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My decision to write this adaptation and put together the book you are now reading created a lot of consternation for me. The purist in me recoiled in horror at the thought of touching a single word of this historic document. But the educator half of me successfully argued (and believed) that introducing students at a young age to our historic source documents will help lead to a lifelong love of history and an active involvement in American life.
But reading historic documents isn’t easy to do. Most of these documents are inaccessible for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they are often difficult to understand. I knew it would be wonderful for students to read and live history at an early age, and then delve even deeper as their understanding grew. What I needed was a “gateway” document to make this happen. This is, of course, the essence of what educators do: supply help up front and slowly remove that assistance once students get more independent in their learning. Hence The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine—my answer to the question of how to help my students understand, appreciate, and begin to love American History as much as I do.
I. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is one of America’s greatest founding documents. It is also one of the greatest persuasive essays ever written. If you are just starting to learn about American history, let’s face it: it’s also pretty darn hard to read these documents in their original form.
We were not alive when these documents were written—eating, sleeping, and experiencing these events day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year—so it is hard for us to get a real sense of how scary and crazy things really were during that time. What’s more, these historic documents reference all kinds of things that were common knowledge back then, but can leave us befuddled or scratching our heads now.
II. Common Sense was a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775 (published in 1776) while incredible events were happening in Colonial America. Its publication had a tremendous impact on future events. Although Thomas Paine was born and raised in England, he didn’t like it much. Growing up in there, he experienced firsthand what it was like to live day in and day out under a king and a system of government that didn’t recognize individual potential. Thomas also believed that Parliament and kings were unconcerned with how ordinary citizens lived, and unless you were lucky enough to be born in a “titled” or “elite” family, you had little hope of living a happy or full life.
Luckily, Thomas met Benjamin Franklin during one of Franklin’s many stays in England. Ben suggested that Thomas sail to North America and write about injustices of life under a monarchy. Ben even wrote him a recommendation letter.
Early in 1774, Thomas Paine arrived in Colonial America in Philadelphia. He stepped ashore at a time when many in the thirteen colonies were extremely angry at Parliament and Lord North (the Prime Minister of England). Surprisingly, a majority of the colonists still liked King George III, and felt deeply loyal to him.
Paine immediately went to work writing for a new magazine. He wrote his opinions on a wide variety of issues, including the need for women’s rights and abolishing slavery. But the one subject that Paine was absolutely obsessed with was the idea that all people were born with freedoms, and living under the English Constitution was not freedom.
III. By the time Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense appeared, war had already broken out. A complete misjudgment of the situation in the colonies triggered fighting at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775. Bunker Hill, the siege of Quebec, and operations around Boston, Massachusetts, followed. When war broke out, the city of Boston was under British military rule, which harshly taught the colonists a lesson in obedience. However, even though there had been fighting, the idea of flat out independence from England was not really what most of the colonists and many of the representatives in the Continental Congress wanted. Much of the population was confident that the current situation was just a series of disagreements and misunderstandings between “the mother country and its children.” Not only that, many believed that King George would eventually agree that the colonists’ demands for less meddling in colonial affairs was reasonable, and that he would step in and force parliament to address those concerns. When that happened, many believed, everyone could make up and go back to being loyal British subjects.
IV. Paine, however, made it personal.
Common Sense was a powerful weapon because he made the monarchy a target of his sharp and well-reasoned barbs. Indeed, much of Common Sense is a direct attack against kings in general, and George III in particular. Why do we have kings? Where did they come from? Why keep them? Paine’s 46-page pamphlet tried to convince Americans that they were misplacing their anger at Parliament, when they really should be furious at King George III. If Paine could persuade the readers of Common Sense that the King was the real cause of the suffering in American Colonies, then citizens would unite into a cohesive voice for separation, independence, and liberty.
V. I really hope that this book helps spark your interest in the founding of our remarkable country, and that it will make you want to continue reading America’s original founding documents. This is one of the most important ways for you to understand how amazing—and unique— America is in world history. This country was founded on ideas that did not really exist anywhere else in the world. Thousands of people played very different, but critical parts in America’s beginning. It is scary to think that the absence of even one of those parts might have derailed The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine our founding and resulted in no United States of America (think of it like a giant jigsaw puzzle).
More mind boggling is the fact that our Founding Fathers were ordinary people like you and me, with extraordinary beliefs in the common good for their fellow citizens and future American generations. Their story—our story—is the most exciting story I know.
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I would like to offer my sincere thanks to the many people who offered words of encouragement that helped make this book a reality. And then, of course, there are those who went above and beyond. Totie Richardson, your consistent and positive encouragement was greatly appreciated. I am ever grateful to Marie Norby-Loud, David Perry, Judy Atwater, Nancy Olmore, Myra Wilensky, Ryan Lucas, Rick Dotson, John Yannacito, Michael Yannacito, Shandra Blosser, the Allen Family, and Catherine Kent. An extra nod is due to Peggy Thiessen, a passionate teacher who confirmed to me early in my career that teaching never has to be formulaic.
I consider myself deeply fortunate to have found the extremely talented folks at Savas Beatie to publish Common Sense. Marketing Director Sarah Keeney offered tremendous suggestions for advancing this work and helped edit the final version. Graphic designer Jim Zach added artistic depth with the striking cover design. Val Laolagi, another Savas Beatie author, designed the cool website that goes hand-in-hand with this book. Finally, Director Theodore P. “Ted” Savas has proven to me that he has that great combination of vision and an intrepid explorer’s spirit. He skillfully pushed this book and me to even loftier heights, and I appreciate his mentorship greatly.
Finally, I have long enjoyed speaking with Jayson Haberkorn, an excellent sixth-grade teacher. We frequently talk about new teaching ideas in our never-ending attempts to engage the unique and remarkable students we get every year. I’m certain both of us would have been rebels in colonial times.