Within months of its publication, 120,000 copies (or 100,000 or 150,000 or 500,000) of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense were sold in the rebellious colonies.
Although the pamphlet circulated widely and certainly made its mark, only scant print records and no sales records survive, so we simply do not know how many copies were sold. The first three numbers were offered by Paine himself, who had no way of ascertaining the information but a great deal of interest in exaggerating his impact. The larger figure, half a million, was first posited by a biographer more than a century later. None of these estimates are plausible, given the demographics of the country, the state of the print industry, and distribution patterns at that time.
First, a caveat: the joke is on me this time. Like many other historians wishing to highlight the sudden popularity of independence in the first half of 1776, I have used Paine as a protagonist to tell the story of a great national debate over independence. In print and on the History Channel, with considerable verve, I’ve marshaled forth the number I felt most comfortable with, a mere 100,000 (being the lowest of the lot), without examining where that number, or any of the others, came from.
Historian Trish Loughran, in The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U. S. Nation Building, 1770-1870, has examined those numbers and found them wanting. Chronologically, here is the genesis of each, the first three coming from Paine himself. In each case, he speaks of the pamphlet’s success in grandiose terms and presents a number as proof.
On April 8, 1776, almost three months after the initial offering on January 10, writing as “Forester,” Paine noted his success to counter a critic: “Perhaps there never was a pamphlet, since the use of letters were known, about which so little pains were taken, and of which so great a number went off in so short a time. I am certain that I am within compass when I say one hundred twenty thousand.”
On January 14, 1779, in an autobiographical letter to Henry Laurens, who had just stepped down as President of Congress: “I think the importance of that pamphlet was such that if it had not appeared, and that at the exact time it did, the Congress would not now have been sitting where they are. The light which that performance threw upon the subject gave a turn to the politics of America which enabled her to stand her ground. Independence followed in six months after it, although before it was published it was a dangerous doctrine to speak of, and that because it was not understood… I believe the number of copies printed and sold in America was not short of 150,000 — and is the greatest sale that any performance ever had since the use of letters—exclusive of the great run it had in England and Ireland.”
In 1791, a footnote in Paine’s The Rights of Man: “The success it [Common Sense] met with was beyond any thing since the invention of printing. I gave the copy-right to every state in the union, and the demand ran to not less than one hundred thousand copies.”
A century later, in 1892, Paine’s biographer, Moncure Daniel Conway, after noting Paine’s estimate of 120,000 on April 8, offered a conjecture: “In the end probably half a million copies were sold.” What Conway meant by “in the end” is unclear, and the number was nothing more than an unsubstantiated guess in any case, but that didn’t keep later commentators from accepting it as fact. Philip Foner used the figure in his authoritative The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, and to this day some textbook authors prefer the largest available number. “In six months, more than 500,000 were sold,” wrote James West Davidson in his 2003 middle school text, American Nation. More cautiously, the latest edition of the same text tones that down: “Some 500,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold between January and July of 1776.” Several lower level texts echo this, while college texts usually select one of Paine’s own figures, with 120,000 the apparent favorite.
At first glance, we might think: Thomas Paine was the author, so of course he should know how well his books sold. But how could he know? Paine received no royalties, so there was no reason for printers to inform him of how many they had printed and sold. He quickly fell out with Robert Bell, who published the first printing, and there is no indication he kept in close contact with printers outside of Philadelphia, who did not need his consent to put the pamphlet up for sale. At best, Paine worked from anecdotal evidence, if he relied on evidence at all. He had no reason to keep a close tally and every reason to pump up the numbers. A war propagandist, he knew how to inflate enemy casualties and deflate losses on his own side, magnifying a victory or numbing a loss. In Paine’s chosen profession, exaggerating numbers helped the pen become mightier than the sword.
While Paine was not a reliable informant, might his numbers still be realistic?
If Common Sense sold 500,000 copies within six months, that would mean that every free household in the rebellious colonies purchased one, including families with no literate members and those unreceptive to Paine’s views–an obvious impossibility.
Even 100,000– one for every five households–seems too large. Of the twenty-five known printings, sixteen were in Philadelphia, with most of the rest along the Northeastern seaboard; only one press south of Pennsylvania is known to have printed the pamphlet. The population was overwhelmingly rural, so most people lived far from presses. Since distribution networks in those days were minimal, books and newspapers were printed locally rather than being hauled for long distances over rough and muddy roads. Few people in the South and West – taken together, that means most Americans – were likely to have purchased Common Sense, even if they heard some of its arguments. The handful of printings outside Philadelphia, which were likely no larger than 3,000 each, could not have blanketed rural communities throughout America.
Putting all this together–twenty-five printings at a maximum of 3,000 each (even though most print runs were probably much less), Loughran places the far upper limit at 75,000, but she thinks the true number was much less than that. Still hungry for numbers, at least one college textbook has adjusted to Loughran’s research, grudgingly it seems. Oxford University Press’s Of the People: A History of the United States now says point-blank that Common Sense “sold 75,000 copies in a short time.” That’s in the text; the caption to Paine’s portrait cranks it back up a notch, almost to what it was before: “Paine’s Common Sense sold more than 75,000 copies in just a few weeks.”
The broader lesson here is that numbers can and often do lie, posing as facts when they are not so. Just as Paine jacked up the numbers with propagandistic intent, so do commentators today, often unwittingly. They seek a number to prove a point – in this case, the impact of Common Sense – and will take the most available one they can find. I know. I’ve done that.
On the other hand, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Paine’s 25 printings, though not saturating the continent, still outdistance the seven printings of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which is alleged to have had such an impact in the late 1760s. In terms of copies sold, Common Sense enjoyed a far wider circulation than the collected essays penned from Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, The Federalist, now known as The Federalist Papers, which had only one contemporary printing of 500, many of which were left unsold at the close of the ratification debates. (More on this in the next MythBuster episode.) Common Sense did enjoy remarkable popularity and it likely had a significant impact, loosening the tone and the terms of the grand debate over independence.
This does not mean, though, that Paine was responsible for independence, as he implied in his letter to Henry Laurens and as standard narratives suggest today. Nor was Jefferson, who in drafting the Declaration of Independence summarized, in his own words, “the American mind.” Nor was John Adams, whom David McCullough claims “more than anyone made it [independence] happen.” All history is contextual, and here is a case in point. Common Sense hit the stands in Philadelphia the day the transcript arrived of King George III’s belligerent speech to Parliament, in which His Majesty pronounced that the American rebellion “is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.” If the King hadn’t just raised the specter of independence, Americans would have been less willing to entertain the idea. It was all in the timing. Paine, Jefferson, and Adams all played their roles, but individual genius or clever words do not make a nation. Those words need to resonate with the people to take root and effect change. The success of Common Sense can be seen as a reflection as much as a cause of America’s move toward independence.
Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U. S. Nation Building, 1770-1870, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), particularly pp. 40-58 and 253-261. “Forester’s” estimate of 120,000 and Conway’s casual “half a million” are in Moncure Daniel Conway’s, The Life of Thomas Paine: With a History of his Literary, Political, and Religious Career in America, France, and England (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892) 1:69 (chapter 6): http://deila.dickinson.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/ownwords&CISOPTR=5466
The 1779 letter to Henry Laurens is in Daniel, Edwin Wheeler, ed., The Writings of Thomas Paine (New York: Vincent Parke, 1908). 53-54: http://www16.us.archive.org/stream/lifewritingsofth08pain/lifewritingsofth08pain_djvu.txt
The Rights of Man quotation is at: http://www.ushistory.org/paine/rights/footnotes/footnote28.htm