This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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How did Thomas Paine influence the American Revolution? What was his argument for separating America from England?
Thomas Paine is known for paving the way for the American Revolution by urging the colonies to fight for their independence in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense. In it, he argued that America could establish a republican form of government that is a model for the rest of the world by separating from England.
In this article, we’ll discuss Thomas Paine’s revolution pamphlet Common Sense, and its arguments for liberating America.
The Idea of Liberation
Thomas Paine’s revolution pamphlet said that there’s been a lot of debate on the topic of America’s relations with England, but the period of debate is over, ended by the actions of the King. It’s time now to fight.
- (Shortform note: Common Sense was written after the Boston Tea Party, subsequent crackdowns by the colonial English government on rebel factions in America, and the skirmishes of Lexington and Concord.)
This particular liberation movement is of the greatest possible worth for two reasons:
- First, it is a cause that will affect an entire continent that’s at least an eighth of the whole world.
- Second, it’s a cause that will be enduring and affect all future generations.
The Arguments for Reconciliation
It’s worth examining the arguments for reconciliation and refuting them:
- America flourished as part of England, and thus needs England to continue to flourish.
- This is like saying that because a child once needed his mother he will always need his mother.
- America also would have likely been better off without colonial authority in the first place: There has always been a market for American goods in all of Europe.
- England has protected America from attacks.
- England didn’t protect America from America’s enemies, but from England’s, who wouldn’t have had any issue with America had it not been a colonial possession.
- America could be at peace with France and Spain if it weren’t for England.
- England is the parent country of America; everyone is of English descent.
- America has actually been asylum to persecuted people from all over Europe —Europe is America’s parent country, not just England.
- Americans should be able to claim brotherhood with “every European Christian.”
- Every European, no matter their original national identity, meeting in America should be able to call the other a “countryman.”
- Together, England and America could be an unstoppable global power.
- Wars are unpredictable, so this is not necessarily true.
- America shouldn’t be sending its own citizens to fight English conquests elsewhere in the world.
- America shouldn’t want to be engaged in England’s conflicts—rather, America should be friendly with all of Europe, so as to trade with all of them. Free enterprise will make sure America never faces the ire of any European nations.
- If England begins to lose wars, it would be particularly bad to be associated with them—the victor could attempt to claim America as its own.
America’s business has also become too big and complicated to manage from so far away.
Personal Interests in England
Anyone interested in maintaining the relationship with England thus falls into one of these four categories:
- People who gain financially from the relationship or have some other kind of benefit or interest that makes them untrustworthy
- People who are weak and don’t understand
- People who have prejudice who refuse to understand
- People who are “moderates” who believe Europe to be better than it is—this group will do the most harm to the independence effort
- A lot of people don’t see the suffering that the British have inflicted. But in Boston, the British soldiers are plundering the city.
- Some of these people say that reconciliation can still be had, but once serious pain is inflicted, like it was in Boston, it’s not in human nature to be able to trust again.
The Consequences of Not Fighting
It is clear that reconciliation will not happen, and also that if America is well-organized, they can win a victory. Thus, this should happen now and not be left to future generations after more suffering is incurred as the result of being a colony. A continent shouldn’t be ruled by an island—that is exactly against the natural order.
If America chooses not to fight for independence, here is what will happen:
First, the King of England will make things much worse for the colony. He doesn’t want any more potential for rebellion, so order will be much more strict. He will not allow a single law he doesn’t approve of. England is worried first about England. So, every time it’s in England’s interest to suppress America or America’s growth, England will do it. The King will almost certainly re-install himself in the government of America to exert more control.
Second, any kind of agreement will only be temporary, as the colonies continue to grow in size and capability. Instability will persist, and this will discourage any new emigration.
Third, it is very plausible that civil war within the colonies will break out if an agreement is signed. Americans have already suffered so much at the hands of the British—if that freedom is taken away partly by their fellow citizens, their ire will be directed towards said citizens.
Fourth, it is also possible that when a takeover does inevitably occur, it will be led by a conqueror uninterested in republican rule but rather in installing himself as king, leading to continued tyranny. Government can’t be left vacant—a system needs to be created now.
Creating a New System of Governance
In order to avoid the wars that are common in a monarchical system, in addition to all of the other aforementioned issues with monarchy, the American system should be a republic. To better imagine a future after English rule, we should set down some principles of the future government here:
- There should be annual assemblies.
- There should be a president whose business is purely domestic and who is subject to a Congress’s authority.
- Every colony (state) should have between six and ten districts and each colony/state should send at least 30 representatives to Congress.
- Congress should have at least 390 total representatives.
- It is essential to have a large number of total representatives that are all equal so that the body cannot be corrupted by a few rogue interests.
- The president should be chosen as follows: At the annual assembly, one of the states should be chosen at random. All of the representatives from all of the states should pick the president from the delegates of that state. At the next annual Congress, the state that already had a president should be left out of the lot drawing, and so on until every state has had a president.
- Laws should have at least a three-fifths majority vote to pass.
- To create this government, a Continental Conference should be held. This should include:
- A Congress with 26 total members, two from each current colony
- A House of Assembly, also with two members from each current colony
- Five more representatives from the most populous parts of each colony
- They will all gather to create a Continental Charter—improving upon the Magna Carta and creating a government based on these principles:
- Freedom and property to all men
- Free exercise of religion
- At this point, this Conference will immediately dissolve.
- Rather than monarchy, “the law will be king.”
The rest of the world is overrun with tyranny and oppression. America has the opportunity to stand as a beacon of hope and an asylum. We should take on this challenge.
America has a lot of natural advantages when it comes to the possibility of revolution. There will never be a greater chance of success than there is right now, and if Americans do not seize the opportunity, they leave themselves open to more oppression from England or violent takeover from somewhere else.
Next, we’ll examine these advantages and discuss America’s future and potential.
Arguments for Immediate Revolution
America has never been in a better place than it is right now to commit to revolution because:
- The people are united.
- There are enough citizens to hold off any army against them and not so many that there are too many towns to defend.
- If there were more Americans, the colonies might also be less united. Each colony, were it to expand, would be governed by increasingly unique interests.
- America has no navy, but England would never allow it to build one, so this would not change no matter how long it waits to declare independence.
America is also in a great position to start building a navy once it does declare independence, with ample resources and capital available. America will eventually lead the world in ship building, because no power in Europe has the coastline or the internal materials. Furthermore, America does not need to have nearly as many ships as England to establish naval dominance because they don’t have an empire to rule over—they are not stretched so thin. Americans should begin the process of building up their naval fleet now, so as to be protected long into the future.
- America has no debts and as such is in a position where it can incur some in the war effort.
- All nations should eventually have some debt so long as it doesn’t bear too much interest, because a national debt creates a shared bond and commitment.
- As opposed to America, Britain has significant debts on which it pays significant interest.
- The fewer Americans there are, the more land remains unoccupied. This is important because it can, after the war and independence, be both used to service America’s debt and expanded into to support America’s government.
- England is governed by fear; they have a lot to lose. America only has potential gain.
When other nations did not seize upon their opportunities to form a government, they left themselves open for conquerors and lost the potential to have freedom. America should learn from those mistakes.
A Declaration of Independence
A declaration of independence is needed, which should keep in mind these four points:
- When any two nations are at war sometimes others will step in and mediate, but for as long as America is a colony of Britain’s, no mediation can occur. Custom dictates that European powers won’t interfere with colonial battles for independence like this one.
- France or Spain can’t be expected to help America either, for the same reason as point number one.
- It is likely that some other nations will consider America rebels because America will be dangerous to their own peace.
- A manifesto should thus be published and sent to foreign courts that details the abuses that America has received at the hands of Britain and all of the peaceful attempts that America has made to get to a resolution. Unfortunately, the custom will maintain that all courts will be against America until America is declared a sovereign nation.
While other nations may be wary of supporting the American revolutionaries based on their own interests, a free America will be unlikely to engage in too much armed conflict, especially with other republics that will hopefully use the forthcoming model of American governance as a model.(Shortform note: This concept is an early example of what would come to be known as the “Democratic Peace Theory”: that democracies are unlikely to engage in armed conflict with other democracies due to the mutual understanding that war is a draining proposition and the lack of interest in conquest without monarchs or dictators involved. Other early adopters of this concept were philosopher Immanuel Kant in Perpetual Peace and Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America.)
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