Common Sense is the famous call-to-action of the American Revolution, written by Thomas Paine in January of 1776.
Paine begins this short book (referred to as a pamphlet) with a distinction (one that perhaps isn’t drawn with particular regularity among some political factions even today). He draws a line in the sand between what it means to have a society and what it means to have a government. He argues that society is all about what we can do as people, while government is the opposite in that its purpose is to tell us what we cannot do.
Paine espouses the virtues of God and the inalienable rights we’ve been given by Him, but he really basically laments having need for a government at all. He considers it, at best, a “necessary evil,” and at worst, an “intolerable [evil].” But since he recognizes that we do need some government due to our own individual failings, he argues for keeping the government incredibly simple in nature so that things can’t become particularly disordered.
He presses forward with his illustration of how government was likely created in the first place. He imagines a few people in some isolated part of the world, standing under a tree, talking things over, considering some small thing they could all easily agree upon. Then as the population of their colony grew too large for that format, it became necessary to have representatives. Eventually, as the colony’s population grew even more, they needed to increase the number of representatives. And the rest is history.
He goes on to skewer the British system of government, which at that time, was one sitting on the fence between their own flawed constitution and the monarchy. While doing so, he uses Scripture to take down the entire premise of having a king in the first place.
This is where his reasoning gets very interesting for me, as I’ve just finished reading the first four books of the Old Testament (and just started the fifth), so these very ideas are fresh in my mind and I can see the connections he’s making perfectly. He points out (rightly so) that it was the heathen kings who introduced the notion of a king to the children of Israel, who before that, had a rudimentary system of government as handed down to Moses by way of God. He gives examples of Gideon and Samuel, who both refused the throne of Israel, instead proclaiming that they are ruled by God. In effect, this is the groundwork for the classical liberal argument; we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable, natural rights, and that no king or obtrusive government should be allowed to interfere with that. It’s a brilliant argument. Of course, John Locke deserves much of the credit for inspiring Thomas Paine (and of course Thomas Jefferson, who was of similar inclination) with ideas like these before them.
Paine goes on to lay out a wide variety of reasons why people in North America should support the Revolution against Britain and her King. One important reason is safety, both from Britain’s enemies (arguing that we had no enemies in Europe if it weren’t for Britain), and from Britain herself, of course. In that same vain, he makes the case for building a navy, as at least a small one is needed just to protect the cities and ports from pirates, but also to protect from Britain’s fleet.
He recognizes different groups of people not on board with leaving Britain, especially those in cahoots with Britain and those with other ulterior motives. But he also calls out the regular, “moderate” Americans who are still not with the cause. In some cases he took to questioning people’s manhood to get his point across:
“Hath you property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then you are no judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then you are unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.”
Ouch. And I thought he was hard on the King and the royal family earlier in the book. I can imagine that, one way or another, calling so many people cowards alone would have evoked some kind of reaction from people.
But Paine doesn’t just criticize; he offers up a plan of action for enacting a viable republic, including rudimentary proposals of voting districts within colonies, each with its own president, a continental congress and a meta-president or federal president. And while we know that Paine didn’t directly write the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, it is known that his presence was felt by those men who did write them, by way of influence from this book. It has a general framework not that dissimilar to what we have today if you replace the word colony with state and president with governor.
Final say: This book is so readable, I don’t know why everybody wouldn’t want to read it. It would take a couple of hours max, and it gives an incredible insight into a piece that influenced both the American Revolution as well as the people who wrote the documents upon which it was cemented.
Thanks for reading! If you are so inclined, go pick up my book (available on Kindle or paperback) at Amazon. It’s called “Jamey Jones and the Sons of Noah.” It’s a fun science fiction book about a group of teenagers living on a planet called Kepler 438b. It’s seventy pages long, inexpensive, and it’s kinda good, even if I say so myself.