Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’: A Book Review
In January 1776, Thomas Pained published a pamphlet entitled ‘Common Sense’ which became an instant bestseller both in the Thirteen Colonies and in Europe. The pamphlet was, in general, a challenge both to the authority of the British monarch and the parliament – entities seen as enemies of freedom and integrity. Thomas Paine intended this pamphlet as a means to incite the population of the colonies to support the Revolution. He succeeded. His mass references to the Bible in the pamphlet appealed to the common sentiment of the American people.
The simplicity and ordinateness of his writing (uncharacteristic of Enlightenment writers) enabled the masses to understand the complexity of the issues at hand. In Europe, his pamphlet was severely criticized. The British parliament initially banned the publication of the pamphlet. Some of the absolute rulers of Europe permitted the publication of the pamphlet only in small quantities for fear of similar revolution in their respective countries.
In the Thirteen Colonies, the pamphlet was widely distributed to all colonists, regardless of political affiliation. The pamphlet served both as an encouragement to the revolution and a criticism to the British Empire.
The pamphlet was divided into four general sections: 1) Of the Origin and Design of Government in general, with concise Remarks on the English Constitution, 2) Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession, 3) Thoughts on the present State of American Affairs, and 4) Of the present Ability of America, with some miscellaneous Reflections.
Of the Origin and Design of Government in general, with concise Remarks on the English Constitution
This section provided a general distinction between society and government. Society is a general patron which promotes happiness. Government is a reinforcer of punishment – produced by wickedness – which controls vices. In a state of ‘natural liberty,’ people live in the environment isolated from the affairs of government. As time goes by, people find it easier to work in groups, to cooperate with each other in order to achieve prosperity. Here, a society is created. The growth of a society will cause problems to multiply, the people will be forced to make regulations to mitigate those problems. The complexity of the problems though creates more complications in society. A government becomes necessary to enforce the regulations. These regulations, in time, will transform into laws. Paine argues:
“Thus necessity, like a gravitating power, would soon form our newly arrived emigrants into society, the reciprocal blessings of which, would supersede, and render the obligations of law and government unnecessary while they remained perfectly just to each other; but as nothing but heaven is impregnable to vice, it will unavoidably happen, that in proportion as they surmount the first difficulties of emigration …” (Paine, 5).
Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession
In the second section, Thomas Paine examined the essence of monarchy both from Biblical and historical perspective. Paine argued that all men are created equal by God. Hence, the distinction between kings and subjects is a false one – created in the minds of the oppressor class. The systems of government promoted by kings and tyrants have complications because they do not work for all individuals. Paine states:
“MANKIND being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance; the distinctions of rich, and poor, may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh, ill-sounding names of oppression and avarice. Oppression is often the consequence, but seldom or never the means of riches …” (Paine, 21).
Paine then attacks the so-called ‘mixed state.’ A mixed state is a system of government proposed by John Locke where the powers of government are separated between a lawmaking body and a constitutional monarchy. The parliament creates, reviews, and enacts laws for the state. The constitutional monarch simply serves both as chief executive and head of state. According to Locke, the parliament would limit the powers of the monarch by creating a system of checks and balances. Here, the monrach will be prevented from becoming a tyrant because of the limitations.
For Paine, such limits are insufficient to prevent the state from collapsing into tyranny. In a mized state, power will tend to be concentrated into the hands of the ruling monarch, permitting him to bypass the limitations imposed to him by the state. Paine simply questions the validity and legitimacy of a mixed state, since the existence of a monarch will necessarily transform the state into a tyranny.
Thoughts on the present State of American Affairs
In this section, Paine evalutes the present hostilities between the British Empire and the Thirteen Colonies. Paine argues for a Continental Charter that would be a counterpart of the Magna Carta of 1215. According to Paine, this charter should proceed from an intermediate body between the Congress and the people. Each colony should hold elections for five to seven representatives – delegates to the Continental Conference. The Continental Conference would meet and create a charter that would ensure the ‘freedom, security, property, and free exrecise of religion for all men’ in the colonies. The charter would also outline the form of the national government.
Of the present Ability of America, with some miscellaneous Reflections
This section holds Paine’s optimistic view of the American nation. Paine argues that the American nation will succeed separating from the British Empire. It will acquire a name of its own, through the protection of democracy and liberty, the propagation of a rational system of government, and the rejection of all forms of tyranny.
Much of Paine’s writings reflect the ideas of John Locke. When Paine examines the origin of tyranny, he is simply reiterating the ideas of Locke on the state of nature. Here, Paine introduces the ideas of Locke through the serenade of the American mind. Note that much of Paine’s political ideas are essentially practical in nature. Many of its theoretical assumptions are deprived because of the complexity of the American Revolution. The pamphlet serves as a form of propaganda book, unlike Locke’s ‘Two Treatises of Government’ which serves as theoretical basis for the English Revolution. In any case, the revolutionary nature of the pamphlet can be discerned from the reactions of the revolutionarries who made the pamphlet the ‘bible’ of the revolution.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Ed. N. Travensky. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1965.
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