Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Questions for Discussion and Writing
Common Sense (1776) helped to establish the rhetorical style of American political writing. If you have been reading American literature chronologically, Common Sense may strike you as verbal revolution, an affirmation of plain speech and simple language as well as of the principles of the rebellion against England. The English language has two great word-streams in it: the Romantic stream, which poured in through Latin and French; and the Anglo-Saxon, which gives us a vast legacy of taut, strong, vivid words. Unlike many of his eighteenth-century contemporaries, Paine favored the Anglo-Saxon--and American public discourse, from the Preamble to the Constitution through the Gettysburg Address and the "I have a dream" speech, has followed his lead.
1. At the opening to Common Sense, Paine tells us that he has "studiously avoided everything that is personal among ourselves. Compliments as well as censure to individuals make no part thereof." Describe the advantages and disadvantages of adopting that strategy in 1776. Describe moments in which American leaders have adopted a similar strategy.
2. At what points in Common Sense do Paine's views of America echo Crèvecoeur's? For example, how does Paine see the American wilderness and its pattern of settlement as an advantage not only in dealing with this crisis but in creating a new and viable nation?
3. Comment on the "common sense" of the paragraph that begins "But, admitting that we are all of English descent, what does it amount to?" Compare Paine's reasoning here to his thinking in other passages in Common Sense.
4. Although Paine is very much an Enlightenment writer, does his prose echo any values or aspirations that you saw expressed in seventeenth-century writers? Are there any connections between the New England Puritan tradition and Paine's writing in Common Sense?