Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1585
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...
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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 systems of equal and fair representation, and there can be no other explanation for its existence. Paine says that England has known some good kings but that it has known more bad ones. Also, he says that the role of uncontested authority makes men insolent because they are consumed by a sense of grand importance. An honest man to his society is worth more than any man crowned.
Chapter 3, “Thoughts on the Present State of the American Affairs,” is the heart of the pamphlet. Paine says that any attempt at reconciliation with England is a dream of the past. Some argue that America has flourished by means of its connection to Great Britain; however, Paine says that any good that has come from this connection has been for the benefit of Great Britain only. The idea of England as the mother country to America is simply a tool used to persuade the colonists to maintain loyalty. Paine says that if America were to have a mother country, it would be all of Europe, not Great Britain, because it is from several countries in Europe that the colonists receive their goods. Furthermore, Paine says that England cannot be looked upon as a mother country because she has exerted threats against the safety of the American colonies, and it is from tyranny in England that many of the colonists fled. Paine also states that any connection with Great Britain puts America at risk for bad relations with other countries in Europe. As a result, any country that England chooses to declare war against would automatically become the enemy of America, and the trade relations between countries would be destroyed. By then, it would be too late for America to declare independence or neutrality and leave itself open to attack.
The independence of America must take place sooner or later; for Paine, the moment of change was decided in April 1775 during the Massacre at Lexington. Paine says that the government of Great Britain is not sufficient for governance of the colonies and that a system of equal representation would be optimal. Here Paine outlines what he believes would be a proper system of government for the colonies. The assemblies would occur annually, with a president only. Equal representation would be enforced, and the business would be over domestic affairs. All would be subjected to the authority of a continental congress. Each colony would be divided into districts, with each district sending a number of delegates to congress. To elect the president, one colony would be chosen and a delegate from this colony would be named president; the following year, another colony and another delegate would be chosen; this would rotate through all thirteen colonies. The continental congress, a committee of two representatives from each colony, would be a delegating body between the congress and the people. They would draft a Continental Charter to serve as the foundation for rule. Paine says that having a government of its own is America’s natural right and preserves the safety and integrity of the colonies. Paine ends the chapter by making a call to action to all those who despise tyranny and want to rid themselves of her grasp.
In the final chapter, Chapter 4, “On the Present Ability of America, with Some Miscellaneous Reflections,” Paine lays the foundation for the separation of the American colonies. The eventual separation of America from England is inevitable, according to the men with whom Paine has spoken. The present time is optimal because the state of the colonies is strong. There is strength in the unity of the colonies that have not grown too full in numbers to distract from a common purpose. For a country to be sovereign, it must be able to support and defend itself, and Paine says that America is already in this prime position. He says that the American colonies have a double advantage: first, they are facing the sea and benefit from trading ports and would benefit from having a navy; second, they produce raw materials on their own land and have no need to import them from other countries. Paine says that many other countries do not have this double benefit. Those who benefit from the production of raw materials, such as Russia, do not have the benefit of being accessible by sea; likewise, a country like England has a navy but must import goods from other countries in Europe. Paine calls for the development of a naval fleet to do both the services of trading and defense.
Paine argues that the best time to develop a country is in its youth, when the right foundation may be laid for future growth. He says that the current colonists owe this to their posterity. Paine now reverts back to his earlier argument about equal representation in the government and says that this must be valued over remaining subject to Great Britain. He reminds his readers that the colonists will continue to be regarded as enemies by those nations that have trouble with Britain and that the time is right for independence. Paine says that he knows change at first seems strange and difficult, but it is necessary.
In the Appendix to Common Sense, Paine reveals that on the day of his pamphlet’s publication, the king of England delivered a speech regarding England’s position to the colonies. Paine says that instead of having a terrifying effect, the king’s speech only served to spark a desire for independence. He says that now is the time; the longer the colonies wait, the harder separation will be. With this, Paine hopes that the reader has been persuaded to fight for independence.