by Richard A Viguerie, CHQ Chairman
This is Chapter 2 (“The Media Revolution of 1776”) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke
“What is past is prologue,” and conservatives can learn valuable lessons from this exciting chapter of American history—lessons we can use today as we battle the new media monopolies of the Left.
With this chapter, you will appreciate how the role of patriotic media started and fueled a political revolution that continues to this day: The couriers carrying the latest news on horseback, most famously Paul Revere, where the truth is even more powerful than the legend. And Tom Paine, the most influential pamphleteer of all time, revered by George Washington. We learn about the first political action committee (PAC), the first war correspondents, and why the American colonials were so hungry for news and opinion. We also see early lessons of how and why polemicists are more attuned than politicians to the needs and desires of the populace.
As you read this chapter, you may want to take a notepad and list the parallels you see between the era of the American Revolution and today. Who is today’s Paul Revere? Who is today’s Tom Paine? Let us and your fellow readers know your thoughts in the comments section following each chapter. And the Fourth of July is just a month away. You may want to read Tom Paine’s memorable words (excerpted here) aloud to your family and friends right before you ignite the fireworks. Let’s start a new revolution!
America’s Right Turn serialization:
“Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives” (introduction to this serialization
“What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution” (Chapter 1)
To order American’s Right Turn from Amazon please click this link.
Chapter 2: The Media Revolution of 1776
“The American Revolution was the first event of
its kind in which the media played a salient role – almost
a determining one – from first to last. Americans
were already a media-conscious people. They had a lot
of newspapers and publications, and were getting more
every month. There were plenty of cheap printing presses.
They now found that they had scores – indeed hundreds –
of inflammatory writers, matching the fiery orators in the assemblies
with every polysyllabic word of condemnation they uttered.
There was no longer any possibility of putting down the media
barrage in the courts by successful prosecutions for seditious
libel. That pass had been sold long ago. So the media war,
which preceded and then accompanied the fighting war, was one
the colonists were bound to win and the British crown equally
certain to lose.”
— Paul Johnson, A History of the American People
With its use in the Protestant Reformation, the printing press made a shambles of Europe’s church and court establishments. But it was a war between establishments, with the masses generally accepting the dictates and shifting allegiances of the kings and princes and priesthoods that wielded local power over them. Now, with its use in the American colonies, the printing press would take the revolution a giant step farther. Now the masses would have their turn, and the world would never again be the same. It would indeed be “the world turned upside down,” the tune played in defeat by the British military band at Yorktown.
It didn’t start out that way. In the beginning America was just an extension of the Old World idea that the establishments – whether Puritan, Anglican, or agents of the British crown – set the rules, usually under the pretense of divine right. It was up to the rest of society to work and live within those rules. Boston printer Benjamin Harris learned that lesson the hard way when he decided in 1690 to publish a newspaper. Without asking anyone’s permission or guidance, he printed his first issue of Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, promising to publish all the information he received. That didn’t sit well with the oligarchs of the Massachusetts Bay government. The public was entitled only to the news they deemed suitable, and so the authorities made sure Harris’s paper never had a second issue.
This Old World system stayed intact for a while – as long as there were only a few printing presses around, and the market for printed goods remained small and consisted mostly of members of the ruling establishment. For the time being, printers made their profit off of government contracts to publish official documents. In a situation like that, you don’t cross the people paying your bills. Most early newspapers also found it practical to concentrate on foreign news, which everyone was anxious to get, and give a pass to local issues that might ruffle official feathers.
For a number of reasons, though, this system did not last long in the New World. It was hard to maintain authority when so much raw land was available, and dissidents could just pack up and leave for a more congenial locale. Being rid of your dissidents that way might preserve the peace for the short term, but in the longer run it meant that Americans in general were learning that they didn’t need government to tell them what to do. They knew perfectly well how to survive and prosper on their own. Soon this growing self-reliance manifested itself in political and ecclesiastical affairs as well.
The colonies’ rapid growth also undermined the Old World order. It’s easier to control a small group of people than a large group, especially when the sources of your authority are thousands of miles away across an ocean. Also, population and economic growth provide a hospitable environment for innovation – new ways of doing everything, including organizing society. The American colonies were the population growth engine of the Western world. Their population in 1700 was 257,060. Sixty years later it was 1,593,625, and it would continue doubling every 20 years. Americans were moving into new territories “like the goths and Vandals of old,” said William Byrd. And even in the established cities, new immigrants had limited respect for the reigning establishments – Boston’s new Anglican population didn’t exactly cotton to Puritan rules, for example.
Then there was the impact of current events on the demand for news and the growth of outlets to provide that news. The authorities would find it more difficult to control a multitude of news outlets, especially since they were now serving the public rather than government officials. In our day we have seen how the Gulf War propelled the Cable News Network into the media establishment, because CNN was able to use the new satellite technology to provide around-the-clock, on-the-scene coverage of the war. So, too, with the French and Indian War, which lasted from 1754 to 1763. Americans wanted to know what was happening, and newspapers started popping up everywhere to provide them with answers. Enter the war correspondent (called a “weekly news writer”) to American journalism – quite an innovation when newspapers previously were content to crib their news from foreign newspapers.
At the beginning of the French and Indian War, only 11 newspapers existed in all of the colonies. By the end of the war there were 19. Further crises, such as the Stamp Act controversy, kept the hunger for news on a roll, and by the time of the American Revolution the colonies had 38 newspapers – at least one in every colony except Vermont. Their circulation was increasing dramatically, too. In 1750 they had an average circulation of some 600 copies per week. By the Revolution some circulations had grown to 1,500 or even more than 3,500. Since newspapers were commonly read aloud in taverns, their ultimate audience was far larger than their circulation numbers.
From the beginning, Americans had demonstrated a hunger for information that surpassed anything seen in Europe. Living on the edge of the known world, about as far from the madding crowds as you could get, it’s quite natural that the pioneers ached for news from the world they left behind. By 1750, the middle of the eighteenth century, this hunger for information was much too great and demanding to be satisfied with official government handouts.
Another reason for this news hunger: Americans – white male Americans, that is – were more literate than any European peoples with the possible exception of the Scots. Literacy was stronger in the North than in the South, but the best guess is that half of the white male population was literate, and often even the poor were literate. There was a large male-female literacy gap in 1700, but this gap all but disappeared during the course of the eighteenth century.
Word-of-Mouth, Face-to-Face News
As America entered the Revolutionary Era, many types of media competed to deliver the news, and they all played a role in making the Revolution possible. These media forms included face-to-face news dissemination, broadsides and couriers, newspapers, and, above all, political pamphlets. These media outlets also made possible the explosive growth of America’s first political action committee (PAC), the Sons of Liberty, which led directly to the committees of correspondence, the Continental Congress, and the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
Newspapers were not necessarily the most important media outlet. During this era they were all weeklies, and by the time an issue was printed a newspaper’s really important news had been spreading for days, on a face-to-face, word-of-mouth basis. Virtually all of the colonies’ external trade was carried by ocean-going ships, and in the colonies’ ports, incoming ships brought news along with the cargo. This made port cities the point of contact with the outside world, and almost without exception they were the largest cities in the colonies. Philadelphia, Boston, and New York led the way, with Charleston and Savannah serving the smaller populations of the South.
Three types of individuals were the chief disseminators of news – ship captains, postmasters, and merchants. In our era of instant news, it’s difficult to remember that news from London or the Continent could take as long as six months to reach the colonies – and usually took at least a couple of months. Then it would take another three weeks for news to spread from one end of the colonies to the other. But it was still news – that is, something the colonists had not known until the ship arrived in port.
The very first news, quite naturally, would come from the ship’s captain, and he would be wined and dined while he told all. But he was only one man, and his connections on the other side of the Atlantic, while quite good, were not necessarily the best sources for the types of news the Americans craved. The more detailed “inside” accounts of what was going on came with the letters merchants received from their business associates. They shared these accounts widely – deleting sensitive business intelligence, we presume.
Not that privacy was guaranteed with the packets of letters. It is somewhat surprising how “public” the contents of letters were considered. An amusing account has General Gage sending for the postmaster because, as he put it, he wished “to see a letter I received from Thomas Griffith.” Apparently word of the letter’s contents reached him before the letter itself!
Once the merchants received their treasured letters, they began sharing the contents verbally in every possible venue – and in the busy port cities this included coffee houses, taverns, markets, and shops. Even a barbershop could be described as the “Fountain Head of Politics for the most grand Disputations.”
A word about the preachers: Yes, they were important sources of guidance in public matters, first and foremost within their congregations, and the New England ministers in particular magnified their audience and influence by printing and disseminating their sermons. They were also disseminators of news, particularly in rural towns, but they were as dependent as others on the real sources of that news, chiefly the merchants in the port cities.
From the revolutionary perspective, it is significant that while all segments of American society showed support for independence by July 1776, that support was strongest among the merchant class. That means that the primary news filters in these critical years had a decidedly pro-American bias.
Broadsides, Couriers, and the First Newspapers and the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
As we have seen, a piece of hot news from England or one of the other colonies would start spreading in the port city as soon as the vessel carrying that news docked. But what about people in outlying and interior communities? With no telephones and no daily newspapers, the task of getting hot news to them quickly was assumed mostly by couriers of various sorts.
Broadsides – single sheets of paper – were a favorite way of presenting the news. Broadsides could be printed quickly, given to couriers on horseback, and in the outlying communities they would be nailed to trees in the village green, placed in taverns and other strategic locations, and simply passed from hand to hand. These weren’t just notices of a meeting, the kind we find today on community bulletin boards in libraries or supermarkets. They could be essays or polemics of several thousand words, crammed onto the broadside in tiny type and arranged into three or four columns.
If the broadside had news of political importance from, say, the Sons of Liberty, members or friends of that organization might deliver a packet of these broadsides to a group of communities. Then there were the post-riders carrying government (“public”) mail and private post-riders, many of whom presumably could be prevailed upon to carry some extra cargo, either for patriotic motives or with some compensation involved.
Governing authorities from the days of Persia and the Roman Empire have set up postal systems for carrying sovereign dispatches. By the time of the American colonies, the idea had taken root that making these postal deliveries available for a fee to private citizens could raise money for the crown. By the time of the Revolution, around 65 government post offices were in operation, or about one for every 25,000 people. Merchants used the system, but otherwise private use was limited.
Not surprising to anyone using today’s U.S. Postal Service, there were two problems with using colonial postriders – high cost and low reliability. Ordinary people would rather ask a friend or acquaintance to deliver a letter if they were headed in the right direction. If you had the money, but your letter was important and you needed to be sure it would get to its destination on time, you would probably give the job to a private postrider – the colonial equivalent of today’s Federal Express or UPS. Some things never change.
Newspapers and magazines did not go by government post at all, instead using private postriders. In time of war or peril, some private messengers advertised that they would take letters into the war zone for a shilling or more each. At that time it cost a shilling to get a letter (under one ounce) across the Atlantic, so the messenger assured that he would be adequately compensated for putting his life in danger.
Back to the patriotic messengers. None stands out more in American history than Paul Revere, and deservedly so. The true story of Paul Revere’s ride is actually far different from the myths we learned in school (back when schools still taught American history, at least), but the truth only adds to his luster and accomplishment.
The mythical Paul Revere was a lone rider – itself one of the most popular, recurring images in American folklore. The real Paul Revere did indeed make that ride, was captured and escaped. He put his life in danger as he rescued Hancock and Adams (twice), saved the secret papers of the Revolution, and warned the patriots that the British troops were advancing on Lexington and Concord. He did all that, but he also was the organizer of an efficient network of more than 60 riders who spread the word in all directions from Boston that night of April 19, 1775. And he was able to accomplish this because he was, in today’s parlance, the patriot networker without equal.
We can thank historian David Hackett Fischer for piecing together this amazing story in Paul Revere’s Ride (Oxford University Press, 1994), not only the first scholarly look at the subject but also a model of riveting taletelling that everyone can enjoy. Fischer deserves special thanks for rescuing Revere from “multiculturalism and political correctness” as well as the “broad prejudice in American universities against patriotic events of every kind.” As Fischer notes, “The only creature less fashionable in academe than the stereotypical ‘dead white male,’ is a dead white male on horseback.”
As America headed for open revolution, Boston was the center of patriot activity. British troops had been stationed there since 1768, and after the Boston Massacre (1770) and the Boston Tea Party (1773) there was about as much chance of reconciliation as you’ll find today in the Middle East. Now, in April 1775, passions were coming to a head again.
We have lists of the members of seven key groups of Boston Whigs (patriots): the St. Andrews Masonic Lodge, which met at the Green Dragon Tavern; the Loyal Nine, out of which developed the Sons of Liberty; the North Caucus that met at the Salutation Tavern; the Long Room Club in Dassett Alley; the Boston Committee of Correspondence; the known participants in the Boston Tea Party; and the Whig leaders on a Tory enemies list.
John Hancock and James Otis were each on only one of those lists. John Adams was on two. His activist cousin Sam Adams was on four. But only two men were in five of those groups: Paul Revere and his friend Joseph Warren. (Yes, our hero was on the Tory’s enemies list!) Revere was the perfect person to organize a courier network because he knew everyone of importance, and they knew (and trusted) him. He also knew who the best riders were for his network of messengers, and who could be trusted to get the job done.
Not only that, he knew the leaders of the outlying towns as well, so they, too, trusted him when he arrived with his news that night of April 19. After all, Paul Revere had made his first revolutionary ride on December 17, 1773, spreading the news of the Boston Tea Party. Between 1773 and 1775, he made at least five journeys as far as New York and Philadelphia. On eighteenth-century highways these weren’t pleasure trips – they were major expeditions. We have records of at least 18 trips by Paul Revere in the patriot cause. This man got around like no one else.
On the night of April 19, one member of Paul Revere’s network of couriers galloped north at such speed that he had traveled 30 miles, almost to the New Hampshire border, by two o’clock in the morning – normally a long day’s ride. The speed and efficiency of Revere’s couriers was essential to the extraordinary success of the colonial militia the next day. Fischer writes,
“Had they acted otherwise, the outcome might well have been different. A few hours’ delay in the alarm – perhaps less than that – might have been enough for General Gage’s troops to have completed their mission and returned safely to Boston before an effective force could muster against them. The result would have been a small success for British arms, and an encouragement to the Imperial cause at a critical moment. On the other side, the revolutionary movement would have lost a moral advantage that had a major impact on events to come.”
We can only imagine what the members of the British Regular Infantry thought as they precision marched in their bright red (and hot) coats through the Massachusetts countryside. This was terra incognita, far from the Boston Commons that was their usual home. And as they marched in the dead of the night, the silence would be shattered – from all directions – by the pealing of village church bells, the beating of drums, the boom of cannons, and muskets repeatedly firing in the distance. These were all signals to the colonists that the British were on the march, signals sent out as Paul Revere and his network of riders made their rounds spreading the word. It was one of the most successful examples of war communications in American history, and for that we can thank patriot Paul Revere above all.
The first newspaper to take a determined antiestablishment stance, and to write about local affairs as much as foreign affairs, was Boston’s New England Courant. Its publisher was London-trained James Franklin, and he employed his younger brother Benjamin as apprentice. In London James had noticed that a combination of entertainment and political controversy seemed popular with readers, and he sought to bring that winning combination to America.
In Boston the reigning establishment was Puritan, but the Franklin brothers published several Episcopalians and others of no discernible religious orientation as contributors – a group that became known as the “Hell-Fire Club.” The Puritan clergy didn’t take kindly to satire, especially when it was aimed at them, and in 1722 the local authorities ordered the Franklins to clear all issues with them in advance. The Franklins refused and instead added the civil authorities to their list of targets. This double-barreled assault on both the religious and political authorities was too much for the Boston of that day, and the Franklin brothers moved on to the freer press climates of Newport, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia.
It wasn’t until the 1730s that another seriously antiestablishment newspaper appeared in the colonies. A faction of New York politicians founded the New-York Weekly Journal, printed by John Peter Zenger, to oppose the administration of the royal governor. The printer was always the easiest target for the establishment – put him out of business and the writers and other neer-do-wells have no forum for attacking you. When Zenger was inevitably tried for seditious libel, Alexander Hamilton, Zenger’s lawyer, pleaded truth as his defense. Unfortunately, British and American courts (strange as this sounds today) held that telling the truth against authorities constituted the greatest libel – “the greater the truth, the greater the libel.” The judge predictably ruled against Zenger, but the jury acquitted him despite the judge, thereby guaranteeing Zenger’s place in American history.
Contrary to legend, Zenger’s trial didn’t assure freedom of the press in America. There were no appellate and Supreme Court systems at that time, of course, so the Zenger case wasn’t binding anywhere outside of New York. Other colonial governments continued to prosecute for seditious libel. But political events would soon establish freedom of the press in America, in effect if not legal theory, while prosecutions for criminal libel continued in England well into the nineteenth century.
The political event that demolished the crown’s control over American newspapers was the Stamp Act passed by Parliament in 1765. This legislation placed a tax “upon every paper, commonly called a pamphlet, and upon every newspaper,” as well as almanacs and “upon every advertisement to be contained in any gazette, newspaper, or other paper.” While this tax would be passed on to the consumers of those printed items, as all corporate taxes ultimately are, the direct burden of the tax was placed on printers.
And that was a mistake that London would soon regret. Printers and the media they printed had proliferated and grown far beyond the days of a few “court” printers who got their money from the political authorities and obeyed their masters meekly. London didn’t seem to understand this. It had declared war on American printers, and in response, American printers, newspapers, and other publications formed a unified opposition to the Stamp Act. Not only that, but they also changed the language by which they referred to themselves. Most printers now called themselves Americans, not British citizens living in America.
The press had no difficulty convincing the American public that the Stamp Act was British perfidy. And it wasn’t the first time – nor would it be the last – that the Brits found themselves confused by their American cousins. A letter writer in a London newspaper found the outrage over the Stamp Act “surprising” and “remarkable.” After all, this wasn’t something important. Parliament had not affected “the necessaries of life” by taxing, say, Americans’ “small beer an half penny a quart.” That would have been “most severely felt,” while “the tax on News-papers concerns only a very few – the common people don’t purchase news-papers.”
The Brits obviously were due for a consciousness-raising session. And they’d get a lot more in the coming years, because the broad-based opposition to the Stamp Act had repercussions far beyond forcing Parliament to repeal it. The Sons of Liberty began organizing throughout the colonies, pretty much spontaneously and without centralized direction, to oppose the Stamp Act. This gave the Americans their first taste of what they could do politically, and it became addictive. The press, too, had found its voice. Whatever the issue from here on out, publishers would not hesitate to speak out forcefully and fervently.
While it was true that there were other ways to spread the news more quickly, newspapers had one big advantage for news-hungry colonials: They could provide the entire text of proclamations, acts, and other documents that affected the Americans. As these multiplied in the pre-revolutionary years, newspapers became the major forum for colonials to see and judge for themselves what the Brits and patriots were up to. It is also noteworthy that two of the most influential pamphlets of the revolutionary era, John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania and Tom Paine’s The American Crisis, first appeared in print in newspapers, as a series of letters or essays.
Few Tory printers remained in America by the time revolution came in 1776, and those remaining few fled with the outbreak of war or experienced the joy of instant conversion. This was no time for fence-straddling objectivity, either, as Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer discovered. When Rivington printed both American and British versions of the battles of Lexington and Concord, furious patriots destroyed his printer’s press and type.
Obviously freedom of the press had not yet come to America. But the prevailing side, in the battle for public opinion, had most emphatically changed from pro-British to pro-revolution.
The Pamphleteers: Tom Paine and the Others
The political pamphlet – virtually a forgotten art form today – reached the zenith of its importance in the American Revolution. George Orwell, himself no slouch at political propaganda, explains why the pamphlet was an ideal form for this historical period:
The pamphlet is a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive, and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious, and “highbrow” than is ever possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodicals.
At the same time, since the pamphlet is always short and unbound, it can be produced much more quickly than a book, and in principle, at any rate, can reach a bigger public.
Above all, the pamphlet does not have to follow any prescribed pattern. It can be in prose or in verse, it can consist largely of maps or statistics or quotations, it can take the form of a story, a fable, a letter, an essay, a dialogue, or a piece of “reportage.” All that is required of it is that it shall be topical, polemical, and short.
The flexibility in size noted by Orwell was particularly important in colonial and revolutionary days. American pamphlets usually ranged from 5,000 to 25,000 words, arranged on 10 to 50 pages. This was long enough to develop the writer’s polemical points, and short enough to avoid the time and expense of producing a full-fledged book. Thus pamphlets were a quick-response medium of the day, perfect for a polemic on the Stamp Act, or the Boston Massacre or the Boston Tea Party – or the Continental Congress and independence.
When the editor in chief of the John Harvard Library asked noted scholar Bernard Bailyn to prepare a collection of pamphlets of the American Revolution, Bailyn readily agreed – it couldn’t be that hard to bring together a dozen or so pamphlets. Then he “discovered the magnitude of the project I had embarked on. The full bibliography of pamphlets relating to the Anglo-American struggle published in the colonies through the year 1776 contains not a dozen or so items but over four hundred….”
These pamphlets “include all sorts of writings – treatises on political theory, essays on history, political arguments, sermons, correspondence, poems,” says Bailyn, who discovered that he was “studying not simply a particular medium of publication but, through these documents, nothing less than the ideological origins of the American Revolution.”
The first star among these hundreds of pamphleteers was the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew. His widely printed and distributed sermon, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Nonresistance to the Higher Powers(1750), became – says Bailyn – “the most famous sermon preached in pre-Revolutionary America,” and “quickly became regarded as a classic formulation of the necessity and virtue of resistance to oppression.” John Adams remarked that Mayhew’s Discourse was “read by everybody, celebrated by friends, and abused by enemies.”
In 1767 John Dickinson published his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. These letters were printed in most of the colonial newspapers, then brought together in what became the most influential pamphlet published in America before 1776. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania was published as a pamphlet not only in New York, Boston, and Williamsburg, but abroad in London and Amsterdam.
Dickinson denied the legality not only of Parliament’s internal taxes on Americans but also the port duties levied on the colonials. He went far beyond the position of Benjamin Franklin, who was currently representing America in London, and Dickinson’s popularity revealed that Franklin had perhaps been abroad too long and wasn’t keeping up with the thrust of American opinion. This wouldn’t be the last time that the pamphleteer was more attuned to the will of the people than the politician.
Enter Tom Paine, pamphleteering superstar of 1776 – and all time
Mayhew, Dickinson, and hundreds of other writers prepared the way, but Tom Paine’s Common Sense – published on January 9, 1776 – lit the fuse that became the American Revolution. In slightly less than six months, the Continental Congress that was assembled in Philadelphia took Paine’s advice and declared America’s independence of Britain. Few would have predicted such a radical course on January 8, 1776, but once again a fiery pamphleteer was far ahead of the cautious politicians.
Are we overstating the case? Consider that up to January 1776 John Dickinson was still the most influential pamphleteer in America, and he wanted to stay within the British Empire. At his persuasion, in fact, the Pennsylvania delegation to the Second Continental Congress was instructed to vote against independence if the issue were raised. Four other colonies did the same, and not one colony was instructed to vote forindependence. “The best estimates,” says Paine editor Isaac Kramnick, “are that no more than a third of the members of the Congress assembled at Philadelphia through the winter of late 1775 and early 1776 were in favor of independence.”
It was Tom Paine who weaned Americans off their royalty fetish – at least until the time of Princess Di. Only a year before revolution, Americans were still more respectful of King George III than the Brits themselves. They excoriated Parliament and members of the king’s court, but most Americans remained enamored of the idea of a “patriot king.” British philosopher David Hume wryly suggested that because the colonials were so far away, they never knew what a king was really like. The situation also reminds us of today’s excuse makers, who, conservative and liberal alike, will proclaim that President So-and-So “is really conservative [or liberal]. It’s his staff that is messing up everything.”
Tom Paine had no patience or sympathy for such nonsense. He took aim with a cannonball at the “Royal Brute of Great Britain.” For a condensed version of his complaints about the Brute you need look no further than the enumeration in the Declaration of Independence. “No scholar, no graduate of Harvard, or Yale, or the College of New Jersey at Princeton, however radical his politics, could have written Common Sense,” says historian Page Smith. “Their class, their backgrounds, their education had made them too conventional in their language, too academic, too logical, to speak with such power or touch such common chords. To say that it was the most successful political pamphlet in history is to do it insufficient credit. Common Sense belongs in a category all its own.”
Within three months, Common Sense had sold 120,000 copies; before all was said and done, it’s likely that more than 500,000 copies were printed and sold. Since they were passed hand to hand, says Smith, “a conservative estimate would be that a million Americans read it, or almost half the population of the colonies.” Today a book would have to sell on the order of 70 million copies and be read by 140 million to reach that level of audience penetration. Not even Oprah gets results like that.
Edmund Randolph of Virginia said Common Sense “put the torch to combustibles which had been deposited by the different gusts of fury.” George Washington himself added that “Common Sense is working a powerful change in the minds of men” – and he thereafter stopped toasting the king at official meals.
Nearly two centuries later, British socialist Harold Laski would write that with the exception of Karl Marx, Paine was “the most influential pamphleteer of all time.” Okay, we’ll cut Laski, the old socialist, some bait. He was writing in the 1950s, when all the politically correct intellectuals were prating about the inevitability of Marxism. In that statist fog, Laski could hardly guess that three inconsequential economists of that day – Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman – were already building the intellectual base for a movement that would eventually topple the Soviet Union and world communism. And with the demise of socialism as a world force, Tom Paine no longer has any competition for the title of the “most influential pamphleteer of all time.”
Having lit the fuse that exploded as the American Revolution, Tom Paine soon found that his talents were needed once again. And he came through once again with his golden pen.
In the harsh winter of 1776, the brash optimism with which war had started now faced the chilling reality. George Washington’s ragged troops at Valley Forge were a poor match in numbers and equipment and training for the Hessians employed by the British crown and camped across the Delaware River in Trenton, New Jersey. Patriot morale had hit bottom, and only George Washington’s character and leadership kept the war going. Then Washington got some help.
On December 23, 1776, Tom Paine published the first essay in what would eventually be known as The American Crisis, or The Crisis. It opened with what may be the most memorable words ever written on behalf of the American cause:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.
Britain, with an army to enforce its tyranny, has declared that she has a right [not only to tax] but ‘to bind us in all cases whatsoever,’ and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can only belong to God.
General Washington read those words aloud to his troops before they attacked the Hessians in Trenton, successfully. It was said that Paine’s words were then read aloud in every American military encampment. “Militiamen who, already tired of the war, were straggling from the army, returned,” wrote contemporary James Cheetham. “Hope succeeded to despair, cheerfulness to gloom, and firmness to irresolution.”
Paine continued his writings for The American Crisis for the duration of the war, and George Washington, for one, never forgot the unfathomable debt America owed to its oracle. Well into the future, Tom Paine also gave the new nation a motto that would epitomize America’s can-do spirit to this day: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
The Media Revolution of 1776
1638 Arrival of first printing press in America (Cambridge, Mass.)
1690 Publication in England of John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government
1690 America’s first newspaper, Publick Occurances Both Foreign and Domestick (Boston) closed by government after first issue
1704 Boston News-Letter becomes America’s first newspaper to publish for an extended period of time
1720 Publication in England as a book of Cato’s Letters, by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon
1735 Trial of John Peter Zenger for seditious libel, in New York City
1750 Rev. Jonathan Mayhew (Boston) delivers sermon, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Nonresistance to the Higher Powers”
1754-1763 French and Indian War
May 9, 1754 America’s first editorial cartoon (the disjointed “JOIN, or DIE” snake) appears in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette
Mar. 22, 1765 Stamp Act enacted by Parliament
May 29 (?), 1765 Patrick Henry’s Virginia Resolutions against the Stamp Act (“Sir, if this be treason, make the most of it”)
Nov. 1, 1765 Stamp Act scheduled to become law in America
1765-1766 Sons of Liberty, America’s first PAC, organize throughout colonies to resist the Stamp Act
1767 Townshend Acts add new taxes on colonies
Dec. 2, 1767 – Publication of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in
Feb. 15, 1768 Pennsylvania in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser
1768 British troops stationed in Boston
1770 Parliament repeals all taxes in Townshend Acts – except for the tax on tea
Mar. 5, 1770 Boston Massacre
Nov. 2, 1772 Creation of Committees of Correspondence
1773 Parliament passes Tea Act of 1773, creating monopoly for the British East India Company
Dec. 16, 1773 Boston Tea Party
Sept. 5-Oct. 26, 1774 First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia
Apr. 18-19, 1775 Paul Revere’s ride
Apr. 19, 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord (“The Shot Heard Around the World”)
May 10, 1775- Second Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia
Dec. 12, 1776 Congress adjourns, leaving Philadelphia in anticipation of an invasion by British forces
Jan. 9, 1776 Publication of Tom Paine’s Common Sense
July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence
Dec. 19, 1776 Publication of Tom Paine’s The American Crisis