharing language and motifs — repetition of the phrase “the thinking part,” mob behavior, and jumping on floating bodies — these stories share themes with “A Witch Trial.” The Paris story underscores the primacy of reason in its description of the ridicule the educated heap upon Monsieur Languet for his belief in apparitions. “A Witch Trial” also asserts the primacy of reason as the narrator mocks the people of Mount Holly for their belief in witches. Comic as it may be, the Oxford story recounts the triumph of science and empiricism, perspectives that drive the satire in “A Witch Trial.” It would not be surprising if these stories inspired Franklin to write his satire. He was twenty-four in 1730, and the piece reflects his youthful embrace of Deism, a form of religious belief, influential among the elite in eighteenth-century America, that placed faith in reason and rejected the supernatural.

Text Analysis

Close Reading Questions

1. What does Franklin do to establish the “authenticity” of his hoax? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
Through the dateline “Burlington, Oct. 12” he tells his readers that the incident took place in a real place at a specific time. He then offers details that make the dateline even more specific and thus make the event more believable. It took place “Saturday last” in the town of Mount-Holly, which he is careful to locate “about 8 miles from this Place.” Moreover, he tells us about how many people were involved, “near 300.”

2. What are the connotations of the word “experiment”? (Note: The word “experiment” is a key term in the story and deserves extended attention.)
It suggests science and unbiased, rational, carefully conducted inquiry that follows the rules of logic.

3. What do experiments usually seek to do?
Experiments usually seek to test a hypothesis, an assumption or proposition that calls for some sort of test to see if it is accurate or valid.

4. What is the effect of the narrator’s use of the word “experiment”?
The narrator ridicules the witch trials by calling them experiments. Clearly, they are not carefully reasoned, logical attempts to test a verifiable hypothesis. Rather, they are inappropriate and ineffectual attempts to determine a person’s guilt or innocence. By applying the term to the witch trials, the narrator ironically highlights the extent to which they diverge from rational processes of science and stray into superstition. The term bestows a comically inflated dignity and importance to this slapstick enterprise.

In addition, the term helps to define the narrator’s persona. It suggests that he is a man of the Enlightenment, familiar with the ways of science. Indeed, he seems more interested in how the trials are conducted than in their outcome. Note his careful description of each step. Note, too, that he never tells us how the mob judges any of the men subjected to the tests.

Activity: Franklin's Satirical LanguageActivity: Franklin’s Satirical Language
In “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly” Franklin ridicules the thinking of the people of Mount Holly with language that is in some places obviously humorous and in others finely subtle.

5. How would you describe the persona of the narrator or “reporter” of this story?
The narrator/reporter is calm, casual, off-handed, bemused, and condescending.

6. How does Franklin create this persona? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
Franklin creates the persona through the language the narrator uses. It suggests that he is not necessarily well informed or even terribly concerned about what is going on: the people have gathered to see “an Experiment or two”; “It seems” that the accused are charged with witchcraft. He describes two remarkable accusations, but any others he dismisses with an off-handed “&c.” He highlights the comic nature of the charges by turning one of them into a joke. If sheep were made to dance in “an uncommon manner,” one is tempted to ask how they commonly dance.

7. What is the narrator’s point of view? How does Franklin establish it? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
The narrator stands apart from the other spectators. While the townspeople are passionate in their demand for a trial and, it would seem, a guilty verdict, he calmly and wittily observes the scene and describes it without any of the bias that fires the crowd. He is deeply uninvolved. Franklin further establishes the narrator’s distance from the townspeople by having him ironically describe these rather simple provincial folks with comic exaggeration. They meet in “grand Consultation.” They are “the King’s good and peaceable Subjects.” Of course, there is nothing “peaceable” about them; they are a mob in pursuit of a verdict they have already reached.

8. What are the connotations of the word “plump”? How does Franklin use it in the story?
It suggests weight, flesh, heaviness. Franklin uses it for comic effect. With it he undermines the seriousness of the scale trial. We can almost see and hear—the word is slightly onomatopoeic—the accused plummeting to the ground and bouncing upon arrival. Moreover, the word “plump” reminds readers that the subjects are flesh and blood, merely human, and not supernatural beings.

9. What does the term “Lumps of Mortality” refer to? How does Franklin use it?
It refers to the bodies of the people tested in the scales. “Lumps” echoes “plump” and, like that word, suggests weight and heaviness. Linking it to “Mortality,” Franklin again reminds his readers that the accusers and the accused are mere mortals, not witches. Juxtaposing “Lumps of Mortality” with “Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles,” the narrator suggests the absurdity of attempting to learn something about the supernatural from a test that measures only the weight of flesh, blood, and bone.

Activity: Satire as a CorrectiveActivity: Satire as a Corrective
Satire is often practiced as a corrective of human behavior. Satirists who see satire in that way imply a course of action to improve, reform, or change in some way the target of their ridicule.

10. What does Franklin mean when he says that the male accuser “with some Difficulty began to sink”? Why would he include this detail?
He suggests that the man initially floats but sinks only when he tries to. This detail sets up the narrator’s ridicule of “the more Thinking Part of the Spectators,” for while they reach the correct conclusion about people with air in their lungs floating, they mistakenly conclude that a thin person’s physique would cause him or her to sink.

11. How does Franklin focus our attention on the word “naked”? What function does it play in the story?
He makes us pause before it and heightens its comic effectiveness by setting it off with a comma. Functioning rather like the punch line of a joke, it completely demolishes any pretense to seriousness that the trials may have claimed and suggests their true purpose as entertainment for the masses.

12. How does Franklin characterize the trials? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
Franklin portrays the trials as essentially comic, thoroughly unserious undertakings — note the deal by which the accusers are put on trial, the “plump” landing in the scale trials, the search for pins, the attempt to sink the floaters. He also characterizes them as an entertainment spectacle. They are advertised. The scales are set up on a gallows to enable the ladies of the town to view them without going into the crowd. To accommodate that crowd, town officials have cleared an open space “after the Manner of Moorfields.” When it becomes apparent that the trials will have to be repeated, officials insure a crowd by promising nudity at the next performance.

13. How does Franklin portray the people of Mount Holly? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
He portrays them as simple-minded, superstitious bumpkins. Franklin makes explicit fun of them throughout the story. They think pins are “Thing[s] of weight”; they are surprised when the men and women outweigh the Bible and land “plump” on the ground. Finally, they reject the resoundingly conclusive results of the scale test. Portraying their failure to understand what is clearly before them, Franklin reflects the fear, widespread in eighteenth-century America, that religious enthusiasm will prevent meaningful education.

A Witch Trial at Mount Holly

BURLINGTON, Oct. 12. [1] Saturday last at Mount-Holly, about 8 Miles from this Place, near 300 People were gathered together to see an Experiment or two tried on some Persons accused of Witchcraft.

[2] It seems the Accused had been charged with making their Neighbours Sheep dance in an uncommon Manner, and with causing Hogs to speak, and sing Psalms, &c. to the great Terror and Amazement of the King’s good and peaceable Subjects in this Province; and the Accusers being very positive that if the Accused were weighed in Scales against a Bible, the Bible would prove too heavy for them; or that, if they were bound and put into the River, they would swim; the said Accused desirous to make their Innocence appear [desiring to prove their innocence], voluntarily offered to undergo the said Trials, if 2 of the most violent of their Accusers would be tried with them.

[3] Accordingly the Time and Place was agreed on, and advertised about the Country; The Accusers were 1 Man and 1 Woman; and the Accused the same.

[4] The Parties being met, and the People got together, a grand Consultation was held, before they proceeded to Trial; in which it was agreed to use the Scales first; and a Committee of Men were appointed to search the Men, and a Committee of Women to search the Women, to see if they had any Thing of Weight about them, particularly Pins.

[5] After the Scrutiny was over, a huge great Bible belonging to the Justice of the Place was provided, and a Lane through the Populace was made from the Justices House to the Scales, which were fixed on a Gallows erected for that Purpose opposite to the House, that the Justice’s Wife and the rest of the Ladies might see the Trial, without coming amongst the Mob; and after the Manner of Moorfields [in the eighteenth century, an open space in London often the site of markets and shows], a large Ring was also made.

[6] Then came out of the House a grave tall Man carrying the Holy Writ before the supposed Wizard, &c. (as solemnly as the Sword-bearer of London before the Lord Mayor) the Wizard was first put in the Scale, and over him was read a Chapter out of the Books of Moses, and then the Bible was put in the other Scale, (which being kept down before) was immediately let go; but to the great Surprize of the Spectators, Flesh and Bones came down plump, and outweighed that great good Book by abundance [a large amount].

[7] After the same Manner, the others were served, and their Lumps of Mortality severally [separately] were too heavy for Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles.

[8] This being over, the Accusers and the rest of the Mob, not satisfied with this Experiment, would have the Trial by Water; accordingly a most solemn Procession was made to the Mill-pond; where both Accused and Accusers being stripp’d (saving only to the Women their Shifts [undergarments]) were bound Hand and Foot, and severally placed in the Water, lengthways, from the Side of a Barge or Flat, having for Security only a Rope about the Middle of each, which was held by some in the Flat.

[9] The Accuser Man being thin and spare [bony], with some Difficulty began to sink at last; but the rest every one of them swam [floated] very light upon the Water.

[10] A Sailor in the Flat jump’d out upon the Back of the Man accused, thinking to drive him down to the Bottom, but the Person bound, without any Help, came up some time before the other.

[11] The Woman Accuser, being told that she did not sink, would be duck’d a second Time; when she swam again as light as before.

[12] Upon which she declared, That she believed the Accused had bewitched her to make her so light, and that she would be duck’d again a Hundred Times, but she would duck the Devil out of her.

[13] The accused Man, being surpriz’d at his own Swimming, was not so confident of his Innocence as before, but said, If I am a Witch, it is more than I know.

[14] The more thinking Part of the Spectators were of Opinion, that any Person so bound and plac’d in the Water (unless they were mere Skin and Bones) would swim till their Breath was gone, and their Lungs fill’d with Water.

[15] But it being the general Belief of the Populace, that the Womens Shifts, and the Garters with which they were bound help’d to support them; it is said they are to be tried again the next warm Weather, naked.


Pennsylvania Gazette, October 1730

 


Images:

  • Robert Feke, portrait of Benjamin Franklin, oil on canvas, ca. 1746. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Dr. John Collins Warren, 1856, H47. Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reproduced by permission.
  • The Pennsylvania Gazette, Oct. 15-22, 1730, p. 3 (detail). Digital image reproduced by permission of Accessible Archives, Inc.