Thursday, January 31, 2019

Common Sense by Thomas Paine (reread)

Common Sense
Thomas Paine
Published 1776
The Well-Educated Mind Histories


Paine was born in England, 1737, to Christian parents (his father was a Quaker). He ran away from home, failed in business, and was in the process of making a mess of his life until he met Benjamin Franklin, in London. Franklin suggested he give America a try.

In 1774, Paine moved to Philadelphia, and worked as an editor. He wrote about the injustices of slavery, borrowing from his Quaker influences that all men are equal in God's eyes.


Paine was deeply invested in the political and social issues of America and personally against a government of kings. On the eve of the American Revolution, which began in 1775, many colonists were still undecided between loyalty to the Crown or independence. Paine wanted to convince them to seek independence from Britain.
Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived. 

He wrote a pamphlet called Common Sense, published in 1776, and was successful in convincing colonists to make that decision, many of which became Patriots of the Revolution and joined the movement for independence. Often Paine is referred to as the Father of the Revolution.


According to Paine, in 1775-1776, he discerned America's fight in the battle for liberty: 
The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.
Paine described society as a result of man's wants and government the result of our wickedness, "a necessary evil." (I feel like Rousseau said something like this.) He believed in simple, lesser government (I totally agree); "the less liable it is to be disordered and the easier repaired when disordered." He established England's absolute government to be too large, complex, and unmanageable. 

The author explained how the Heathens introduced the world to government by kings, which was adopted by Israel; he said that even God disapproved of kings. Obviously, Paine was against the hereditary succession of kings because this explicitly kept men from being equals when one man may "set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever..." He blamed kings for the all the world's bloodshed and war:
'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it. 
When one asked who the king of America was, he believed one should reply, "divine law, the word of God."

Paine was confident that so much damage was done between the two continents already that there  never would be a time or way for Britain and America to reconcile.  He added it would be dangerous. "Reconciliation and ruin are nearly related." 

A section includes Paine's ideas about the prospective American economy, as well as his suggestion to do away with paper money and replace it with gold and silver (too late for that) and a prediction that shipbuilding would be America's successful industry.

Paine encouraged the colonists to rise up! There has never been a better time in her history, he declared. America is young and courageous. 
Youth is the seed time of good habits, as well in nations as in individuals.
Then Paine suggested that a "charter of government be formed first and men delegated to execute them afterward." He added that religion, personal freedom, and property be the obligation of government to protect and defend. 
A firm bargain and a right reckoning make long friends.
And finally...
When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember, that virtue is not hereditary.
Patriots taking up arms against their tyrannical government


Paine addressed the Quakers and other Christians who were against taking up arms against men. He wrote: "We fight neither for revenge nor conquest; neither from pride nor passion; we are not insulting the world with our fleets and armies, nor ravaging the globe for plunder." and desire of peace is not confined to Quakerism, it is the natural, as well the religious wish of all denominations of men. 
Wherefore, if ye really preach from conscience, and mean not to make a political hobbyhorse of your religion, convince the world thereof, by proclaiming your doctrine to our enemies, for they likewise bear ARMS.
And more: 
Alas! it seems by the particular tendency of some part of your if, all sin was reduced to, and comprehended in, the act of bearing arms.
Revolutionary War Reenactment, Huntington Beach, CA


I know this is not a title given to Thomas Paine, but I cannot help thinking of him so. Look what he says:
The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months. The Reflexion is awful - and in this point of view, How trifling, how ridiculous, do the little, paltry cavillings, of a few weak or interested men appear, when weighed against the business of a world.
Let the names of Whig and Tory be extinct; and let none other be heard among us, than those of a good citizen, an open and resolute friend, and a virtuous supporter of the Rights of Mankind and of the FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES OF AMERICA. 

Thomas Paine 1737-1809
O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her -- Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Add this short essay to your reading list if you are a political science/government junky or an American history/political history buff. I have read a few pre-American Revolutionary documents, and none come close to the enthusiasm of Thomas Paine, except maybe Patrick Henry. Lovers of America will appreciate the affections of Paine for our nation's birth and triumph in independence and liberty and freedom.

Sadly, I think much of Paine's words fall on deaf ears today, and maybe his words seem irrelevant. We inherited what he envisioned, but (as Franklin sort of put it...) we don't seem to really want it. 


Stephen said...

Paine interesting fellow. more idealistic than responsible. I used to dote on him, but then I discovered John Adams and realized the actual business of governance is more complicated than what Paine it out to be. What government is more simple than a one-man dictatorship? The complexities of the early American republic were careful designed weights and counterweights to contain corruption -- and assumed corruption was a given. Paine was more of a "the system corrupts the man" thinker, I believe. That said, he was UTTERLY BRILLIANT as a PR man for independence and democracy. Like many of the time, though, he placed a little too much faith in people and ran afoul of the French revolutionaries. There's an interesting book the dichotomy between him and a contemporary, Edmund Burke, called "The Great Debate".

Beth said...

Great review! I have not read The Great Debate but I do have a collection of Burkes writings that I have read in parts. I plan to re-read some of it after I read The Social Contract.

Michelle Ann said...

Thanks for the review. I usually find political books a bit off-putting, but knowing that this is very short means I will now read it. It will be interesting to see what came to pass and what did not from an eighteenth century viewpoint.

Ruth said...

Paine wrote this emotional plea in simple language, so not only is it short and quick, but it is not confusing either.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Beth.

Ruth said...

He was an emotional guy, obviously. Maybe even a rabble rouser. Likely, Paine was a lot like Rousseu, in that Rousseu totally trusted the people to do right...and yet it was people in high position that both men hated. I suppose they overlooked the irony of their argument. You really cannot trust people or man with too much power.

Stephen said...