Lesson Plan: Book That Shaped America - "Common Sense"

Early American Colonies in 1776

University of Maryland History Professor Richard Bell talked about what was going on in the American colonies in 1776.


In 1774, Englishman Thomas Paine arrived in America as the conflict between the colonies and Great Britain was reaching its peak. Up to that point, the colonies were said to have been considering negotiation rather than a separation from Britain. Moved in part by the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, Paine, a journalist, wrote a 47-page pamphlet, titled "Common Sense," in which he made a passionate argument against the British monarchy and for full American independence. "Common Sense" was published in early 1776, sold several hundred thousand copies, and highly influenced the colonies in their decision to declare independence from Britain on July 4, 1776. In this lesson, students begin by responding to a reflective question that asks them to share their knowledge of the American Revolution and early colonies. From there, they will review what was occurring in the colonies in 1776, and learn about the drafting, contents, and publication of the pamphlet. Next, students will hear about the legacy of Thomas Paine and why he should be studied today. Finally, students will respond to a prompt that asks them to explain their position on if "Common Sense" shaped America.


  • SET UP

    This lesson offers several options for you to use with your students whether you are teaching in class, using a hybrid model, or engaging through distance learning. It can be completed in steps as a class or students can move at their own pace and complete the activities independently.

    You can post links to the videos in the lesson along with the related handout and slides and engage in discussion to share responses on a discussion board or learning management system.

    You can also save and share the following Google resources for students to use with this lesson.

    Vocabulary Chart: "Common Sense" (Google Doc)

    Graphic Organizer: "Common Sense" (Google Doc)

    Choice Board: "Common Sense" (Google Slides)

    In Google, choose "File" then "Make a Copy" to get your own copy. You can make any needed adjustments in the instructions such as which activities students need to complete, when it is due, etc. and then make it available to them via Google.


    Pose the following brainstorming question to your students, directing them to record their responses on the Google Doc, share with a partner, and then with the class if they choose.

    • What do you know about the American Revolution and the early colonies?

    Direct students to view the following two video clips of University of Maryland History Professor Richard Bell talking about what was going on in the American colonies in 1776.

    Video Clip 1: Early American Colonies in 1776 (3:28)

    Video Clip 2: America in 1776 (2:03)

    Next, engage in a class discussion using the following guiding points:

    • The Boston Tea Party in December 1773, how the British King of Parliament responded and how colonists reacted in 1774.

    • Armed hostilities at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the formation of the Continental Army.

    • The appointment of VA. Gov. Lord Dunmore.

    • How strong were the Loyalist and Patriot sentiments?

    • Facts about America in 1776 are highlighted.

    • Why did Britain impose taxes on the colonists?

    Have students view the following three videos clips to learn about the publication of "Common Sense" and the collaborative efforts between Dr. Benjamin Rush and Thomas Paine in drafting the pamphlet. Students can respond to the related questions on the handout and prepare to share during a discussion.

    Video Clip 3: Content, Structure, and Production of "Common Sense" (7:32)

    Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Curator Mark Manivong presents a first edition of Thomas Paine's ""Common Sense." The content, structure, and production of the pamphlet are discussed by Mark Manivong and University of Maryland History Professor Richard Bell.

    • What did Paine argue in his pamphlet?

    • According to Mark Manivong, how did most Americans feel about their relationship with Great Britain prior to the publication of "Common Sense?" How did it change after it was published?

    • Describe the four parts of the pamphlet as Mark Manivong explained.

    • How many copies of "Common Sense" were printed?

    • Explain the contents found in each of the four sections of the pamphlet as Richard Bell discussed.
  • Video Clip 4: Publishing "Common Sense" (4:40)

    University of Maryland History Professor Richard Bell explained how Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" was published and what it contained.

    • How was "Common Sense" published?

    • How subversive was the language in this pamphlet?

    • How does Richard Bell describe Paine's writing regarding political philosophy?

    • What did Bell learn about Paine's use of a pseudonym?
  • Video Clip 5: Dr. Benjamin Rush and Thomas Paine (5:01)

    Author Stephen Fried and University of Maryland History Professor Richard Bell talked about the relationship between Dr. Benjamin Rush and Thomas Paine and their collaboration in writing and publishing "Common Sense."

    • Explain Dr. Benjamin Rush's views on independence and his collaboration with Thomas Paine to publish the pamphlet as Stephen Fried and Richard Bell discussed.

    Using the accompanying choice board slides or graphic organizer, have students view videos from the following collection that highlight topics related to Thomas Paine and the pamphlet "Common Sense." Students can choose to view one or more of the videos and respond to the related questions. You can also jigsaw this portion of the lesson among students.

    Video Clip 6: Immediate Reaction to Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" (1:27)

    Video Clip 7: Relevance of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" (1:52)

    Video Clip 8: Thomas Paine's Writing Style (1:58)

    Video Clip 9: Nationhood Following Independence (1:39)

    Video Clip 10: Who Influenced Thomas Paine? (1:04)

    Video Clip 11: Britain's View of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" (1:41)

    Video Clip 12: Thomas Paine and the "Declaration of Independence" (1:57)


    As a class, view the following two video clips to learn about how Thomas Paine was perceived among the public as well as his legacy. Use the accompanying questions to guide class discussion.

    Video Clip 13: How Was Thomas Paine Perceived? (2:43)

    University of Maryland History Professor Richard Bell explained how Thomas Paine was perceived among working people and in political circles.

    Video Clip 14: Legacy of Thomas Paine (1:09)

    Iona University History Professor Nora Slonimsky talked about the legacy of Thomas Paine and why we should study him today.

    • How was Thomas Paine perceived among working people and in political circles as Richard Bell described?

    • According to Professor Nora Slonimsky, what is the legacy of Thomas Paine, and why should he be studied today?

    Ask students to consider the information they learned from viewing the videos as well as class discussion and write a response to the following prompt:

    Do you think Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" pamphlet shaped America? Explain your position citing evidence from the videos and class discussion.


    Troy High School (MI) AP U.S. Government & Politics teacher Ryan Werenka talked about teaching Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" to students.

    Video Clip 15: Teaching "Common Sense" (3:27)

Additional Resources


  • Agitator
  • Anonymous
  • Benjamin Rush
  • Bootleg
  • Boston Tea Party
  • Bunker Hill
  • Coercive Acts
  • Common Good
  • Continental Army
  • Continental Congress
  • Convert
  • David Hume
  • Declaration Of Independence
  • Democracy
  • Diatribe
  • Egalitarian
  • Enfranchise
  • Enlighten
  • Federalist
  • Grievance
  • Intolerable Acts
  • Legitimate
  • Lexington And Concord
  • Loyalist
  • Monarchy
  • Nationalism
  • Nationhood
  • Parliament
  • Partisanship
  • Patriot
  • Polarization
  • Principle
  • Proclamation
  • Protest
  • Pseudonym
  • Reconcile
  • Redress
  • Republic
  • Restrain
  • Rhetoric
  • Seven Years War
  • Stamp Act Of 1765
  • Static
  • Subversive
  • Treaty Of Paris
  • Tyrannical
  • Tyrant
  • Vice
  • Wisdom


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