The tensions between Great Britain and America continued to build and numerous skirmishes, some of which are well documented by historians, broke out. One of the most famous fights took place on June 17, 1775, at Breed's Hill,1 where approximately 2,500 British troops attacked an American installation defended by only about 1,400 troops. It was an intense battle and the British lost approximately 40 percent of their troops, while the Americans lost less than a third of theirs. Even though the British eventually won that battle, it was a Pyrrhic victory, with the devastating psychological impact of their heavy casualties impacting the rest of the war.
The combination of heavy taxation, excessive regulations, and lack of representation in their governing structures irritated the colonists to the point that many of them began talking not only about ways to protest, but also about the desire to declare independence once and for all from the British Crown. With all of their backbreaking hard work, they felt it unfair to have such a significant portion of the fruits of their labors confiscated by a government that neither represented their interests nor respected their freedom. Nevertheless, many colonists (known as Tories or Loyalists) remained loyal to the British Crown and felt that the benefits of British citizenship—or at least of being a British colony—were too great to sacrifice for an uncertain future of independence.
Waking Up to Some "Common Sense"
In 1776, as Washington's ragtag army kept British forces engaged, public sentiment was growing in favor of independence. All the colonists needed was a spokesman to galvanize public opinion toward resistance from Great Britain—and an unlikely figure emerged in the form of Thomas Paine. He had only been in the country for a little over a year, "arriving as a failure in almost everything he attempted in life. He wrecked his first marriage, and his second wife paid him to leave. He destroyed two businesses and flopped as a tax collector. But Paine had fire in his blood and defiance in his pen,"2 and America was and still is a country of fresh starts.
An editor of a Philadelphia magazine, Paine published a fifty-page political pamphlet, Common Sense, in January of 1776, which began with one of the most memorable lines in American history: "These are the times that try men's souls." The pamphlet resonated so well with the colonists' feelings about independence that over 120,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold within the first three months, and half a million copies were sold in the first year. To put the impact of Paine's pamphlet Common Sense into perspective, in the United States today you would have to sell about 65 to 70 million copies of a publication—or about one copy per four to five people—to equal the proportionate distribution.
Spurred on by the message of Common Sense, enthusiasm for independence grew dramatically, even among former Loyalists. Paine donated the profits from the sale of Common Sense to George Washington's army, saying, "As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author."3 Thomas Jefferson even included a portion of Common Sense as the prelude to the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by Congress in July of that year. The publication clearly resonated deeply with the American colonists' desire for independence.