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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Genius You Didn't Know About

Many assertions have been made about the persuasive power of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. His ethos is inarguably commanding; he was able to convince many loyalists and perhaps even some cowards to support the Revolution. What many don’t know, however, is that there is more to persuasive writing than compelling speeches. There is an art form, a science that makes a genuinely persuasive piece.

From a modern day perspective, a persuasive writing perspective, perhaps his work might not measure up. Paine’s obvious sheer talent for writing could get him so far, and then the science to actual rhetorical writing comes in. According to the requirements of persuasive writing, was Paine successful? Or was he only a flash in the pan with excellent word choice and spot-on timing? Successful persuasive writing generally follows a pattern that makes it effective. From an analytical point, let’s see if, according to the laws of persuasive writing, Common Sense was as persuasive as it could be.

Modern day rhetoricians must first deal with readers' rights, and reader expectations. Readers expect a cohesive, developed, well-formed and coherent work.  A cohesive piece presents us with the old information; a developed piece tells us enough information about the old information; a well-formed piece sets and meets expectations; and a coherent piece gives us enough new information. So first things first: does Thomas Paine meet reader expectations in this work?

Cohesion: The old information he presents readers with would be things the readers already know and understand. The King and Parliament calling America “theirs” would be old information (Paine 92). He also says that society and government have different causes, and origins which again can be considered old information.

Development: He expands on the differences between society and government by offering the audience more information. He says “society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY . . . the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices” ( Paine 92). At this point, none of this is new information to the colonists; England had been oppressing them and abusing them for many years. Their goods were not their own, their crops were not their own and their country was not their own. The wickedness of government was old information to the colonists.

Well-formed: In the introduction, Paine sets a very clear expectation for the work. He wrote: “In the following sheets, the author hath studiously avoided everything which is personal among ourselves. Compliments as well as censure to individuals make no part thereof. The wise, and the worthy, need not the triumph of a pamphlet” (Paine 92). The expectation is that these ideas do not stem from one person; it is not the propagandist work of a single party. It is simply the ideas of a “society.” It is the natural rights of man being exercised and demanded for. And these demands are not specific to this time, or this place or these people: “the cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind” (Paine 92).

Coherence: “The laying a country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth , is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling. . .” (92). It cannot be believed that that was common opinion among the colonies, and thus, it is considered new information.

A persuasive piece also has an “issue question.” An issue question has multiple perspectives, it arises from a specific context, it is urgent, and it is an issue to which the audience is very attached. A consequential issue question is an issue question that, obviously, has consequences. The formula for said question is :



A TERM verb2 C Term

The A TERM is usually a policy idea, like “fighting for American independence.” The B TERM is what affects the audience, like “would increase freedom for Americans and legitimize the demand for equality and allow America to institute a government by the poeple.” And the C TERM is simply another concept, like “would decrease the control the English crown has on American affairs." All of this forms the crux of the rhetorical argument, or the enthymeme. Essentially, Paine’s enthymeme is:

Fighting for American independence would increase freedom for Americans and legitimize the demand for equality and allow America to institute a government by the people
fighting for American independence would decrease the control the English crown has on American affairs.

The issue question has the multiple perspectives of the colonists, the loyalists, the English crown and the revolutionists. It’s context is centered around the injustice and abuse of the American colonies. It is very time sensitive, since the injustices are quickly climaxing and the “TIME HATH FOUND US” as Paine says (Paine 106). Lastly, the audience is obviously very attached to it, for the situation as Paine also points out is “truly alarming to every man who is capable of reflection” (Paine 112).

From a rhetorical standpoint, this is a very strong enthymeme. A solid enthymeme cannot stand alone however. It is dependent on good evidence. Good evidence is defined by the “STAR criteria.” STAR stands for sufficient, typical, accurate and relevant. The true test of Paine’s argument would be to see if he met all these criteria.

Paine draws from the Bible examples of “monarcy and hereditary succession” which are typical and accurate and relevant, since the audience is familiar with the stories and trusts the source. He draws on the history of England about the success of civil war against a king, which like the Bible is typical, accurate and relevant. He offers factual evidence about the “estimation of the navy” and how much money the British have had to spend on a fleet, that America could create thanks to “her natural produce” (Paine 107). With a third form of legitimate evidence, Paine has reached a sufficient amount, and thus satisfies the STAR criteria.

Having analytically dissected the argument and work itself, it is sufficient to say that Thomas Paine was a master persuasive writer. Emotionally, passionately and rhetorically, he was able to artfully persuade some inconsequential settlers to change the world. His words are still so powerful that they are essentially timeless, and have influenced people across the globe. For a master rhetorician, that is the most sought after result.

Works consulted:

Boswell, Grant. Making Rhetorical Arguments. Provo: BYU AP, 2010. Print.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It does seem that the majority of politics are merely persuasive rhetoric, and in fact it appears that it is the art of persuasion that is what is needed to unite a people and to motivate a people. It is scary to think what humans will do with the right kind of persuasion that can conceal any evil action. Hitler is the first person that comes to my mind when thinking of this. I think it is therefor crucial to be informed and to understand national and worldly affairs to be able to follow a political leader's persuasive innovation.

  3. I had to read bits of Common Sense for another class and so I had the Norton background in my mind. They mentioned how he developed a new style of writing: Political writing. But I wonder what the difference is between Political writing and persuasive writing. Norton didn't expand on the topic.

  4. I love the idea that is brought up within the post about making the construction of this type of writing almost mathematical. It is obvious that Common Sense was meant to convince people of Paine's point of view so it only makes sense that he would have to present his argument in an extremely logical way. Also, I agree with Rachel that a "majority of politics are merely political rhetoric"; however, I think this extends to most things in our lives. I have worked many different jobs and in each one of them, the people who are able to communicate and persuade people are those who receive things like promotions and raises.