Are Thomas Paine's writings THE AMERICAN CRISIS and COMMON SENSE propaganda? If you think they are, why? What about the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE? Is it propoganda? If so, why? If not, why not?...

Are Thomas Paine's writings THE AMERICAN CRISIS and COMMON SENSE propaganda? 

If you think they are, why? What about the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE? Is it propoganda? If so, why? If not, why not? How about comparing Paine's writings with the DECLARATION

Asked on by xtreme69

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brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

To be clear, there was a good deal of propaganda put out by the Sons of Liberty and other colonists during the revolutionary years.  I don't tend to put Thomas Paine in that category, at least not the vast majority of the time and not in these two works.

Common Sense is considered important for defining the cause, and helping soldiers to understand it in plain English.  It didn't unfairly skew or exaggerate conditions so more people would join, it explained the Revolution to those who had already joined.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

My answer, and MWestwood's response to it, give you a clear view of why it is difficult to define "propaganda" and, therefore, difficult to answer your question.  I'm providing a link to a whole essay on the issue of how hard it is to define the term.  As the essay says

To some speakers and writers, propaganda is an instrument of the devil. They look on the propagandist as a person who is deliberately trying to hoodwink us, who uses half-truths, who lies, who suppresses, conceals, and distorts the facts. According to this idea of the word, the propagandist plays us for suckers.

I think this is the image of propaganda that mwestwood has and this is why she takes umbrage at my calling Paine and Jefferson's work propaganda.

This is not how I understand the word propaganda.  I go more with the following statement:

Most analysts of propaganda do not limit the term propaganda to “veiled” promotion. Nor do they think it accurate to describe propaganda as an activity that resorts only to half-truths and downright falsehood. They say simply that some propaganda hinges on deceit and some does not.

So what is propaganda anyway?  I think maybe it's a useless word. If it just means persuasion, why not call it persuasion.  If it means "an attempt to persuade people to believe in something I think is bad" then it becomes useless because it's totally subjective.


mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

If, as a character in one of Dean Koontz's novels has stated, perspective is reality, then what is declared outside of each person's "perceived reality" is not truth, and can, therefore, be considered propaganda.  However, if there is truth that is not subjective, then there is something other than  propaganda. 

Regarding Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," the writing is persuasive, which is intended to convince people of a certain opinion.  However, Paine's appeal is to reason, although he does season this logical appeal with emotion at times. In Paine's writings there is less of a "slant" to his conclusions than that of political propaganda which uses sweeping generalizations and highly emotional words to persuade people to a way of thinking.  For instance, when Paine points to the fact that the British soldiers are stationed in doorways, and that there can be no reason for their presence other than a military occupation, Paine is NOT usuing any propaganda.  Instead, he points to facts and asks his readers to use logic. 

Paine also employs logical analogies.  For example, in pointing out the unjust treatment of the colonists by the British he writes,

My own line of resoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light.  Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to 'bind me in all cases whatsoever,'--the words of King George III--to his absolute will, am I to suffer it?  What signifies it to me, whether he who does it is a king or a common man; my contryman, or not my countryman, whether it be done by an individual villain or an army of them?  If we reason to the root of things we shall find no differnce....

The analogy between the king of England and a thief is a reasonable analogy.  Granted, Paine has emotional appeals, such as the use of the words villain and thief, along with his appeals to reason, but this is characteristic to persuasive writing.  So, to label this writing as "propaganda" is erroneous.  For, if Paine's writing is propaganda, then, contemporary discussions in the Congress on such topics as health reform and other current issues that involve people are mere propaganda, too.  Certainly, there are political slants, but there are also facts and reasons in these debates.  Propaganda occurs when one side attempts to distort perceptions with the purpose of helping party lines.  (Thomas Paine spoke for all the colonists.)

Regarding Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence"--this document is a treatise of the true ideals of a nation, and not propaganda in any way for the Americans who formed this country based upon their moral and ethical beliefs.  Of course, someone like the president of Iran might refer to "American propaganda" just as the Communists in the 1960s and 1970s sought to malign and vilify this nation by using the term "capitalist propaganda" for the precepts of American democracy.  But, again these gestures were made to serve a political agenda.


pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

This is in some senses a loaded question because the term "propaganda" is generally pejorative...  But yes, I'd say Paine's writings, and the Declaration of Independence are both propaganda.

I'm choosing to define propaganda as a work that is meant to influence the way an audience thinks and, thus, the way it acts.

Neither Paine's work, nor the Declaration is a even-handed statement of fact.  Most of the Declaration, for instance, is a list of grievances against the King of England, many of which are, objectively, unfair.  Similarly, Paine's works are not political science analyses of different forms of government but rather anti-monarchical polemics.

So... if you define propaganda like that, these works are propaganda.

parama9000's profile pic

parama9000 | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted on

He attempts to reason in his works with a general logic flow, that is indeed intertwined with emotion, which does work in convincing the audience and thus achieving his agenda as an author.

Propoganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.

His works are thus propoganda.

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