Thursday, June 6, 2013

Common Sense Costs $545,000 In 21st C. America

by Stephen J. Gertz

An extraordinary association copy of the scarce first edition, first issue, of Thomas Paine's iconic anti-monarchical pamphlet, Common Sense (Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1776), sold at Sotheby's - New York on Tuesday June 4, 2013 during its Library of a Distinguished American Collector sale. Estimated to sell for $400,000 - $600,000, the hammer fell at $545,000, including buyer's premium.

The first page of the text bears a hastily written note by founding patriot Henry Wisner (1720-1790), a representative from Goshen, New York to the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1777.  He fully supported the Declaration of Independence although he was not present to vote on or sign the document. He served in various military and political capacities during the Revolution, supplied the Continental Army with gunpowder and weapons, and was instrumental in the laying of the two Great Chains across the Hudson River in 1776.

Addressed to John Mckesson, another founding patriot, a prominent figure in New York politics, and Secretary of the Committee of Safety for New York, Wisner's inscription reads: "Sir I have only to ask the favour of you to Read this pamphlet, consult Mr. Scott and such of the Committee of Safety as you think proper particularly Orange and Ulster [Wisner owned four powder mills in these New York counties] and let me know their and your opinion of the general spirit of it. I would have wrote a letter on the subject but the bearer is waiting. Henry Wisner at Philadelphia to John McKesson at New York."

Though undated, it is clear from the content of Wisner's note that this copy of pamphlet was sent to  McKesson months before the vote on the Declaration of Independence, perhaps even shortly after its publication.  McKesson duly received the pamphlet and signed his name on the title-page.

This is a famous copy, noted in Moncure Daniel Conway's chapter on Common Sense in his The Life of Thomas Paine: With a History of His Literary, Political, and Religious Career in America, France, and England (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons/The Knickerbocker Press, 1892). After citing Wisner's inscription Conway continues:

"In pursuance of this General Scott suggested a private meeting, and McKesson read the pamphlet aloud. New York, the last State to agree to separation, was alarmed by the pamphlet, and these leaders at first thought of answering it, but found themselves without the necessary arguments. Henry Wisner, however, required arguments rather than orders, and despite the instructions of his State gave New York the honor of having one name among those who, on July 4th, voted for independence" (p. 62).
"Of the paramount influence of Paine's Common Sense there can indeed be no question.  It reached Washington soon after tidings that Norfolk, Virginia, had been burned (Jan. 1st) by Lord Dunmore, as Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, had been, Oct. 17, 1775, by ships under Admiral Graves. The General wrote to Joseph Reed, from Cambridge, Jan. 31st: 'A few more of such flaming arguments as were exhibited at Falmouth and Norfolk, added to the sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning contained in the pamphlet Common Sense, will not leave numbers at a loss to decide upon the propriety of separation" (ibid pp. 61-62). 

Common Sense is of the utmost rarity with only three other complete copies (with all prelim and end leaves, and no facsimiles) of the first edition, first issue, in decent condition selling at auction since 1945: one in 1967, another in 1975 with a defective title-page, and the Engelhard copy, which sold for $110,00 in 1996.

[PAINE, Thomas]. Common Sense; addressed to the inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects. I. Of the origin and design of government in general, with concise remarks on the English Constitution. II. Of monarchy and hereditary succession. III. Thoughts on the present state of American affairs. IV. Of the present ability of America, with some miscellaneous reflections. Philadelphia: Printed, and sold by R. Bell in Third Street, 1776. Twelvemo. [4], 77, [1] pp.

Bristol  B4309. Gimbel CS-1. Church 1135. Shipton & Mooney 43120. Adams, T.R. American Pamphlets 222d. English Short Title Catalog,; W32284.

1 comment:

  1. Henry Wisner was in fact present for the vote regarding the Declaration of Independence and is the only delegate from New York to do so (they were not yet authorized to vote, but Henry Wisner is recorded by Thomas McKane as having done so in one of his letters). He left Congress before the engrossed copy was presented for signing and never physically returned before NY elected new delegates.


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