Skip to Main Content

Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this Primary Source with the Loyalist vs. Patriot Decision Point to allow students to analyze the divide of colonists over loyalty to the crown.


Published in January 1776, Common Sense makes a moral and political argument for American independence from Great Britain. The pamphlet’s straightforward prose and clearly articulated argument were extremely popular in the colonies. The argument in the pamphlet captivated the nation and helped move the country toward independence. The pamphlet was written by Thomas Paine, a recent arrival in Philadelphia and known political agitator, yet he published the pamphlet anonymously. Paine would continue to write passionately in favor of independence, publishing The Crisis in December of 1776. After the revolution, Paine would head to France, where he used his pen to advocate on behalf of the French Revolution. He died in New York in 1809.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Describe the historical context of this document. What major events had already taken place by January 1776? What major events did this document precede?
  2. Who was the intended audience of this document? Be as specific as possible.
  3. What was this document’s intended purpose?

Vocabulary Text
In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense. . . . .
ineffectual (adj): not producing the intended or desired effect Volumes have been written on the subject of the struggle between England and America. Men of all ranks have embarked in the controversy, from different motives, and with various designs; but all have been ineffectual, and the period of debate is closed. Arms, as the last resource, decide this contest; the appeal was the choice of the king, and the continent hath accepted the challenge. . . .
The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. . . .
contrary (adj): a fact or condition incompatible with another; opposite

material (adj): of a physical or worldly nature
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 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, if separated, and what we are to expect, if dependant.
fallacious (adj): embodying a fallacy or falsehood; tending to deceive or mislead 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 any thing to do with her. The commerce, by which she hath enriched herself, are the necessaries of life, and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.
engross (v): to occupy completely; collect or purchase But she has protected us, say some. That she has engrossed us is true, and defended the continent at our expense as well as her own is admitted, and she would have defended Turkey from the same motive, viz. the sake of trade and dominion.
pretention (n): an allegation of doubtful value; a claim or effort to establish a claim Alas, we have been long led away by ancient prejudices, and made large sacrifices to superstition. We have boasted the protection of Great Britain, without considering, that her motive was INTEREST not ATTACHMENT; that she did not protect us from OUR ENEMIES on OUR ACCOUNT, but from HER ENEMIES on HER OWN ACCOUNT, from those who had no quarrel with us on any OTHER ACCOUNT, and who will always be our enemies on the SAME ACCOUNT. Let Britain wave her pretensions to the continent, or the continent throw off the dependence, and we should be at peace with France and Spain were they at war with Britain. . . .
asylum (n): a place of refuge and protection, or retreat and security But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families. . . . Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from EVERY PART of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still. . . .
I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation, to [show], a single advantage that this continent can reap, by being connected with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge, not a single advantage is derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and our imported goods must be paid for, buy them where we will. . . .
precarious (adj): characterized by a lack of security or stability

wretchedness (n): extremely bad or distressing; being or appearing mean, miserable, or contemptible
It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow; the evil is not sufficient brought to their doors to make THEM feel the precariousness with which all American property is possessed. But let our imaginations transport us for a few moments to Boston, that seat of wretchedness will teach us wisdom, and instruct us for ever to renounce a power in whom we can have no trust. The inhabitants of that unfortunate city, who but a few months ago were in ease and affluence, have now, no other alternative than to stay and starve, or turn and beg. Endangered by the fire of their friends if they continue within the city, and plundered by the soldiery if they leave it. In their present condition they are prisoners without the hope of redemption, and in a general attack for their relief, they would be exposed to the fury of both armies.
sycophant (n): a person who flatters another to get ahead Men of passive tempers 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, then I ask, Hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face! Are your wife and children destitute of 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 still can shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy of 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. . . .
cord (n): tie or connective bond Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord now is broken, the people of England are presenting addresses against us. There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did. As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain. . . .
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.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Why did some argue that reconciliation with Great Britain would be beneficial? List at least three reasons.
  2. To Paine, how was Britain failing in its role as a “parent” to the colonies?
  3. What was occurring in Boston at this time?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. To Paine, is independence inevitable? Why or why not?
  2. Summarize Paine’s argument. How does he encourage people to support the cause of independence from Britain?
  3. Which words or phrases are most convincing in Paine’s argument?
  4. What arguments against independence does Paine cite? How does he refute each of these claims?
  5. How was Common Sense likely viewed by a citizen of Boston? Consider all that has occurred in Boston up to this point (see Stamp Act Resistance Narrative, The Boston Massacre Narrative, and/or The Boston Tea Party Narrative to refresh your memory).
  6. How might a Bostonian’s opinion of Common Sense differ from that of a New Yorker? What explains these differences?
  7. Based on Paine’s perspective and argument, why would Common Sense have been appealing to many colonists who had been neutral until this point?
  8. How would Common Sense serve as effective propaganda at this time?
  9. Despite Paine’s argument, why might colonists remain reluctant to support independence at this time?
  10. How does Thomas Paine’s Common Sense represent a change in public opinion in the colonies during this period?
  11. How does the rhetoric of this piece compare with the earlier rhetoric of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania?
  12. Whose writing had a greater impact on the movement towards independence: Dickinson or Paine? Explain your reasoning.
  13. Explain how Paine’s argument demonstrates the growing ideal of freedom in the colonies at this time.

Full Text:

More from this Category