Published anonymously by Thomas Paine in January of 1776, Common Sense was an instant best-seller, both in the colonies and in Europe. It went through several editions in Philadelphia, and was republished in all parts of United America. Because of it, Paine became internationally famous.
“A Covenanted People” called Common Sense “by far the most influential tract of the American Revolution….it remains one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language.”
Paine’s political pamphlet brought the rising revolutionary sentiment into sharp focus by placing blame for the suffering of the colonies directly on the reigning British monarch, George III.
First and foremost, Common Sense advocated an immediate declaration of independence, postulating a special moral obligation of America to the rest of the world. Not long after publication, the spirit of Paine’s argument found resonance in the American Declaration of Independence.
Written at the outset of the Revolution, Common Sense became the leaven for the ferment of the times. It stirred the colonists to strengthen their resolve, resulting in the first successful anticolonial action in modern history.
Little did Paine realize that his writings would set fire to a movement that had seldom if ever been worked out in the Old World: sovereignty of the people and written constitutions, together with effective checks and balances in government.
Paine has been described as a professional radical and a revolutionary propagandist without peer. Born in England, he was dismissed as an excise officer while lobbying for higher wages. Impressed by Paine, Benjamin Franklin sponsored Paine’s emigration to America in 1774.
In Philadelphia Paine became a journalist and essayist, contributing articles on all subjects to The Pennsylvania Magazine. After the publication of Common Sense, Paine continued to inspire and encourage the patriots during the Revolutionary War with a series of pamphlets entitled The American Crisis. Eventually, Paine went on to write The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.
But, it all started with Common Sense, the writing that sparked an American Revolution.
“Common Sense cites the evils of monarchy, accuses the British government of inflicting economic and social injustices upon the colonies, and points to the absurdity of an island attempting to rule a continent. Credited by George Washington as having changed the minds of many of his countrymen, the document sold over 500,000 copies within a few months. Common Sense remains a landmark document in the struggle for freedom, distinguished not only by Paine’s ideas but also by its clear and passionate presentation. Designed to ignite public opinion against autocratic rule, the pamphlet offered a careful balance between imagination and judgment, and appropriate language and expression to fit the subject. It immediately found a receptive audience, heartened Washington’s despondent army and foreshadowed much of the phrasing and substance of the Declaration of Independence”.
(BACK COVER Courier Dover Publications, 1997)
Paine wrote, “some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state and in tolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer! Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least.
Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of Heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.
Men, who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent. Selected from the rest of mankind, their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed in the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.
If we enquire into the business of a King, we shall find that in some countries they may have none; and after sauntering away their lives without pleasure to themselves or advantage to the nation, withdraw from the scene, and leave their successors to tread the same idle round. In absolute monarchies the whole weight of business civil and military lies on the King; in their request for a king urged this plea, “that he may judge us, and go out before us and fight our battles.” But in countries where he is neither a Judge nor a General a man would be puzzled to know what is his business.
To say that the Commons is a check upon the King, presupposes two things. First — That the King it not to be trusted without being looked after; or in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy. Secondly — That the Commons, by being appointed for that purpose, are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the Crown. But as the same constitution which gives the Commons a power to check the King by withholding the supplies, gives afterwards the King a power to check the Commons, by empowering him to reject their other bills; it again supposes that the King is wiser than those whom it has already supposed to be wiser than him. A mere absurdity!
The Peers are a house in behalf of the King, the commons in behalf of the people; but this hath all the distinctions of a house divided against itself; and though the expressions be pleasantly arranged, yet when examined they appear idle and ambiguous; and it will always happen, that the nicest construction that words are capable of, when applied to the description of something which either cannot exist, or is too incomprehensible to be within the compass of description, will be words of sound only, and though they may amuse the ear, they cannot inform the mind: for this explanation includes a previous question, viz. how came the King by a power which the people are afraid to trust, and always obliged to check? Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can any power, which needs checking, be from God; yet the provision which the constitution makes supposes such a power to exist.
The prejudice, in favor of their own government, by King, Lords and Commons, arises as much or more from national pride than reason. Individuals are undoubtedly safer in their country than in some other countries: but the will of the king is as much the law of the land in their country as in another country, with this difference, that instead of proceeding directly from his mouth, it is handed to the people under the formidable shape of an act of parliament.
Wherefore, laying aside all national pride and prejudice in favor of modes and forms, the plain truth is that it is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government that the crown is not as oppressive in their own country as in another country.
We should be glad to ask how they suppose kings came at first. The question admits but of three answers, viz. either by lot, by election, or by usurpation. If the first king was taken by lot, it establishes a precedent for the next, which excludes hereditary succession. Saul was by lot, yet the succession was not hereditary, neither does it appear from that transaction that there was any intention it ever should. If the first king of any country was by election, that likewise establishes a precedent for the next; for to say, that the right of all future generations is taken away, by the act of the first electors, in their choice not only of a king but of a family of kings for ever, hath no parallel in or out of scripture but the doctrine of original sin, which supposes the free will of all men lost in Adam; and from such comparison, and it will admit of no other, hereditary succession can derive no glory for as in Adam all sinned, and as in the first electors all men obeyed; as in the one all mankind were subjected to Satan, and in the other to sovereignty; as our innocence was lost in the first, and our authority in the last; and as both disable us from re-assuming some former state and privilege, it unanswerably follows that original sin and hereditary succession are parallels. Dishonorable rank! Inglorious connection! Yet the most subtle sophist cannot produce a jester simile.
The most plausible plea which hath ever been offered in favor of hereditary succession is, that it preserves a nation from civil wars; and were this true, it would be weighty; whereas it is the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind. The whole history of England disowns the fact. Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest, in which time there has been (including the revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen Rebellions. Wherefore instead of making for peace, it makes against it, and destroys the very foundation it seems to stand upon.
The contest for monarchy and succession, between the houses of York and Lancaster, laid England in a scene of blood for many years. Twelve pitched battles besides skirmishes and sieges were fought between Henry and Edward. Twice was Henry prisoner to Edward, who in his turn was prisoner to Henry. And so uncertain is the fate of war and the temper of a nation, when nothing but personal matters are the ground of a quarrel, that Henry was taken in triumph from a prison to a palace, and Edward obliged to fly from a palace to a foreign land; yet, as sudden transitions of temper are seldom lasting, Henry in his turn was driven from the throne, and Edward re-called to succeed him. The parliament always following the strongest side.
We are never in a proper condition of doing justice to others, while we continue under the influence of some leading partiality, so neither are we capable of doing it to ourselves while we remain fettered by any obstinate prejudice. And as a man who is attached to a prostitute is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession in favor of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.”
(Adapted from ‘Common Sense (1776)’, Thomas Paine, 1737–1809 at

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