Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson

Revolutions often generate what we now call manifestos, or perhaps we might put it the other way around: manifestos sometimes help to generate revolutions. That is certainly the case with the American revolution. (A manifesto is "a public declaration of policy or aim, published at the beginning of a political movement or campaign.") This evening we will consider two of the most famous manifestos in history, both published in the same year, each of them expressing, from different points of view, the principles and values of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: Tom Paine's Common Sense, published in January 1776, and Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, signed, as everyone knows, on July 4 of that year. More generally, we'll reexamine the role of ideas and "ideology" in the genesis of the American Revolution.

Common Sense, (Jan 1776) was a 77-page pamphlet that sold 500,000 copies, one for every four colonists—the all time bestseller until Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. By April, John Adams wrote that there was nothing to be heard in America but "Common Sense and Independence." On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia rose to offer an independence resolution to the Continental Congress. A Committee composed of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson was created to write a preface, or a Declaration, to the resolution. Paine established the ideological structure that rebels would use 6 months later in Philadelphia. He had failed at corset-making, school-teaching, tax collecting, so he sailed for America in 1774, armed with a letter of recommendation from Ben Franklin. He was hired as the editor of the struggling Pennsylvania Magazine and soon boosted circulation by denouncing slavery and all proposals for compromise with England. Paine had landed in the most important city in North America. He was different from Franklin and the other founders. His appearance was slovenly, with a large nose reddened by too much drink. He was never fully accepted as a gentleman. "He seemed to be someone floating loose in a hierarchical world, coming out of nowhere and tied to no one, a man without a home and even without a country."(Wood)


Gordon S. Wood,

The American Revolution: A History,

Modern Library,

ISBN 0812970411


Here is a PDF document you can download and print with Prof. Thompson's reading for the whole quarter.

AmRevRec Reading