On November 30, 1774, the ship London Packet arrived in the port of Philadelphia. On board was a 37-year-old Englishman named Thomas Paine. Paine was not even aware that he had landed in America. He was burning up with fever and was barely conscious. He had caught the deadly disease typhus, which had already killed several people on board.
Paine soon landed a job as the editor of a new magazine. He had already done some writing in England. But it was here that he discovered his true calling as a writer. Paine soon made his publication, Pennsylvania Magazine, the most widely read magazine in the colonies.
One of the readers was Benjamin Rush, a doctor who would later play a key role in the independence struggle. Rush encouraged Paine to write a pamphlet on independence, though he cautioned him not to use that word. The idea of independence made many colonists uneasy. They might complain about British rule, but the prospect of separating from Great Britain scared them. It did not scare Paine, though. In October 1775, he began working on the essay he would call Common Sense.
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What happened next was astonishing. The first edition sold out in days. Paine had more copies printed, and those sold out, too. Within a few months, readers had bought more than 120,000 copies of Common Sense. By the end of the year, 25 editions had been printed. Hundreds of thousands of copies were in circulation throughout the colonies.
Although Paine's words were powerful, his ideas were not new. Many other colonial leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, had expressed similar thoughts. But Paine was able to put those ideas together in a single, compelling argument that spoke to a mass audience.
Paine's ideas on rights and liberty also had an influence on other countries, particularly France. In fact, Paine later moved to France to play a role in the French Revolution. He also wrote several books, including The Rights of Man. But none of his other works would have quite the impact as Common Sense, the pamphlet that helped pave the way for American independence.