Today, we celebrate the anniversary of one of the most important pieces of writing in American history – Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Originally published 238 years ago on January 10, 1776, the pamphlet is famous as one of the most influential essays in history, credited with convincing large portions of the American colonies that independence from Great Britain was necessary. Without Paine’s work, the American Revolution as we know it may not have happened.
Common Sense is a favorite here at CCP. We’ve been known to give away copies of it at conferences we attend and talk it up as an example of how important free speech is and how ridiculous modern rhetoric surrounding so-called “dark money” has become.
When it was first published in 1776, Common Sense did not credit its author. Its publisher, the wealthy Benjamin Rush, was also anonymous. For many months, while the pamphlet was the talk of the colonies, the public didn’t know who wrote or published it. Paine wanted it that way, both because his arguments against British rule would bring government retaliation, and because he shared the Enlightenment belief that ideas were more important than the identity of the speaker expressing them.
Today’s political climate is not friendly to the anonymity that protected Paine and Rush. Few take seriously the threats that are faced by those who criticize the government, despite the evidence that such threats are still quite real. Perhaps more significantly, the idea that speech should be judged apart from its speaker has eroded. Modern political rhetoric romanticizes ‘sunlight,’ ‘transparency,’ ‘disclosure,’ and calls to ‘follow the money.’ The notion that we should focus on concepts rather than contributors seems sadly archaic. If Common Sense was published today, it would likely be demonized as the work of “dark money operatives” seeking to secretly manipulate public opinion. The substance of Paine’s argument would be pushed aside in favor of a debate over the personal virtues and vices of Paine and Rush.
This is a sad sign for free speech and democracy. If an idea is persuasive, it shouldn’t be seen as manipulation. That’s just free speech and the marketplace of ideas at work. The public once understood this, and anonymous publishing was commonplace as a result. The incredibly influential Federalist Papers, which helped win ratification of the Constitution as well as explain its meaning, were also published anonymously (for those playing historical trivia, the authors were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay).
It is nothing short of incredible that advocates of greater disclosure can deny that people should be able to remain anonymous when speaking out, when the founders themselves did exactly that. Indeed, from the most influential pamphlet urging the American Revolution to the most important text for understanding the Constitution, anonymous speech has long been a major force for good in American society.
The idea that speech matters more than its speaker isn’t particularly popular in today’s disclosure-crazy politics, but it’s worth reclaiming. Celebrating important examples of anonymous speech like Common Sense is a good first step to showing people that total disclosure, even if it were possible, is not desirable, and that there is a legitimate role for anonymous political speech to influence public opinion.