Summary

by LeAnne Bagnall

This chapter is a free excerpt from Quicklet on Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

Paine divides Common Sense into four sections. The first section covers the origins of humankind, in which Paine imagines a society of humans in its purest form without the taint of government. In its most basic form, Paine claims, society would function under mutual respect and interests—such as security, protection, and survival. He famously calls government “a necessary evil” that must soon be put into place once a natural society becomes larger, as “moral virtue” alone cannot rule man who is prone to error. Paine describes how a self-governing republic would then be implemented, being the only successful (and fair) form of rule. In comparison to this ideal existence, Paine’s modern world has upheld the long-standing monarchical system which had somehow vanquished the natural equality of man. Monarchies righteously place a man above the rest—although all mankind are God’s children—and gives him the authority to speak, make decisions, create war, and take away on their behalf. In the case of England, it is the king—not the people or their representatives—who is the “will of the land.” Monarchy, Paine states, is not rooted in freedom but prejudice, whereas “the constitution of the people” is the true form of freedom. Paine challenges readers to recognize the underlying evil of monarchy, despite its age-old tradition that may have never been questioned before.

In the second section, Paine brusquely refutes the principles of monarchy and of hereditary succession. Paine references the Bible several times to make his case that the foundation of a monarchy is plainly against the path of the scripture. He calls the government of kings outright idolatry, a form of government which did not result from divinity or from nature—but rather from the “Heathens” who sprang from unruly gangs and ruthlessly conquered their way into power against the will of the people. Quite bold for his day, Paine unabashedly refers to the founder of England’s monarchy, William the Conqueror, as “a French bastard” who pillaged his way to prideful leadership against the will of the people. Furthermore, the hereditary succession of kings does not guarantee that moral virtue is also hereditary, and that future generations will continually be ruled by gracious leaders on the throne. The passing of elderly kings to their infant sons can leave nations in a state of vulnerability in which special interest, enemies, and corruption can thrive.


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Paine divides Common Sense into four sections. The first section covers the origins of humankind, in which Paine imagines a society of humans in its purest form without the taint of government. In its most basic form, Paine claims, society would function under mutual respect and interests—such as security, protection, and survival. He famously calls government “a necessary evil” that must soon be put into place once a natural society becomes larger, as “moral virtue” alone cannot rule man who is prone to error. Paine describes how a self-governing republic would then be implemented, being the only successful (and fair) form of rule. In comparison to this ideal existence, Paine’s modern world has upheld the long-standing monarchical system which had somehow vanquished the natural equality of man. Monarchies righteously place a man above the rest—although all mankind are God’s children—and gives him the authority to speak, make decisions, create war, and take away on their behalf. In the case of England, it is the king—not the people or their representatives—who is the “will of the land.” Monarchy, Paine states, is not rooted in freedom but prejudice, whereas “the constitution of the people” is the true form of freedom. Paine challenges readers to recognize the underlying evil of monarchy, despite its age-old tradition that may have never been questioned before.

In the second section, Paine brusquely refutes the principles of monarchy and of hereditary succession. Paine references the Bible several times to make his case that the foundation of a monarchy is plainly against the path of the scripture. He calls the government of kings outright idolatry, a form of government which did not result from divinity or from nature—but rather from the “Heathens” who sprang from unruly gangs and ruthlessly conquered their way into power against the will of the people. Quite bold for his day, Paine unabashedly refers to the founder of England’s monarchy, William the Conqueror, as “a French bastard” who pillaged his way to prideful leadership against the will of the people. Furthermore, the hereditary succession of kings does not guarantee that moral virtue is also hereditary, and that future generations will continually be ruled by gracious leaders on the throne. The passing of elderly kings to their infant sons can leave nations in a state of vulnerability in which special interest, enemies, and corruption can thrive.

In the next section, Paine jumps right into the state of the American colonies, i.e., the need for a call to arms: “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense; and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves.” Paine explains outright why America would be better off on its own and free from its motherland’s tyranny, not just for its own sake, but for the world. As an independent state, America would have strong and self-sustaining commerce, security, and protection, as well as alliances with the rest of the world due to its potential stance as a global trade port. Should it remain under Britain’s rule, America would be nothing more than a subservient British minion in Britain’s conquest for power, and therefore will repel other nation’s from its friendship. It would not only damage American economy, but when other nations would war against Britain, they would also be warring with America. That is not the future that Paine envisions for America. He sees an America that thrives as a republic state which will serve as a model for freedom to the rest of the world, and in which others would seek to emulate or adopt as their own. Paine claims it is God’s will to open “a sanctuary” for all humans to turn to in order to escape the oppression of their homelands.

Paine also argues that clinging to a thread of government from British rule would make America appear weak to outsiders and an undesirable state. Leadership in Britain, Paine states, is totally disconnected from the growth of the American continent, save for its taxation of the citizens for which they receive no rights in return. Paine condemns monarchy as being founded on pride, war, and injustice, then offers the solution of forming a republic whose principles rely on peace, representation, protection, and fairness. He is literally compelled to excitement as he encourages his reader to “depart” from the old and “prepare” for the revolution.

The last section is rather an outline of America’s resources available to the colonists should they go forth and revolt. Paine makes the claim that if brought to war with each other, America would definitely defeat Britain—an unheard of proposal at the time. Paine justifies why Americans should form a navy for themselves, even though Britain boasts of having the world’s strongest navy. He also refers to America’s wealth of natural resources, manpower, commerce, etc. to help it thrive in war. Paine claims that the time for the uprising could not be more precise than the present—America being still a nascent nation but not big enough to create conflicts within itself.

America, Paine states, has the wit and the power, now it just needs the unity of its people to take the first step. The revolution would also prove to the world, Paine writes, that America seeks independence from the oppression of the British crown, and therefore may possibly encourage other nations to free themselves from the grip of monarchy. After independence is accomplished, America would be a land for free speech, election, freedom of religion, and equality.

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