Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense galvanized the American colonists into turning their half-hearted rebellion against the British into a victorious revolution. His words ignited a spark in people that many say can be harnessed today, to bring about positive change on a global scale.
To highlight and explore those possibilities, historians and authors gathered this month in Philadelphia - where the pamphlet was published - to mark the 231st anniversary of Common Sense. The celebration included lectures, workshops and a bit of the past come to life: actor Steve Gulick, dressed in his colonial finest, portrayed the pamphleteer and read his words.
Government needs to be formed by people and run by people for the benefit of people. I came to America because America, it seemed to me, was the future, and stood for the things - or could stand for the things - that I think men of conscience hold in their hearts… that people make the decisions in their own lives, that they resist oppression wherever it rears its head, even if it has the name of 'the beast of Britain.'
Pamphlets were the most popular inexpensive mass media in the American colonies in the 1700s, with content ranging from political topics to economic issues to social commentary. When British radical and intellectual Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774, he had one goal: to publish pamphlets that would make the colonists see that they deserved to be free to pursue their destiny. He wrote Common Sense in 1776 to persuade the masses to rise up, resist the British regime and take control of what could become their own country.
Paine's argument was very persuasive, according to Brian McCartin, president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association in New York. "It empowers us. It gives us hope," he explains. He says if people were to read the pamphlet today, they would see that they could bring about change. "When we read Thomas Paine's Common Sense, we know that we can be better than what we are. We know that as a people we can do more. We can be that refuge for freedom that he talks about. We can be an empire of liberty if we are willing to fight, fight for what is right, fight the power that oppresses and us to become the power that gives everyone individual liberty."
The personal responsibility that Paine wrote about is the same theme that many modern activists are writing about, urging their readers to think globally while acting locally. When author and educator Judah Freed read Common Sense, he was struck by how easily Paine's message could be applied to contemporary society. "If we are having an impact on the world, then let's do it deliberately and consciously," he insists. "Let's really affect the world through what we eat, what we buy, how we dress, the kind of clothes that we wear … being environmentally, socially, economically [responsible]. Really taking account of the impact of what we do."
Judah Freed decided to update Common Sense with modern awareness. In 1776, Paine wrote about the struggle against King George. In Global Sense: Awakening Your Personal Power for Democracy and World Peace, Freed writes about the need to stand up to 21st-century authority when it becomes too powerful, whether it be politicians or corporate executives.
He compares Paine's ideas to those of 20th century leaders Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. "What Gandhi did would be a very good way of understanding the power of the common people through non-violent action to really transform society, and to transform the consciousness of the people." He says Nelson Mandela's anti-apartheid campaign did the same thing. "Although he never formally renounced violence, he fundamentally was advocating a non-violent approach."
And to paint Paine as even more of a 21st century thinker, Judah Freed says he would have loved the Internet, with its free access to knowledge and global communication. The author was so moved by being in the nation's cradle of liberty for the anniversary celebration, he decided to offer the online edition of his book for free. He thinks that's what Thomas Paine would have done with Common Sense, if the Internet had been around in 1776.
Judah Freed says he hopes the renewed interested in Common Sense, and his new interpretation in Global Sense, will bring people together to affect change through the way they live and the way they interact with the world. "I would love to see people get ingrained into them from the earliest age that we are all globally interconnected, and because we are all globally interconnected, we have both a responsibility and a power to use our global connectivity to make a difference."
Or, as Thomas Paine observed 231 years ago in Common Sense, 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.'