Who was Robert Bell?

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Arguably, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was a catalyst to the American Revolution. His words laid out formidable reasons to assert the colonies’ independence from King George. Lost in the power of such a document is Robert Bell, the Philadelphia printer who first published Paine’s work. The first issue of the book had no reference to its author. Paine believed his arguments should stand without any distraction of who authored it.

First Edition of Thomas Paine's Common Sense

First Edition of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

Bell and Paine agreed to share the profits of Common Sense, but after the first 1000 sold out, Bell claimed no profits existed and set about advertising and publishing a second edition adding “written by an Englishman.”

Second edition of Common Sense

Second edition of Common Sense

As was perhaps the custom of the day, Paine took his distaste for Bell to the public, printing a series of complaints in the Pennsylvania Evening Post. Paine then contracted with Thomas and William Bradford selling Common Sense for half the price of Bell’s! Bell was undeterred and published a third edition, pulling from the Bradford edition.

Any profit’s Paine made went to the Continental Army. It would be difficult not to feel some animosity toward Bell’s business practices, but it is important to at least take into account that he was the printer Benjamin Rush suggested Paine originally contract based on Bell’s likelihood to publish such a treasonous work. How treasonous?

Below are some excerpts from Common Sense.

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer…”

“But there is another and greater distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into kings and subjects. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad, the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.”


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