46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence by Scott Liell

I applaud loudly for Scott Liell, author of this book. He tries to take a single writing and writer, Common Sense by Thomas Paine, and show us nearly two hundred forty years later its meaning and significance. Liell skates on the thin ice of few sources but regardless: applause all round.

I read Liell’s book at the best time of year for such a topic, the summer and its high national holiday, the Fourth of July. It was perfect for considering this most important political essay of the eighteenth century, these forty-six pages of power and force wielded by one man’s quill pen. It was also at the time, 2010, when Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan was undergoing her confirmation process in the U.S. Senate. More about that in a moment.

In late 1775 and early 1776 Thomas Paine had been in America only a few months when he wrote Common Sense. The work was brief, bound and sold and distributed as a political essay. In case you’ve never held such a thing in your hands, printed essays like Common Sense were done on thick, heavy-feeling paper the relative size of a postcard, stitched or threaded into a booklet. The material has a smell all its own. The scent transports you instantly into a different world.

Though somewhat difficult for modern readers, Paine wrote Common Sense with a clear theme and style—the colonists should throw over their allegiance to the British King (George III) and seek immediate independence as a free and self-governing people. The words and sentences were short and striking, the images that conveyed the ideas still more so. The essay was a masterpiece of public communication and became the single best-selling book of the 1700s.

The power of a book comes not only in the number of readers but also the nature of readers. Among the thousands of Americans to read Paine’s Common Sense was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson shouldered the bulk of the load in writing the Declaration of Independence just month after publication of Common Sense. Jefferson’s task of communicating the need for independence—in making his case, as it were—was deeply affected by Paine’s little book. John Adams, along with Jefferson a member of the congressional committee tagged to write the Declaration, also read Paine’s book. Just as importantly, that portion of the American public that was pondering whether or not to declare independence had its spine stiffened by reading Paine and thus was ready to support Jefferson’s vital document in summer 1776. Benjamin Franklin, another member of the drafting committee and the man responsible for urging Paine to emigrate from England to America, was yet another reader of the essay.

Paine followed up Common Sense with The Crisis, a series of essays throughout the year of the Declaration. These subsequent writings focused on the need of the public to rally around the cause of independence. Paine used language and imagery similar to Common Sense to punctuate his point about the criticality of sacrifice, patriotism, and courage in the face of a powerful British enemy. In later years, Paine will write equally inspiring books on the French Revolution.

Paine was a bit of a life-long misfit. A native of England, he struggled as a youth to find his way, serving in a British government-sponsored pirate ship (privateer) in the 1750s, following his father’s example and becoming a corset-maker, and trying his hand as a tax collector. Nothing especially caught with him. Despite the drift, Paine found and displayed a consistent skill and adeptness at writing. This skill caught the attention of another resident of England, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was in the employ of several British colonies to represent their interests to England and King George III. Franklin liked Paine and his writing skills and sent him to America in 1774. It wasn’t long thereafter that he began writing his work as the most influential essayist of the American Revolution.

Paine was a stirring writer. Scott Liell is not. Still, he is solid enough, a competent technician of the printed word. His audience, I think he recognizes, is the general, history-reading public, not academics or the self-designated intelligentsia. Liell shuns lengthy sentences and tedious phrasing. His words do not get in the way of making his point, of presenting his information. That said, however, it must be also be stated that neither does Liell’s writing add or enhance the force of the evidence, of the record. As a reader, you go along on your own power, neither aided nor obstructed by the author.

In my writing I try to be an asset to you. I not only wish to communicate but I also want to excite and energize you, both for finishing the book and for seeking additional information about the topic in other forms. I also think that part of my role is to present you with different connections between the past and today, connections that might not have occurred to you otherwise. Here comes one right now.

Liell states that in writing Common Sense, Thomas Paine spent a lot of time in coffee houses and taverns. These public places were the equivalent of today’s night clubs, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. You know what I mean—the spots where we greet, hang out, and talk with friends, family, and acquaintances. In Paine’s time, such locations were where political ideas were shared, argued over, and in some cases, perhaps even conceived or refined.

This is the connection I want to make. The comparison to modern-day bars and the like is a false one. The far better comparison is to say that Paine’s coffeehouses are today’s internet cafes, chat rooms, blogs, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and other technology-related communication spaces. This is the much richer connection between past and present because it begins to show what’s been gained and what’s been lost in the two time periods. In our version of Paine’s coffeehouses we have instant access to far greater information than he did. We can have an electronic conversation on a topic and within a nanosecond can link to a related post halfway around the world. We can access sources of information that took months, years, and near-lifetimes only a few years ago. And we can expand the number of people in our discussion at a similar rate of speed and a similar amount of effort. None of that was true with Paine.

Nevertheless, we don’t have the tactile feel and pull of Paine in his space. He could sense mood and gesture, backdrop and motivation, with far greater agility than we can, regardless of technologically visual contact. Paine learned from and worked with full-dimensionality, not partial dimensions re-rendered in pixels and codes. Paine’s space may have been closer to the world of flat-earth but our space is closer to the ways of flat-people. Also, Paine didn’t have the pressure to respond to every new turn or twist. He had a better opportunity to make, shape, and soak—to marinate—his observations and insights into living ideas. Finally, more was required of Paine and thus more of Paine went into his work. He didn’t lug in armloads of books and articles and didn’t click to videos and webcams as he sat, wrote, and reflected amid the smoke and talk of the coffeehouse or tavern. What he had at hand was what he had in his head.

Then, Paine watched. Now, we watch. We watch screens and their images, only some of which contain actual people. Paine watched people, too, but to the near exclusion of everything else—except words—and in the rich depth of strict reality. And that is a difference that means a great deal.

Don’t overdo me in this point. I’m not rolling in sentimentality for days gone by or bygone eras. I’m only sharing my opinion on the implications of differences from then to now.
Before moving to my leadership comments, I want to anticipate something you might be thinking right about now: Dan, if this type of difference between Paine’s world and our own is so stark, how can we possibly learn and apply anything of value from the era of 1776 to that of YouTube?

The application still works well if you keep in mind that the comparison yielding the stark difference is between 2011 and 1776, not when you look at how a leader in 1776 dealt with stuff in his or her own world. Paine wouldn’t have a clue about the implications of internet communication by itself, but he would be able to say quite a bit about the implications of communication in gathering followers, moving followers, and maintaining followers by using the technology that’s available to you. In using this historical period for your leadership today, I’m helping you focus on transcendence and timelessness, not cut-and-paste or drag-and-drop. 1776 can make you a stronger leader if you find and apply the overarching wisdom of the experience.

I referenced Elena Kagan earlier and I want to clean that up before offering a final thought on leadership, Paine, and you. Kagan stated in her Supreme Court confirmation hearings that she did not regard the Declaration of Independence as a proper source document for judging law, interpreting court rulings, and writing judicial opinions. She would not, she asserted, use the Declaration in her work on the Supreme Court.

I think that’s a sad, pathetic, and wrong-headed stance. Sure, case law has a clear trail of precedents. No argument there. But case law exists in a broader surrounding, a wider context. American law is American law, the American judicial system operates as part of the American nation, an expression of American history. All sorts of things beyond our borders play into that, affect it, but it doesn’t change the truth as it stands. The Supreme Court is one of the three branches in the American government.

Kagan risks cutting the bonds that steady the ship. Her attitude toward the Declaration—and by extension, of course, to those works that surrounded its formulation and adoption, such as Common Sense—threatens to undo one fiber at a time the ideas, principles, and beliefs that caused the nation to emerge in the first place. I suspect Paine would shake his head in disbelief.

Lastly, I’d like to hold up a leadership insight I found in Thomas Paine’s experience in 1776. Paine’s Common Sense essay hit a critical spot in communication and leadership. In the same document he succeeded in both coalescing existing opinions and attitudes and then pushing, almost shoving them ahead to a next step or stage. These are two very different dynamics that Paine grasped in one document. Paine’s forward push helped clear the path and crystallize acceptance of a specific next view, next method, and next approach.

In addition, Paine both led and followed simultaneously. He was a leader in that his work in Common Sense attracted followers. He was a follower in that he didn’t stand at the forefront of the independence movement outside of his writing; his efforts depended on other leaders doing what they thought they did best—think Washington in the army, Jefferson in Congress, and the rest of the Revolutionary Generation—and striving on from there.

I suggest that you think about Common Sense in your own setting or organization. The document wasn’t a strategic plan or action guide. It wasn’t a blueprint. Here is what it was—an passionate and reasoned argument for making a major change, for leaving behind one way in favor of pursuing something very new and different. It was a clarion call.

Perhaps sometime coming you’ll be in a position to communicate such a call in your world.