An Overview of Common Sense by Thomas Paine, Part 1: Of the Origin and Design of Government
It seemed like a theological commentary or some academic paper, and I would’ve walked right past it if it hadn’t been in the classics section of Barnes & Nobles. The dull brown leatherback made it indistinguishable from the leatherbound versions of the Bible or the copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra that sat right next to it: just one thing caught my eye. It sat face down on a shelf, and a unique etching was on its back, a snake cut up into different pieces with a caption in all-caps, “JOIN or DIE.” Furthermore, the snake proclaimed “unite and conquer” through a scroll that sprang forth from its open jaws. Recognizing the etching as American Revolutionary propaganda, I picked up the bound book and read the title, “COMMON SENSE and Other Works: ADDRESSED TO THE INHABITANTS OF AMERICA.” Immediately, memories from my AP US History class flashed before my eyes and I decided right then and there to buy the book.
Background on Common Sense
History textbooks all claim that Common Sense by Thomas Paine was a turning point in “the course of human events” as it marked the beginning of mass movements for independence by the general populace. Before its publication, the colonies had tried multiple times to reconcile with their mother country, as seen in the “Olive Branch Petition” which King George met with an outright declaration of war. The combination of outright armed hostilities (King George called for the destruction of “dangerous and ill-designing Men”) and the publication of Common Sense most directly led to the Declaration of Independence. We owe this book to America’s existence, and the “sentiments contained” went on to inspire revolutions across the world.
In the modern era, we often look back at writings thereof and assume that the aristocrats, in their tidy little castles, were out of touch and ignorant as they wrote their poems and plays. Either that or some assume they were of the most enlightened stock and look back with a sort of reverence at the European thinkers of old. What makes Common Sense so special is that it is inherently progressive as the writer himself was rather unwealthy. Thomas Paine was the son of a tenant farmer and had just enough education to allow him to read and write, he began working as a corset maker at age 13. Perhaps his humble beginnings allowed him to connect with the general American population, mainly consisting of farmers or urban workers, in a way other writers of the time couldn’t. Paine’s worldviews were surprisingly progressive too, after the Revolution he dedicated his work to fighting against slavery and promoting revolution in France. In Rights of Man, Paine spends the entirety of the two parts combatting Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism. Many scholars and historians claim the fight between Burke and Paine began the birth of the political left and right.
Right away, the first paragraph of the introduction left a profound impact on me – Paine makes a philosophical observation many of us would relate to today.
“PERHAPS the sentiments contained in the following pages are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor. A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
Of the Origin and Design of Government in general, with concise Remarks on the English Constitution.
Paine immediately seems, at the very least, skeptical of government. He remarks, “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” He claims government was designed out of necessity for security, and if men were perfect, there would be no need for government. To illustrate his point, he brings up an example, a number of people travel to a new land and are completely isolated from the rest of the Earth. They will form society as “the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants” and will begin to work together and support one another. However, as it always happens, the people will start to feel disconnected from one another and relax in their duties. This is what will drive the creation of the first government, and the first parliament. Paine claims the first parliament will have every colonist take a seat and create a set of regulations for the public good. However, the colony will eventually increase in number and they will begin to elect representatives; of course, the elected will frequently come back and mix in with the electors so that they may never become too detached or out of touch.
He concludes that government was ultimately formed for our freedom and security, in the will of the people. The English constitution, to Paine, is an abomination and laughing stock that was only tolerable during the “dark and slavish times.” At least in absolute government the people can know who is the cause of their sufferings, but the English constitution makes it so no one can quite understand what is going on, or what to do about it. The English government is of three parts: a tyrant, aristocratic tyranny, and the new Republican government which is the only representative of the people. The fact that the commons can check the King in power itself presupposes that the King cannot be trusted without regulation, thus proving monarchy leads to thirst for absolute power. Also, it presupposes that the people wiser and have the ability to double-check the crown, but the crown can also check the commons meaning that the crown is wiser than those who are wiser than him. This, to Paine, is an absolute absurdity. Indeed, Paine’s attacks on the English constitution would be published around France and western Europe, with the excerpt on monarchy censored of course. This house divided against itself has another problem, the English crown is overbearing in the English constitution, and ultimately, the will of the King is enforced, though slowed down by parliament. In this sense, the King is an absolute ruler as in England and as in France or any other monarchy. The parliament only exists to deliver the will of the King in a more friendly manner and as a point of national pride.
This section of the treatise seems rather outdated and disconnected to the modern age. After all, England’s monarch is no longer even a threat to the parliament and democracy thrives in the western world. The work seems only revolutionary to the time it was given, and not of any significance now. That is, until one can recognize the main point Paine was trying to get across. It is true that the content of this section mostly consists of attacking monarchy and the English constitution, but what Paine says about the attitudes of Englishmen is still a biting remark. Englishmen, Paine claims, only support the present constitution because it is tradition and it had been considered not necessarily wrong since the dawn of English history. “The prejudice of Englishmen in favor of their own government by king, lords, and commons, arises as much or more from national pride than reason.” What one should really take away from this section is how almost all of humankind prefers to stick to their own biases out of pride, national or individual, instead of pure reason. In modern America, we should do what Paine wanted and set aside our own preconceptions of our government and try to objectively re-examine our own constitutions. Will we find the same ridiculous contradictions and outdated gibberish that Paine found? Or perhaps we can add some necessary reforms for our new technological world, either way, the sentiments contained in this disquisition are timeless.