Common Sense, a sixty-seven-page pamphlet advocating complete separation of Great Britain’s North American colonies from the parent country, is one of the most influential pieces of political writing ever published. It is also an important landmark in the history of literary development, representing the first major piece of political writing, in any language, to effectively reach the working classes. The pamphlet appeared in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776, at a critical juncture in the genesis of the American Revolution. A state of armed rebellion had existed in Massachusetts since April, 1775. The Continental Congress, first convened in 1774 and reconvened in 1775, was meeting in Philadelphia. Many of its members, selected by colonial assemblies, were cautious in their approach to independence and believed a compromise was possible. Thomas Paine wrote on behalf of those who felt such caution did not reflect the will or best interests of most North Americans. Common Sense aimed to bring pressure to bear on indecisive politicians by galvanizing popular opinion in favor of complete separation backed by force of arms.
The pamphlet appeared at a particularly opportune moment. Its publication coincided with the arrival of George III’s address to Parliament declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion and pledging to use military force to prevent separation. The resentment against the British monarchy that this communication fanned resonated with the strong antiking, antiaristocratic message of Common Sense.
The work comprises four chapters, with an introduction and appendix added in the second (February, 1776) edition. The first two chapters discuss the origins of government and the structure and function of the British monarchy, respectively. Chapter 3 focuses on the political situation in 1775-1776 and contains specific recommendations for recruiting soldiers, financing a war, and structuring a new government. Chapter 4 recapitulates the arguments of chapter 3, urging unity and continued armed resistance at a level sufficient to achieve victory.
In the first chapter, “On the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution,” Paine views government as a necessary evil, arising when people begin associating in larger social groups and require rules and authority to restrain their baser instincts. He envisions the original form of human government as republican, without hereditary distinctions, and views the British government of his day as the base remnant of two ancient tyrannies—monarchy and aristocracy—with some new republican materials grafted on in the form of the House of Commons. Any disposition to retain this fundamentally corrupt form of government, he warns, will hinder the formation of something better. The chapter was an argument against those who wanted more colonial autonomy but wished to retain ties to the Crown.
Chapter 2, “Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession,” begins with a commentary on the biblical stories of Gideon’s refusal of the crown of Israel (Judges 8) and Samuel’s anointing of Saul (I Samuel 8-10), emphasizing that Israel became a monarchy in imitation of its heathen neighbors and that the prophet Samuel warned the Israelites against crowning a king. It argues that, as bad as it is to vest absolute power in one man under any circumstances, hereditary kingship is far worse because the...
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Common Sense Summary
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Common Sense is a political pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775-76 and published anonymously on January 10, 1776, during the beginning of the American Revolution. Common Sense advocated that the thirteen original colonies (which later became the United States) gain independence from Great Britain. In his pamphlet, Paine makes a passionate case for independence by focusing on moral and political arguments. For almost three months, Paine managed to maintain his anonymity and did not become officially connected with the independence controversy until March 30, 1776.
In the first section of Common Sense, Paine makes a distinction between society and government, arguing that government is a “necessary evil.” As society continues to evolve, Paine feels that a government becomes necessary in order to prevent the natural evil in humankind, and accordingly, he sees the need for laws. He explains that order must be promoted in a civil society. Further, laws must take into consideration the impossibility of all people in a society meeting centrally to make laws. Therefore representation and elections become necessary. This model is intended to mirror the situation of the colonists at the time of publication and Paine references the Constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. However, Paine identifies two tyrannies in the British constitution—monarchical and aristocratic tyranny, where those in power rule by heredity and contribute nothing to the people. He clearly detests this.
In the second section, Paine evaluates monarchy. He begins by arguing that all men are equal at the time of creation and, therefore, the distinction between kings and subjects (as in England) is an inherently false distinction. Paine then examines some of the problems that kings and monarchies have caused in the past and concludes the following: “In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
In the third section, Paine examines hostilities between England and the American colonies and argues that the best course of action would be independence for the colonists. Paine proposes a Continental Charter that he states “should come from some intermediate body between the Congress and the people.” This Continental Charter should outline a new national government, which Paine argues should take the form of a Congress. Paine suggests that a Congress might be created in the following way: each colony could be divided in districts and each district would “send a proper number of delegates to Congress.” The Congress would then meet annually and elect a president.
The fourth section of the pamphlet includes Paine’s optimistic view of America’s military potential at the time of the revolution. For example, he spends pages describing how colonial shipyards, by using the large amounts of lumber available in the country, could quickly create a navy that could rival the British Royal Navy.
Common Sense it became an immediate sensation across the thirteen colonies. Paine’s vision of a radical democracy, unlike the checked and balanced nation later favored by conservatives like John Adams, was highly attractive to the popular audience at that time. In the months leading up to the Declaration of Independence, many more colonists recognized and appreciated Paine’s themes of direct and passionate style, as well as the call for individual empowerment, which were instrumental in swaying the colonists from reconciliation to rebellion.
Later scholars have assessed Common Sense’s influence in several ways. Some, like A. Owen Aldridge, emphasize that Common Sense could hardly be said to embody a particular ideology, and that “even Paine himself may not have been cognizant of the ultimate source of many of his concepts,” making the point that much of the pamphlet’s value came as a result of the context in which it was published. Eric Foner writes that the pamphlet touched a radical populace at the height of their radicalism, which started in Pennsylvania with a new constitution aligned along Paine’s principles. Many have noted that Paine’s skills were in persuasion and propaganda; no matter the content of Paine’s ideas, based solely upon his conviction and persuasiveness, Common Sense was bound for success.
Still others emphasize the uniqueness of Paine’s vision, with Craig Nelson calling him a “pragmatic utopian” who deemphasized economic arguments in favor of moralistic ones. Each of these arguments is in some way true, and together, they portray Common Sense as an impressive piece of propaganda advocating a distinct and timely action and set of principles. This, along with the immense publicity and high readership of the pamphlet, establishes Common Sense as an important stepping stone towards independence. One can argue that Paine’s views were not only pivotal toward independence, but that there were future, positive ripple effects in his statement that all men are equal in creation.