Predestined to Revolution: Puritan Rhetoric and Themes in Tom Paine’s Common Sense

Common Sense:

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:

A Model of Christian Charity:

            homas Paine’s Common Sense is one of the greatest insights into the revolutionary fervor that swept the American Colonies in the 18th century and the revolutionary sentiments expressed in the prose give keen details on what drove the colonists to take up arms and fight the most powerful Empire of their time. Common Sense was widely read by Americans, and its impact on the formation of the United States cannot be overlooked. Yet, Common Sense is itself profoundly impacted by the hundreds of years of colonial history that lead up to that revolutionary moment. In Common Sense,  Paine appeals to many different Americans; ranging from utilizing biblical criticism to harkening back to the days of the pagan Roman Republic. Yet throughout all of these appeals a common thread is woven through them all. This common thread is the American experience of the Puritan dynamic, or the Puritan influence on the radicalism of Paine; but more specifically, the Puritan elements in how Paine envisions America and what modes of persuasion he chooses to use. By studying rhetorical similarities between Jonathan Edward’s “Sinner’s in the Hands of God” and Paine’s Common Sense, and analyzing the thematic similarities between John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and Paine’s depiction of American Destiny and equality, a greater understanding of the Puritan influence on Common Sense can be gained. The inherent messages of Puritanism, from Winthrop’s concept of the city on a hill, to the violent urgency of Jonathan Edwards polemical orations, are profoundly ingrained in Common Sense. Common Sense influenced American political formation just as Common Sense was influenced by the radical Puritan conceptions of urgency, inevitability, destiny and equality.

Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and Common Sense are at first glance utterly opposed to opposed to one another, and ideologically they certainly are. Yet rhetorically, the two documents share much common ground. The concept of urgency in Puritanical writing is due to the ever-present ideas of doom and judgment within Puritan thinking. The urgency of the situation each author sees his audience in is found throughout each document, and this sense of urgency is used as persuasion within both pieces. Edwards expresses a uniquely puritan concept of urgency by writing, “How can you rest one moment in such a condition? Are not your souls as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?” (329). In this passage, Edwards implores the audience to not wait even “one moment” and suggests that those who value their souls must do something immediately or suffer eternal damnation. This also introduces an interesting contradiction within Edwards, and that is the all-powerful nature of god seems to defeat the concept of urgency being necessary, and this is where Edwards brings in the threat of heinous fates to those who do not seek out god to overcome this contradiction. Edwards reasserts this point by stating that those that do not seek forgiveness immediately are subjecting themselves to nothing less than spiritual destruction. Paine uses a similar construction, writing “Wherefore since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake, let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to be cutting throats, under the violated unmeaning names of parent and child” (40). This passage paints a picture of the urgency that Paine has portrayed throughout the piece, as Paine weaves present and future as if they are directly related to their actions in this moment. Paine also introduces the idea of the society, or future society, which depends on these actions. This is Paine’s use of some terrible fate to befall the land if his readership does not act immediately. Paine suggests that violence will come upon their children if the readership does not do something this instant about English tyranny, and those who do not act with urgency are subjecting their children to violence. In this rhetorical interpretation, Paine has made loyalists and non-revolutionaries as those who would allow future generations to suffer violence under the boot of the English King because of their own timidity or idealistic lack of historical urgency just as Edwards has portrayed those who do not seek salvation as those who do not value the precious nature of their souls. Paine uses the threat of British violence and Edwards uses the specter of an ultimately powerful and wrathful god, both as a means to the end of creating a profound sense of urgency within each piece. The idea of urgency is a fundamental pillar with which the rhetorical argument of each piece is built, and while Paine rejected fervent religious ideology as expressed in Edwards, here we see him utilizing a distinctly Puritan tool of persuasion, that of the great urgency all sublunary souls find themselves in. This urgency is contradicted with the inevitability of salvation, damnation and Revolution, and the same contradiction is found within Common Sense.

The concept of inevitability is one that profoundly impacts both Common Sense and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The inevitability of judgment and the anxiety that went along with that is steeped in Puritan writing as seen in Bradstreet, Rowlandson and many others. Puritanism is rife with contradiction, and the relationship between urgency and inevitability is another example of this, as Earthly actions do not impact salvation under their predestined ideology, yet Edwards stresses the urgency highlighted above. In perhaps the most famous words of the speech, Edwards compares all humans to a spider upon a thread. Edwards writes, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked” (325). Edwards has established a situation in which a sinner’s destruction is inevitable, and the soul’s eternal punishment hangs upon a thread tied to an all-powerful God’s whims. The language is highly Puritanical as no human can know the whims of god, yet it is “dreadful” to “provoke” such an all powerful entity. Edwards manifests the contradiction highlighted earlier; on one hand, an all powerful god has the audience members hung over the pits of hell in which they might be dropped at any moment, and on the other, they must repent and seek Christ; suggesting that they have some level of control. This contradiction can be found in Common Sense as Paine uses the same metaphor and adjusts it to his purpose. Paine writes, “Emigrants of property will not choose to come to a country whose form of government hangs but by a thread, and who is every day tottering on the brink of commotion and disturbance; …inhabitants would lay hold of the interval, to dispose of their effects, and quit the continent” (43). Paine once again associates a possible outcome with what will happen if the American people do not cut off the British government “hang(ing) but by a thread.” Paine establishes a set of circumstances that will not only hurt the American people but result in the destruction and abandonment of their lands, much like how Edwards establishes a cruel fate for the spider upon the string. In many ways Paine has taken Edward’s canonical metaphor and turned it on its head, with the American people taking up the role of an all-powerful god, holding the fate of the teetering British Colonial Government in their hands. To oppose the inevitable destruction of the fraying thread holding British rule in America together, is to oppose a historical certainty to Paine, yet Common Sense is filled with a desperate sense of revolutionary urgency highlighted above. Thus Paine is an author of dynamic character, accepting both enlightened secularism with one stroke of the pen, and utilizing famous puritan metaphors and concepts such as urgency and inevitability with the next.

Common Sense cannot be limited to the rhetorical realm, however, as the document is extremely political and nationalistic. Paine fills the prose with enlightenment concepts such as democracy, republicanism and checked authority; yet Paine invokes the deeply puritanical concepts of destiny. John Winthrop elucidates the concept of the destiny of the American people perhaps more famously than any other Puritan writer. His “A Model of Christian Charity” outlines the great idealism that swept puritan communities when they first established colonies in the new world. Undoubtedly, the ideals expressed in Winthrop were never fully realized, yet this incubatory conception of American destiny and nationalism were to have a profound impact on their future manifestations found in Common Sense. Winthrop writes, “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; … For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill”(135). This is a canonical passage that illustrates with keen precision what Edwards conceives the new land of the puritans to be. Firstly, this new world is one that will be above, quite literally within Winthrop’s metaphor, the rest of the civilized world. The puritans will live on “a city on a hill,” for the rest of the world to behold as the god that is amongst its people will empower these people to fantastical feats. Secondly, this new civilization has a unique transformative power to all of the world. This moment is unprecedented to Winthrop, as he compares Puritans to the Israelites of nearly 4000 years ago, illustrating the two people’s shared destiny and potentiality for world changing power. Paine uses this exact logic in his appendix to the third edition of Common Sense. Paine writes, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now” (63). Here Paine takes Winthrop’s concept and revitalizes it for the American revolutionary generation. Paine, like Winthrop, calls upon ancient biblical references to, in Paine’s case, demonstrate the climactic historical nature of the American Revolutionary moment. Paine also uses Winthrop’s concept of the potentiality of the American people to impact the entire world. To Paine, the American people have it within their power to forge not only their own nation but a new world entirely. This elucidation by Paine is similar to Puritan expressions of their shared destiny in the new world upon establishing colonies in New England. Thus, Winthrop’s earliest constructions of American Nationalism and destiny laid a sturdy foundation from which subsequent manifestations of nationalism and destiny in American literature and political dialogue would base themselves upon, and this influence is found in Paine’s portrayal of the American revolutionaries as holding the power to remake the world within their hands.

Yet another contradiction inherent in the American puritan experience was the spiritual equality preached by Protestantism opposed to the fundamental Puritan idea of predestination. Winthrop navigates intricately through this contradiction in his work. Winthrop writes, “From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his Creator and the common good of the creature, man” (126). Winthrop is creating a very fine distinction between earthly successes and spiritual successes in this passage, suggesting indirectly a certain level of equality between all humans. Any earthly success is merely for the glorification of the community and god, and does not show anything about the true nature of the successful person. Indeed, Puritan thought would evolve to consider economic success as a marker for elect status, yet in this early stage Winthrop is elucidating a more idealistic view. Because of the contradiction highlighted above, Winthrop toes around advocating for any kind of economic equality but instead says that the class differences that defined colonial society were simply “for the glory of his creator.” In this construction, Winthrop has established a relationship in which humans are equal by birth, unequal by function and “god.” From a modern perspective, the contradiction seems inherent. If all members of the “city on the hill” are born equal, why are some better off than others? This is a critical question that is still asked in America, and Paine suggests an answer very much in line with Winthrop. Paine writes, “Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance; the distinctions of rich, and poor, may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh, ill-sounding names of oppression and avarice” (24). Interestingly, from a man who would go onto participate in the French revolution, Paine’s argument concerning equality in Common Sense is much in line with Winthrop’s. The precise relationship outlined in Winthrop is outlined in Paine; that is, that ‘all men are created equal’ and the inequalities seen in any capitalist society stem from something else. Paine does not invoke any holy base for hierarchy or even argue that it serves a function in society as Winthrop does, but cryptically claims inequality can be “accounted for” without considering “oppression and avarice.” This passage is perplexing, even within Common Sense, as it is unusually lacking in specifics; as compared to Paine’s amazingly detailed analysis of British naval might. The perplexing nature of the passage is a product of the contradiction highlighted above manifested in Paine’s own time of the growth of southern slavery. Thus equality of birth is stressed by both authors, yet neither author can go any further with this idea due to the inherently contradictory nature of Puritanism and in Paine’s time, the contradiction of American revolutionary rhetoric and slavery.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is as revolutionary as it is indebted to past expressions of American mythology such as Jonathon Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” By highlighting the presence of rhetorical urgency and inevitability in both Edwards and Paine, and analyzing the political presence of destiny and equality within Winthrop and Paine, a greater understanding of the Puritan influence on Common Sense emerges. Common Sense marks a unique departure from Puritanism that is at the same time heavily indebted to the Puritan foundational ideology that permeates American culture. The fundamental radicalism of the Puritan experience laid the groundwork for the development of a revolutionary movement in the colonies. The questions of individualism and communalism, equality and hierarchy, and predestiny and duty still pervade American society to this day. All of these questions arose in the Puritan period, and they are reckoned with precision in Paine’s Common Sense. In this one mass appeal, Paine brilliantly uses multiple influences to create a synthesized call for revolution. In Paine’s hybridization of enlightenment thinking and age old Puritanical rhetoric and themes, the American Revolutionary generation found the blade with which to cut the thread holding King George the Third over the pit of bloody revolt.


Filed under Academic, English, English Civil War, Literature

2 responses to “Predestined to Revolution: Puritan Rhetoric and Themes in Tom Paine’s Common Sense

  1. JMS

    Great stuff, but there is a statue of Thomas Pain in the United States. It is in Burnham Park, in Morristown (Morris Township), New Jersey. It depicts him writing his American Crisis essays (“these are the time that try men’s souls) on a drumhead while accompanying Washington’s retreating Continental army across New Jersey and the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in late 1776.

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