What Thomas Paine thought about the state of American affairs 250 years ago when he wrote Common Sense, and what we can learn from that today.
Excerpts from Common Sense by Thomas Paine. If you’ve ever tried to read it you know that it was written in Old English, and it’s nearly impossible to understand. Because of that, excerpts shown are from the translated version re-written in modern English. If you want to fully understand Common Sense by Thomas Paine the modern English version is by far the best way to read it. If you’re interested in the full text, it’s available in eBook, print or, if you prefer, audio book. You Can Get It HERE
From Common Sense by Thomas Paine, THOUGHTS ON THE PRESENT STATE OF AMERICAN AFFAIRS
In the following pages, I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense. I don’t ask any requirements of the reader except that he divest himself of prejudice and predisposition and use reason and his feelings to determine for himself what he will decide or not decide. The true character of a man is to look beyond the present day.
Volumes have been written about the struggle between England and America. Men of all ranks have joined in the controversy from different motives and with different opinions, but all have been ineffective and the debate has ended. Arms are the last resource to decide this debate. This decision was the choice of the king, and America has accepted the challenge.
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.
I have heard some people say that America has flourished under the former connection with Great-Britain and that the same connection is needed for America’s future prosperity. Nothing can be more mistaken than this kind of argument. It is like saying that because a child thrives on milk, he will never eat meat or that the first 20 years of our lives becomes the precedent for the next 20. But even this analogy adds more weight to the issue than is really appropriate. Because the truth is that America would flourish and probably even more so than it already does if no European power had any influence. Great-Britain benefited from the tax revenue generated by America. Financial resources that are necessities in America. Of course, Great-Britain is happy to continue the relationship with America because it continues to selfishly benefit.
We’ve been fooled into accepting long-accepted prejudices, and because of those false beliefs, we’ve made large sacrifices. We think the military protection of Great-Britain has been a benefit to us without considering that their motivation was their own selfish interests, not a commitment to us. Great-Britain did not protect us from our enemies for our benefit. It was its enemies it was defending against and for its benefit. We had no disagreement with the people on any other issue, but because of Great-Britain, they will always be our enemies. When Great-Britain waives its claim to America, we will be at peace with these other countries.
Some members of the British Parliament have claimed that the colonies are not related to each other, only through the parent country. The only purpose this claim serves is to create enemies of neighboring states. Other countries of Europe are enemies of America only because they are enemies of Great-Britain. This is a poor reflection of Great-Britain.
Much has been said about the combined strength of Britain and the colonies and how, together, they could dominate the world. But this is nothing more than a meaningless assumption. Americans would never abandon America to support a war in Asia, Africa, or Europe.
Besides, why would we want to dominate the world? Our plan is open and fair trade that will secure peace and friendship with all of Europe because it will benefit all of Europe to have America as a free port. Free trade with America will always be a benefit, and the lack of gold and silver will deter invaders.
Even though I would carefully avoid insulting anyone, I am inclined to believe that all the people who support reconciliation with Great-Britain could be described in just a few ways: (i) concerned men, but who are not trustworthy; (ii) weak men with no vision, unable to see anything different because of their narrow-mindedness; and (iii) a certain number of moderate men who give more credit to the ways of Europe than it deserves. It’s the moderates, because of their lack of careful consideration, who will cause more harm to America than the other two kinds of men.
Not everyone sees the pain in the way others do. However, if we imagine for a minute Boston and how bad it is there, we can see the wisdom of renouncing a power no one can trust. The people of that unfortunate city, who just a few months ago were enjoying an easy life and free flowing money, are now left with two options: stay and starve or go out and beg. Their friends attack them from outside the city, and soldiers of Britain attack them if they leave it. They are prisoners without hope of being saved, and regardless of which path they choose, they’ll be exposed to attack.
Passive people look somewhat lightly over the offenses of Britain and, still hoping for the best, are inclined to ask, “Can’t we just be friends again?” But look at the emotions people carry. It runs contrary to human nature to bring reconciliation and expect people to live, honor, and faithfully serve the power that has brutally attacked them. If you cannot honestly say you can overcome that aspect of human nature, you are only deceiving yourselves and delaying the inevitable. Your future connection to Britain, whom you can neither love nor honor, will provide little more than short-term convenience. After a while, the relationship relapses and becomes much worse than it ever was before. If, after considering this truth, you still say that you can overcome it, I ask, “Was your house destroyed? Is your family homeless without food? Have you lost a loved one to their violence while you still survive? If you haven’t experienced this, you have no right to judge those who have. If you have experienced all this and you can still make peace with the murderers, then you are unworthy of the name husband, father, friend, or lover. Whatever title you assume, you have the heart of a coward and the spirit of a yes-man.”
This is not inflaming or exaggerating the matter but trying to examine the situation from the perspective of those who’ve suffered. Otherwise, we are incapable of carrying out our social duties with proper appropriateness. I don’t mean to point out horrors for provoking revenge but to wake us up so that we can create a common goal. Britain and Europe don’t have the power to conquer America unless we continue to postpone taking action and accept a lack of courage. This winter is the perfect opportunity, but if we let it pass or neglect to capitalize on this opportunity, the whole continent will suffer the consequences. If that happens, there is not a punishment we deserve more because we sacrificed this opportunity.
It’s naïve to think the same problems won’t develop again. We thought the repeal of the tax stamp act was the answer, but it was only a short-term fix. It would be wrong to assume that a settlement today won’t mean renewed fighting later.
Britain doesn’t have the ability to treat America fairly. There are too many issues to be properly managed from such a distance, matters they aren’t even aware of. If they can’t conquer us, there’s no way they can govern us.
It’s foolish to always be running three or four thousand miles with information or petitions and then having to wait four or five months for answers. Some matters are so complicated it requires five or six more months to explain. There was a time when this was called for, and there’s a time for it to end.
I’m not persuaded by motives of pride, party, or resentment to support the principle of separation and independence. I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded by what is in the true interest of this continent. I believe anything short of that is nothing more than putting a Band-Aid on the problem and will not produce any lasting success. If we were not to resolve the situation now, we’d be leaving the fight to our children, and, when we’d look back on it, we’d see that having gone a little further at this point would have delivered this continent the praise of the whole world.
America isn’t the first consideration of British politics. England’s first priority is the good of England, and everything it does serves that purpose. England’s own interests leads it to suppress the growth of ours and in every case do what’s most advantageous for them. At the very least, it won’t let America interfere with what’s best for England. This puts us in a vulnerable position under a second-hand government, especially considering what has happened. Men do not change from enemies to friends with a simple name change. To show reconciliation now is a dangerous choice. I affirm that it would be the policy of the king at this time to repeal the acts for the sake of reinstating himself in the government of the provinces in order that he can accomplish by craftiness and slyness in the end what he can’t do by force and violence in the short run. Reconciliation and our ruin will come together.
Thousands of lives have already been ruined by British savagery, and thousands more will probably suffer the same fate. Those people that have suffered have a different perspective than those of us who have not experienced that same suffering. All they seek now is liberty; what they enjoyed before that is gone. With nothing more to lose, they have no desire for submission. Besides the general dislike of Britain by the colonies, they have become like rebellious teenagers, and a government that cannot preserve peace is completely ineffective to the point of being worthless. In that case, we pay taxes for nothing, leaving the power of Britain as worthless as the paper it’s written on. I’ve heard some men—many, I believe, who spoke without thinking—that they dreaded independence, fearing it would lead to civil wars. It’s rare that our first thoughts are truly correct, and that is the case here. There will be ten times more to dread from a patched-up connection with Britain than from independence. I make the case of those affected on my own, and I protest as if I were driven from my house and home, my property destroyed and my circumstances ruined. As a man aware of these injustices, I could never embrace the idea of reconciliation or consider myself bound to it.
If all the colonies are equal, there will be no temptation for any to attempt to achieve superiority over another colony. The republics of Europe are all at peace. Holland and Switzerland have never gone to war, foreign or domestic. Monarchical governments make war because the radicals are tempted. That’s because of the pride and overconfidence in the authority of the king, which grows into hostility with other countries. In instances where there’s a republican government, guided by natural principles, this is avoided.
Let the colonies meet with a president yearly, each with an equal vote. The business would be domestic and subject to the authority of an American Congress.
Let each colony be divided into six, eight, or ten convenient districts. Each district would send a proper number of delegates to congress so that each colony would send at least 30. The whole number in Congress would be at least 390. Each Congress to sit would choose a president by the following method: When the delegates meet, let a colony be taken from the whole 13 colonies by lot, after which let the whole Congress choose (by ballot) a president from out of the delegates of that province. In the next Congress, let a colony be taken by lot from 12 colonies only, omitting that colony from which the president was taken in the former Congress, and so proceed until the whole colonies shall have had their proper rotation. In order that nothing may pass into a law but what is satisfactorily just, let not less than three-fifths of the Congress be called a majority. Anyone who misuses a government of equality like this is as evil as the devil himself.
For any men elected in the future for this or some other similar purpose, I offer them the following excerpts from that wise observer on governments, Giacinto Dragonetti. In his “Treatise on Virtues and Rewards,” he says, “The job of the politician consists of focusing on the true point of happiness and freedom.” Those men would deserve the gratitude of ages who should discover a mode of government that contained the greatest sum of individual happiness with the least national expense.
Some people may ask Where is the King of America? I’ll tell you, friend, he reigns above, and he does not make havoc of humankind like the royal brute of Britain. So that we won’t appear defective in earthly honors, create a special holiday for the constitution. Place the constitution on the Bible and place a crown on it so the world knows that in America the law is king. Just like in absolute governments where the king is law, in free countries the law ought to be king, and there shouldn’t be any other. If any misuse of the crown arises, destroy it at the end of the celebration and scatter it among the people.
Compare that to today. The issues are different but the problem is the same! Debt and corruption. This time it’s not a foreign enemy but our own federal government.
The country is arguably about as divided as it was when Common Sense was written. The division this time is over more government and socialism or not. Luckily the present situation hasn’t escalated into all out war, but in some ways it’s just as destructive.
Just like the early colonists were fooled into accepting the status quo under the guise that Britain was a provider, today we are fooled into believing the federal government is a provider. Government neither makes or provides. It can only take. Without an understanding of that principle there’s nothing in this conversation that makes sense. And, just like the colonist’s connection with Britain, we are lured into thinking that today we are best suited to rely on a central government.
Thomas Paine makes another interesting point about world domination and the idea that American joined with Britain would somehow dominate the world. He asks a simple question “Why would we want to dominate the world”? The same holds true today with United Nations and the desire of some to form a one world government. Why would we want that?
Many of the problems he points out are repeating themselves today. Passive people looking somewhat lightly over the problems we face. Nativity, in believing that somehow these problems will just go away. That a new election, a new administration or a new law is going to fix these problems. When the simple answer remains the same. Just like Britain wasn’t the answer to the problems in the colonies, a bigger federal government isn’t the answer to the problems this country faces today.
Thomas Paine made a simple statement that we would do well to return to. He said, I’m not persuaded by motives of pride or party. These are the sources of our division. If, we could let go of that, as he did and focus on what’s best for the country perhaps, we would see progress.
What does that progress look like? The answer to this question also remains the same, a simplified form of government.