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Common Sense

Common Sense

"Common Sense", a political pamphlet published and distributed in early 1776, helped unite the American colonies to fight for independence. The author Thomas Paine (1736-1809) was a public intellectual, political philosopher, and writer who enjoyed immense popularity. The name comes from the appeal to rationality and its accessibility to the common man.

"Common Sense": Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1736, in Thetford, Norfolk, England. He attended free grammar school until age thirteen, when he began an apprenticeship under his father, a corset maker. Much of his spare time was spent reading, writing, and self-education. At age nineteen, he opened his corset-making business in Sandwich, Kent, England. His business failed, which led him to work as an excise officer.

Common sense, Portrait of Thomas Paine, StudySmarterThe young Thomas Paine apprenticed as a corset maker under his father. Wikimedia.

Paine wrote his first political pamphlet, arguing for better pay, The Case of the Officers of Excise (1772). He spent time in London distributing the work and met Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged him to emigrate to British America. With Franklin’s letter of recommendation, he arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774.

When Paine arrived, the British American colonies were tense with disunion. The British Crown was legislating taxes and penalties upon the colonies without their consent. Publicly, most colonists were loyal to the crown because that was all they had known for generations. However, discontent was fomenting among more powerful classes, and the idea of declaring independence from Great Britain was beginning to gain traction.

"Common Sense": Book

At the time of its publication, "Common Sense" united the American public in fighting for independence. As American militia fought British regulars on the battlefield, the colonists were still quite divided in their loyalties.

Most colonists were against independence. Prominent statesman John Dickinson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, instructed his constituents to vote against independence at the Second Continental Congress. Militarily, the colonies were lacking in direction and purpose. Battles at Lexington and Concord erupted, while two divisions marched to and surrounded Quebec, in British Canada. American troops even managed to capture Montreal. However, none of this was done with much central direction.

Others, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who returned from diplomatic duties in Europe, saw the outbreak of war as a fight for independence. However, most colonists felt obligated to the British Crown, as the tradition had been for over a century.

"Common" Sense presented hotly debated ideas, like representative democracy, in clearer, less elitist terms for the general, largely illiterate public. The main idea was that America was ready to fight for independence, and this was the natural course of things after the British Crown committed so many aggressions toward the colonies.

Thomas Paine’s "Common Sense": Summary

"Common Sense" is separated into five parts.

Introduction

Paine recognizes that his position is not currently a popular one. Anything steeped in tradition is hard to change. Challenging the norm will always be difficult, and people will defend it as right out of habit. However, the abuses of power by Great Britain towards its colonies demands the attention of Americans. Anyone capable of feelings should be alarmed by the Crown's declaration of war on the colonies. He notes in a postscript that readers should focus on his ideas, and not his identities (Paine remained anonymous for three months after its publication).

I. Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, With Concise Remarks on the English Constitution

Paine opens by defining the difference between “society” and “government.” Society forms because of human commonalities and needs. Government arises to protect humans from their vices. Government is an unfortunate and “necessary evil”. At best, government minimizes its intrusions and infractions while protecting and enshrining the security and freedom of its citizens.

Paine gives the example of prehistoric peoples settling in a place and forming the first societies. At first, they are naturally egalitarian. As long as everyone treats each other fairly, it will be successful. As it grows larger, however, the dynamic changes and social bonds are weakened. Naturally, each sect of society chooses a representative. Paine presupposes that prehistoric people who lived together in close proximity were better suited to govern themselves rather than a distant ruler. This ensures the government is effective, and its constituents are content. Paine concludes that government exists because personal morality cannot govern the world.

Common sense, original pamphlet, StudySmarter

"Common Sense" was an immediate bestseller. Wikimedia

The simpler something is, the more effective and easier it is to fix. Paine comments on the British Constitution (which governs the British colonies without their representation), as overly complex and difficult to remedy. Its supposed aim is to check the power of the king, and Paine argues this is admitting the king is untrustworthy. Furthermore, because a king is isolated from the people he rules and is without intimate knowledge of the common people, he's hardly an ideal ruler, nor is monarchy an ideal form of government.

II. Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession

The natural order of humans is equality. Paine cites the Bible, which says that first there were no Kings. Only war and strife followed because of the pride of monarchs. Ancient Israel was a republic, and only desired a king to be like their neighboring countries. God decided to let ancient man learn the lesson of corruption and permitted it. Thus, having a king is incompatible with Christianity.

He then breaks down hereditary rule as absurd. It’s not fair to ask future generations to be rulers, especially when one cannot determine if the descendant king is even fit to rule. If egalitarianism is the natural state of man, then hereditary rule is an affront to human society in general. There is no way to affirm the actual history of hereditary lines, nor prove any real divinity to kings.

Paine then argues that hereditary succession is inherently oppressive. It gives the successor a feeling of superiority and disconnects him from the common man because he had to pass no test to earn his position. It also encourages underlings to take advantage of a weak king. Paine adds up recent wars and rebellions, numbering in the dozens, to show that kings do not bring about peace.

III. Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs

Paine states that he will only present facts and observations, and appeals to man’s innate ability to use reason and logic to make their own conclusions. War is here. Britain has attacked, and American colonies have defended themselves, and in some instances, taken the offensive. They’re fighting for more than the present, but for future generations as well.

Now is the time for a new way of thinking. Previously, Americans and the British hoped to reconcile their differences through diplomacy. Now that they are fighting, Americans should consider independence. Just because America was able to flourish at one time under Great Britain’s rule does not mean they will return to that time or that it could ever last. Even military protection wasn’t guaranteed, as Britain’s reaction to attacks on its colonies came from Britain’s interests, not the colonist’s needs. If America detaches itself from Britain, it won’t need to worry about Britain’s enemies.

Common sense, map of thirteen colonies, StudySmarterThe colonies of New York and Pennsylvania combined were nearly double the size of the British Isles. Wikimedia.

Some argue that Britain is America’s parent. Paine argues that Europe is the parent. America is made of religious and civil liberty refugees from Europe. Even if America was made purely of English descent, the argument still doesn’t hold. A parent attacking their child is the mark of a tyrant. Britain cannot be trusted to protect them. America is rich in resources and should rely on the trade interests of other nations to form alliances. Depending on Britain will only lead to involvement in British conflicts.

Paine challenges anyone to prove one reason for reconciliation with Great Britain. If they do, they must imagine they are living in besieged Boston, where once prosperous residents are now poor and starving. Anyone who pleads to reconcile with Britain either has the privilege of being isolated from or benefiting from their abuses. The time has come to act. Paine doesn’t want vengeance. He wants to challenge apathy. With colonies divided, only independence can unite against civil war.

Paine offers a plan for independence. Colonies can send representatives to establish a Continental Congress. Presidents can be chosen via lottery per colony. Representatives or delegates can create a charter, that acts as rules of conduct between Congress and the colonies, to select members of Congress. The main goal is to protect people’s civil liberties and freedom of religion.

The threat of continuing war disrupts peaceful ruling. The British could stoke rebellion within America by enlisting the help of loyalists, Native Americans, and enslaved Black people. The people of America can form their government and act as a refuge for freedom seekers around the world.

IV. On the Present Ability of America, With Some Miscellaneous Reflections

Paine suggests taking stock of America’s resources to be prepared for independence. Unity between the colonies is its greatest asset. America has the largest standing army. However, the colonies need to invest in building a strong navy. This can be done without importing any goods. A navy would provide self-defense for the transatlantic commerce that has helped the colonies prosper while allowing the country to contend with other nations.

The shared common goal of independence is a powerful way to unite the colonies before they become too big and competitive among themselves. Independence addresses nearly all the most important needs of a growing nation. Having declared independence, other countries may step in to mediate between America and Britain. This may mean gaining a potential ally or two. Lastly, if the colonies are to unite and form their nation, then the international community will recognize their legitimacy, no longer viewing them as an upstart colony under Britain's wing. Then they could petition foreign courts to help them bring about peace.

Thomas Paine's "Common Sense": Significance

"Common Sense" was immediately popular upon publication. A second printing was issued to keep up with demand. Paine claims it sold 120,000 copies. Biographers quote upwards of 500,000 copies in the first year alone, within a population of over two million, making it per person an all-time bestseller. Thomas Paine never collected any profits.

While its exact impact on the American Revolution is hard to measure, it undoubtedly inspired the development and drafting of the “Declaration of Independence” (1776). Paine was friends with Benjamin Franklin, who connected him to the printing business, and Franklin was one of the five delegates tasked by the Continental Congress to draft the declaration. General George Washington also ordered the pamphlet to be read to the troops.

"Common Sense": Quotes

Below are quotes from "Common Sense" that best capture the overall message and meaning of the text. Each purports the idea of declaring independence, the geography that supports it, and the absurdity of hereditary rule.

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.”

Many colonists felt ambivalent about fighting for independence. Everyone had spent their lives under British rule and didn’t experience any other form of governance. The tradition was that the King was law. Even though Britain had become a constitutional monarchy, colonists had no representation in the British parliament. Despite the lack of representation and the punitive measures taken by the British crown, colonists were afraid to rebel. Paine argued that independence was inevitable and that colonists should take the initiative first.

For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have the right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others forever, and tho' himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.”

Paine approached governance from the presupposition that all men are created equal and are capable of ruling themselves. Democracy was radical in his time. The idea that people could govern themselves was seen as absurd by those traditionally in power, namely royalty and the aristocracy. He counters with the arbitrary nature of hereditary rule and its inherent weakness of potentially putting unfit rulers in power.

Small islands, not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”

Paine used many arguments for independence in "Common Sense". He used geography as an example. North America and Great Britain were an ocean apart. There is an inherent impracticality in trying to rule something so far away and disconnected. Paine then remarks that an island nation governing a continent many times larger than itself is just ridiculous. The arrangement only makes sense if the situation was reversed.

"Common Sense" - Key takeaways

  • "Common Sense" was written by Thomas Paine, a public intellectual and political philosopher.
  • "Common Sense" was written to unite the American public in the fight for independence.
  • Paine argues that hereditary rule is absurd and now obsolete.
  • Men are completely capable of ruling themselves.
  • A government should protect and enshrine individual rights.

Frequently Asked Questions about Common Sense

The author of "Common Sense" was Thomas Paine.

Thomas Paine argued that it was only natural for the British colonies to rebel against a government that didn't consider their needs.

The main point of "Common Sensewas that America was ready to fight for independence and rule itself.

Thomas Paine named his pamphlet "Common Sense" in hopes it would appeal to the common man, and appeal to their sense of rationality.

"Common Sense" is important because it helped unite the British American colonies to fight for independence.

Final Common Sense Quiz

Question

Who is the author of Common Sense?

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Thomas Paine

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When was Common Sense published?

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1776

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How did Common Sense help unite the American public?

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It provided a basis for rebelling against the British Crown, in that the strongest commonality for Americans was their need for independence.

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Many colonists were afraid to challenge

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Hereditary rule

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Paine criticized the British constitution as

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overly complex and impossible to remedy

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Paine felt that hereditary rule

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isolated Kings from their constituents

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Paine argued that Americans and British could no longer reconcile their differences with

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diplomacy

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Paine argued that independence could protect America from

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civil war

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Paine's plan for American independence was

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send delegates to form a Continental Congress

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If the colonies unite then

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The international community will recognize their legitimacy as a nation

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What was the main point of Common Sense?


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The main point of Common Sense was that America was ready to fight for independence and rule itself.

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Why did Thomas Paine call it Common Sense?


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Thomas Paine named his pamphlet Common Sense in hopes it would appeal to the common man, and appeal to their sense of rationality.

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Why was Common Sense important?


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Common Sense is important because it helped unite the British American colonies to fight for independence.

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Did the British Constitution represent American interests?

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no

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What does Paine argue regarding the geography of America and Great Britain?

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That it makes no practical sense for an island country to govern a continent several times larger across a vast ocean.

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