J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

“At This Critical Moment, Paine Enters”?

The following passage appears in The Life of Thomas Paine, by Calvin Blanchard, published in 1877. It is, however, an extremely close rewrite of part of Marcus A. Casey’s “A Plea for a Patriot,” published in The Galaxy magazine in May 1876. It describes the writing of Common Sense:

At the close of the year 1775, when the American Revolution had progressed as far as the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill, John Adams, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, had met together to read the terrible dispatches they had received. Having done which, they pause in gloom and silence. Presently Franklin speaks: “What,” he asks, “is to be the end of all this? Is it to obtain justice of Great Britain, to change the ministry, to soften a tax? Or is it for”——He paused; the word independence yet choked the bravest throat that sought to utter it.

At this critical moment, Paine enters. Franklin introduces him and he takes his seat. He well knows the cause of the prevailing gloom, and breaks the deep silence thus: “These States of America must be independent of England. That is the only solution of this question!” They all rise to their feet at this political blasphemy. But, nothing daunted, he goes on; his eye lights up with patriotic fire as he paints the glorious destiny which America, considering her vast resources, ought to achieve, and adjures them to lend their influence to rescue the Western Continent from the absurd, unnatural, and unprogressive predicament of being governed by a small island, three thousand miles off. Washington leaped forward, and taking both his hands, besought him to publish these views in a book.

Paine went to his room, seized his pen, lost sight of every other object, toiled incessantly, and in December, 1775, the work entitled Common Sense, which caused the Declaration of Independence, and brought both people and their leaders face to face with the work they had to accomplish, was sent forth on its mission.
Very dramatic, but total bunk. Adams, Rush, Franklin, Washington, and Paine were never all together in late 1775. Washington was in Cambridge, where Franklin visited him in for a week in October and Adams briefly the following winter. Rush and Paine spent the whole period in greater Philadelphia. Washington learned of Common Sense in late January, possibly first in a letter from Gen. Charles Lee.

Casey and Blanchard both went on to quote Dr. Rush’s description of the public response to Common Sense—which appeared in a letter recalling how Paine had come to write it. Rush never mentioned Washington as being involved. But some personal contact with the Father of Our Country—in this case, a physical contact, a literal laying-on of hands—is a common ingredient in nineteenth-century Revolutionary legends. And Casey and Blanchard apparently preferred to print the legend.

TOMORROW: Dr. Rush’s own account of how Paine wrote Common Sense.

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