This is an original print copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which has come down to us as one of the most important documents of American Revolution. Common Sense has been credited with turning the tide of opinion in America and thus paving the way for the Declaration of Independence. As proof of it’s overwhelming influence sales figures of 500,000 are quoted. Or is it 250,000? Or 120,000? Or 100,000?
There are many problems with judging the popularity of the work based on sales figures. The first of these is that there was no copyright when Common Sense was published. That meant anybody who wanted to reprint the pamphlet could do so (and did). The only sales figures that Paine (or anybody else) could know about for sure would be those from his printer.
Another common tactic was for newspaper editors to print sections of books or entire pamphlets as serials in their papers. This was also done with Common Sense.
The biggest problem with the idea of Common Sense selling in the six figure range is both the ridiculousness of the numbers being proffered and the source of those numbers.
Let’s look at some of the numbers often quoted.
120,000. This seems somewhat reasonable for an incredibly popular work. Except that the source for this figure is Paine himself. Not only is he the source for this figure, he claims this after Common Sense had been in publication for only three months, which on the face of it is simply quite ridiculous. 120,000 copies in three months would be incredibly impressive for a non-fiction book released in 2014.
The number is also ridiculous because in April of 1776 Common Sense had only had a couple of printings outside of Philadelphia.
In 1779 Paine wrote a letter where he touted the importance of Common Sense to the American cause “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” (which may be the origin of another myth about the the work), and claimed that it sold 150,000. So according to Paine the work sold 120,000 in the first three months, but only 30,000 in the next three years?
In 1791 a footnote to Paine’s The Rights of Man claimed that Common Sense had sold 100,000 copies. So we go from 120,000 in the first three months, to 150,000 in the first three years, down to 100,000 in 5 years? The 100,000 number is also problematic because of the 25 print runs known to have been made of Common Sense, 16 of them were in Philadelphia. Only one printing happened south of Pennsylvania. Even 100,000 copies is still one copy for every five households, a quite laughable figure.
In 1892 a biography was published about Paine, in which the author claimed total sales of 500,000. For 500,000 copies of Common Sense to have been sold would require basically every household in America to have owned one (even slave households). In 1775 there were roughly 2.5 million people in America (500,000 of whom were black). 500,000 copies sold is 1 copy for every five people.
The truth is that Common Sense probably sold far fewer than 75,000 copies. 3,000 copies of a work would be an enormous amount in the 18th century, so even 25 printings of 3,000 copies each would mean no more than 75,000. Most of the print runs were probably a few hundred copies, rather than a few thousand.
Now it’s true that Common Sense probably did influence politics in America, especially in Philadelphia where it was first printed. However people had been talking of independence long before Common Sense came along and had acted on it in 1774 and 1775, though that’s probably a subject for another post
For more debunking of Revolutionary War myths search for the hashtag #truerevwar to see posts by myself and bantarleton