Latin was taught at Thomas Paine’s school, but his father wouldn’t let him study it.
He thought Latin was a language for the learned and the ruling classes.
Because ordinary people couldn’t read Latin.
Therefore the only purpose of such a language must be to keep certain thoughts secret, and certain writings away from ordinary people.
Thomas Paine’s father thought that was wrong.
All thoughts and all discussions should be available to everyone.
Because all men were created equal.
This was pretty radical thinking in the 18th century.
But it formed the basis of Thomas Paine’s work.
Throughout his life, all his writings were in plain English.
Simple, clear, intelligible – not the formal, learned style of the period.
Paine’s style was seen as crude and vulgar by his contemporaries.
But he wrote in this way because of the need to reach everyone “even those who can barely read”.
This was writing for action.
Not just writing to impress other learned people.
In 1776 Paine wrote a pamphlet called “Common Sense”.
It was so influential it became the driving force behind the American colonies’ declaration of independence.
Hundreds of thousands of copies circulated amongst just two million inhabitants.
It spurred the entire country into revolution.
John Hancock, one of the leaders, said “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain”.
The turning point of that war happened when Washington had to cross the freezing Delaware River.
His troops were about to fight the battle that would decide the war.
Before they attacked, Washington had a section from another Thomas Paine pamphlet called ‘The American Crisis’ read out to them:
“These are the times that try men’s souls.
The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in times of crisis, shrink from the service of their country.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.
Yet we have this consolation, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph.
And it would be strange indeed if such a thing as freedom should not be so highly rated”.
Washington’s troops won the battle that turned the tide of the war.
200 years later, Barack Obama quoted that Thomas Paine pamphlet when he became President of America:
Thomas Edison was one of the greatest inventors who ever lived.
He spoke of his debt to Paine’s plain language:
“Thomas Paine educated me about many matters of which I had never before thought.
I remember vividly, the flash of enlightenment that shone from his writings, and I recall thinking “What a pity these works are not the schoolbooks of all children”.
But writing so that ordinary people can understand it is not popular with people in power.
People who want to maintain the status quo.
Thomas Paine was convicted of seditious writing in England.
He fled to France where he was sentenced to death for his writing.
Writing for ordinary people is not comfortable.
But then things that change the status quo are never comfortable.
It’s worthwhile for us to remember that.