Extracts from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776)

Thomas Paine’s pro-independence pamphlet Common Sense was published in Philadelphia in January 1776. It was quickly printed and sold in other colonial cities and became one of the most popular revolutionary tracts of its time. In simple and direct language, Common Sense combined criticisms of the English political system with reasons why America, if she declared her independence, would benefit and flourish. Paine wrote on systems of government:

“I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature which no art can overturn – that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered. With this maxim in view, I offer a few remarks on the so much boasted constitution of England.

That it was noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was erected is granted. When the world was overrun with tyranny it was at the least a glorious rescue. But that it is imperfect, subject to convulsions, and incapable of producing what it promises, is easily demonstrated.

Absolute governments, though the disgrace of human nature, have this advantage: they are simple. If the people suffer, they know the head from which their suffering springs; they likewise know the remedy, and are not bewildered by a variety of causes and cures. But the constitution of England is so exceedingly complex that the nation may suffer for years without being able to discover in which part the fault lies. Some will say in one and some in another, and every political physician will advise a different medicine.”

He also wrote critically about the foundation and structure of the British government:

“I know it is difficult to get over local or long standing prejudices, yet if we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials. First, the remains of monarchical tyranny in the person of the king. Secondly, the remains of aristocratic tyranny in the persons of the peers. Thirdly, the new republican materials, in the persons of the commons, on whose virtue depends the freedom of England.

The two first, by being hereditary, are independent of the people; wherefore in a constitutional sense they contribute nothing towards the freedom of the state. To say that the constitution of England is a union of three powers checking each other, is farcical… To say that the Commons is a check upon the king, presupposes two things. First, that the king is not to be trusted without being looked after… that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy. Secondly, that the Commons, by being appointed for that purpose, are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the crown…”

And of the inherent problems in a monarchical government:

“There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy. It first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him [off] from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly…”

Paine also refuted the argument, common among Loyalists, that America’s future prosperity was dependent on her ties with Britain:

“I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished under her former connection with Great Britain [and] that the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, it is never to have meat; or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty…

I answer roundly that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power had any thing to do with her. The commerce by which she hath enriched herself are necessities and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe. But she [Britain] has protected us, say some. That she has… defended the continent at our expense as well as her own is admitted – and she would have defended Turkey for the same motive: the sake of trade and dominion.”

He suggested that breaking with the Old World and its traditions, prejudices and wars would be beneficial for Americans in the long run:

“Alas, we have been long led away by ancient prejudices and made large sacrifices to superstition. We have boasted the protection of Great Britain, without considering that her motive was interest, not attachment… she did not protect us from our enemies on our account, but from her enemies on her own account…

Europe is too thickly planted with kingdoms to be long at peace, and whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign power, the trade of America goes to ruin because of her connection with Britain. The next war may not turn out like the last, and should it not, the advocates for reconciliation now will be wishing for separation then, because neutrality in that case would be a safer convoy than a man-of-war [naval ship].”

Paine closed by urging Americans to separate and declare independence:

“Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘Tis time to part’. The authority of Great Britain over this continent is a form of government which sooner or later must have an end. And a serious mind can draw no true pleasure by looking forward, under the painful and positive conviction, that what he calls the present constitution is merely temporary.”