Common Sense by Thomas Paine. It was a little book, one little book that changed the world. How’s that happen? How could one little book make have such a big impact? The book in case you don’t know is Common Sense by Thomas Paine. What was so profound about it?
By the end of 1776 it’s estimated that 1 in 5 Americans had read Common Sense by Thomas Paine. No other book has ever reached so many people so quickly. No other book has had such a profound impact on a country. No other book has had such a profound impact on the principles of freedom and proper government.
Maybe you never heard of Common Sense by Thomas Paine but that doesn’t change the fact that it remains today the bestselling American title of all time. What was it about? Why was it so important? How did it impact America? And, why would anybody care today?
The book at its core is a call for independence from Great Britain. That was the purpose of the book, to convince the colonists that independence was necessary. But, the Declaration of Independence had been signed and the revolutionary war was under way. So, why was this book needed? Why would it be necessary to convince people of the cause of independence if the declaration had been signed and the revolutionary war begun?
The simple answer is division, the country was very divided. It’s been said that half the people living in the colonies didn’t want independence. That’s a shocking fact for people who don’t know it, but it’s true. Of course, there was a reason they felt this way. In essence they were afraid. They felt that remaining a colony of Britain would provide safety and security they otherwise wouldn’t have. Fear is a powerful motivator and the people that wanted to remain loyal to Britain were well convinced it was the right thing to do.
So, there was a difference of opinion. One side wanted freedom, the other side wanted what they believed to be safety security. That’s why this book was so important. It made the case for freedom, acknowledging both sides of the argument Thomas Paine made his case in plain language and simple arguments. He also explained why. He created understanding, and this is what makes Common Sense by Thomas Paine so effective even today.
That’s one of the reasons I believe it’s still a very important book. So that we can understand why our government is the way it is. So that we can understand why certain principles were so important to the founding fathers. Why there needs to be a proper limitation of government. Why the constitution says the things it does. So, even today this is very important reading.
- The introduction which is essentially a letter.
- The origin and design of government.
- Monarchy and hereditary succession.
- The state of American affairs at the time.
- The capabilities of America.
- Separation of church and state which was added in the 2nd printing.
Here, Thomas Paine is talking about the origin of government which is a very important thing to understand to really understand how government works. He begins by acknowledging the differences of opinion on the matter he’s writing about. He goes on to say that its purpose is to principles not to attack anyone, but he also emphasizes the importance of the matter.
“This book is about principles. Its purpose is not to attack or compliment any person or people. Wise and worthy people don’t need a book to support their beliefs, and those who lack a sense of justice or are unfriendly will remain unconvinced until the pain of their decision changes their mind.”
He lays out the reasons why we need government in the first place. Even though he cautions that government is a necessary evil he acknowledges its necessity. He even recognizes the reasons why monarchies are popular. It’s almost as if he’s a time traveler as he recounts the history of civilization and points to the future.
“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.”
He uses historical accounts and his observations to point out flaws in the English form of government, and those flaws are a barrier to justice. He uses that point to then address the issue of monarchy and hereditary succession in general.
“There’s another distinction among people that has no truly natural or religious reason, that between kings and subjects. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, and good and bad are the distinctions of heaven, but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest like some new species is worth discussing., as is whether they are the means of happiness for humankind or the misery of humankind.
In the early ages of the world, according to biblical history, there were no kings. As a result, there were no wars. The pride of kings that throws humankind into confusion and chaos. Holland, which doesn’t have a king, has enjoyed more peace for this last century than any of the monarchical governments in Europe. A look back on history supports this argument. The first patriarchs had happy, quiet, rural lives that vanished with the arrival of Jewish royalty.
All of this assumes the idea that kings have some noble, honest origin, when, more than likely, if we were to trace the monarchy back to its origins, we’d find that it all began with a gang of thieves who wanted to increase their power and ability to take more. They probably saw an opportunity to offer safety to quiet and defenseless people in exchange for frequent contributions back to them. The people who supported these early kings could never have imagined the idea of giving hereditary right to his descendants, because such a perpetual exclusion of themselves was incompatible with the free and unrestrained principles they professed to live by. Hereditary succession in the early stages of monarchy wasn’t so much a demand as it was something mutually beneficial. There aren’t any records from that time, so it’s impossible to say for sure, but it’s clear that after a few generations, lies began to take hold as fact. Therefore, when the king was near death and people grew nervous, a solution was offered to make succession orderly. It seemed like an easy solution, and it was convenient. Then it became a right.”
At this point in the book he’s drawn attention to the natural origin of government and the superbly evil nature of monarchy. But, he still needs to convince the average citizen that they will gain from independence. That somehow their lives will be better if they give up the safety and security that Britain provided. In this section, he draws attention to the risks associated with remaining loyal to Britain.
“The sun never shines on something more important than this. This is not an affair of a city or county or state or even a kingdom but that of a continent, at least one-eighth of the entire planet. This is not a concern of a day or a year or an age. Generations will be impacted by this fight, and will be affected until the end of time by what happens now. This is the beginning of a new nation, a union of faith and honor. The smallest defect now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on a young oak sapling. As the tree grows, the defect will grow bigger and generations will feel its impact.
Now the debate has escalated to all-out war. It’s a new era for politics. Everything discussed prior to the start of the war is like an almanac from last year: It was useful then but completely useless now. Whatever disagreements there were, whatever arguments were made, there was one issue of whether to remain united with Britain. There were two ways this could be achieved—either by force or by friendship. The first option has failed, and the second has been withdrawn from the debate.
A lot has been said about the advantages of reconciliation, but that is a long-lost dream. To that end, we should discuss the contrary side of the argument and the negative impact on the colonies now and in the future if we remain connected and dependent on Great-Britain. We should examine that connection and dependence in the context of common sense to see what we can expect if we separate from Britain and what we can expect if we remain dependent on Britain.”
“The most powerful of all arguments, though, is that nothing but independence can keep peace and preserve us unpolluted from constant conflict. I dread the thought of reconciliation with Britain now because it’s more than likely it would just lead to a revolt somewhere else and the consequences could be far more destructive than the revenge of Britain.”
“The real reason some people fear independence is that plans have not been finalized. Some people can’t see the vision. However, I offer a few hints, arising out of my opinion, that it will give rise to something better. If we collected the various ideas of many individuals, it would provide the material for wise men to turn into something great.”
Then he lays out a detailed vision of what a new form of government should look like. Much of what he described is exactly what we have today.
But he still has to convince the reader that It’s possible, that this idea of independence is a realistic, achievable goal. He does that by describing in great detail the abilities of America. He describes how the new country can build commerce, a strong military and how it will flourish.
That was the end of the original printing. After that first printing the revolutionary war began and a new problem developed. There was opposition from certain religious groups. An addendum was added to the second printing which dealt with the issue of separation of church and state. He made a powerful argument that religious affiliation did not mean the individual relinquished their representation to the religious leaders. It was such an important issue that it was included in the constitution. The arguments we see today in regard to separation of church and state have very little to do with the original meaning.
The sections of Common Sense share here are from my book Common Sense by Christopher Scott. It’s the re-told story of Common Sense by Thomas Paine, translated in modern English. Unlike the original manuscript, written 250 years ago in impossible to comprehend Old English, the new version is written on modern English and can be understood by everyone. Whether you read the free original manuscript or my new translated version, you’ll be glad you did. It’s a fantastic book.