Thomas Paine. Common Sense. The first London edition (1776), completed in manuscript

Thomas Paine. Common Sense. The first London edition (1776), completed in manuscript

Paine, Thomas (1737-1809). Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America… A New Edition, with several Additions in the Body of the Work. To which is added an Appendix; together with an Address to the People called Quakers. Philadelphia, Printed; London, Re-Printed, for J. Almon, 1776. pp. (4), 54. First edition printed in England, with all points noted in Gimbel, pp. 86-87. Presumed first issue without half-title or appended Plain Truth, with manuscript completions. A nearly fine copy with a few small repairs to the title page, and loss to the corners of the first several pages. The generous margins have been trimmed on the outer edge, with slight loss to some of the holograph additions. Holes from a stab binding to the gutters. Bound in recent gray paper covers and housed in a finely tooled clamshell box and chemise, dyed red with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Adams, American Controversy, 76-107d; Adams, American Independence, 222y; Gimbel, Thomas Paine, CS-27; Grolier, American 100, 14.

“I had formed my plan of life,” recalled Thomas Paine a few years after his arrival in 1774, “and conceiving myself happy, wished every body else so. But when the country, into which I had but just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears it was time to stir. It was time for every man to stir.” From late 1775 to early 1776, Paine stirred himself to write an ideological call to arms, and in doing so, transformed the terms of political debate. Common Sense has widely been acknowledged as “the single most influential political pamphlet ever published in America.”

     What was catalytic in Paine’s thoughts was not his ideas. In one sense he was no more radical than Locke, Rousseau, Franklin or Jefferson. Upon reading the tract, John Adams called it “a tolerable summary of the arguments which I had been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months.” Nor was is it his appeal to the common reader.  Thomas Jefferson wrote that “no writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style, in perspicuity of expression, happiness of elucidation, and in simple and unassuming language.” But other political essayists such as Swift, Defoe, and “Junius” had also written in clear and easy prose. Paine’s genius was in the combination of style and substance – virtually alone among the writers of the Enlightenment, he presented political ideas in a form meant to stir the blood, and mobilize action: “The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'tis time to part.” As the historian George Trevelyan later commented, “If men are to fight to the death, it must be for reasons which all can understand.”

     No one could fail to be moved by Paine’s bold arguments presented in clear, inspiring language. “Common Sense is read by all ranks,” wrote one Philadelphian in March 1776, “and as many as read, as many become converted.” The pamphlet was an instant bestseller; in time, half of the population of the American colonies had either read the pamphlet or had it read to them. With typical reserve, George Washington praised Paine’s “sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning.” Paine turned the tide of public opinion inexorably towards separation from Great Britain: one may trace a direct line from Common Sense to the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. As John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine.”

     The medium of Paine’s work was part of the message. Though later collected in book form, Common Sense was first issued as a pamphlet. This was the optimum way to reach a wide readership. Much cheaper than books, pamphlets cost only about a shilling, and were much easier to distribute. By May 1776, thousands of copies of Paine’s tract were circulating in the American colonies. But in England, readers who had heard of Common Sense were bereft. According to C. C. Bonwick, only five copies of an American edition of the work arrived in England in the early months of 1776. “An English printing was necessary if an American pamphlet were to be made generally available to British readers.”

     The present copy, the first edition published in England, was printed in May 1776 in an edition of perhaps 500 copies. The publisher was John Almon (1737-1805), a roguish bookseller in London whose prominent role in Whig opposition politics regularly got him in trouble with the British authorities. Publisher to Edmund Burke, John Wilkes, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and James Otis, Almon “published a good many more titles by American and about the American controversy than any other London bookseller,” according to L. H. Butterfield. Michael Guenther calls Almon’s bookshop in Piccadilly “a critical locus of radical ideas and politics in the era of the American Revolution.” Almon’s edition of Common Sense was a hit: before the year was out he would print three more editions.

     But Almon had to walk a fine line. In 1765, he had been prosecuted for printing material critical of the crown. In 1770, after a famous trial, he was jailed and fined £800 for publishing a pamphlet critical of the King by “Junius.” In order to avoid another charge of seditious libel, Almon decided to omit the most incendiary passages when he undertook to introduce Paine’s work to the British public. Almon published excerpts from Common Sense in his newspaper, Evening Post on 28 and 30 May 1776, omitting certain passages. Fourteen pages in his edition of the full text contain hiatuses – gaps where the author’s attacks upon the monarchy were deemed too dangerous to print.

     The printer was perhaps a bit overcautious in the beginning, as the first printing omits words that Almon restored in later printings. Thus, for example, there is a passage in the introduction that reads “as the good People of this Country are grievously oppressed by the Combination [of King and Parliament], they have an undoubted privilege to enquire in the Pretensions of both, and equally to reject the Usurpation of either.” In this first London edition, both “combination” and “usurpation” are omitted. In later printings, those words are restored.


     Other omitted passages remained as blanks through all of Almon’s four editions, and most extant copies have gaps where Paine’s fiery rhetoric on “the Royal Brute of Great Britain” and his ministers was deleted out of legal caution. Most of the nearly twenty omitted passages are concentrated in the perhaps the most revolutionary section of the work, “Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs.” Almon preserved Paine’s critique of hereditary rule and promotion of American independence, removing only those passages that directly insulted the King and his Prime Minister. Paine’s complete text would not be printed in England until 1791.

     The publisher's cautious approach conflicted with his radical sentiments. Almon was an ardent supporter of the American cause. How could he in good conscience pull Paine’s most devastating punches? His ingenious solution was to fill in the missing passages by hand, presumably for select customers. This gambit ensured that those who most hungered for Paine's writing would be sated, and that Almon would be protected, as the laws of libel that governed published works did not extend to private communications, such as these manuscript completions could arguably be defined. One of the longest is on page 23:

I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharoah of England forever; and disdain the wretch, that with the pretended title of Father of his people can unfeelingly hear of their slaughter, and composedly sleep with their blood upon his soul.

     Other restored passages identify the King as "an inveterate enemy to liberty" and "the greatest Enemy this Continent has or can have." "We are already greater than the King wishes us to be," Paine writes in a censored passage restored in this copy, "and will he not hereafter endeavour to make us less?" Reflecting upon the gaps in Almon's edition, one editor of Paine’s work remarked that “the vacant lines … are all mute yet eloquent witnesses of the injustice and tyranny exercised by the British government in the Eighteenth Century.” By the same token, the penned-in passages are evidence of principled resistance to political oppression.


A page from Almon's edition, as printed (left), and with the redacted passages restored (this copy, right)

     Assuming that it was at Almon’s direction that the passages were filled in by hand, we should like to suppose that that the person charged with the task was John Stockdale (1750-1815), who worked for Almon from 1774 to 1780, and who in the 1780s would take up Almon's mantle as the major British publisher of American patriots. But the amanuensis may well have been another individual in Almon's employ.

     Based on William and Thomas Bradford’s expanded Philadelphia edition of Common Sense, Almon’s edition includes an Appendix and an “Address to the Quakers,” an answer to a tract published after the Quaker meeting in Philadelphia of 20 January 1776. As Gimbel notes in his invaluable bibliography, Almon published the first edition in two states: as a separate pamphlet and as a volume bound with Plain Truth by “Candidus” (James Chambers), which attacks Paine’s arguments. The present copy is the first of these, presenting Paine’s pamphlet without Chambers’s counterargument. Although no priority has been assigned, one assumes that the separate publication of Common Sense as a pamphlet preceded its collection with other works as a book, and that copies with holograph completions, which are much scarcer than those with the expurgations unmodified, represent those prepared for trusted readers.

     Almon’s edition of Common Sense had a profound effect on Americans resident in England. John Laurens (1754-1782) was studying law in London in 1776. He bought a copy of Almon’s edition and wrote to his father that he read it “more than once.” Soon he was on a boat back to America, where he served as George Washington’s aide-de-camp, forged a close relationship with Alexander Hamilton, and advocated freeing slaves who joined in the struggle for independence. Equally important was its effect on British readers. Julie Flavell reminds us of the close ties and shared sense of identity that united London, "the capital of America," with the colonies; Paine's work raised awareness of and sympathy for the American cause among residents of the island that sought perpetually to govern a continent. “The Declaration of Independence … surprised few Englishmen,” notes Solomon Lutnick dryly, “Common Sense … had adequately prepared Britain for news of a formal break.” More profoundly, Paine introduced to British political discourse a novel strain of iconoclastic wit (describing, for example, William the Conqueror as “a French bastard landing with an armed Banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives") that would inspire generations of political reformers who have spoken truth to power. As E. P. Thompson observed, what Paine “gave to English people was a new rhetoric of radical egalitarianism, which touched the deepest responses of the ‘free-born Englishman.’” Bold advocates for liberty on both sides of the Atlantic are deeply indebted to Paine, and to his courageous British publisher, John Almon.

     A wonderfully evocative copy of an important edition of one of the most influential political pamphlets ever written.

Provenance: The private collection of descendants of James and Lucretia Coffin Mott, the abolitionists and women's rights activists, who reportedly inherited this copy from their Quaker parents.

Selected References

  • Almon, John. Memoirs of a late eminent bookseller. London, 1790
  • Bonwick, Colin C. An English audience for American revolutionary pamphlets. The Historical Journal 19 (1976) 355-374
  • -----. English radicals and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977
  • Flavell, Julie. When London was the capital of America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010
  • Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976
  • Gimbel, Richard. Thomas Paine: a bibliographical check list of Common Sense: with an account of its publication. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956
  • Guenther, Michael. John Almon’s web: networks of print, politics, and place in revolutionary London, 1760–1780, in Experiencing empire: power, people, and revolution in early America, ed. Patrick Griffin. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017
  • Lutnick, Solomon. The American Revolution and the British press 1775-1783. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1967
  • Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: enlightenment, revolution, and the birth of modern nations. New York: Viking, 2006
  • Rogers, Deborah D. Bookseller as rogue: John Almon and the politics of eighteenth-century publishing. New York: Peter Lang, 1986
  • Stockdale, Eric. ‘Tis treason, my good man! four revolutionary presidents and a Piccadilly bookshop. New Castle, DE : Oak Knoll Books, 2005
  • Thompson, E. P. The making of the English working class. New York: Pantheon Books, 1964

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    Thomas Paine. Common Sense. The first London edition (1776), completed in manuscript