Alexander Purdie's 2 February 1776 edition of the Virginia Gazette.
Alexander Purdie’s 2 February 1776 edition of the Virginia Gazette.

There can be no doubt about the impact of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense on the character of the American Revolution.  Charles Lee wrote to George Washington in January 1776 that “I never saw such a masterly irresistible performance.”  Although others found in it some serious weaknesses–Landon Carter, in a dispute with Richard Henry Lee, noted in his diary that “I gave my opinion freely as to the nonsense instead of Common Sense advanced”–sufficient evidence exists for historians to conclude that Paine’s pamphlet paved the way for people below the level of the elite, ruffled-shirt types to embrace independence from Great Britain. But how did those people read it, especially in Virginia, where the patriot movement had not yet caught sufficient fire amongst the sorts not named Henry, Jefferson, or Madison?  They certainly didn’t read it as most people today do, as a complete work, purchased in a single volume from his or her local bookseller.  Most people read it in drips and drabs of excerpts printed in their local newspapers.  But how many of Paine’s words were included, the ways in which they were arranged, and whether they were printed at all, were editorial matters entirely in the hands of colonial printers–or at least almost entirely. In early 1776, there were three newspapers in Williamsburg, Virginia, published by Alexander Purdie, John Pinkney (for the benefit of the children of the recently deceased Clementina Rind), and William Hunter, all called the Virginia Gazette (much to the confusion of generations of historians).  Purdie’s press was located where the Tarpley, Thompson & Company store is today, Pinkney printed his paper on the first floor of the Ludwell-Paradise House, and Hunter–whom had learned his trade from none other than Benjamin Franklin–pushed out his paper at the site of the current reconstructed print shop. It was Alexander Purdie who first got his hands on a copy of Common Sense, and in no way was that by chance.  It appears, from an unpublished letter rediscovered only in 2013, that John Page, then head of the Virginia Committee of Safety, received a copy of it from Richard Henry Lee almost immediately after Paine’s work was first printed in Philadelphia in January 1776.  Within weeks it was mysteriously dropped off with a letter to Page by “an invisible hand” who then “disappeared.”  Page was instructed to make sure it was published as soon as possible.  But by whom?  Page’s first, and perhaps only, choice, for a variety of reasons, was the stalwart patriot Purdie, although even he needed some convincing, as it took Page two attempts to secure Purdie’s assistance. This was high political communication, however, in the dangerous days of the early independence movement, so Page took no chances as to what would appear in the paper, not even with Purdie.  According to Page, he took an evening, sitting in a Williamsburg tavern, and went through Paine’s work, judiciously selecting the paragraphs to be printed and–almost as crucially–the order in which Purdie and his assistants would print them.  What resulted was Page’s version of Common Sense, one quite unlike that read today.  Page selected 14 paragraphs–mostly those that addressed the rational, political issues–and rearranged them to appear in a more more logical order, even shifting individual sentences from one place to another, so that the constitutional argument for independence would appear clearest to those whom most needed to hear the message and stand the greatest chance of being rightly, in Page’s opinion, persuaded by it. And so, on this date — 2 February — in 1776, there appeared on the first page of Purdie’s newspaperExtracts from a pamphlet just published in Philadelphia, entitled COMMON SENSE, addressed to the inhabitants of America.”  Pinkney soon followed suit, but with different, less carefully selected and arranged, excerpts, perhaps to gain some ground on his competitor just down Duke of Gloucester Street.  Hunter, already showing signs of his committed loyalism, refused to print it at all.  In fact, his press printed a lengthy rebuttal to it in his paper, hoping to stem the tide of the movement towards independence. So thanks to Richard Henry Lee in Philadelphia, John Page in Williamsburg, the trusty Alexander Purdie, and that “invisible hand,” Paine’s words could reach and penetrate the minds, and not just the hearts, of Virginians.  And it worked.  Just over a month later, Fielding Lewis could report to Washington that “The opinion for independentcy seems to be gaining ground. Indeed most of those who have read the Pamphlet Common Sence say it’s unanswerable.”  Washington himself credited Paine’s arguments with converting the hearts and minds of Virginians to the patriot cause: “I find common sense is working a powerful change there in the Minds of many Men.”  How much of that powerful change was directly worked by Page’s pen and Purdie’s press is arguable, but it is likely that, without them, Virginia’s road to independence would have taken a rather different path.

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