Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

It was always Paine's heartfelt conviction that America was the sole hope for struggling humanity and that "posterity will be affected even to the end of time." Like most political activists Paine found it difficult, as Edward Freeman Hawke effectively describes, to move from the poetry of revolution to the prose of housekeeping. Not surprisingly, then, Tom Paine left America just as the founding fathers were drafting a new constitution to seek out the era of the common man in the chaos of the French Revolution, and where he was finally imprisoned.

Led to America by Franklin, Paine was given the editorship of the Pennsylvania Magazine. He was forced to leave by the end of 1775 because his writing was considered too radical for some of America's reluctant rebels who were still seeking to assure their friends "that we mean not to dissolve the union." But as Vox Populi Paine swiftly became the "friend of mankind" as Hesketh Pearson subtitled his popular biography of one of America's most famous Quakers. Then in January of 1776 Paine issued the first of what might be considered one of the most powerful documents to move the minds of men -- the pamphlet Common Sense. If the stubbomess of King George thrust the reluctant rebels toward independence, it was Common Sense which assured the reception of the Declaration of Independence. As Woodward writes, "it brought all the tangled revolutionary impulses to a head." Written in the vernacular for the common man, its language was uncommon. "Pregnant with the most captivating figures of speech," wrote one of Paine's contemporaries; and Edmund Randolph of Virginia would remark that "this pamphlet put the torch to combustibles."

Throughout the war Paine attempted to make Americans understand that the conflict was more than a civil war, that it was nothing less than a revolution -- the first act in a great drama unfolding in the western world (perhaps that is why he liked to write under the pseudonym Atlanticus). Paine then followed Common Sense with a brilliant series of pamphlets entitled Crisis in the attempt to keep America's zeal unflagging with the underlying message that "tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered."

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