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Thomas Paine was an English American writer and pamphleteer whose "Common Sense" and other writings influenced the American Revolution, and helped pave the way for the Declaration of Independence.
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And while it likely had little effect on the actual writing of the Declaration of Independence, "Common Sense" forced the issue on the streets, making the colonists see that a grave issue was upon them and that a public discussion was direly needed. Once it initiated debate, the article offered a solution for Americans who were disgusted and alarmed at the presence of tyranny in their new land, and it was passed around and read aloud often,
bolstering enthusiasm for independence and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army. ("Common Sense" is referred to by one historian as "the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era.")
Paine wrote "Common Sense" in an unadorned style, forgoing philosophical ponderings and Latin terms, and relying instead on biblical references to speak to the common man, as would a sermon. Within just a few months, the piece sold more than 500,000 copies. "Common Sense" presents as its chief option a distinctly American political identity and, more so than any other single publication, paved the way for the Declaration of Independence, which was unanimously ratified on July 4, 1776.
During the ensuing war, Paine served as volunteer personal assistant to General Nathanael Greene, traveling with the Continental Army. While not a natural soldier, Paine contributed to the patriot cause by inspiring the troops with his 16 "Crisis" papers, which appeared between 1776 and 1783. "The American Crisis. Number I" was published on December 19, 1776, and began thusly: "These are the times that try men's souls." Washington's troops were being decimated, and he ordered that the pamphlet be read to all of his troops at Valley Forge, in hopes of inflaming them to victory.
In 1777, Congress named Paine secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. The following year, however, Paine accused a member of the Continental Congress of trying to profit personally from French aid given to the United States. In revealing the scandal, Paine quoted from secret documents that he had accessed through his position at Foreign Affairs. Also around this time, in his pamphlets, Paine alluded to secret negotiations with France that were not fit for public consumption. These missteps eventually led to Paine's expulsion from the committee in 1779.
Paine soon found a new position as clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, and observed fairly quickly that American troops were disgruntled because of low (or no) pay and scarce supplies, so he started a drive at home and in France to raise what was needed. The wartime supplies that his effort provided were important to the final success of the Revolution, and the experience led him to appeal to the states, to pool resources for the well-being of the entire nation. Furthering his goal, he wrote "Public Good" (1780), calling for a national convention to replace the ineffectual Articles of Confederation with a strong central government under "a continental constitution."
In April 1787, Paine headed back to England, where he soon became fascinated with what he heard of the roiling French Revolution.
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They are American icons—they're on our dollars and coins, they are the subject of our monuments, and we live our daily lives in the world their ideas helped create. America's "Founding Fathers" include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and of course, Benjamin Franklin. These men, together with several other key players of their time, structured the American democracy and left a legacy that has shaped the world. But beyond their legends, these men were human beings who led complex and fascinating lives. Learning their stories helps us better understand what made them tick, as well as their influence on our world today.
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