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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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Paine ”Immediately Began His Famous Pamphlet”

Yesterday I quoted an 1876-77 description of how Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense which had everything going for it but accuracy. It appears to have been an overly dramatized version of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s account of that moment, from a letter to Paine’s biographer James Cheetham dated 17 July 1809. Rush’s recollection is, of course, Rushcentric:

About the year 1775, I read a short essay with which I was much pleased, in one of Bradford’s [news]papers, against the slavery of the Africans in our country, and which, I was informed, was written by Thomas Paine. This excited my curiosity to be better acquainted with him. We met soon afterwards at Mr. Aitkins’ bookstore, where I did homage to his principles and his pen on the subject of the enslaved Africans. He told me that it was the first piece he had ever published here.

When the subject of American Independence began to be agitated in conversation, I observed the publick mind to be loaded with an immense mass of prejudice and error relative to it. Something appeared to be wanting, to remove them beyond the ordinary short and cold addresses of newpaper publications. At this time I called upon Mr. Paine, and suggested to him the propriety of preparing our citizens for a perpetual separation of our country from Great Britain, by means of a work of such length as would obviate all the objections to it. He seized the idea with avidity, and immediately began his famous pamphlet in favour of that measure.

He read the sheets to me at my house as he composed them. When he had finished them, I advised him to put them into the hands of Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin, Samuel Adams, and the late Judge [James] Wilson, assuring him, at the same time, that they all held the same opinions that he had defended. The first of those gentlemen saw the manuscript, and I believe the second, but Judge Wilson being from home when Mr. Paine called upon him, it was not subjected to his inspection. No addition was made to it by Dr. Franklin, but a passage was struck out, or omitted in printing it, which I conceived to be the most striking in it. It was the following—“A greater absurdity cannot be conceived of, than three millions of people running to their sea coast every time a ship arrives from London, to know what portion of liberty they should enjoy.”

A title only was wanted for this pamphlet before it was committed to the press. Mr. Paine proposed to call it “Plain Truth.” I objected to it and suggested the title of “Common Sense.” This was instantly adopted, and nothing now remained, but to find a printer who had boldness enough to publish it. At that time there was a certain Robert Bell, an intelligent Scotch bookseller and printer in Philadelphia, whom I knew to be as high toned as Mr. Paine upon the subject of American Independence. I mentioned the pamphlet to him, and he at once consented to run the risk of publishing it. The author and the printer were immediately brought together, and “Common Sense” burst from the press of the latter in a few days, with an effect which has rarely been produced by types and paper in any age or country.
This is a top-down way of telling the story: a small set of smart gentlemen cajoling the populace into considering independence. Yet Dr. Rush started by stating that “the subject of American Independence” had already begun “to be agitated in conversation”—by whom?

In Thomas Paine’s American Ideology, Alfred Owen Aldridge noted that a month after Common Sense appeared, Franklin was still guessing at its author in a letter to Gen. Charles Lee. Therefore, Aldridge concludes, Paine must not have shown the essay to Franklin in advance. Paine later claimed that he showed his material to no one before it went to press, but of course his recall could have been Painecentric.

Rush’s letter didn’t mention that the Loyalist James Chalmers grabbed the title Plain Truth for a pamphlet responding to Common Sense. I imagine Paine gritting his teeth when he saw that, even as his sales were soaring.

TOMORROW: Another legend of Thomas Paine—one we all heard in January.

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