Students will learn about the powerful writing and strong convictions of Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, one of the most influential books in American history. After watching a short video about Paine, students will examine both the cover and some of the contents of his most famous work. To conclude the lesson, students will write eulogies for Paine that summarize his greatest accomplishments as a writer and advocate for American independence.
20 - 40 minutes
- Tyranny - cruel or oppressive government or rule
- Rhetoric - formal, persuasive speaking or writing
- Galvanize - to shock into taking action
- Impending - soon to happen
Battle of Lexington and Concord: In an effort to reassert control over the rebellious colony of Massachusetts, British troops left Boston on the night of April 18, 1775, planning to seize patriot military supplies stored in the town of Concord. Warned ahead of time by Paul Revere, members of the local militia (known as minutemen) had gathered on the village green of Lexington, a town on the way to Concord. When ordered by the British authorities to disarm, the minutemen refused to give up their weapons and began to walk away. At that point, a gun was fired (no one is sure by which side), and this became “the shot heard round the world” that launched the Revolutionary War. After killing eight minutemen in Lexington, the British advanced to Concord. Although they were able to destroy some of the Patriots’ supplies, the orderly column of British soldiers marching back toward Boston in bright red coats became an easy target for militia members hiding behind trees and stone walls. By the end of the day on April 19, 1775, nearly 300 British soldiers had been killed or wounded while the Patriots had suffered only a third that number of casualties.
Learn more about the Battle of Lexington and Concord:
- Patriots' Day | All About the Holidays
- The American Revolution - Lexington and Concord
- Battle of Lexington and Concord
Background on Thomas Paine | Writer and Revolutionary
Born in a working class home in Norfolk County, England, in 1737, Paine, at age 13, joined his father as a stay-maker, making ropes for boat sails, eventually opening his own stay-making business. In 1759, he married Mary Lambert; sadly, she died the following year during childbirth, as did the child. His business then failed, too.
He went to work for the British government as an excise tax collector. His first political writing was an article asking Parliament for better pay and working conditions for the excise officers. The request was rejected and he was removed from his position. He moved to London where he became more involved in politics and, in September 1774, befriended Benjamin Franklin, who suggested that Paine move to Philadelphia.
He immigrated to the American colonies on November 30, 1774, and began editing the Pennsylvania Magazine the following January. The paper served as an outlet for his writings, including an article condemning the African slave trade--a very radical stance in the early history of the colonies. Paine embraced the atmosphere of political dissatisfaction with England prior to the start of the Revolutionary War. After the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, Paine believed that the American colonists shouldn’t simply fight for better treatment as British subjects, but rather should become their own self-governing country. His pamphlet, Common Sense, published on January 10, 1776, was the first political writing to publicly call for revolution and independence from England.
Through Common Sense, Paine questioned the authority of kings based solely on heredity. He advocated a republican government and equality among citizens. Unlike many of his philosophical contemporaries, Paine wrote not in heady intellectual prose, but in a simple and witty manner that appealed to common folk. His style of writing was representative of his belief that anyone and everyone should have a say in their governance, regardless of birth and class.
Common Sense was an immediate success, selling more than half a million copies soon after publication in a land of just three million people. His radical ideas sparked debate among the colonists about their future and showed them that they could unite as their own country with their own beliefs and their own government--one representative of their desires. Paine turned a military reaction against oppression into a full-scale revolt against tyranny.
As the revolution grew, he penned a series of papers between 1776 and 1783 known as The American Crisis to boost the morale of the colonists and the Continental Army. General George Washington had the papers read to soldiers boarding boats to cross the freezing Delaware River. Paine’s words, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” inspired them to victory days later during a surprise attack at Trenton--an important turning point in the Revolutionary War.
Paine called for democratic reforms not only in America, but also in England and France. He wrote Rights of Man, a book that supported the French Revolution and advocated for the overthrow of the monarchy in both France and England.
He next wrote The Age of Reason. In this tract, Paine took aim not at government, but at institutional religion and questioned the veracity of the Bible. The book was popular, but very controversial. He suffered much backlash, and when he died in June 1809, was considered an extremist, his prior reputation as an American hero cast aside.
- Ask students: Have you heard the expression, “the pen is mightier than the sword”? What does it mean? In what circumstances might this be true?
- Introduce Thomas Paine:
Thomas Paine was one of the most important figures in the American Revolution because of something that he wrote, a pamphlet entitled Common Sense that called for American independence.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. In what ways does the widespread popularity of Common Sense indicate that persuasive words can spark significant actions? What are the strengths and limitations of writing as a way of enacting change?
2. Thomas Paine died penniless and widely disliked. Today, however, we think of Thomas Paine as a hero of the American Revolution. How do you explain this seeming contradiction?
3. Why do you think Thomas Paine named his most famous work Common Sense?
4. Thomas Paine used writing to fight for justice. If he were writing today, what topics would he be drawn to explore?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right. This image from an original edition of Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense. It is estimated that 120,000 copies of Common Sense were sold in just three months and that 500,000 copies sold in the first year, in America as well as in Britain and France. The quotation on the cover is from Liberty, an epic poem that explores the notion of an ideal society that was written in 1736 by Scottish poet James Thomson. The publisher, R. Bell, continued to publish new editions of Common Sense even after he and Paine had feuded and Paine moved on to a different publisher.
Students will need help reading this cover given the colonial era use of “f” in place of the letter “s”. You can either explain this practice to them or have them figure it out on their own. Other challenging words include:
- Concise - brief and to the point
- Hereditary succession - describes a position, such as kingship, that is passed from one generation of a family to the next
- Why do you think Thomas Paine chose to remain anonymous when Common Sense was first published?
- Explain the quotation, “Man knows no Master save creating HEAVEN Or those whom choice and common good ordain.” (Note: this refers to the idea expressed in the 1734 epic poem Liberty by James Thomson, from which the quotation is excerpted, that only God or a person chosen by a group of people has legitimate authority over individuals.)
Written Primary Source Activity (15 minutes)
Students will read excerpts from Common Sense and evaluate some of Paine’s arguments for the colonies to separate from Great Britain.
Download the Written Primary Source Activity [PDF]
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.
Thomas Paine died a poor man with almost no friends. Indeed, only six people attended his funeral. Imagine that you were in charge of writing a eulogy (speech given at a funeral service) for Thomas Paine. What were his greatest accomplishments? Why was he worthy of admiration?