Why did Thomas Paine write the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense? What were its purpose and historical significance?
Common Sense was written by English-borne philosopher Thomas Paine to provide intellectual backing for American independence from England. While Paine’s ultimate goal certainly included convincing Americans of the righteousness of separation from England, the pamphlet itself is actually more directly concerned with larger questions of political philosophy.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the main principles of Paine’s Common Sense argument.
Common Sense by Thomas Paine
The Common Sense pamphlet, written by Thomas Paine and published anonymously, provides both an intellectual backing and a roadmap for full American independence from England. Importantly, while it is often read and taught as a book that is only concerned with questions related to America and England, Paine also lays out a comprehensive political philosophy that is anti-monarchy and based on his understanding of the virtue of republican democracy. It was his hope that America could serve as a model democracy that could eventually be exported around the world.
There are four main principles that make up Paine’s argument:
1. Government’s only purpose is to provide its citizens with security from the vices that are inherent in all humans.
Consider humans in a total state of nature. They realize soon that they need to band together and form a society to survive and thrive. However, a society without regulations will quickly crumble, because some evil men will see an opportunity to take advantage of others. Government thus originates because humans agree to give up some of their freedoms, including privacy or freedom from conscription into an army, in order to exist in a collective that will protect them from the evil of others.
The success and happiness of any colony or nation rests on a citizenry that feels its government is an effective protector and does not overreach. A successful government does not include kings, like the one in England. The role of king is tyrannical by its very nature because kings are not elected, and so have no reason to listen to their constituents. It is thus the right of Americans to overthrow the tyrannical government of England.
2. Monarchical governments are evil, particularly hereditary monarchies.
The Bible shows that the distinction of men into kings and subjects is wrong. The only ruler of men should be God, which is proven in many stories in the Bible. Paine uses the example of the Jews, after being led to a great victory by Gideon, attempting to make him their king. Gideon refuses, proving his own virtue by noting that men shouldn’t have kings.
Hereditary monarchy is even more of a sin, because if all men are created equal, the virtues of one man who may become king have no bearing on the qualities of his offspring.
These Hereditary Monarchies also create governing problems. First, the longer a Hereditary Monarchy continues, the more kings will be removed from the issues facing their subjects, and thus will be unable to rule over them successfully, even if they want to do right by their people. Second, it’s impossible to have any real checks and balances in a monarchy, because even if there are lower houses of government (like in England), the king has ultimate authority, and if he is unhappy with the decisions of these lower houses he can check their power in return.
3. Given that England, with a tyrannical system of government, has begun to violently oppress the American people, America should break free.
There are lots of arguments for reconciliation with England. The most prominent include:
- America flourished as part of England, and thus needs England to continue to flourish.
- England has protected America from attacks.
- England is the parent country of America; everyone is of English descent.
- Together, England and America could be an unstoppable global power.
These are all misguided, though, because England has dragged America into her own conflicts and suppressed America’s trade and growth. America has become too large and complex for England to manage.
If America is well-organized, it can win a victory. And if America chooses not to seek independence, the King of England will become more tyrannical, any agreement made will only be temporary, and the American citizens may lose the unity that they have right now. If America’s population grows and the conflict drags on, it’s only natural based on the size of the colony that partisans will take up positions and infighting will begin.
When it finally is created, the American system should be a republic that has annual meetings and has many legislators, elected regularly by the people, in order to provide a government that is a bulwark against one or two people with nefarious interests being able to gain too much power.
4. America has the capabilities to stand on her own.
- The people are united and have enough citizens to capably mount a rebellion effort.
- There are lots of natural resources that can be helpful both for any war effort and afterwards in the creation of a nation with a healthy economy.
- In forming a republic, America will be able to avoid wars in the future, given that they are so often based on petty grievances between kings.
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