With July 4th weekend approaching, it's timely to take a look at the leaders who played vital roles in the birth of this independent nation. I'd like to suggest one you probably haven't thought about since your high school civics class: the rhetorical genius Thomas Paine. Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense, effectively mobilized Americans to rise up against Great Britain in 1776.
Even when you read it nearly 240 years after it was written, Common Sense has a palpable power and passion. "Paine took no prisoners, and his rhetoric appealed to raw emotions to arouse the populace," note Larry Schweikart, Dave Dougherty, and Michael Allen in The Patriot's History Reader.
Here's a look at why Common Sense works so well. You'll find that--like any effective presentation or call to action--it evokes strong feelings, it reiterates its main points, and it includes dissenting views. Surely you can adapt some of its rhetorical strategies when you need to arouse others to act in support of your own causes.
1. Describe the importance of the cause.
Paine does this by explaining the literal size of the stakes. "'Tis not the affair of a city, a county, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent--of at least one-eighth part of the habitable globe," he writes.
His simple reference to size comes in handy later, when he argues, "There is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance has nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet."
In addition, Paine makes his readers understand that the cause transcends the present time and place. "'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest and will be more or less affected even to the end of time by the proceedings now."
2. Use metaphors to minimize your opponents.
One of Paine's main points is that the past has nothing to do with the present or future. But instead of stating it dryly, like I just did, he uses metaphors which evoke the "common sense" of his title:
I have heard it asserted by some that as America has flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, the same connection is necessary toward her future happiness.... Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk that it is never to have meat, or that the first 20 years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next 20.
Paine's rhetorical strategy is intentionally in plain view. In his construction of the argument, to oppose his point of view is to oppose the imperative of change in general--in your own life, or in the life of a child.
3. Dissect and dismiss your opponents' rhetorical advantage.
Paine had to address the sensibility that Britain was the rightful "parent" country of the nascent United States. He does it by making a mockery of the term, "parent," when used to describe Britain's behavior.
"Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families," he writes. "The phrase 'parent' or 'mother country' has been jesuitically adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds."
What's especially effective here is Paine's ad hominem attack on anyone who'd believe Britain deserved the benefit of the doubt based on its status as the "mother country." He essentially says: Go ahead and believe it; it just means that you're gullible, that there's a "credulous weakness" in your thinking.
Further, Paine attacks the accuracy of the "mother country," concept. He points out: "Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This New World had been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe." Those italics are his.
What's more, Paine uses statistics to make his argument. "Not one-third of the inhabitants, even of this province, are of English descent," he writes. "Wherefore, I reprobate the phrase of 'parent' or 'mother country' applied to England only as being false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous."
4. Make the practical case.
All of Paine's high-flown rhetoric would've amounted to little had he not also cited a list of tangible reasons why it was in America's best interest to break free from Britain. Here are just a few of the points he makes:
- "Whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign powers, the trade of America goes to ruin because of her connection with Britain." (Italics are Paine's.)
- Any reconciliation with Britain would be improbable and impractical, given the blood already shed on both sides and the lack of trust on both sides. Here he quotes Milton: "Never can true reconcilement grow, where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep."
- Britain's interests in America begin and end with Britain's needs, not America's. "America is only a secondary object in the system of British politics," he writes. "England consults the good of this country no further than it answers her own purpose."
5. Invoke a higher calling.
Paine generally does this by invoking God. "Even the distance at which the Almighty has placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other was never the design of Heaven," he writes. "The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America: as if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety."
Note here how even Paine's appeals to a higher cause are tied to his ever-present logic. He's invoking God, but he's essentially making the same points he did before: How does it make sense for a small, unfriendly island to rule a large, welcoming continent across the ocean from it? "A government of our own," he adds, "is our natural right."
Those are words to remember, as July 4th weekend approaches.