This Week's Story

Common Sense: How could anyone resist it? It became a wildcat edition.

This Week’s Story relives American history and the Bible through brief inspiring stories presented on mp3 audio recordings and text for reading.

A Little Book and a War, part two

Farmers talked about it in Vermont.  In New York families read it after supper.  Men discussed it in the South.  Soldiers pulled it out of their packs, read it, and argued around campfires.  In an Iroquois longhouse it was translated into the Indian tongue.  Rich and poor, common and uncommon people read it.  If you did not know about it, you were told.

“It’s a little book called Common Sense by a man named Thomas Paine.  Read it.”

“The writer talks like you and me.  What he says makes me know why I’m fighting in this Revolutionary War.  I want freedom, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to get it.  Paine says we Americans have a right to revolt. We need to be independent from England.  To be ruled by a king is to have injustice.  We need the right to elect our leaders.”

“That’s treason.”

How did a frequently dirty and stinking Englishman named Thomas Paine crawl into the gut of Americans and speak their thoughts, better than they could speak them?  He had no dignity, often no

money, spoke vulgar fearless words, and did not hide bouts of drunkenness.  He’d failed school, but he was a reader and well acquainted with the Bible.  He’d been a maker of women’s corsets, a sailor, a weaver, a shoemaker, and a tax collector.

He had lived only thirteen months in the New World. Why would leaders of the revolution want his help?  General Washington, Nathaniel Greene, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson all recognized that the little book Common Sense answered the question ripping apart the colonies: Is it necessary to fight the British?  “Yes, revolt is necessary.  Americans, you need independence from a system of inequality.  You have an opportunity for a better world.”  Paine explained and gave vision.  He used practical examples from the present and from the Bible, the book most trusted by colonists.

It was January 1776 and Americans were seven months into war against Britain. Common Sense was published that month with dangerous words.  At first no printer could be found to print it.  The printer’s penalty could be death. Yet when one person read it, another person was compelled to read it.  How could anyone resist it?  Wildcat editions were released.  It was impossible to record how many copies were sold.  A conservative estimate was 100,000 copies in three months.  Was that possible when the population of the 13 Colonies was only two and a half million people?

General Nathaniel Greene met Paine at Fort Lee. Greene’s copy of Common Sense was falling into pieces after twenty-four readings. Greene was young and excited to see Paine.  “Sir, you don’t know what this book means to me.  Having you here is better than having a regiment.”  Paine nodded.  Both knew that General Washington’s army was nearly shattered after several losses.  Greene asked, “Tell my men, sir, why they are fighting.  I’m trying to plan campaigns. My plans are worthless, if the soldiers don’t know why we must fight to have independence for all 13 Colonies.”

General Washington, Commander-in-chief to the small Continental forces, told Paine, “Talk to the men.  Help them to understand.  Write for them.  Write for the whole country.”

Paine went to the soldiers.  As they marched he talked with them about their cause.  He imitated their dialects and told stories that caused them to laugh.  He understood them, fought and was blood-stained with them.  He fed and encouraged the wounded.  Little did he know about warfare, but soldiers saw him fight with strength and bravery. Always he was a common man with an uncommon gift to see, speak, and write.

This is Barbara Steiner, remembering how powerfully Paine communicated to me when I was 21.

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