It’s Common Sense!

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12238

Have you ever been convinced by someone or something you've read to do something difficult or dangerous? Breaking from England was hard for the colonists, but a certain pamphlet made the difference!

categories

United States

subject
History
learning style
Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Why did many American colonists choose to remain loyal to the British during the American Revolution? Were there good reasons for separating from Great Britain?

Common Sense

Image by Thomas Paine, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Did you know that not all American colonists were interested in separating from Great Britain?

Historians estimate around 20% of colonists supported the British during the Revolutionary War. These people were called "loyalists." There were three main reasons why colonists remained loyal to the British:

  1. They took pride in being British: At the time, Great Britain was the most powerful nation in the world. Many colonists took pride in being citizens of the nation that was feared and respected by all others.
  2. They feared the consequences of a rebellion: British soldiers were known to severely punish those who spoke out against the British crown and government. Those who betrayed the crown were often tortured or killed. Sometimes entire families were even punished for one member being outspoken. Many colonists feared what would happen to them and their families if they chose to speak out against the British.
  3. They did not think the Americans could win a war against the British: As the most powerful nation in the world, the British had the strongest army and navy. Prior to the war, the Americans did not even have an army or a navy. Few thought it was possible for a small, newly-formed nation to defeat the British.

Before the colonies declared independence, it is estimated that as many as half of the American colonists did not actually want to declare independence. Even people who spoke against British taxation preferred to find a way to compromise rather than separate.

Thomas Paine, an English philosopher who emmigrated to the American colonies, helped change many minds. During the late 1700s, political pamphlets became a popular way to express political opinions and persuade others to support a cause. In January 1776, Paine published the pamphlet Common Sense. It was the first political pamphlet to support independence from Great Britain.

By April 1766, more than 120,000 copies had been printed and distributed throughout the colonies. Within a year, it sold more than 500,000 copies. Common Sense became popular not only for the ideas expressed in it, but also because it was short and written using simple language, making it easy for all colonists to read and comprehend. Today, Common Sense remains one of the best-selling publications in all of American history.

Thomas Paine

Image by Auguste Millière after an engraving by William Sharp after George Romney, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Paine expressed two important ideas in Common Sense:

  1. The need to declare independence from Great Britain: Paine listed all the ways the colonists had been mistreated by the British and said it did not make sense for a small island to rule over a large continent.
  2. The colonies should establish a democratic republic: Throughout the pamphlet, Paine did something few people dared to do — he made fun of the king. He laughed at the idea of a hereditary monarchy, which is when the crown is passed down to an heir, and said the colonists should replace a government led by a monarchy with a democratic republic. A democratic republic is a government where the citizens are given the power to elect the people who will represent them and run the government.

Common Sense is considered an important piece of American writing because it helped rally support for American independence throughout the colonies.

Just a few months after it was published, on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress made the decision to declare independence. Even John Adams wrote of Paine saying, “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs […] than Thomas Paine.”

  • How does this quote explain the impact Common Sense had on the colonies?
  • Do you think the colonies would have declared independence if Paine had not written Common Sense?

Discuss the questions with your teacher or parent. Then, move on to the Got It? section to review what you have learned and to take a closer look at the text of Common Sense.

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