January 29, 2013 - Thomas Paine Day

If you live in the U.S., perhaps you remember Thomas Paine's Common Sense from U.S. History classes. In this pamphlet Paine urged people in the thirteen American colonies to separate from Britain and its king and to form a democratic republic. In fact, Paine urged colonists to break from history and orient themselves toward a future ideal unheard of before.

Common Sense was first published in January of 1776, and it became an instant success. In just three months, 100,000 copies were sold in the thirteen colonies—and experts think that a total of 500,000 total were sold, because there were pirated editions (even though of course electronic copiers had not yet been invented!).

The pamphlet was so popular, so talked-about, so galvanizing, that Paine is often called the Father of the American Revolution.

Why was this pamphlet so important?

There are several reasons that scholars put forward to explain Paine's success in capturing people's attention and swaying their opinions. One reason, of course, was good timing—events were building to make many people dissatisfied with long-distance British rule and fearful of tyranny. Another reason is that Paine didn't use the formal and flowery language used by learned people at the time. Instead, he used clear, concise language. He was able to make complex ideas easy to understand.

(I think that, even today, many scholars use as many long words and convoluted sentences as possible, as if making the written word difficult to understand makes them feel smart. But I personally adore clear, accessible writing. Really clever writing is usually simple to understand.)

Today is Thomas Paine's birthday! He was born on this date in 1737. Common Sense wasn't his only important work; he wrote Rights of Man and The Age of Reason in the 1790s. He was among the first to call for the end of slavery and the establishment of human rights for all—not just for people like him. Americans may celebrate him for his role in inspiring our nation, but everyone in the world can celebrate Paine as a brave freethinker whose words and works inspired democracy and Enlightenment thinking everywhere.

Also on this date:

Flight pioneer Lawrence Hargrave's birthday

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