What is a "theme" and where might they appear in Thomas Paine's Common Sense?

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A “theme” is simply a main argument or central idea. Many written works have more than one theme. Themes help to give order or structure to a piece of writing. The “themes” of a work are the main ideas of the work.

In Thomas Paine’s pamphlet titled “Common Sense,” many of the key ideas are announced explicitly in the chapter headings.  Those headings include the following:

  • Of the Origin and Design of Government in General. With concise Remarks on the English Constitution
  • Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession
  • Thoughts of the present state of American Affairs
  • Of the Present Ability of America, with some miscellaneous Reflections

Of these four headings, the first, second, and fourth are the most precise; the third is rather vague and could refer to practically anything. The third section may be very clearly organized by key ideas, but the heading gives no very specific clue as to what those ideas may be.

Often, especially in works of argumentative prose, such as Common Sense, key themes will be announced at the beginnings and/or ends of paragraphs or at points of major transition, such as at the movement from one chapter to the next. Most of the rest of the work in such pieces of argumentative writing will be used to support, or provide evidence or arguments in favor of, the main themes.

Consider, for example, the very opening paragraph of Common Sense:

Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Here Paine makes a very clear distinction between “society” and “government.” Given this opening paragraph, one can expect Paine to begin explaining in detail the differences between these two concepts and entities, and such explanation is indeed precisely what he next begins to offer. Because Paine was writing a political pamphlet, the themes – or central ideas – of his work are likely to be stated very forthrightly and very clearly, as they are here. In works of literature, the main ideas are often only implied or suggested, but in works of political advocacy (such as Common Sense), the main ideas are likely to be spelled out very explicitly.  Look for repetitions of key terms (such as “society” and “government”) as a clue to which main ideas are being stressed at any particular point in the argument.

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