Book: Common Sense by Thomas Paine
I mentioned in my last post that as part of my Revolutionary summer I watched The Revolution series on the History channel. One episode devoted a lot of time to Thomas Paine and his writing and printing Common Sense. At the Minuteman National Historical Park Visitor’s Center in Concord a few days later, I saw a little volume of Mr. Paine’s most famous essay that matched my bound editions of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Liking things in a set, I bought the little brown book and proceeded to read it.
I was totally blown away.
The first few pages were a bit tough going, as 18th century English is quite different from what we speak and read today. Once I caught on to the rhythms, phrasing, and expressions, however, I found myself totally engrossed in what is perhaps the most aptly named written work. Ever. One of the historians in the Revolution series said that there were no statues of Mr. Paine because he was considered too much of a radical. And as radical as his ideas might have been for a British subject in 1776, I found them cogent and perfectly logical. In fact, he was astonishingly prescient as well.
Overall, Mr. Paine’s position is that the colonies should not be seeking redress or reconciliation from the King or Parliament for their actions concerning the events in Lexington, Concord, and Boston in 1775. Instead, Mr. Paine posits, the colonies should break from England entirely and form their own country. Sound familiar? Yes, but Mr. Paine wrote this in January 1776, six months before the Continental Congress came to the same conclusion and set about writing the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, Mr. Paine’s pamphlet (coincidentally published in Philadelphia) remains to this day one of the highest circulated essays of all time and no doubt the founding fathers read it and were influenced by it.
In defense of his opinion, Mr. Paine argues that first of all, no man has the right to be a king. He cites Biblical authority from multiple places in scripture about how God did not intend for there to be kings. This quite flies in the face of the contemporary universally accepted concept of the divine right of kings. Mr. Paine then goes on to say that for a century America had been operating as a de facto country (and provides numerous examples of this idea) so why should we seek reconciliation for a situation that never really existed? He further points out the folly of being governed by an authority three thousand miles of ocean away (again, with supporting evidence) and the impossibility of this being an effective administrative system.
Mr. Paine goes on to show himself as quite the republican (meaning one who advocates a republic with an elected government rather than a monarchy with appointed cronies in positions of power) by criticizing the existence of the House of Lords and how Members of the House of Commons are elected. He outlines a plan for an elected executive and a legislative body with the number of representatives based on the population of each state. Again, the founding fathers must have been paying close attention.
It is often said that Thomas Paine was not necessarily the originator of these ideas. Rather, heavily influenced by the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Franklin, he took the concept of human rights and made it accessible to the masses. Quite successfully, too. Prior to the printing of Common Sense, the “skirmishes” in Massachusetts had been seen by the colonies as primarily a New England problem. His pamphlet raised colonists’ awareness of the true issues at stake and helped to transform 13 colonies into one cohesive entity, with one voice. He took what was The Plain Truth (his original title for his incendiary work) and made us all aware of what is simply Common Sense.