The Declaration of Independence might not have happened without a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine, which went viral and gave colonists a new identity
The Fourth of July marks the day the United States declared independence from the British Monarchy in 1776. Fifty-six representatives from 13 former colonies signed their names to the document.
What should interest anyone that studies persuasion – PR and marketing – is that the Declaration of Independence may not have happened without an influential pamphlet, called “Common Sense.” It was written by Thomas Paine and published about six months prior.
The History Channel says the pamphlet sold 500,000 copies. Given the U.S. population was estimated to be just 2.5 million at the time, that means one in five colonists purchased a copy. For those unable to purchase a copy, it was often read aloud in taverns and gathering places.
That pamphlet went viral.
There is some dispute as to the actual numbers – I’ll leave that to the historians to argue – but the fact it was arguably the single most influential communication in U.S. History.
Despite their many grievances over the better part of a decade, many colonists considered themselves subjects of the crown. This was their identity, and we know from modern behavioral science, it’s incredibly hard to get someone to change their viewpoint (i.e. religion, politics, remote work) once it’s part of their identity.
Paine’s pamphlet changed this perspective. He noted the first colonists essentially fled Britain to the Americas because they were being persecuted over their pursuit of civil and religious freedoms:
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither they have fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.”
With those words, Paine essentially gave colonists a new identity about which they were willing to risk their lives over: Americans.
Wishing you a safe and enjoyable Fourth of July!
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