Why was Common Sense important? Common Sense defined American history, but it also defined American principles. It not only defines those principles but thoroughly and rationally explains why they are important. For that reason it is valuable reading for anyone. At its core Common Sense is a compelling call for independence from Britain but by the time Common Sense was originally published the revolutionary war was well under way.
So why was this book so important much less even needed if the country had already declared war. The answer is simple. The country was very divided. At the time of the revolutionary war there approximately 2.6 million people living in the colonies. It’s estimated that at least a million of those didn’t want independence. Imagine that, the country was at war and almost half the people we’re in agreement with the other side!
There was fighting in nearly every colony. Many cities were occupied by British troops.
On January 2nd 1776 The Continental Congress passed a resolution calling on colonial committees to indoctrinate those “honest and well-meaning, but uninformed people” by expounding to them the “origin, nature and extent of the present controversy.” The body also calls for confirmed tories to be disarmed and confined, if necessary.
On January 4th 1776 Washington promises Congress that he will attack Boston at his first opportunity.
On January 7th 1776 In Philadelphia, Samuel Adams writes that the idea of a confederation among the colonies “is not dead, but uninterested.”
On January 9th 1776 Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense appears in today’s session of the Continental Congress. This was the first edition.
Hostilities continued and on February 9th 1776, Upon the arrival of 200 British troops in New York, General Lee requests that Congress send the city a battalion of troops from Philadelphia to assist in the construction of fortifications.
On February 12th 1776 In North Carolina, patriots and tories continue to mobilize their forces. The Committee of Safety orders the militia to assemble in the districts north of Cross Creek.
On February 14th 1776 In Salem, North Carolina, the Moravians note that in Cross Creek “the Governor’s party was very strong, and . . . the King’s Standard had been raised. From Richmond, Virginia we hear that Minute Men, are being divided into Companies, and are preparing to march to Guilford and beyond against the Governor, etc. All is alarm and confusion . . . ”
On February 14th 1776 The 2nd Edition of Common Sense is published.
If you ask people today what’s the biggest problem we face, what’s the biggest problem in our country do you know what the number one answer is? Division. I know because I spent a lot of time asking people. People say the #1 problem is division. People will tell you the biggest problem in this country is that we’re so divided. Division is the problem, people say we can’t agree on anything that’s the problem. As much as that’s true, division isn’t the problem it’s the symptom of the problem. The problem is a lack of shared values.
Did you know the Civil War took over 600,000 lives? Almost as many as all the other wars COMBINED. We were a lot more divided then then we are now. We were killing each other we were so divided. But, we didn’t say the Civil War was fought because we were divided. We were divided BECAUSE there was a difference in ideology.
This country’s always been divided. From the very beginning. Before we were even a country we were divided. When we we’re still just colonies of Britain some people wanted a free and independent country but a lot of people they wanted to stay with Britain. The colonists were very divided over this issue.
You might not know this but there were a lot of people that didn’t want independence. At the time of the revolution there something like 2.6 million people in this country and almost half of them, more than a million they didn’t want independence. They wanted to stay with Britain. The country was completely divided even then.
There was a war going on and half the people supported the other side. Imagine that. We were at war and half the people were supporting the other side. The division then was a lot worse than it is now. But, division wasn’t the problem. People were divided over principle. One wanting freedom the other wanting what they perceived as safety and security.
Both sides were convinced they were right. This is why Common Sense was so important. Thomas Paine explained in simple language why freedom was the only logical choice. Not only did he have to persuade the colonists it was the right choice but he had to convince them that the time was now.
He made a calculated argument. He explained the origin of government, pointed out the atrocities of the king and carefully explained that colonies are not natural form of government. He used simple examples and described how independence would work for a young nation.
Here’s what he wrote:
“To illustrate this principle, let’s look at a small group of people living in some secluded place unconnected with the rest of the world. Let’s say they represent the first country in the world. When people first become a group, forming a society will be the first thing they do. They’ll have plenty of reasons to join and help each other. It’s difficult for one person to survive on his own, and people don’t like being alone. After a while, then, people will come together to help each other. Whereas people working together could build a house, one person working alone would have a hard time doing so, because if he were trying to do it alone, he would have trouble accomplishing everything. For example, he would have a hard time cutting and moving trees for lumber by himself, and even if he were to attempt to do so anyway, he’d have to frequently stop to feed himself. In addition, many things would require his attention just to survive, because if he got sick or injured and became unable to take care of his basic needs, he could die as a result.
Out of necessity, then, people are pulled together to take advantage of each other’s talents and abilities. In the beginning they rely on each other, so there is no need for laws and government. Over time, however, selfishness and laziness settle in. People grow complacent. As a second group of people begins providing a disproportionate amount of work, they begin to see the need to establish some form of government to correct the unfairness.
The second group finds a convenient place where the whole colony can meet and discuss these issues, and the entire group comes up with a group of laws. These first laws probably consist of a simple list of basic regulations with the only penalty being public embarrassment. In this early government of just a few people, every person has a vote.
But as the colony grows, so do the problems. As the colony spreads out, it becomes harder for everyone to meet. Whereas in the beginning it was a small group living close together that had relatively few problems, as the group grows and spreads out, the members find it more convenient, instead of each person having an equal voice in the group’s decisions, to select a few representatives who are tasked with acting in the same way as if the whole colony were present to vote. As the colony continues to grow, it adds representatives, until the group becomes so large they members divide the colony into convenient sections, with each section having a representative. The representatives are meant to represent the interests of the people they represent, not their own interests. To maintain this protocol, the group decides to hold frequent, regular elections for representatives. The intent is to keep the representatives honest and not corrupted because they have to return to society. With this frequent change in representatives, the people remain mutually and naturally supportive of each other. The continuing success of this model, however, relies on the happiness of the people.
In a nutshell, this is the origin and rise of government. In other words, government is a system required by the inability of people to individually cooperate for the fairness of everyone. This is the basic design and downfall of government, that is, freedom and security, and no matter how idealist such a conclusion might seem, basic human nature will eventually prove it true.
I draw my idea of the form of government from a natural law: The simpler something is, the less liable it is to be confusing and the easier it is to fix. With this point of view, I offer a few remarks on the much-talked-about Constitution of England. It started out as a good idea to solve the problems of the time. When people had no voice in government, the Constitution provided a solution. But it wasn’t perfect, which made it subject to arguing, and it was incapable of producing what it promised. All of this was easily demonstrated.
Asolute governments, which are the disgrace of human nature, have this advantage: They are simple. If the people suffer, they know that whoever is in charge is causing their suffering. The simplicity also makes it easy to see the remedy. There’s no confusion of what’s causing the problem and what to do about it. But the Constitution of England is so exceedingly complex that the nation could suffer for years without being able to discover where the problem lies. Some people will blame one thing, some people will blame another for the resulting problems and suffering, and every political expert will have different advice.
I know it is difficult to get over local or long-standing beliefs, but if we take the time to look at the different components of the English Constitution, we find at its core two ancient tyrannies, with some new Republican elements sprinkled in. First, we find the remains of the monarchial tyranny of a King. Second, we find the remains of the aristocratic tyranny of the Peers. Third, we find the new Republican elements of the Commons—and this is where the entire freedom of England lies. The first two elements are inherited positions and are independent of the people, so in a constitutional sense they contribute nothing towards the freedom of the country. To say the Constitution of England is a balance of three powers with each one checking the other demonstrates belief in an illusion. Either such a statement has no meaning or it is flat-out wrong. To say the Commons is a check on the King assumes two things.
First, the King can’t be trusted without being looked after. In other words, the King’s thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of a monarchy. Second, the Commons, being appointed for looking after the King, is either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the King is.
So while the Constitution gives the Commons the power to check the King by withholding laws, it gives the power back to the King to check the Commons by empowering him to veto the Commons’ bills. This again supposes that the King is wiser than the Commons, even though, as I have just shown, the just previously described check assumes the Commons wiser than the King is. The whole thing is an absurdity.
There is something exceedingly ridiculous about the composition of the monarchy. First, the office excludes the King from vital information that he needs to rule wisely yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The King is secluded from the world, yet the position of a King requires him to know the world thoroughly. Different parts of the monarchical system unnaturally opposing and destroying each other prove the whole system to be absurd and useless.”
He made a strong case and appealed to the people’s basic sense of good. He wrote, “On that basis, we’ve been working to establish an independent constitution of our own, one that exceeds all others in our hope, end, and aim. Our plan is peace forever. We are tired of fighting with Britain, and we cannot see any other end except final separation. Our desire has remained consistent to find endless and uninterrupted peace. This is why we look beyond the burdens of today. We are working—and will continue working—to separate and end a connection that has already filled our land with blood which we know will be the cause of future problems for both countries if it continues. We’re not fighting for revenge or conquest or for pride, passion, or plunder.”
That call to action established the foundation for the country that remains today. Over the years people have credited our freedom to many people and events but there’s little doubt that in a great deal of the credit goes to Thomas Paine. If he hadn’t written Common Sense we might not be a free country today.
He was able to write a convincing argument to end the divided opinion, and bring the country together to support the common cause of freedom. If he hadn’t written it we might never have continued to pursue independence as a free nation. Not only did he explain what was important but he explained why and this was crucial to making a convincing argument.