Common Sense

Any revolution without a self-published manifesto is a revolution not worth having. Laying the grounds for why armed insurrection is not only inevitable, but in fact desirable, is the necessary precursor towards eliciting sympathy from the downtrodden populace. A political treatise that can do this in a thoroughly persuasive and compelling manner should not be overlooked in its utility as a key recruiting tool for bringing new manpower into the ranks of the resistance to tyranny.

 

 

The author begins by distinguishing between society and government in terms of their respective origins and functions. He portrays them in a sort of yin-yang type relationship, that is, anything good comes from society and everything bad comes from the government (albeit, in a “necessary” way since all government is, is the reflection of individual human wickedness). Natural liberty is only suited to persons living in a state of nature; any civilization more complex requires government to mitigate those most dangerous amongst us, which by default provides the conditions necessary for everyone else to survive and grow. Put simply:

 

“Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and of reason will say, it is right.”

 

In other words, Paine does not think it is possible for the people in common to be ethically consistent enough to live without some manifestation of at least a nightwatchman state.

I find it intriguing that Paine’s utter disgust for monarchy (both of the absolute and “constitutional” forms) stems from a common practice that was eventually copied by the Jews. As he asserts:

 

“In the early ages of the world, according to the scripture chronology, there were no kings; the consequence of which was, there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion. Holland without a king hath enjoyed more peace for this last century than any of the monarchial governments in Europe. Antiquity favours the same remark; for the quiet and rural lives of the first patriarchs hath a happy something in them, which vanishes away when we come to the history of Jewish royalty.”

 

He goes on to describe how veneration of a king is little different from idolatry. His lambasting Jews for their “natural delusion” for wanting a king, as comprising one of their collective sins for why there is a curse denouncing their entire people for it, admittedly does seem to come out of left field.

Hereditary succession is frowned on as well, for it engenders a degradation of both everyone currently living and those yet unborn. Paine seems to view the very concept of the legitimacy to rule based solely on a bloodline as antithetical to any notion of responsibility, which is totally based upon individual merit. He also seems to lay blame against hereditary royalty for sowing the seeds of discord in the future, as evidenced by the War of the Roses. Regarding the possibility of American monarchism, Paine had this to say:

 

“But where, says some, is the King of America? I’ll tell you. Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law OUGHT to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony, be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.”

 

At this point, I think it is a gross understatement to say that Paine is no friend to the divine right of kings.

Stressing the Battles of Lexington and Concord as the pivotal tipping point, Paine constantly refers to it for why independence should be pursued instead of reconciliation. Explaining how continuing to associate with Great Britain will in the long run drag down the colonies, Paine presents an admittedly compelling case for permanent secession. He even uses the disparity in geographical sizes:

 

“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems; England to Europe, America to itself.”

 

He also argues that the king has violated the English constitution repeatedly, which such a behavior by itself will continue to further destabilize the colonies. This is plainly unacceptable, and since reconciliation is insufficient as a serious form of redress for their grievances, revolutionary principles must embrace independence.

I found it intriguing that Paine laid the groundwork both for what became later the Declaration of Independence as well as the Almighty Federal Constitution. He proposed a “continental conference” to draft a “continental charter” with “assemblies” of representatives to manage the process. A “manifesto” detailing “the miseries we have endured,” as well as those methods of lawful process that have failed, is to be written so as to establish more succinctly why independence is the only way to secure their Liberties. In many ways, Paine was planning ahead as to what needed to be done in order to establish the legitimacy of a truly sovereign American civil government.

In the Appendix, Paine deeply questions the judgement of the Quakers who attempted to diplomatically appease the king. His response to their pacifism reminds me very much of my fairly recent criticisms regarding some of the anarcho-capitalists. Perhaps this is due to the mostly complimentary yet slightly contrasting notions of natural liberty versus reciprocal liberty, respectively.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is a vital political document elucidating why the thirteen colonies needed to secede from the British Empire. The rhetorical techniques demonstrated against reconciliation with the crown can be used effectively in any kind of situation. I think several lessons can be learned from the arguments presented in terms of forming your own personal political philosophy.

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