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...

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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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Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Canavan, Francis S. J. “Thomas Paine.” In History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. A general assessment of Paine’s political views.

Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. An essential work for understanding the historical background of Common Sense.

Larkin, Edward. Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Places Paine in the context of his contemporaries, providing a good overview of eighteenth century political discourse.

Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking Press, 2006. Discusses the relationship of Paine to the Founding Fathers. Details Common Sense’s publication history.

Paine, Thomas. Political Writings. Edited by Bruce Kuklick. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. The bulk of this text comprises Paine’s original works; also includes a good introduction and annotations. Part of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series.