“Common Sense” is a pamphlet on the topic of American independence, originally written by Thomas Paine in 1775. The pamphlet covers the topics of the illogical and sinful nature of allowing a monarchy to rule, the necessary nature of government, the need for America to rebel against the chains of British tyranny and the need for religion and politics to stay separate from each other.
Paine makes an impassioned and well thought out argument for American independence that had never been given this level of consideration in a text. Paine wrote the pamphlet in five sections, including an appendix that was added a year after it’s original publishing.
The pamphlet was a huge success in the budding American colonies. It was sold and distributed widely all over the 13 colonies, selling over 2.5 million copies which were staggering in proportion to the population of America at the time. Because of this, it is still considered as the widest-selling and widest-circulating book off all time. It is still in print to this day. It was considered the most popular pamphlet of the Revolutionary era in America and one of the driving forces behind the American Revolution.
Of the Origin and Design of Government in General
Paine opens the pamphlet with some general comments about the government. He writes that people have a habit of confusing government with society. He says that society and government are different and that society is a good thing while the government is “a necessary evil”. If everyone acted morally, the government would not be necessary but since people are only human, it is necessary to protect property and life. The government is there only to keep people from indulging their vices.
A government that oppresses its people is far worse than people that do this to themselves because the people support the government and pay for it. Therefore, they are paying for their oppression. Government’s true purpose is to provide security, and the success of the government should be judged it this alone. To illustrate this purpose, Paine uses an example of people trapped on a deserted island, cut off from the rest of humanity. These people would soon develop their own sort of government to avoid solitude and effectively shelter and feed themselves.
If the people all treated each other honorably, then they would not need a law. But inevitably, they would not and a government would form. This may start out by picking an agreed upon meeting place to pass rules but eventually, it would morph into a need for representatives and elections. This example, Paine concludes, shows that representation and not monarchy are necessary to “the strength of government and the happiness of the governed”. Paine’s idea is based on the fact that the more simple something is, the less likely it is to be misconstrued. He then brings up the topic of the British constitution and attacks it for being too complex and filled with rules from the monarchy. He does not believe that the branches of government truly check each other and thinks that it is absurd that anyone does.
Of Monarchy and the Hereditary Succession
Paine believes that man originally started out in a state of perfect equality and that the inequality that we currently possess must have been caused by something. He feels that the division between the monarchy and their subjects is not one that has any type of religious or scientific basis. Unlike the division between men and women or good and evil, this is not something that is talked about in the bible. Paine wishes to investigate the division and its origin. Before biblical times, Paine says that man had no kings or monarchy.
The ancient Jews copied the idea of appointing a king from the “heathens” around them. Paine says that this was a sin and that man is not supposed to recognize any king besides God himself. The ancient Jews asked the Prophet Samuel to name a king. Samuel tried to talk them out of this, but they insisted. God agreed to this although he thought it was a sin. This, Paine says, is clear evidence that God does not agree with having earthly kings and that the practice is sinful. He cites direct scripture in this section. Moving on, Paine also dislikes the idea of the hereditary nature of the monarchy.
Since all men are born equal, Paine argues that no man should ever have the right to crown his family over others for generations to come. If a single man deserves to rule, his children may not and that person should not have the right to pass his crown on. Personally, Paine feels that the recent English kings have all been bad at their jobs. If nothing else, this alone should demonstrate that the present hereditary line is not worthy even to those who think that it is. Paine questions where the power of these current Kings has really descended from. He believes that kingly power is always derived from one of three things: election, random selection or usurpation.
Usurpation, Paine writes, is an illegitimate form of finding a king and makes the Kings line automatically unauthorized.If a king is elected, all further kings should be elected as well. Paine ends this section by restating his belief that hereditary succession is invalid. He points out that people who see themselves as being born into this type of position are often “ignorant and unfit”. And to the idea that hereditary succession reduces civil wars because of family ties, Paine refutes this. He points out that there have been at least eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions in British history. He says that monarchy and hereditary succession have created nothing but bloodshed and bad government.
Thoughts on the Present State of Affairs in America
At the beginning of this section, Paine requests that the reader set aside any prejudices they may have and view the comments that he is going to make with an open mind. He then notes that some people have urged that because America has blossomed so much under British rule, it should remain tethered to Britain.
Paine compares this argument to state that because a baby has done well on milk, it should never eat meat. He also states that the revolution in America would have gone more smoothly if European countries had not tried to exert their power over America. Some argue that Britain protected America. But Paine says that Britain protected America only for its own financial gain and not for the sake of kindness. Also, American splitting with Britain means that it will not longer have to be enemies with Britain’s enemies. This illustrates that the relationship with Britain was what made America need protection in the first place.
Paine contests that Americans being of British descent is irrelevant as Britain no longer has a legitimate claim to any allegiance from the country. Coming to an accord is not the job of America. Paine argues that if this were true since half of the people in Britain are of French descent, Britain would have to submit itself to the French. Paine also says that the taxes and threats that Britain imposes on American citizens are ridiculously high and that America will gain nothing from staying tethered to Britain.
Reconciling with the British will only cause this entire situation to repeat itself in the future. It would be impossible to go back to peace and normalcy under British rule and that the king would not eventually impose oppressive taxes once again. Paine says that America is too huge and complicated to be governed by a smaller nation and that the commerce cannot be managed from so far away. If the current American doesn’t seek full independence from Britain, eventually their children will have to take up arms in another war against the country.
Paine admits that the thought it was possible to reconcile the two countries for a while but after the battles of Lexington and Concord it became obvious that the situation was too far gone for any type of compromise.At this point, Paine outlines what he thinks would be a proper form of government for America. He recommends creating a “Continental Conference” to create a “Continental Charter” that will work like a Constitution, providing certain rights and ensuring the protection of them. He ends this section with a plea to the American people to break free from British tyranny.
On the Present Ability of America, with some Miscellaneous Reflections
Paine begins the closing section of the book by stating that it is a known fact that America will eventually separate from Britain and the only question is when it will happen. Paine argues that the time should be now since America has many young, able-bodied men to fight in a war. He says that the cost of the war can only be justified if the result is to completely break free from Britain. Repealing some of the monumental taxes is not worth going to war over.
Paine outlines the cost of raising a Navy that can rival the British Navy in America. He estimates that the cost would be around 3.5 million pounds sterling and since America currently does not have a national debt, this would be easily affordable. In addition to this, America already produces most of the natural resources they would need to construct this type of Navy. America’s coasts are also worryingly unprotected.
The American Navy would only have to concern itself with protecting the American coast and not tending to matters in other countries the way the British Navy does. Independence immediately is necessary as so little of the country is inhabited and the king will only start giving out land to his subjects. This land would be better used by America themselves, to exercise control over their own government. Also, Paine argues that if America waits much longer, more people will settle on the land and it will be harder to untie everyone under one government.
Paine ends this section with the four main reasons that he thinks America should pursue complete independence. Firstly, No other countries will be able to mediate between the countries as long as America is seen as beings still part of Britain. Secondly, Neither France nor Spain will assist America if they think that it is still in league with Britain. Thirdly, Other countries will see Americans as rebels against Britain if they still claim to be part of it. And Fourth, by declaring their independence, America can be trading with other countries on their own and reaping the benefits of international alliances.
In closing, Paine says that until America declares it’s independence, “the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done.”
After the second edition of ‘Common Sense’ was published, an appendix, divided into two parts, was added to deal with some of the points that people had made against the work. Paine restates his thesis about American independence in the first part of the appendix. Paine says that America should declare independence immediately and that it is the only thing that can keep the budding country together. In the second part of the appendix, “To the Representatives of the Quakers”, Paine replies to points raised by Quaker leaders about the revolution. Opening this, Paine declares that he is a believer in God and a religious man. He scolds the Quaker leaders for dabbling in politics and for presenting themselves as representatives of the entire religion.
Paine agrees with the Quaker ideals of love and peace and wishes to establish this type of everlasting peace in America. He adds that the revolution is a defense against the British attacking the Americans on their own ground. Paine argues that the Quakers should be disapproving of the British for causing the war and not the Americans for defending themselves. He says that the Quakers should be calling on the king to repent for his sins.
Paine cites the biblical passage: “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” He says that this passage proves that the King must not please the Lord, for the Americans are against him. The Quakers held the belief that the government was the work of God and they only aimed to be peaceful under whatever government God chose to give them.
Paine argues that this means that they shouldn’t be getting involved in any political question at all and merely be content to follow whichever side wins the war. He also points out that if this edict is true if governments are truly God’s business alone then no man could ever be held responsible for overthrowing a king. In the end of the appendix, Paine closes it out by condemning the mingling of religion and politics and hopes that everyone inhabitant of America condemns it as well.
Thomas Paine Biography
Thomas Paine was born January 29th, 1736 in Thetford, Norfolk, England. The son of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother, Paine attended Thetford Grammar School from the age of nine years old until he was 13 when he left to become an apprentice to his father who was a stay-maker, or a maker of the rope stays used for sailing. After briefly enlisting as a privateer, in 1759 at the age of 23, Paine became a stay-maker himself, opening a shop in Sandwich, Kent.
On September 27th of that year, he married Mary Lambert who soon died in childbirth. Paine’s business also collapsed around this same time. For much of the 1760’s he worked as an Excise officer before becoming a schoolteacher in London and later, Sussex. It was during his time in the pro-revolutionary town of Sussex that Paine began to become more civic minded. He began involving himself in government organizations like the Court Leet, the governing body of the town.
In March of 1771, he remarried to a woman named Elizabeth Olive. Working as an Excise officer again, Paine became involved in a group petitioning Parliament for better wages and better working conditions. At this time he wrote ‘The Case of the Officers of Excise’ an article outlining the situation and his involvement. It was his first published work. He distributed most of the copies himself.
However, in 1774, he was fired from his position for neglect of his job and was forced to sell his house to pay his debts. At this time, he also separated from his wife, Elizabeth and moved to London. In London, he was introduced to American revolutionary, Benjamin Franklin, who suggested that he move to America. That October, Paine emigrated to America, nearly dying in the ship voyage when an outbreak of typhoid fever hit the passengers.
Arriving on November 30th, 1774, Paine first had to recover from typhoid fever before becoming a citizen of Pennsylvania and becoming editor of Pennsylvania Magazine. Before long, Paine wrote and distributed his most famous work, the pamphlet known as “Common Sense” which touts the intelligence of America formally separating from Britain. The pamphlet was a massive success, selling over 2.5 million copies. It is still considered the widest-selling book in American history. The pamphlet energized and crystallized the pro-Revolution sentiment stirring in the American colonies.
In 1776, Paine also published a pamphlet series called ‘The American Crisis’ which was read aloud to soldiers under then General George Washington.
In 1777, Paine was appointed the secretary of the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs but was fired from the committee two years later after alluding to a secret negotiation with France in one of his pamphlets. Paine requested that his contribution to the revolution be rewarded and New York State eventually presented him with an estate in New Rochelle, New York.
Paine served as an aide to the general Nathanael Greene during the war.
In the late 1770’s, Paine traveled to France several times to obtain more money for the revolution and was involved in the French Revolution.
During the 1780’s and 90’s, he released several more pamphlets, including “Rights of Man” in 1791 the result of which was that he was tried and convicted in absentia in Great Britain. For supporting the French Revolution, Paine was granted honorary French citizenship and was asked to be one of nine deputies to help draft a French constitution. He advocated against the execution of Louis XVI, because of the king’s help in the American Revolution and suggested that he be instead exiled to America, but he was overruled.
Unfortunately, as an ally of the Girondins, a French political faction that quickly lost power, he was soon arrested and imprisoned. Paine narrowing survived being executed and lived to be released from prison 7 months later, largely because of the help of then American Minister to France, James Monroe. Paine remained in France until 1802 at the invitation of President Jefferson.
At the age of 72 on June 8th, 1809, Paine died. He was buried under a walnut tree on his farm in New Rochelle and left the bulk of his estate to friends.