Common Sense Summary

Extended Summary

Published in January 1776, the pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine argues for American independence. In the introduction to the pamphlet, Paine says that he knows many will not favor his argument because it challenges the status quo of the colonies and the rule of the British government. He says that

a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.

As a result, many colonists are dissuaded by any attempt at action. Paine knows, however, that in time the colonists will come to see that they have the right to inquire about the abuse of power wielded by Britain. Paine says the issue of independence is one of universal appeal, a burden that weighs on the back of all humankind.

In Chapter 1, “On the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution,” Paine argues that some writers have confused the distinction between society and government. Paine states that society is a blessing, while government is simply a necessary evil. To illustrate his point, he constructs a hypothetical situation in which a small group of people are stranded on an uninhabited island, making them the sole beings on the land. Paine says that by nature, people will seek the help of others and form a basic sense of community that is geared toward the survival and best interests of all involved. However, when this society continues to grow, having all members participate in their own governance becomes unmanageable, so a system of government is put into place. In the beginning, the representatives in the government are supposed to speak for all; however, in time these representatives become self-serving. Hence, a simple society becomes an ill government. Paine then departs into a critical discussion on the Constitution of England. He says the document was written for different times but now it cannot deliver the rights it promises. Paine says the foundation of the English government is contradictory and complex: the three checks—the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons—have no bearing on each other and do not represent the voice of the English people. Such a composition creates “a house divided against itself.” Paine says that this system of government is supported more by national pride than by reason, and this cripples people from being able to seek a better constitution as the foundation for a just government.

Paine continues his examination of monarchical governments in Chapter 2, “Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession.” There are distinctions made between people who are controlled by logical circumstances: men and women are defined by nature; good and evil are defined by heaven. But what defines and separates kings from subjects? Paine says that the illogical distinction between common people and those supposedly of royal birth does nothing but create misery for people and that “it is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion.” He says that early states that were not ruled by kings also did not see war. Paine points out that the Israelites made an early plea for a king to rule over them, and he uses several lines of scripture to show that monarchical rule was not respected. Paine cites Samuel, who tells the Israelites that the only being who should rule over them is the Lord. When they persist in their plea for a king, they are punished for wanting a mortal to rule. Wanting a monarchical government is not in the best interest of the people because although the initial king might be just, his successor might be a rogue or a fool. Paine says that it is likely that the origins of royal families are no different from those of anyone else and that frequent monetary bribes paved the way to the throne. The system of hereditary rule goes against mankind’s original...

(The entire section is 1585 words.)