In A People's History of the United States, what myth associated with "Common Sense" has come down from 1776?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The primary myth associated with "Common Sense" was that Paine wrote his document as a simplistic call for the American nation to part with England.

The traditional read of "Common Sense" was that it advocated for America to sever its ties to England.  The myth was that Paine spoke for the American nation when he concluded "'Tis time to part." The pamphlet is conventionally depicted in a very simple manner because many believe that it spoke for America as a national entity.

The reality that Zinn illuminates is that Paine himself was "a stay-maker, tax official, teacher, [and] poor emigrant to America."  Paine wanted to see a democratic experiment that embraced a true form of power to the people.  In the American Revolution, he saw an opportunity for real democracy to emerge.  Zinn suggests that Paine had a disdain for representative government:  "Paine had denounced the so-called balanced government of Lords and Commons as a deception, and called for single-chamber representative bodies where the people could be represented." This dislike translated into a zealous support for the possibilities of the American Revolution.

Given how many of the Patriots were operating within the upper economic class of colonial society, Paine's intent was not so well received.  Patriot leaders like John Adams were not entirely in favor of pure democratic notions because it threatened their own financial and social well- being.  Adams argued that Paine's radically pure democratic plans were "without any restraint or even an attempt at any equilibrium or counter-poise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work."  Adams believed that espousing such purely democratic ideals produced "hasty results and absurd judgments."

Zinn believes that the construction of national unity associated with "Common Sense" obscures Paine's ideas about power.  This might have been deliberate on the part of the Colonial leadership.  Zinn points to how Boston itself was seen as an area rife with class antagonisms, a place where "a few persons in power were promoting political projects for keeping the people poor in order to make them humble."  The mythology of "Common Sense" blocks out the larger issue of power in the American Revolution.  Who had autonomy and freedom and who didn't are critical considerations, reflecting the idea that the American Revolution might not have been as much a revolution as it is presented to be.  Paine was advocating a change to a system in which the wealthy few were in charge of the populist many.

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