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.
Benjamin 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.
Eventually, however, Paine found a publisher who agreed to print a thousand copies as a pamphlet. It was 46 pages long. The pamphlet did not have Paine's name on the cover, but simply said, “written by an Englishman.” On January 10, 1776, Common Sense appeared in bookstores.
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. It is estimated that as many as half of all colonial citizens had either read the pamphlet or had it read to them. Common Sense was a runaway success. And Thomas Paine was America's first bestselling author.
Common Sense did not start the movement for independence. That movement had been building for some time. Nor did it cause colonial leaders to declare independence. Another six months would pass before the Declaration of Independence was issued. But Paine's work opened up the debate on separation from Great Britain. It helped many colonists see independence as a real possibility.