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Common Sense: Revolutionary Literature, Political Literacy, and Ordinary Americans

8/20/2018

by Michael Crowder

If you're reading the Institute of Thomas Paine Studies' blog, you probably know about Paine's spectacularly influential pamphlet Common Sense. In his seminal work, Paine argued in direct and forceful language that the thirteen North American colonies had to declare independence from the British Empire immediately, without delay, lest they lose a golden opportunity to establish an independent republic. Usually thought of in quotidian terms, for an astounding moment the phrase "common sense" became a revolutionary call-to-arms.

Explanations for the success of Paine's most famous work center on its message and its deliberately direct and easy-to-process delivery. This isn't a controversial thing for me to write—it's "common sense" to modern historians. But as I looked through a personalized, early edition of Common Sense from the Thomas Paine National Historical Association collection, that explanation instantly and powerfully became focused on the idea that for many ordinary folks in North America in 1776, achieving actual and political literacy were revolutionary developments.

Common sense - 1776 cover, which contains the 4 subjects covered in the book. It also points out that this is a new edition and the additions increase the original work by one third. A quote on the cover reads: 'Man knows no master save creating Heaven. Or those whom Choice and common good ordain.' and is credited to Thompson.

This particular edition is rare — for as many copies as Common Sense sold in the months after its publication, there aren't many 1776 Newburyport, Massachusetts editions hanging around. What makes this copy special is the endpaper:

The end page of the version in question. Faintly visible is the practice writing which is fully written out in the body of this article.

It belonged to a married couple, Benjamin and Hannah Fulkes, and they used the blank page to practice writing lessons:

Benjmain Fulke his book / not only to read but to understand / for larning is better than houses or land / ames ames amen amen amen
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Hannah Fulke hir hand / and pen Hannah Fulke / Benjamin Fulke his booke / God give him grace thare in to larn / not only to look but to understand / for learning is better then / houses or land”

 

 

The Fulkes truly were ordinary Americans, and next-to-nothing is known of their lives. Maybe Benjamin was a sailor like many men in Newburyport, maybe he became politicized and radical on the job like many did in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Maybe Hannah participated in Daughters of Liberty spinning bees, as did so many women during the imperial crisis. Or maybe all of this is wishful speculation by a twenty-first century historian.

What is truly eye-opening and inspiring about this copy is that the Fulkes absorbed revolutionary politics and political literacy at the same time—on the same pages—as they learned the basics of the written word. Seeing, and holding in my hands, an object where distinct forms of literacy intertwined brought home the power of Common Sense to reach the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans. The Fulke copy is tangible evidence of Paine's instinct to reach for the broadest possible audience, foreshadowing his later career as an apostle of participatory democracy. This copy also is a powerful example of how Revolutionary Era vocabularies of revolution and social mobility converged, scratchily inked by Hannah Fulke—in "hir" own hand.