Common Sense

views updated May 17 2018

Common Sense



Thomas Paine's major political essays Common Sense and Rights of Man bookend the two most significant political upheavals of the late eighteenth century. The publication of Common Sense in January 1776 followed the outbreak of open hostilities between the American colonies and Great Britain in April of 1775, but preceded the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Many historians believe that it influenced American colonists to make a formal break with Britain and helped inspire America during the Revolutionary War. Rights of Man was published in two parts in 1791 and 1792. It defended the French Revolution, which was already underway. Paine's argument against monarchies was considered dangerous in Britain, where he was living at the time. Declared an outlaw, Paine fled to France where he became a citizen of the newly formed republic.

Both Common Sense and Rights of Man present spirited arguments for a population's right to choose its own government, as well as the right to revolt against governments that did not represent citizen's interests properly or promote their overall happiness. Both works rely heavily on the ideas that characterized the eighteenth-century intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment.

Arriving in America in November of 1774, Paine found a populace primed for revolution. The colonists were already angry because the British monarchy had imposed a series of taxes (or duties) meant to pay for the Seven Year's War. Colonial and British forces fought this war from 1756 to 1763, struggling against the French in an area then known as North American Ohio Country. In 1773, the monarchy placed a duty on tea imported to America, which led to the Boston Tea Party. However, the colonist's anger was motivated by more than a desire to keep their incomes for themselves; they also objected to the governmental control that these duties implied. They argued that their taxation was unfair because they were not represented in the British Parliament.

Many colonists felt the British crown could not be trusted. This group felt that the only way they could ever secure their proper rights would be by forming their own separate government, which would undoubtedly mean going to war for independence from Britain. Common Sense is a clear and forthright call for war.

Yet, it also presents substantially more than a call for war. Originally only forty-six pages long, Common Sense includes a denunciation of monarchy rule as unnatural, against the will of God, and a hothouse for creating unnecessary wars. After presenting the case for separation from Britain, Paine goes on to propose the construction of a navy, the drawing up of a Declaration of Independence, and the meeting of a national convention to frame a constitution for the colonies' new government. Published on January 9, 1776—in an age when pamphlets of this sort were widespread—Common Sense was a phenomenal success, selling an estimated one hundred and fifty thousand copies and going through at least two dozen editions over the course of a single year. Many credit Paine's work with justifying, if not inspiring, a more radical attitude among the colonists. Many also believe that it voiced the single most influential argument for the creation of an independent United States.

Rights of Man, published some fifteen years after Common Sense, expands upon many of the arguments made in the earlier pamphlet. However, Rights of Man was written in the wake of the French Revolution, in response to British statesman Edmund Burke's attack on the new French government. As a result, Paine's ideas and arguments take on a larger, more international scope in this work.

He denounces monarchies again, especially hereditary monarchies, arguing that they are responsible for civil and foreign wars, burdensome taxation, and general corruption. He defends his view, stated in Common Sense, that republics are much more peaceful and reflect human nature better. He also takes on the specific issues of the French Revolution just as he addressed the American colonies' particular situation in Common Sense.

However, in Rights of Man, Paine emphasizes that revolutionary politics should not be confined to just one or two nations. He believes that these ideas should lead the way for reforming governments throughout Europe and improving the world as a whole. In Part Two of Rights of Man, Paine also includes a lengthy discussion of how to provide for the poor effectively, including proposals for a progressive tax structure as well as aid for the young and old.

Both parts of Rights of Man were popular and broadly influential when they were published. The same is true of Common Sense. These works remain significant both as historical documents and as statements of a political view that is still relevant today. It is true that there are fewer monarchies now than there were in Paine's time. Nonetheless, his effective arguments for the importance of self-determination and the desirability of a republic can help modern readers think critically about government policy and shape their own thoughts about government.


Common Sense

Following a brief introduction in which Paine defines his subject as the "cause of America" and "of all mankind," Common Sense is divided into four numbered sections with titles and an appendix.

Section One: On the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the British Constitution

Paine begins by distinguishing society from government. Society—defined as people coming together for companionship and aid—unites people, and is therefore seen as a force of good. Government, on the other hand, is depicted as a necessary evil, something people need only because they do not always act as they should toward one another. Paine then imagines "the first peopling of any country," when individuals living alone in nature choose to form a society and then a government, which he says should be a simple democracy in which everyone participates: there should be one vote per person on every issue. When the society becomes larger and political issues become more complex, people can elect representatives to vote for them.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was born in Thetfort, England, on January 29, 1737. The lower-class son of a corset maker, he learned to read and write, but left school at age twelve. He practiced many professions without success (including tobacconist, teacher, and excise officer) before traveling to America in 1774. Paine soon established himself as an editor and writer for Pennsylvania Magazine. Responding to increasing tensions between America and Britain, Paine found himself serving as the collective voice of the disgruntled colonists. In Common Sense, Paine argued the case for revolution and democracy so effectively that George Washington predicted Paine's work would have a decisive influence on the American Revolution.

After returning to England in 1786, Paine was branded a traitor and he fled to France, where he joined the National Assembly. However, he objected strongly to capital punishment, even when the recipients were royalists and monarchs. Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, imprisoned Paine for holding this view. Though Paine was originally sentenced to death, he was released after serving ten months.

In 1802, Paine returned to the United States, where he continued to write. However, his reputation there had suffered as a result of his attack on organized religion in the two-part treatise The Age of Reason, which he wrote while in prison. He died on June 8, 1809, in New York City.

With this ideal in mind, Paine criticizes Britain's constitutional monarchy for its division of power between King, Peers (aristocrats), and commons (the public). These three authorities are supposed to control one another's influence so that no single interest gains too much power, but Paine argues that separate representation for the Peers or the King is unwarranted. It is unnecessary because there is no need for distinct groups when they could all be given voice in a single representational body. In addition, the Monarchy and Peers are tyrannical because they represent minority segments of the population that, in combination, hold greater sway over the government than the public does, even though the public is a far larger group.

Section Two: Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession

In this section, Paine broadens his scope and criticizes monarchies in general. He claims that people are all equal in their natural state, and thus the status given to a king is not natural. He refers to the Old Testament to emphasize this point, arguing that God disapproved of the Jews' choice to replace judges with kings.

Paine states that the British monarchy derives its authority from William the Conqueror, who took the throne in the eleventh century. The king is not, therefore, the chosen or elected representative of the people. This is another reason that his rule is not natural. The king's relationship to his citizens is that of a "usurper," someone who has gained power by force. The fact that William the Conqueror's successors maintain their position through heredity, rather than by force or merit, only makes this situation worse. In a hereditary monarchy, ruling monarchs may be minors when they inherit the throne, or they might be simply incompetent. Even when they are competent adults, they often lead the common people into civil strife and foreign wars. For this, Paine adds, they are unjustifiably worshipped and granted large sums of money.

Section Three: Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs

His discussion of monarchy brings Paine to the topic of the American colonies, currently in a dispute with Great Britain. This dispute is no local or narrow matter, Paine argues. The fate of an entire continent, and therefore, of the entire world, hangs in the balance. What makes the situation so significant is a "new method of thinking": the idea that a people might violently sever their ties to a lawful monarch and set up their own freely adopted form of government.

The particular options from which the American colonists must choose are reconciliation with the British crown or separation through revolution. Paine lists several popular arguments for reconciliation, including economic prosperity and military security, only to show that monarchy will lead a population in the opposite direction. He contends that America would be more prosperous and much safer if it did not rely on Britain. For example, America could benefit by building up its own navy instead of relying on British ships based in England. The connection to Britain also fails to serve the colonists because the British monarchy is focused on its own interests, while neglecting those of the American colonists.

Paine then discusses how the colonists might govern themselves after separation. Republics, he notes, rarely start wars. A national assembly should meet regularly. Each colony should be divided into districts and the national assembly should be composed of delegates representing these districts. A "continental conference" should draw up a charter safeguarding individual rights, including the right to own property and freedom of religion.

Section Four: Of the Present Ability of America, with some Miscellaneous Reflections

Paine argues that America could defeat Britain in a military conflict, and he offers a wide range of reasons to support this claim. America is unified, and has sufficient arms and men for war. America presently lacks a navy, but waiting will not change this fact; a navy should be built now rather than later. America has no debts, and any debts contracted to finance a war, particularly to build a navy, would be money well spent. America is rich in useful resources such as hemp, iron, small arms, cannons, and gunpowder.

Paine argues that America should fight a war with Britain now, before the monarchy does lasting damage to the colonies. He believes that America is young and brave, while Britain is old and fearful, and he maintains that the American situation provides a unique opportunity to throw off monarchy and form a new, rights-based government. Paine calls for a "Declaration for Independence" to establish America's identity as a separate nation with which other countries might make diplomatic ties. This stance, he claims, will bring aid from France and Spain in the war against Britain.


Paine repeats his call for separation from Britain so that America can free itself from "foreign dependence." He also notes that the sooner the colonists undertake this project, the easier it will be. They are in the difficult position of having a restrictive government that is not in any way their own. Dependence limits the colonists' commerce and legislative powers. Reconciliation with Britain would require complicated compromise and would leave America at the mercy of a "treacherous capricious court." Separation, however, would mean that the "birthday of a new world is at hand." Paine argues that even Britain would ultimately be forced to accept an independent America because of the new nation's value as a peaceful trading partner.

Rights of Man

Rights of Man is divided into two parts, which were published in 1791 and 1792, respectively.

Part One: Being a Response to Mr. Burke's Attack on the French Revolution

Paine uses the Preface to define the purpose of the pamphlet. He aims to refute Edmund Burke's published attack on the French Revolution. He blames the "flagrant misrepre-sentations" in Burke's work for inflaming tensions between France and England.

Rights of Man

After noting the viciousness of Burke's condemnation of the French Revolution, Paine addresses Burke's claim that the people of England have no right to choose their own government. Paine argues that Burke's denial of rights is based on a century-old Parliamentary declaration giving sovereignty to the monarchy for all time. Paine admits that the Parliament of 1688 did have authority to give sovereignty to the monarchy, but could not have had any such authority to make decisions for future generations. The present-day population cannot be bound by that Parliament's declarations. Paine also attacks monarchical notions of hereditary rule and "divine right."

Paine then takes issue with Burke's claim that the French Revolution deposed "a mild and lawful monarch." Admitting that Louis XVI was a good person, Paine says that this is irrelevant because kingship is inherently despotic rule that uses oppressive power. Monarchy is founded on principles of governorship that promote a tyrannical attitude throughout the entire government. The king does not (and cannot) know everything that occurs in his name. Paine also attacks Burke's prose and his lament for the end of monarchy's "chivalry" and "glory." Burke's prose is too flowery to understand, Paine claims, and Burke might as well be lamenting the end of war—for which Paine thinks kings are much to blame.

Paine's discussion turns to the Bastille, a prison in Paris that was overtaken by a group of citizens at the beginning of the French Revolution. According to Paine, Burke implicitly defends using the Bastille to hold enemies of monarchy. Paine wonders why Burke has so little sympathy for those imprisoned there; he then gives his version of the events leading up to the storming of the Bastille. The original cause was a plot to disband France's national assembly and undermine "all hopes and prospects of forming a free government" through peaceful means. The plot involved using an army to contain the population of Paris, which rose up against this army even though they were unarmed. Paine notes that the national assembly did not execute any of the plotters, though "four or five persons" were killed by the mob. However, the mob's behavior only mimicked the executions that the monarchy performed regularly. A monarchy degrades those over whom it rules.

Paine proceeds to dispute Burke's account of the king's removal from Versailles and his transport to Paris. Paine argues that the trouble arose from the king's delaying support of "the decrees of the national assembly, particularly that of the declaration of the rights of man," which were intended to decrease the power of France's aristocrats. A revolutionary militia went to Versailles to confront the regiment guarding the king and to persuade the king to support their cause. Amember of the guard killed a militia member; confusion ensued, and the king and queen were brought to Paris and "congratulated on their arrival by M. Bailley, the mayor of Paris." As for Burke's dismissive attitude toward the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Paine wonders if Burke means to suggest that there are no rights to declare.

Paine's first attack on this idea lies in his refusal to consider historical precedents. For Paine, no historical precedent is any more valid than contemporary views on the matter. The only relevant precedent is the state of humanity at the time of creation, reflecting God's intent. In that state of nature, Paine argues, people were equal and unified, and there were no upper or lower classes. Paine believes that three principles follow from this natural state. First, the right of equality, and other "natural rights," which we receive from God as individuals, should be translated into "civil rights." Second, civil (governmental) authority is created from individual's natural rights when they are joined together to give power to a government. Third, civil authority cannot override or eliminate natural rights because it is based on those same natural rights.

Paine uses these principles to argue that government is created when people willingly join together and agree on a set of laws contained in a constitution. A constitution defines a government's authority and must precede the establishment of that government. To illustrate this point, Paine distinguishes between the constitutions of Britain and France. Britain's is not a real constitution, Paine argues, because it arose from a pre-existing government. This is why it does not allow for fair representation and elections every two years, unlike the French constitution. Paine notes that French constitution gives the people of France the right to make war, whereas the British constitution makes this the king's right. In addition, France has abolished the aristocracy and created a division between church and state.

Accusing Burke of having misrepresented the events leading up to the revolution, Paine then returns to his version of the history of the French Revolution. He discusses the legislative battles that preceded the storming of the Bastille, as well as clerical and aristocratic resistance to reform. These battles, in Paine's account, made revolution necessary. They also led to the national assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, which Paine reproduces in his text.

Miscellaneous Chapter

Paine wonders why Burke thinks monarchs are wise when it is clear that they gain their positions by virtue of their lineage, and not their wisdom. He argues that no single family has the right to assume authority over a nation from one generation to the next. Each succeeding generation of citizens has the right to decide whether they want a particular monarch or any monarch at all. Paine then takes issue with Burke's dismal analysis of France's finances and commercial potential, both of which remain strong, Paine believes. Paine argues that the monarchy does not hold the wealth of a given nation. The nation itself holds this wealth, and it can be transferred from an old government to a new one.


Paine distinguishes between governments based on reason and those based on ignorance. Monarchy, in which all power is vested in a monarch whose decisions cannot be challenged by the citizens, is government based on ignorance.

When government policy says that everything a monarch does is right, the monarch cannot be held responsible for decisions that harm the nation or its citizens. When things go badly, it is easy for a monarch to blame advisors, ministers, and other parties, each of who blames someone else in turn. Governing without taking responsibility leads to corruption.

Republics, on the other hand, are grounded in reason. In a democracy, citizens and their elected representatives create government policies and make political decisions. They are therefore responsible for those polices and decisions, which Paine argues can only be in the people's interest.

Because republics act in the nation's interest by virtue of the way they are governed, there is little motive to go to war. Kings go to war hastily because they do not govern in the interests of the people, and war provides an excuse to raise taxes. Paine believes that in "an age of revolutions," with the decline of monarchies, war may disappear.

Part Two: Combining Principles and Practice

Following a preface and introduction, Part Two of Rights of Man contains five numbered chapters.


Because Burke has not, according to Paine, successfully responded to the first part of Rights of Man beyond branding Paine a criminal, Paine now proceeds to complete his argument. He does not deal in principles derived from past authorities—that is Burke's approach. Instead, Paine pursues open and considered discussion. This is the same way that republics make policy, relying on principles subjected to public debate and enacted with the nation's willing compliance.


America's new system of government begins a revolution of principles that will transform the world, Paine argues. These principles have already greatly improved America in every respect and could just as easily improve the people of Europe, Africa, and Asia. These principles are based on reason and will replace outmoded prejudices, unite people, and make monarchies obsolete. However, there is a risk that revolutions will occur before people have fully grasped these principles. Paine's work in Part Two of Rights of Man is meant to help avoid this risk.

Chapter One: Of Society and Civilization

By way of defining these new principles, Paine distinguishes between society and government. Human beings are naturally social and all people have desires that they cannot fulfill without others' help. When they organize into a society, people can cooperate in ways that serve everyone's aims. Society thus serves mutual interest and facilitates commerce. In doing so, it helps people fulfill their natural wants and needs. Government, on the other hand, intrudes upon nature, and often tends to serve its own ends, favoring some individuals over others.

America's example shows that society is natural. Its population is made up of people from different countries, with different habits, who speak many different languages. Still, relatively little government is needed. The American Revolution has revealed that government can function along with—rather than opposing—"the principles of society."

Chapter Two: Of the Origin of the Present Old Governments

Paine asserts that all current governments—other than the newly established governments of France and America—were established immorally. Their founders were no better than bullies who took power by force and then used monarchy to disguise their brutality. Paine offers the Norman invasion, which established kingship in England, as an example. These immoral beginnings help to explain why monarchs are always making war and imposing taxes. These faulty principles and the monarchs who enforce them are the reasons that the citizens of one nation are willing to fight against citizens of another country. Paine believes they would never be motivated to do so on their own because political dominance offers no tangible benefits to any individual citizen. Claiming distant lands as part of a nation's territory is a similarly empty goal.

Chapter Three: Of the Old and New Systems of Government

This chapter summarizes the problems of monarchies and the positive features of democratic republics, especially those like America. Where monarchy is hereditary, Paine notes, democracy is representative. The hereditary character of monarchies creates a host of problems. It deprives people of the right to choose their rulers. It gives governmental power to people without considering their merit and therefore often puts people on the throne who have neither experience nor intelligence. It has caused civil wars in France and England. It gives the monarchy a special, self-serving interest in increasing their influence and wealth though foreign wars.

A monarchy serves the ruler's interests, but a republic serves the people's interests. However, a republic can achieve this goal more effectively if it employs representative democracy rather than direct democracy. Representative democracy keeps the overarching will of the people from disappearing in a sea of clashing opinions.

Where a monarchy relies on secrecy, a democracy requires that the public have access to all matters of state. A monarchy relies on the authority of a small, privileged group, while democracy relies on the authority of laws that have been approved by every citizen.

Chapter Four: Of Constitutions

Paine asserts that the creation of a constitution is not an act of government. Instead, this event must take place before a government can be established. He discusses the creation of Pennsylvania's state constitution and America's federal constitution. This process involved electing representatives, holding conventions, and publishing constitutions for public viewing. Everything depended on the people for whom the constitutions were written. In Britain, however, constitutional documents such as the Magna Carta and Bill of Rights—granted by governments that already existed—effectively retained power for the monarchy while ceding some nominal authority.

Next, Paine turns to the division of power within a government between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. He argues against dividing the legislature into two houses, as is done in America, because he sees no reason to have representatives check each other's authority when they could be together in a single house. He argues against giving too much power to any single individual, because that person may be incapacitated or become corrupt. He also argues against unnecessary divisions of privilege and wealth, as well as the practice of paying government officials large salaries.

Chapter Five: Ways and Means of Improving the Condition of Europe, Interspersed with Miscellaneous Observations

Paine believes that the purpose of government is to improve the population's welfare. In his view, the current European governments (with the exception of France) fail in this duty because they fight unnecessary wars and levy burdensome taxes to pay for them. In contrast, republics encourage mutually beneficial commerce between nations and thereby promote peace.

Paine then offers specific suggestions for reform, including the elimination of executions. However, his main concern is to ensure that a nation's wealth is not concentrated in the hands of just a few people. Using a detailed analysis of England's tax structure, he demonstrates how the government can relieve poverty and expand education without compromising the nation's overall fiscal health. He suggests that taxes be placed on estates rather than on products, so the aristocracy will pay a greater share. The revenues from such taxes can then be used to build workhouses for the destitute. Additional money will be made available for public projects when alliances between England, France, and America lead them to decrease their respective military budgets.

In short, Paine believes that the French and American revolutions have opened a path that other governments should follow. Doing so would rapidly improve conditions in each country and benefit the world in general at the same time.



Paine's account of America's ability to wage war in the fourth section of Common Sense makes it clear that he advocates a violent conflict between the colonies and Britain. His attitude toward this conflict is practical. He understands that any successful revolution will depend on the colonists' commitment to fight as long as they must to win. This is why he frames his discussion in terms of the unity among the colonists, the number of colonists ready to do battle, their knowledge of munitions, and their ability to manufacture them, including cannons and gunpowder.

Paine's direct and practical treatment of revolution shows that he knows his position will cause suffering and death if the colonists follow his advice. The greater part of Common Sense should not be read as a plan for war, but as a justification. The reason, for example, the colonists should unify against Britain is that the British government has provided ample motive for revolution. Paine refers to hostile engagements between the British and the Americans in April of 1775. He also notes unjust laws that the British have enacted and violence that the British have perpetrated on Americans. Paine advocates war because he believes the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. However, Paine's justification for war goes much further than lower taxes or better political representation. He sees revolution as a way to create a society that is consistent with the fundamental truths of human existence—truths that matter to all human beings, not just to Americans in the late eighteenth century.

A parallel argument is made in Rights of Man. Paine again describes nature and God as being on the side of revolution, while repeatedly attacking monarchy as a brutal and tyrannical form of government. But in Rights of Man, he is defending revolution that has already occurred. While he does characterize this revolution as a kind of battle, and admits that revolutionaries killed some of their enemies, he is not interested in defending the violence of the French Revolution. Instead, he strives to show that what happened in France was a reasonable response to the wrongs inherent in the very institution of monarchy. It was not merely a warlike impulse in the citizens. He portrays the violence that occurred as something caused by forces attempting to protect the monarchy. This cause can be direct—as when soldier's gunfire creates confusion and upheaval—or it can be more subtle. For example, when a revolutionary mob rises up against the army in Paris, Paine blames the monarchy. He argues that the monarchy taught the common people not to value human life when it chose to use public execution as a form of punishment.

The Wars of Kings

Even while Paine advocates revolutionary war in Common Sense, he argues that war as a more general phenomenon can be blamed on the monarchy. In the second section, Paine notes that William the Conqueror—the source of the British monarchy's legitimacy—was a foreigner who became king only through war. He was but a "French bastard, landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself as king of England against the consent of the natives." Some people defend the hereditary transfer of power because it helps prevent civil disputes over who should rule. However, Paine argues that hereditary monarchy has caused a series of battles, wars, sieges, and imprisonments. Not only the kingdom itself but the world at large has long been at the mercy of wars fought on behalf of monarchies.

The warmongering nature of monarchy is addressed repeatedly and at greater length in Rights of Man. In the concluding section of Part One, for example, Paine argues that even though King Henry IV of France proposed to end war in Europe in 1620, this proposal failed because monarchies have too much to gain from war. In Part Two, he makes the point that a farmer or a manufacturer in one country does not benefit from going to war against another country's farmers or manufacturers. The only reason these people will fight one another is that their government believes it will benefit from fighting a war with a different government. Their demonstrated eagerness to make war reveals that monarchies do not act in the interest of their people, but instead act to increase their own wealth and power.

In the third section, Paine returns to the relationship between hereditary monarchy and civil wars. Often several parties make hereditary claims on European thrones, and civil war can be the result. Civil wars have repeatedly broken out in France, Spain, and England for just this reason. Foreign wars, he argues, are also caused by hereditary succession, which gives royal families a long-term motive for increasing their wealth, power, and territory. Paine notes that Poland's citizens elect their monarch and that Poland involves itself in fewer foreign wars.

Democracy, Commerce, and Peace

If Paine advocates war, he does so in the interests of peace, which he feels is best promoted by democracies. Paine argues that democratic republics represent the interests of their people, and people have no rational desire to fight wars. In the third section of Common Sense, Paine makes the point that European republics are much less inclined to domestic or foreign wars. This is partly because republics do not grant certain people (such as monarchs) special status along with the authority to make war. This makes those nations less likely to use war to resolve their differences.

Paine believes that war is unreasonable and wasteful, while commerce is much more reasonable. It is profitable, improves citizen's quality of life, and forges stable, nonviolent relations between nations. In the concluding section of Part One of Rights of Man, for example, Paine mentions Holland, which he describes as having no wars for a hundred years while participating extensively in international trade. Commerce and democracy thus serve the interests of the people. Trade is the main activity in democratic republics and provides a motive to avoid war. As Paine argues in the fifth chapter of Part Two of Rights of Man, war interferes with international trade and uses resources that could be more profitably employed in commerce. In addition, the commerce that monarchies are able to create through domination is less profitable than free trade.

This leads Paine back to his arguments promoting the Revolutionary War in America and defending the French Revolution. By defeating monarchy and increasing commerce, the violent revolutions ultimately serve the interests of peace. The goal is to eliminate the barbaric and unreasonable use of violence to make political decisions, and replace it with republican democracy, a more rational and peaceful system.


The American Revolutionary War

When Paine published Common Sense in January of 1776, war against the British had already broken out in New England. In April of 1775, in the wake of the Boston Tea Party, the British army suffered some one thousand casualties at the hands of a colonial militia while trying to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and seize ammunition stored outside Boston.

The conflict between the American colonies and Britain had been brewing since the end of the Seven Year's War (1756–63). The Seven Year's War was fought against France in the New World, and the British crown tried to pay for it by imposing a series of taxes on the colonists. Paine's emphasis on the issue of burdensome taxation in both Common Sense and Rights of Man was meant to appeal to colonists' anger regarding these taxes. This is just one way Paine channeled discontent in the colonies into a single, effective call to action.

Talk of liberty and republican alternatives to monarchical rule had been prevalent in America for decades. Paine's achievement was to provide a more a concise explanation of why a war for independence made sense at that particular time, in writing that was both passionate and easily accessible. Common Sense was widely read, even by people not normally inclined to study politics. It did not start the movement for independence, but it did a great deal to spread that movement through a population convinced that they deserved a better government.

The French Revolution

When Part One of Rights of Man was published in 1791, the French Revolution was already two years in the past. In the fall of 1788, with France's finances in disarray, the monarchy attempted to impose a series of new taxes. The aristocracy, upset over the monarchy's mismanagement, demanded that the king convene a special legislative body to approve any changes to taxation. The legislative body was to consist of three "estates," each with one vote. Members of the Third Estate, which represented the public, protested that their single vote would be outweighed by the small number of powerful people in the First and Second Estates (which represented the clergy and the nobility, respectively).

In 1789, members of the Third Estate stormed the Bastille (an infamous French prison) and successfully established their own National Assembly. The Assembly abolished feudalism and passed a series of calls for democratic reform, culminating in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. However, the main goal was only to limit the king's authority. People were not yet focused on abolishing the monarchy.

The revolution took a bloody turn under the sway of a radical leftist group known as the Paris Commune. This group instigated a series of purges known as the Reign of Terror. Thousands of people who were suspected of failing to support the revolution were executed with radical fervor.

Those responsible for the Reign of Terror were later removed from office and executed. The government hovered on the verge of instability until 1799, when a military coup placed the popular war hero Napoleon Bonaparte in charge. Napoleon claimed to support republican ideals, but in practice he was a dictator. Napoleon was declared Consul for Life in 1802 and Emperor in 1804.

The Age of Enlightenment

Paine and other revolutionary thinkers throughout Europe and America were part of a larger movement known as the Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment is known for its embrace of rationalism, science, technology, commerce, progress, and individualism. While these ideas seemed quite radical to the European population at large, many European and American intellectuals, including such figures as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, accepted them. The Enlightenment's emphasis on individual freedom led people to criticize the monarchies of Europe, as well as the political power that these monarchies granted to aristocrats and church leaders. At the same time, many Enlightenment thinkers believed that reform should take place slowly and generally did not trust the public to make its own decisions about government.

Many notable Enlightenment thinkers developed important philosophical ideas, even those known primarily for their contributions to science. Isaac Newton's law of gravitation suggested that the world was a material object guided in its operations by comprehensible laws. The English philosopher John Locke argued that the human mind is a blank slate at birth, to be written on by experience. The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that people in a state of nature are free and innocent individuals, and that conflict resulted from joining with others to form society. He proposed a "social contract" in which individual's natural rights were respected as far as possible while also protecting the general welfare. Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, argued that people's natural bent toward self-interested behavior would help to regulate capitalism and free trade in ways that improved the general welfare. Thinkers such as the French satirist Voltaire mocked monarchies and the clergy for maintaining unreasonable rituals and superstitions.

There was a general feeling that a rational understanding of human behavior could be used to establish enduring laws for political society. In Common Sense and Rights of Man, Paine repeatedly insists that his political agenda accords with reason and reflects Enlightenment thought. His belief in individual rights, freedom of religion, and the positive effects of international commerce are all typical Enlightenment views.


Perhaps Thomas Paine's most famous reviewer is none other than George Washington. "The William Livingston Era: Documents of the Revolutionary War" cites that Washington recommended Common Sense for its "sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning," which, he said, would help readers see that separation from England was the only course of action. A biography of Paine on "From Revolution to Reconstruction" notes that Thomas Jefferson was also deeply impressed with Paine's work and corresponded with him, discussing the U.S. Constitution with Paine and consulting with him on foreign affairs. Paine himself thought highly of his own writings and was aware that Common Sense and his other works had influenced the course of history. In Part Two of Rights of Man, he writes that he "contributed to raise a new empire in the world, founded on a new system of government," and has "arrived at an eminence in political literature."

Paine had his detractors as well, including John Adams. Adams, quoted by David Freeman Hawke in Paine, admitted that Common Sense was a blow against "the further encroachments of tyranny" and called Paine a "keen writer." However, Adams also noted that Paine offered no new arguments and that many of his proposals showed him "ignorant of the science of government." Common Sense and Rights of Man were regarded with suspicion by conservatives among America's political elite because of the way that these works popularized republican thinking among the masses.

Paine's reputation was further improved with the 1892 publication of The Life of Thomas Paine, a two-volume biography by Moncure Daniel Conway that places Paine at the very center of the revolutionary movements of his time. Conway writes of Common Sense that it elevated the political disagreement between America and England "above the paltriness of a rebellion against taxation to a great human movement." Of Rights of Man, he writes that it contains "not the slightest confusion of ideas and aim." Contemporary critics, biographers, and historians are less uniform in their praise of Paine than Conway, but they still generally agree with him about Paine's importance.

Two biographies of Paine are discussed in Gordon S. Wood in "Disturbing the Peace," in the New York Review of Books. Wood notes that Paine thought he had "as much claim to being a founder of the United States as Franklin, Adams, or Jefferson." Other Paine biographies, such as Paine by Hawke, published in 1974, also argue for Paine's historical importance. In his prologue, Hawke approvingly quotes Paine's friend Joel Barlow on Paine's "entire devotion to what he conceived to be the best interest and happiness of mankind." In 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to American Independence, Scott Liell writes that Paine was the main cause of a "wholesale annihilation of the emotional and intellectual ties that bound American colonists to the British Crown and country."


An unabridged audio version of Common Sense was released on CD by In Audio in 2003. The narrator is George Vafiadis.

Rights of Man was released in an unabridged audio version on seven cassettes by Blackstone Audiobooks in 1990. The narrator is Bernard Mayes.

Even if contemporary critics generally agree about the historical significance of Common Sense and Rights of Man, few would argue that Paine's works contain original ideas. Instead, critics are inclined to agree with John Adams when he states that each of the ideas offered in Common Sense "has been hackneyed in every conversation, public and private, before that pamphlet was written" (quoted in Hawke). Critics often point to Paine's strength as a writer rather than his originality as a thinker. As Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick point out in their introduction to The Thomas Paine Reader, Paine was a very self-conscious and original stylist who did not write the type of flowery prose common in the eighteenth century. Whereas Paine's adversary Edmund Burke wrote complex language for the upper class, these authors note that Paine wrote sharp, clear prose for readers of every class. His plain, accessible language made him "the first master of democratic prose," which is the main reason Common Sense had such a strong impact on the public's attitudes at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Paine's prose style led critic Wood to call The Rights of Man "the best and most succinct expression of American Revolutionary political thinking ever written."


Gary Kates

In the following excerpt, Kates explains how Paine's point of view about revolution and government changed between the publication of Rights of Man: Part One and Rights of Man: Part Two.

Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Rights of Man, stands as one of the fundamental texts of modern democracy. Written during the stormy days of the French Revolution, the pamphlet became an instant success throughout the European world, selling some 200,000 copies in two years, making Paine the era's best-known revolutionary writer. "I know not," John Adams wrote in 1805, "whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine."

One of Paine's most cherished purposes was to convince readers that the various political changes affecting late eighteenth-century Europe and America were all part of a coherent and rational development towards a better world. "It has been my fate to have borne a share in the commencement and complete establishment of one revolution (I mean the Revolution of America)," he wrote to his French constituents in 1792. "The principles on which that Revolution began, have extended themselves to Europe." Despite obvious differences, Paine's vision unified Philadelphia merchants, British artisans, French peasants, Dutch reformers, and radical intellectuals from Boston to Berlin into one great movement: "it is the great cause of all; it is the establishment of a new era, that shall blot despotism from the earth and fix, on the lasting principles of peace and citizenship, the great Republic of Man."

Any analysis of Rights of Man must begin with the observation that it was written and published in two separate sections. Part One was completed in early 1791 and was in London bookshops by February of that year. Its purpose was to refute Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, published four months earlier. Part Two was written during the second half of 1791 and published in February, 1792.

But a careful examination of Rights of Man reveals that much more changed than simply rhetorical tone. In fact Part Two is not a sequel to Part One. The two parts have little in common, each espousing contradictory ideologies. The first fits squarely with what later came to be known as (nineteenth-century European) Liberalism, which argued for a constitutional monarchy based upon political freedom but an unequal electoral system. The other ideology found in Rights of Man is properly known as (nineteenth-century European) Radicalism: democratic republicanism based upon universal manhood suffrage and a commitment to the amelioration of the lower classes through significant social and economic legislation. Today the distinction between Liberalism and Radicalism may have become somewhat blurred. But from 1789 to at least 1848 these two ideological systems stood in as much opposition to each other as Socialism and Communism would after 1917. Some of the last century's most famous political struggles, such as English Chartism or the French Bloody June Days of 1848, suggest the potency of the conflict between Liberals and Radicals. During the French Revolution and the first part of the nineteenth century, therefore, Radicalism was not simply a more progressive variant of Liberalism (just as Communism was not simply a more progressive variant of Socialism), but rather Radicalism constituted a profound critique of Liberalism's anti-democratic features. Paine's Rights of Man is a work at odds with itself.

In an essay that defends the principles and events of the early Revolution, it is remarkable that Paine chose to discuss only one revolutionary leader: the Marquis de Lafayette. Incredibly, neither Sieyès nor Mirabeau, neither the Lameths nor Barnave, neither Robespierre nor any other politician or revolutionary writer was ever discussed in Part One. Still, Paine returned to Lafayette at five different points in the essay. For Tom Paine—at least for the Paine of 1790—the French Revolution belonged to Lafayette.

Rights of Man Part One does not belong to the burgeoning democratic movement that surfaced between 1789–91 in opposition to the leaders of the Constituent Assembly. Instead, it belongs to that vast outpouring of literature which defended the Fayettist interpretation of the French Revolution. What that literature suggests is that the essential difference between a Fayettist Patriot and a democrat before 1792 was the latter's faith in the ability of the ordinary citizen to participate fully in political affairs.

Rights of Man Part One, of course, was written in English for an Anglo-American audience. Its purpose was to stimulate a peaceful Fayettist revolution in Britain. Thus while Paine disagrees sharply with Burke over political principles, there is no real debate over the extent to which "the people" ought to participate in political affairs. Paine's focus is rather on the nature of monarchy in France, and here too Paine is more moderate than republicans might expect. Against Burke's prediction that the French Revolution would destroy monarchy, Paine came dangerously close to defending Louis XVI:

It was not against Louis the XVIth, but against the despotic principles of the government, that the nation revolted … The monarch and the Monarchy were distinct and separate things; and it was against the established despotism of the latter, and not against the person or principles of the former, that the revolt commenced …

For the Paine of Part One the French Revolution was above all against despotism but not monarchy itself. Since the key attribute of despotism was that it lacked a constitution, the prime objective of the French Revolution was not to overthrow the monarchy, but rather to make the monarchy constitutional. "Mr. Burke said in a speech last winter in parliament," Paine remarked,

that when the National Assembly first met in three Orders … France had then a good constitution. This shows, among numerous other instances, that Mr. Burke does not understand what a constitution is. The persons so met were not a constitution, but a convention, to make a constitution.

Thus the central distinction found in Rights of Man Part One is not between aristocracy and democracy or between monarchy and republic but between absolute monarchy (which Paine called "hereditary despotism of the monarchy") and constitutional monarchy.

It must be emphasized that in this first part of Rights of Man, Paine went no further than this relatively moderate position. There was no call to make France a republic; nor was there any insistence that the French Revolution become democratic.

Part Two was Paine's emphasis on "the representative system." Although Paine had mentioned representative government in passing in Part One, he now developed the concept of representative democracy into a mature theoretical framework. Paine acknowledged the debt modern democracies owed to ancient Greece. But he, like many thinkers during the Enlightenment, also recognized that it was impossible for large nation-states to imitate the Athenian model. Paine wanted a system in which representation would become the keystone for democratic political institutions. "By ingrafting representation upon democracy," Paine said, "we arrive at a system of government capable of embracing and confederating all the various interests and every extent of territory and population."

This new kind of political system had no place for monarchy. "Every government that does not act on the principle of a Republic," he wrote, "is not a good government." Although a democratic monarchy was a theoretical possibility (one toyed with by several Revolutionary leaders, including Mirabeau and Robespierre), the Paine of Part Two viewed it as "eccentric government" and realized that only a representative democratic republic could provide the kind of freedom he desired. Consequently, Paine's model of an admirable state changed from Part One to Part Two: because France in February 1792 was not yet a democratic republic, Paine advised his readers to look towards the United States: "It is on this system that the American government is founded. It is representation ingrafted upon democracy." In Part One, in spite of his focus upon Lafayette, Paine had rarely mentioned the United States. Since he was defending a constitutional monarchy the example of 1776 was somewhat irrelevant. Ironically, America only became central to Paine's arguments when he dropped Lafayette in Part Two.

Paine's understanding of the nature of revolutionary change also changed from Part One to Part Two. In the first pamphlet Paine had hoped that other nations would choose to imitate the French in a short, peaceful, and above all rational transfer of sovereignty. But when Paine called for revolution to become "the order of the day" in Part Two, he meant something else. In Part One Paine expressed the belief that some kings, such as Louis XVI, were decent enough to hold national office. But Part Two returns to the view he espoused in Common Sense in which all kings were criminals, since all monarchies were "originally a tyranny, founded on an invasion and conquest of the country." That is why, Paine asserted, monarchies were inherently expansionist and militaristic. "War is their trade, plunder and revenue their objects." This kind of government, so different from the possibility of the kind of pacifist constitutional monarchy suggested in Part One, was unable to reform itself.

In Part One, Paine hoped that the French Revolution would lead the world by example. But in Part Two that leadership took a more direct and more violent form: the French were expected to wage war on the rest of Europe, liberating the peoples of Europe from their old regimes. The first step was "the extinction of German despotism." But Germany was not enough. Only "when France shall be surrounded with revolutions" will she "be in peace and safety." And only through war could that goal be achieved quickly and efficiently.

During the 1770s Lafayette had become the best known European supporter of the American Revolution. And Americans were deeply proud that this young liberal nobleman admired their new state. When Lafayette took a leading role in the French Revolution, Anglo-American supporters naively supposed that he was offering France the lessons that he had learned in America. "He took a practical existing model, in operation here," commented John Quincy Adams speaking for American public opinion, "and never attempted or wished more than to apply it faithfully to his own country." Perhaps we can forgive the American president for this naive interpretation, but certainly Paine ought to have known better. Nonetheless, Paine was keenly aware that representing Lafayette as this kind of a symbol could enhance his own star as well.

Paine wanted readers to see the entire era characterized by the universal progress of human rights, a process whose unity was best embodied by Lafayette and himself. By 1792 only Lafayette and Paine had played a major role in both the American and French Revolutions; both of them could be used to represent a linkage among the American and French Revolutions that would make British parliamentary reform appear urgent and inevitable.

For us Rights of Man reveals an ideologue's desperate search to maintain some shred of intellectual consistency during a period of intense revolutionary change. So long as the Revolution constituted a united Third Estate against an entrenched and privileged aristocracy, Paine's ideas could be endorsed by all reformers. But the moment that the Third Estate began to argue among itself—a process that began as early as the fall of 1789, Paine's ideology could no longer represent the entire Revolution but only the dominant faction. As the gap between Fayettists and radicals widened between 1789 and 1791 over fundamental issues regarding democracy and republicanism, Paine's ideological frame became even more problematic. By the time Rights of Man Part One was published in March 1791 its ideology had already moved far to the right on the spectrum of French Revolutionary politics. Within four months he dropped his Fayettist endorsements and wrote Part Two as if it were a sequel. But what the Girondins chose to minimize, their Montagnard rivals later sought to exploit: Paine spent the year of the Terror in prison, and while he would go on to write works of major importance, his political career was over.

Source: Gary Kates, "From Liberalism to Radicalism: Tom Paine's Rights of Man," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 50, No. 4, October-December 1989, pp. 569-587.


"A Biography of Thomas Paine (1737–1809)," From Revolution to Reconstruction,∼usa/B/tpaine/paine.htm (September 20, 2005).

Conway, Moncure Daniel, The Life of Thomas Paine, 2 Volumes, Routledge/Theommes Press, 1996; originally published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1892, Vol. 1, pp. 61-77, 278-303.

Foot, Michael and Isaac Kramnick, "Introduction," in The Thomas Paine Reader, Penguin, 1987, pp. 7-38.

Hawke, David Freeman, Paine, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974, pp. 2-3, 47-49.

Leill, Scott, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence, Running Press Book Publishers, 2004, p. 17.

Paine, Thomas, Common Sense, in Thomas Paine: Political Writings, edited by Bruce Kuklick, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 1-46.

――――――, Rights of Man, Part I, in Thomas Paine: Political Writings, edited by Bruce Kuklick, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 57-154.

――――――, Rights of Man, Part II, in Thomas Paine: Political Writings, edited by Bruce Kuklick, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 155-264.

"The William Livingston Era: Documents of the American Revolution," Monmouth County Archives, (September 20, 2005).

Wood, Gordon S., "Disturbing the Peace," in the New York Review of Books, (June 8, 1995); originally published in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 10, June 8, 1995, pp. 1-3.

Common Sense

views updated May 14 2018

Common Sense



Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) may have been the first American bestseller, rousing the colonial spirit for American independence throughout the early Revolutionary War. Certainly Paine did not originate the argument for independence, but his timing of articulating it could not have been better. His pamphlet was first published, anonymously, in January 1776, after hostilities between the colonies and Great Britain had already begun. The pamphlet gained immediate popularity, with up to 150,000 copies circulated in its first year, and it underwent numerous reprintings. People passed copies to friends and family members in addition to reading them out loud to those who could not read themselves. With British laws becoming more restrictive by the day and with colonial trade showing great potential, the small collection of states was ready to throw off its parent country and make its own governing decisions. Paine's ideas helped illustrate how life could be in an independent land, and why a republican government suited the new colonies much better than a hereditary monarchy.

Thomas Paine only lived in America for a relatively short time, but his impact on the emergence of the United States is incalculable. Born in England, Paine did not arrive in the then British colonies until his late thirties and after trying his hand at several different occupations. Frustrated with his career opportunities, Paine traveled to the colonies with little more than an introduction from Benjamin Franklin. But quickly, Paine set his rhetorical abilities to work for the colonial cause against the British government. He began by writing for a magazine in Pennsylvania, but, at the urging of some of the founding fathers, he began publishing political pamphlets. After Paine's writings became widely circulated throughout the colonies, citizens who were formerly interested in reconciling with the throne became emboldened to declare their independence. Paine's powerful arguments not only convinced colonials that they should separate from Britain but, more importantly, the style of his arguments reached a mass of people. Paine was undeniably intelligent and astute, but his true genius rested in his ability to communicate ideas to regular people.



Born in 1737 in England, Paine was the son of a Quaker corset maker. After trying his hand at the family business, he became bored and looked for other opportunities. His wife and child died in childbirth when Paine was in his early twenties. He tried a variety of jobs including seaman, tax collector, English teacher, and shop owner. He married again in his thirties, but he and his second wife soon separated. Still frustrated professionally, Paine moved to the American colonies at Benjamin Franklin's encouragement in late 1774 and quickly became a successful political writer. He published antislavery arguments and edited Pennsylvania Magazine in 1775.

His (literally) revolutionary Common Sense appeared in early 1776 and was followed by his American Crisis papers—sixteen in all over the next seven years. With these texts, Paine helped lead unsure and weary colonists to their destiny of self-governing Americans. Despite the many opportunities available to him because of his well-received writing, he continued to travel and seek new opportunities. He tried to make a career as an inventor in England in the late 1780s, but he turned his attention to the revolution in France in the 1790s. He was wrongly imprisoned as a royalist sympathizer in France in 1793, and he returned to the United States at the invitation of Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Paine died an outcast in New York City in June 1809. His obituary in the New-York Evening Post read, "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." Paine was buried on his farmland when denied burial in the Quaker cemetery. Oddly, Paine's remains were disinterred by a friend wanting to give him a more austere burial in England, but were then lost. Paine's home still stands today in New Rochelle, New York, where a monument and museum honor his contributions to American society.

Paine continued writing throughout his life. Soon after Common Sense made a name for its author, he began publishing the Crisis papers. Beginning with the famous line, "These are the times that try men's souls," Paine's text has become mythic in American culture; George Washington is said to have read this piece to his beleaguered, freezing troops on Christmas Eve 1776 to hearten their spirits before attacking and defeating the British army in a battle on Christmas day. After the new republic was settled, however, Paine remained restless. He continued writing but left America for England. He dabbled in hobbies, including attempting a new model for an iron-arched bridge. Politics could not let Paine go, however, and after becoming linked with a high-level scandal, he was charged with sedition and fled to France. Impressing a third country with his rhetorical abilities, Paine found himself seated in the French government only to be jailed during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. With the help of American ambassador James Madison, Paine was released from prison and traveled back to the United States. But he faced a frosty reception in America because of his most recent publication, The Age of Reason, which was perceived to be critical of Christianity. After the respected status Paine enjoyed during Revolutionary times, it is surprising that he spent his last years under public derision in the country he helped establish. Paine died before public opinion would turn his way again, but history has been kind to his memory. With centuries of admirers, historians have, in the last decades of the twentieth century, become even more interested in his contributions to the early American republic. Paine's writings helped convince the mass of Americans that they could survive without British rule; he so emboldened the young nation that his words still describe the independent spirit that defines the American persona.



Paine begins by proposing to his readers that they have the right to question the King of England because his policies affect their lives. Paine emphasizes that people should question ideas even if they have been long accepted as true, and that the concerns of the colonies will prove to be universal concerns as they involve oppression and liberty, tyranny and freedom. He concludes by establishing that his interests have not been compromised by any political party but are only focused on a reasonable argument.

Of the Origin and Design of Government in General. With Concise Remarks on the English Constitution

Paine establishes the basis for government in society by illustrating how a hypothetically new group of people would first gather to form a society and then organize to form a government. "Government even in the best state is but a necessary evil," Paine writes, and as such, communities often create the vehicle for their own suffering. Governments are necessary because people cannot be trusted; if they were consistently moral, they would not need a governing body but as they are not, they need a system to ensure their security. In the beginning, people band together as a society to meet their needs. Then, they form a government to protect themselves from each other's worst motives. These early governments initially include every member of society and are therefore completely representative. As communities grow, members must be elected to represent the larger groups within the governing body. Because the representatives live with the groups that elected them, it remains in their self-interest to represent their group fairly. Somehow, Paine argues, the English government has strayed far from this originating model of representative government.

Paine begins to analyze the British government to show how it has drifted away from promoting liberty for its people. At its outset, the British system of government was beneficial. "The more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered; and with this maxim in view I offer a few remarks on the so much boasted constitution of England"; Paine argues that the British structure has gotten too complicated and thus flawed. Examining each part of the British government, Paine concludes that it has become too separated from the people to represent their freedoms fairly. The king's position, for instance, is a contradiction as it both separates him entirely from his subjects and yet requires him to decide upon their fate. And the established checks on the king are ineffective. Proponents of the system exhibit more of a general national pride rather than actual pride in the governing structure itself. Paine proposes to investigate the constitutional system, in detail, to determine the errors inherent in it.

Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession

Paine begins with examples from Biblical times to establish how monarchies first, and hereditary monarchies second, are evil forms of government. He argues that differences in status, such as rich and poor, are man-made structures because humankind was equal at creation. However, evil is not necessarily the cause of such distinctions, but evil is often the result of them. But the separation into king and subject is completely unnatural, and until there were kings, there was peace; pride and competition comes with monarchies. Kings only encourage idolatry by requiring humans to revere other humans. God never intended for monarchies to exist, Paine writes, using scriptural evidence to bolster his point. God does not endorse a form of government that raises one human to a higher status than others. Israel only receives a king after begging God for one. When Israel asks Gideon to be king, he refuses, chastising them for wanting a ruler other than God. God presents his people with a king but foretells the curse that monarchs will be to humankind. Paine quotes God saying, in 1 Samuel, "ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen, and the lord will not hear you in that day." Paine brings his argument to a point, stating that the scriptures are clear on this subject; either God disapproves of monarchs, or scripture is in error.

Even with the occasionally good monarch, Paine argues, the addition of a hereditary element to monarchies contradicts all logic. First, how can anyone be certain that the son of a king will be as worthy of the position as the father? Each generation is different, and thus the kingship may be inappropriate for some in the lineage. Second, a group should have the ability to choose its own governor. If that group chooses a king, one scenario is presented. However it is inappropriate for that group to then force its choice on subsequent generations, which is the exact circumstance presented by a hereditary monarchy. It is inappropriate to rob future citizens of the right to choose their government representative by establishing a royal bloodline. England's hereditary monarchy began by force, as William the Conqueror took control with violence. Of that originator of the current British monarchy, Paine writes, "A French bastard landing with an armed Banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original." In the same way hereditary monarchies are passed down from father to son, so is original sin; the parallel is not coincidence, according to Paine.

Being raised royal also breeds an aberrant perspective on life, one that is out of touch with regular society. Young and old kings present a further dilemma as well, because age does not restrict a person from becoming a monarch. As such, whomever the young or old king has as a confidant can often manipulate matters of state. Not only does hereditary monarchy not make sense, it also creates nothing good in a society. England has suffered wars and corruption at the hands of its hereditary monarch, even though proponents claim that inherited royalty eliminates civil unrest. Kings often make their personal quarrels matters of state, and thus conflict increases rather than decreases. God never intended anything but a representative republic, Paine argues, stating, "monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. 'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it." England seems to be progressing toward a republic as it incorporates representatives of the people, but the persistence of the monarchy corrupts the entire government.

Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs

Reconciliation with the British government does not make any sense as it will only prolong a flawed situation that must end at some point in the future. Even though there has been much discussion of the British relationship with the colonies, no effective solution has been found. If the colonies do not take strong action, they will be remembered by history for their weakness. Independence is a worthy cause, Paine argues. "'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now." Once fighting began, the colonies entered a new phase where reconciliation is no longer a possibility.

Paine determines to examine the arguments in favor of reconciling with England. One view holds that the relationship was beneficial in the past so it will be again in the future. Paine counters that the past is no good indicator of the future. Plus, he disagrees that the colonies benefited from the relationship in the first place because of their strong trade opportunities. The colonies do not need England to survive because of the rich commerce available to them. Another perspective argues that England has been good protection. To this, Paine counters that the protection has only been according to England's interest, not the colonies'. When connected with Great Britain, America not only gains the parent-country's allies but her enemies as well. Without Great Britain, the colonies would be at peace with France and Spain, for instance. Paine next contradicts that the colonies have no relationship with each other save through England by asserting that, in fact, they only have enemies, not friends, because of England. To the claim that England is the colonies' mother-country, Paine counters that far from a parent, England is rather a "monster" more than a "mother," for "even brutes do not devour their young." If anything, Europe is the colonies' parent, Paine reasons, because people move to America from all parts of Europe, not just England. Some say that England and America should reconcile because, if united, they could be a world power, to which Paine replies that the colonies have no need for being such a power. If trade is the goal, the colonies want to make friends with the rest of the world rather than antagonize it.

Paine asserts that there are no benefits to reconciliation, especially because of the commercial opportunities available to the colonies. To maximize trade, America should have no special relationships with any part of Europe, England included. If England engages in a war with a country, then the colonies will also be at war, thus cutting off a trade option. "Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation," Paine writes, even the geographical distance between England and North America. Nature must not have meant for the nations to be connected if they are so far apart on the map.

The colonies' independence is inevitable, Paine argues. If separation does not occur soon, the future will inherit the same problems the colonies face now. Those who want to reconcile often have personal motives for doing so, or have not suffered injury from British rule. But, Paine reminds, many have been victims of violence and injustice. Paine makes a personal plea, asking if his readers had suffered the death of a loved one or significant loss of property, would they still wish to reconcile? Appeals for change have repeatedly been ineffective, and it is unreasonable to hope that England will alter its restrictive policies toward the colonies. He uses a vivid example of the folly of "the doctrine of reconciliation":

But let our imaginations transport us a few moments to Boston; that seat of wretchedness will teach us wisdom, and instruct us for ever to renounce a power in whom we can have no trust. The inhabitants of that unfortunate city who but a few months ago were in ease and affluence, have now no other alternative than to stay and starve, or turn out to beg.

Commerce remains a key reason to separate from British rule. With England physically distant from the colonies, its guidance on trade matters would be nothing less than unreasonable. Trade will suffer due to England's foreign relationships, which only underscores the injustice of having to share the profits of that trade with the king. America will eventually rule itself; it is much larger in size than England and it is an isolated landmass. Both these elements make it impossible for an external government to effectively control America. He makes this argument:

To be always running three or four thousand miles with a tale or a petition, waiting four or five months for an answer, which when obtained requires five or six more to explain it in, will in a few years be looked upon as folly and childishness—There was a time when it was proper, and there is a proper time for it to cease.

If the separation is inevitable, then why should the current society leave the fight to its children? Why squander the opportunity the colonies have to start over and install a representative government, Paine asks. The colonies face the unique possibility of creating a truly representative government, free from the corruption of a hereditary monarchy.

Any hope that England could rule the colonies fairly is undercut as Paine explains how the king has no incentive to regulate the colonies' trade appropriately. The king must protect the mainland of England, and so he will make policies that bolster Britain and not America. The King retains a veto power over all colonial matters, which leaves them to the mercy of a foreign ruler. This situation remains unacceptable to Paine. Paine finally addresses the fear that, if the colonies declare independence, there will be outbreaks of unrest, and civil war may ensue. He asserts the true threat to order will be if the colonies remain subject to the British throne. He predicts that the day a compromise and reconciliation is reached will be the day of colonial revolt. Too many citizens have suffered serious loss of property and even death to stand by quietly and accept anything but independence.

With the introduction, "If there is any true cause of fear respecting independence, it is because no plan is yet laid down," Paine details his own plan for the new government of independent colonies. He proposes a charter to establish the system, which will be a sacred bond to protect the freedom of society. There will be a president to lead the government, and there will be a unicameral, or one-house, system to support the president. The colonies will send representatives to the congress, and the president will be regularly elected from those representatives. Each colony will have the opportunity to present candidates for president, on a rotating basis.

Paine states that the opportunity to reconcile has passed and it is now time to demand independence. "There are injuries which nature cannot forgive," he writes, "As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain." Independence is not only geographically and culturally inevitable, Paine argues, but it is divinely inspired. God intended for the colonies to rule themselves as a democratic republic. And that republic will become a haven, Paine predicts, for all the oppressed in the world: "O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind."

Of the Present Ability of America With Some Miscellaneous Reflections

Paine asserts that the time to declare independence has arrived. Circumstances are ripe for the fight, with unity and size working in the colonies' favor. The population of the colonies is in the perfect situation to begin a new government. They are just the right mass to be highly unified in their fight against the British, and so should pursue independence right away. Furthermore, the colonies do not have debt to hold them back. It is the present citizens' duty to settle this matter for the future, and not leave it as a burden to their children, "leaving them the great work to do, and a debt upon their backs from which they derive no advantage."

The colonies should begin immediately by preparing an adequate navy to aid in the fight, and Paine lists the specific resources the colonies possess to do just that. Natural resources are plentiful for shipbuilding, and there is enough money to finance a navy large enough to battle the British. Concerns about failure can be alleviated because the navy can be sold for funds if necessary. Even without declaring independence, the colonies would need to build a navy, Paine proposes, because they cannot rely on England to protect them adequately. Even though England has a large and formidable fleet of ships, the colonies only need build enough ships to protect their ports. England's navy has other responsibilities besides fighting the colonies, so the entire fleet will not be available. As such, the colonies have an opportunity for victory, Paine argues.

The colonial navy will have uses beyond fighting for separation. During peacetime, the colonies can employ their ships for trade: "To unite the sinews of commerce and defence is sound policy," he writes, "for when our strengths and our riches, play into each other's hand, we need fear no external enemy." The colonies' resources are great, both in natural products such as hemp, iron, and land itself as well as in intellectual power such as knowledge and motivation. The conflict between the countries will only escalate as America grows, so why put off the inevitable separation? Where England's army suffers from lack of energy (because the soldiers are comfortable and seek personal gain), the colonial army benefits from the deep desire for independence. If the colonies take advantage of these favorable elements, they can choose and form a new kind of representative government. Paine urges the colonies not to let this opportunity pass by. This new government can be a haven for religious differences and can be truly representative.

Paine concludes with some final motivations for the colonies to declare their independence. First, there is no mediator that could effectively reconcile the colonies with England. Both Spain and France would compromise their own self-interests to get involved in the conflict, so they cannot be unbiased mediators. Second, independence would stimulate a robust commercial market in the colonies, which would help establish the republic. Finally, Paine asserts that colonial citizens know they should pursue independence, and so they should begin right away. Paine explains:

Until an independence is declared, the Continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity.


The Evils of Hereditary Monarchies

Paine spends much of his writing arguing against the objectionable nature of hereditary monarchs in general, and one hereditary monarch in particular: King George III of England. Although the colonies directed most of their anger toward the British Parliament for enacting extremely binding commercial restrictions on them, Paine sought to add King George to the list of British offenders. He builds a detailed argument throughout Common Sense for why monarchies are not good governments to begin with, but hereditary monarchies are extremely corrupt. He even argues that hereditary monarchs are both unnatural and un-Christian.

Monarchs cannot sustain a just society, claims Paine, because one person cannot fairly make decisions for an entire community. A monarch is not accountable to anyone and thus generally serves his own interests rather than those of his people. Paine says that monarchs are even opposed by God in the scriptures; Israel only received a king after begging for one. And even then, God presented the monarch with a curse, predicting that the subjects would regret the day they asked to become subjects of an earthly master. Kings and queens, even if occasionally good to their people, demand the kind of submission only appropriate for God, Paine argues. People should not worship an earthly leader; they should instead have a government that worthily represents their interests.

If monarchies are inherently flawed, Paine believes that hereditary monarchies are inherently corrupt. Having kingships passed down within a royal family presents so many challenges to rationality that Paine vehemently opposes the practice. Choosing a society's leader based on birthright disregards any actual skill or capacity for the position, Paine argues. No matter how unsuited one is for government leadership, bloodlines still allow the person to assume the throne. Further, the longer a royal family continues, the less connected to the community they become. They are entirely separated from their subjects and thus cannot know the needs of the people they serve. Paine also illustrates his own disgust for the kind of arrogance a royal family can cultivate in its habits of luxury and ego-gratification.

Paine presents a spirited case for why hereditary monarchies should be banished from the British colonies. He describes why the colonies should terminate ties with the English monarchy and begin self-rule. He additionally illustrates why America, once independent from Britain, should not institute a monarch or a hereditary monarchy in their new society. America has the opportunity, he asserts, to rid itself of old, corrupt forms of government in order to start a new republic.

The Inevitability of American Independence

Paine bolsters his argument for colonial independence by making the case that America will ultimately be self-ruling, whether it occurs in 1776 or whether it occurs some other time in the future. Geography tops Paine's list for why the colonies should split from British rule; because the American continent exists so far from Great Britain, it will eventually be independent. No outside force will be able to permanently control such a large, isolated land mass as North America, Paine argues, and so the colonies should recognize the strength of their bargaining position. Furthermore, if the split is inevitable, Paine asserts that the colonies should take advantage of their opportunity to shape the future. Why saddle the next generation with shouldering the fight and responsibility for an independent nation when the problem can be solved presently? Paine argues that the timing for establishing a new government could not be better, and so the colonies should stand up and fight for a new, free republic. Appealing to a sense of duty and a sense of destiny, Paine rallies colonial citizens to provide a better future for their children. Who knows when as good a chance for victory will present itself, he says. Paine seemed to anticipate the kind of unique country America would become, appealing to his readers in a language of freedom and independence that the entire world could admire.

Emerging American Capitalism

A main reason Paine believes the colonies could survive independently of Great Britain is the emerging commerce associated with North America. In the short time the Europeans were settled in the colonies, they were constantly discovering new natural resources. "Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce," Paine writes, just to name a few of the products ripe for international trade. Because of the emerging market available to the colonies, Paine argues that independence is financially critical as well as morally correct. First, England will not be able to effectively regulate American trade from such a far distance; considering the travel-time involved in simple communications, trade would presumably be hampered. Second, with all of the Crown's alliances already established, Paine argues that there is no motivation for England to promote the colonies' interests. England will make decisions according to its own material gain and national defense rather than according to what would be best for the colonial market. Finally, Paine emphasizes the need to keep all European markets open to trade with the colonies. As England already had quarrels with France and Spain, for instance, those relationships would be detrimental to trade. As an independent country, the colonies could promote their own trade relationships and not inherit the alliances and enemies of England. Paine makes a strong case for the colonies to protect their great commercial potential by eliminating English restrictions. The capitalist success America becomes over the next two centuries is apparent in Paine's arguments, proving the accuracy of many of his assumptions.

Representative Government for the New Republic

Because hereditary monarchies are not appropriate for the emerging colonial government, Paine suggests a representative government instead. Besides railing against the Crown, he also criticizes the complicated Parliamentary system in England as ineffective. Bureaucracy and corruption make the seemingly representative system actually serve special interests. And since the British government retains an inherited monarchy, any progress toward a representative republic is corrupted. Because the colonies will be starting with a blank slate, Paine encourages them to create a new kind of truly representative government. He recommends a fairly elaborate construction of a one-house system with a president, not the two-house system the United States eventually adopts. Paine's structure, however, places representation as the highest priority. Because he believes government to be only a necessary evil and not an institution to be needlessly expanded, Paine believes that the people's voice should be able to guide the government on all matters. The worst part of England's system, Paine argues, is that it lost touch with the people it supposedly serves and protects. Paine's ideas for a new American republic place the people back in the priority position and make the wellbeing of the community more important than the selfish desires of the rulers themselves.


The American Revolution

Paine's writings entered an already-charged political environment. The British colonies were in direct conflict with their parent-country, Great Britain, over their own governing. Some colonies were more affected by restrictive British laws than others, and those most affected began protesting their treatment. Most famously, protesters in Boston staged the "Tea Party" in 1773 when they threw what they believed to be unfairly regulated tea into the Boston Harbor. After such demonstrations, the British government instituted what became known as the Coercive Acts in order to punish the colonies. These pieces of legislation extremely restricted colonial trade, taxed their property, and installed British law enforcement, all without providing colonial representation in Parliament. With all these issues building up tensions among colonial citizens, hostilities had already broken out when Paine published Common Sense. The first battles erupted in 1774 at Fort William and Mary in New Hampshire and in 1775 at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. Although in hindsight it can appear inevitable that America defeated Great Britain to become a successful, independent nation, the future was not so clear toward the end of the eighteenth century. Colonial citizens were not united in their point of view on British government, with some willing to reconcile with the throne and some unwilling to cause trouble in the first place. Paine's writings became so important specifically because of the conflicted perspective among the colonies. His passionate argument helped bring some unity to the independence movement and helped continue to rouse spirits throughout the Revolutionary War. The last major battle of the war took place in 1781 when the French helped the Americans defeat the British forces at Yorktown.

Plain Language in Literature

Paine's arguments in Common Sense can only be considered well-reasoned and detailed. But his large impact on the colonies is due to the combination of his logical appeal with his incredibly accessible language. Although influenced by various philosophers such as John Locke, Paine articulates his ideas in writing that everyday people could understand. Void of complicated language or obscure allusions, Paine's words use common language and recognizable examples to persuade his readers that America should be independent. Straightforward statements and ordinary vocabulary mark Paine's style. And his arguments are backed up with examples from contemporary politics and the Christian Bible, both sources most people during Paine's time could readily recognize. This plain style was no accident for Paine, who believed strongly in the power of the masses. Not only did Paine's words empower the average colonial citizen, but so did his ideas. He believed that every member of society deserved governmental representation and that monarchies and social aristocracies were unjust. Paine sought to give regular people a voice by providing them with reasonable, understandable arguments for colonial independence. His success can be measured not only in the high sales of his writings, but also in the way his readers reproduced his arguments on their own. Paine was an uncommonly persuasive writer, certainly, but he was also an irrepressible champion of the average citizen. American ideals of common people finding success in a democratic country can be traced as far back as Paine's earliest writings encouraging independence.


Although Paine lost America's favor in the final years of his life, he has since become one of the most celebrated patriot writers in the country's history. During the Revolution and soon after, Paine's writings were enormously popular. Common Sense not only sold an unprecedented number of copies, but it also helped establish Paine as a valuable national asset. Several members of the Continental Congress encouraged Paine to continue writing for the colonial cause, and so his works continued to spur on the fight for American independence.

Some, Like John Adams, had some reservations about the government Paine outlined; In "Revolution with Pen and Ink," William Kashatus defends him:

Paine wasn't a constitutional theorist. His task was tearing down governments, not creating them. While Congress eventually adopted his suggestion for a unicameral legislature and incorporated it into the Articles of Confederation, it proved to be a dismal failure, just as Adams had feared. Yet at the same time, Common Sense convinced many Americans who had previously been neutral on the subject of independence that a monarchy could no longer address their needs and that they should separate from England.

Reflecting on Paine in 2002, Lewis Lapham notes his power and relevance still today. "To read Tom Paine is to encounter the high-minded philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rendered in language simple enough to be understood by everybody in the room," he claims. He goes on:

[Paine wrote] in what he knew to be "the undisguised language of historical truth," leveling a fierce polemic against the corrupt monarchy of King George III that serves (226 years later, and with no more than a few changes of name and title) as a fair description of the complacent oligarchy currently parading around Washington in the costume of a democratic republic. Were Paine still within reach of the federal authorities, Attorney General John Ashcroft undoubtedly would prosecute him for blasphemy under a technologically enhanced version of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Perhaps perceiving his threat to governments, even ones that owe him for their very existence, conservative American politicians looked down on Paine for centuries. Harvey Kaye explains:

Conservatives certainly were not supposed to speak favorably of Paine, and for 200 years, they had not. In fact, they had for generations publicly despised Paine and scorned his memory. And one can understand why: Endowing American experience with democratic impulse and aspiration, Paine had turned Americans into radicals, and we have remained radicals at heart ever since.

Since his lifetime, scholars study Paine's work from many angles and in many eras. Thomas Edison, for instance, was a Paine enthusiast and helped cement his standing in American culture by participating in the Paine Memorial groundbreaking. In an article in American Heritage in 2005, Kaye argues that Paine is the most underrated Founding Father, and all the others are overrated as a result:

Until we build the monument to Thomas Paine on the Mall in Washington, D.C., authorized by Congress in 1992—that is, until we officially admit Paine into the top rank of the Founding Fathers—I will continue to contend that all the usual suspects, yes, all of them are overrated…. [Paine] he not only turned America's colonial rebellion into a revolutionary war but also, to the chagrin of the more conservative of the patriots, defined the new nation in a democratically expansive and progressive fashion and projected an American identity charged with exceptional purpose and promise.

Because his work appeared in pamphlet form and enjoyed mass popularity, Paine is sometimes regarded as a propagandist rather than a philosopher. As Paul Collins writes in the New Scientist, Paine's texts "were radically democratic writings deemed so dangerous that, for decades after his death in 1809, British booksellers were prosecuted for selling them." There is no doubt that Paine's writings reached a wide audience, both physically, intellectually, and emotionally. As Neal Ascherson claims in "The Indispensable Englishman, "Thomas Paine has had far more influence upon the thinking and acting of the human race than any other English writer except Shakespeare."


W. E. Woodward

In the following excerpt, Woodward describes Common Sense as the catalyst that set the American Revolution in motion, and contends that Thomas Paine, its author, is thus the godfather of the country.

It was Thomas Paine who brought all these tangled revolutionary impulses to a head and sent them moving in the direction of independence. He wrote a thin book, or pamphlet, called Common Sense in which he pointed out the folly of a strong, self-reliant people taking orders from a nation across the sea; and he showed also that many of the British rules and regulations concerning the Colonies were utterly senseless, and could have been conceived only by stupid officeholders who lacked all sound ideas of America and its people.

Paine was the first author in our history to reach the whole American public. His book was an extraordinary best seller, and its keynote was American Independence.


The Giants of Political Thought: Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence, & The Federalist Papers was released as an audio recording in 1998. Narrated by Craig Deitschman, it is available in a set of four audio cassettes from Sound Ideas.

Common Sense was released as an audio recording in 2002. Narrated by George Vafiadis, it is available on compact disc from Commuter Library.

Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence was released as an audio recording in 2006. Narrated by Craig Deitschman, it is available on compact disc from Knowledge Products.

One may read Common Sense from cover to cover in three hours; it contains only twenty-five thousand words. Paine, who was always a most painstaking writer, spent the entire autumn of 1775 in writing and revising the pamphlet. Simplicity and force were two of the vital principles of his creative literary work. He reasoned that if an argument did not carry force and conviction there was no sense in printing it at all; furthermore, if it were so intricate in style and expression that only the learned could gather its full import most of its possible readers were thus excluded.

In the eighteenth century learning and literature were pompous. They were speckled with quotations from Greek and Latin authors. To prove his scholarship, and as a matter of self-respect, an author was moved to refer familiarly to Plato and Aristotle, to Catullus and Cicero, even if his argument concerned nothing more important than the right to catch fish in a pond.

But in Common Sense there is not even one quotation from the classics; Paine wrote in the English of the people, in the language that men use as they go about their daily business.

In September of 1775 the North Carolina Provincial Congress disclaimed any thoughts of rebellion. As late as January, 1776, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland instructed their delegates in Congress to vote against independence if the matter was brought up.

James Truslow Adams says, in The Epic of America: "In Boston the upper class, almost without exception, were strongly opposed to it [to independence], and more than half the upper class throughout the whole colony. It was the same in New York, where the bulk of the property owners were Loyalists. In Pennsylvania, a majority of all the people were not only against war and independence in the beginning, but remained so throughout the struggle."

Nevertheless, despite this show of loyalty to Great Britain, half-formed, misty thoughts of a movement toward independence were in the back of the minds of many men. But they were doubtful of such a radical step. When once taken it could not be recalled, and one hesitates naturally at making a decision with such momentous consequences.

The situation may be compared to that of a chemical process where several diverse elements are brought together to form a single compound. They are all present but they will not unite until a catalyst is added to them.

The catalyst of the situation that has just been described was Thomas Paine. He was the godfather of America. It was he who inspired the Declaration of Independence.

The publication of Common Sense was like the breaking of a dam which releases all the pent-up water that stood behind it. The reprinting presses ran night and day to fill the demand for the thin pamphlet. Men read it in the streets, standing still on the narrow sidewalks, rapt in attention, while people passed to and fro. It was read aloud by schoolteachers and patriotic speakers to audiences of unlettered laborers. In the Continental Army the officers read it while their men stood at attention, listening to every word.

As soon as its authorship was known, within a few weeks after it had first appeared, Thomas Paine became a famous man overnight. A Maryland subscriber to the Pennsylvania Evening Post wrote a letter to that newspaper in which he said, "If you know the author of Common Sense tell him he has done wonders and worked miracles, made Tories Whigs and washed black-amoors white. He has made a great number of converts here."

On April 1 of that year (1776) George Washington said in a letter to Joseph Reed:

My countrymen, I know, from their form of government and steady attachment heretofore to royalty, will come reluctantly to the idea of independence, but time and persecution bring many wonderful things to pass; and, by private letters which I have lately received from Virginia, I find Paine Common Sense is working a wonderful change there in the minds of men.

Sir George Trevelyan says, in his History of the American Revolution:

It would be difficult to name any human composition which has had an effect at once so instant, so extended and so lasting … It was pirated, parodied and imitated, and translated into the language of every country where the new republic had well-wishers … According to contemporary newspapers Common Sense turned thousands to independence who before could not endure the thought. It worked nothing short of miracles and turned Tories into Whigs.

In April the North Carolina Provincial Congress, that until then had disclaimed any thought of rebellion, instructed its delegates to vote for independence at the forthcoming meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. At the September session of the previous year (1776) this body had given explicit instructions to its delegates to vote against independence.

Among the South Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress was Christopher Gadsden, a resolute patriot who stood for independence. Early in February he returned to Charleston, taking with him a copy of Common Sense. In the South Carolina Convention he rose and read many passages from Paine's pamphlet and proposed a resolution to the effect that South Carolina, united with the other Colonies, should declare for independence.

"This declaration," says William Henry Drayton in his Memoirs, "came like an explosion of thunder upon the members. There had been no intimation of such a purpose, there was nothing in the resolution of the Continental Congress to suggest such a purpose. That the controversy with the mother country might lead to such a revolutionary attempt had been anticipated and dreaded by many from its very inception, but few at the time were prepared to meet the issue. John Rutledge warmly reproved Colonel Gadsden, pronounced the opinion treasonable, and declared he abhorred the idea." Paine, the author of the pamphlet, was denounced and cursed. Even the few who were ready for independence regretted Gadsden's sudden and inopportune declaration.

Gadsden's resolution was voted down. But less than a month later the South Carolina Convention resolved to establish an independent government for South Carolina, with a president instead of a royal governor. It was further resolved to elect a general assembly, and instead of the royal governor's privy council there was to be a legislative council of thirteen members.

This proceeding inclines one to believe that after the "explosion" at the February meeting others besides Christopher Gadsden had been reading Thomas Paine Common Sense.

When the Declaration of Independence came before the Continental Congress on July 4 of that year the South Carolina delegates voted for it, together with the delegates of all the other Colonies except New York.

New York delegates refrained from voting on July 4, as they had no authority from their Colonial assembly to vote for independence at that time, but such instructions were received later and they cast their votes for the Declaration on July 9.

The Tories, or Loyalists, constituted a strong minority in all the Colonies. In some of them, in New York and Pennsylvania, for example, they were sufficiently influential to be a distinct menace to the independence movement. The Tories were conservatives, or reactionaries. They wanted no change, or only minor changes in the relation of the Colonies to Great Britain. They feared that separation from the mother country would lead to disaster, and the vexatious laws and regulations imposed on the Colonies by the king and his government seemed to them a lesser evil than those lying quietly hidden in the background of independence.

Many of the Tories were wealthy; it was, indeed, a party of rich landowners, exporters, merchants and professional men, such as college professors, clergymen and lawyers. The common folk included in the Tory classification were, in most cases, tenants or debtors or servants of well-to-do Loyalists.

The Tories were convinced that the independence of the Colonies, if it ever came about, would lead to mob rule, anarchy and disorganization, with "the illiterate trash," as they called the common people, sitting on top of the heap. And, of course, all private property would be seized or destroyed.

Their fears were wholly groundless, but they could not see far enough in the future to perceive that the ghost lying in wait for them on the dark road was only a flapping white sheet. The social system that followed the Revolution was certainly not governed by a mob. It was not even a democracy but an aristocratic republic. The Tories would have been as safe within it as if they were living in the shadow of St. James Palace.

Yet as late as November 24, 1778, after the French had joined the Colonials and the British were losing the war, the French minister at Philadelphia wrote to his government:

Scarcely one quarter of the ordinary inhabitants of Philadelphia now here favor the cause [of independence]. Commercial and family ties, together with an aversion to popular government, seem to account for this. The same feeling exists in New York and Boston, which is not the case in the rural districts.

To counterattack the revolutionary movement the Loyalists distributed innumerable pamphlets and subsidized newspapers and public speakers. Some of their arguments sound exceedingly strange to a twentieth-century reader. "If I must be enslaved," Samuel Seabury wrote, "let it be by a King at least, and not by a parcel of upstart, lawless Committeemen. If I must be devoured, let me be devoured by the jaws of a lion and not gnawed to death by rats and vermin." Jonathan Boucher declared that "a rebel is worse than the worst prince, and a rebellion worse than the worst government of the worst prince that hath hitherto been."

The anonymous author of Plain Truth, a Tory pamphlet, wrote that "Independence and slavery are anonymous terms." A startling idea! If that be true, it would certainly be interesting to have the writer's definition of freedom, which he failed to give.

"God is a God of order and not of confusion," wrote another pamphleteer, "and he commands you to submit to your rulers, and to be obedient to the higher power for conscience sake." The Reverend John Bullman, a Tory divine, preached a number of sermons against the Whigs and the independence movement. In one of them he put forth this specimen of Tory wisdom:

Every idle projector, who perhaps cannot govern his own household, or pay the debts of his own creating, presumes he is qualified to dictate how the state should be governed, and to point out the means of paying the debts of a nation. Hence, too, it is that every silly clown or illiterate mechanic will take upon him to censure the conduct of his prince or governor and contribute as much as in him lies to create and foment these misunderstandings which, being brooded by discontent and diffused through great multitudes, come at last to end in schism in the church, and sedition and rebellion in the state; so a great matter doth a little fire kindle.

The appearance of Common Sense and its wide circulation among people of all classes and conditions was a major disaster to the Tory cause. Their leaders, and the secret agents of Britain, encouraged writers in their pay to answer its arguments. As a result a swarm of pamphlets appeared bearing such titles as A Friendly Address; An Englishman's Answer; The Congress Canvassed; Patriots of North America; and True Interest of America. All of these effusions are pompous, windy, dull and unconvincing.

Source: W. E. Woodward, "Paine Writes a Bestseller," in Tom Paine: America's Godfather, E. P. Dutton, 1945, pp.66-84.


Ascherson, Neal, "The Indispensable Englishman (American Political Theorist and Author Thomas Paine)," in the New Statesman (U.K.), January 29, 1999, pp. 25-27.

Collins, Paul, "The Arch Revolutionary," in New Scientist, Vol. 50, No. 2, 2004, p. 51.

Kashatus, William C., "Revolution with Pen & Ink (The Influence of Thomas Paine's 'Common Sense')," in American History, Vol. 34, No. 6, February 2000, p. 53.

Kaye, Harvey J., "The Lost Founder: Thomas Paine Has Often Been the Forgotten (and Sometimes the Ostracized) Founding Father. It's Time to Start Remembering—and Celebrating," in The American Prospect, Vol. 16, No. 7, July 2005, pp. 34-38.

Lapham, Lewis H., "Uncommon Sense," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 305, No. 1826, July 2002, pp. 7-9.

Paine, Thomas, The Crisis, 1776–1783, in Paine: Collected Writings, The Library of America, 1995, p.91.

――――――, Common Sense, 1776, in Paine: Collected Writings, The Library of America, 1995, pp. 6, 34, 36, 38, 46.

Seymour, Gene, Steven Lubet, Michael Barkun, Mark Rotella, David Thomson, and Harvey J. Kaye, "Overrated Underrated.(Historical Events and People)," in American Heritage, Vol. 56, No. 5, October 2005, pp. 60-74.

Common Sense

views updated Jun 11 2018


Several things can be learned about common sense from Dr. Johnson's attempt to refute George Berkeley by kicking the stone. Its philosophical incompetence is not one of them. Dr. Johnson of course misunderstood Berkeley, and his misunderstanding was not a collapse of common sense. He thought that if stones had, as Berkeley said, no "material substance" and were collections of "ideas," a boot ought to go through them without resistance. And if Berkeley had been maintaining that solid objects were only apparently solid and were really collections of what we would ordinarily call ideas, the refutation would have been an appropriate reaction of common sense.

The Notion of Common Sense

Whatever other aspects of meaning the word sense may retain in the compound "common sense," it has prominently the force of sense as opposed to nonsense. In what is contrary to common sense there is always something more or lessbut obviouslynonsensical. It produces the feeling, varying in strength according to circumstances, that argument is only precariously in place in dealing with it. For to deploy arguments at all directly against the manifestly absurd is to invest it with some intellectual dignity and to muffle its self-annihilating character. It is, moreover, to invite the suspicion that one has failed to recognize absurdity, and such failure has a very foolish look. As a man of redoubtable common sense, Dr. Johnson kept dialectic for the right occasion. He did not kick the stone formally in the name of common sense, but his action has traditionally been praised and condemned as a piece of commonsense behavior. Yet he was demonstrating against a philosopher who was also determined to be on the side of common sense.


Berkeley's notebooks contain the reminder to himself: "To be eternally banishing Metaphisics &c & recalling Men to Common Sense" (Philosophical Commentaries, No. 751). Confident that he could always secure the neutrality of common sense when he could not have its assistance, Berkeley went about his own metaphysical enterprise, which was to exhibit the dependence of physical objects on their being perceived. His Three Dialogues (1713) is studded with references to common sense: to opinions that are "repugnant" or "shocking" to it, to its "dictates," to the judgment of men of "plain common sense." The objections that have to be most carefully answered are those which appear to proceed from common sense. Since the issues concern mainly the world of perception, the man of common sense in the Dialogues is eminently the man who "trusts his senses," who will not tolerate the suggestion that the things he sees and handles are not real things but their mere representations.

The eighteenth century also brought into existence, in France and Scotland, philosophies of common sensephilosophies, to a greater or lesser degree, centered on this notion. They safeguarded what they held to be the beliefs (or "truths") of common sense by defending its authority andin the Scottish philosophyby exposing contraries of these beliefs to its blunt rejection.

common-sense beliefs

It may be asked whether common sense had beliefs until philosophers engaged in its defense ascribed them to it. The Oxford English Dictionary lists a variety of meanings for the expression. Three of these, referring to a mental endowment, might be taken together: ordinary understandingwithout which a man is out of his mind, or feeble-minded (an early meaning); ordinary, practical, good sense in everyday affairs; and the "faculty of primary truths." Ordinary understanding is not obviously, and practical, good sense is obviously not, the sort of thing that could stamp a set of beliefs with a special character. The third of these meanings is marked "philosophical." A further meaning must be noticed: "the general sense, feeling, or judgement of mankind." Here common sense seems to be a cluster of beliefs or persuasions, somehow "felt" to be true by most people. An argument drawn from common sense, in this case, would amount to an appeal to an ancient tribunal of opinion, common consent. (The most absolute modern proponent of this tribunal has probably been Lamennais, in his Essai sur l'indifférence, Paris, 18171823.)

Philosophers have frequently meant by common sense an intuitively based common consent. And the philosophers, during and after the eighteenth century, who have argued from common sense and for its beliefs have often thought of common sense in this way. They have, however, as often thought of it in a more ordinary way, as the common sense that is opposedalways at first sight, sometimes irreconcilablyto high and obvious paradox.

Can the common sense that is opposed to gross paradox properly be thought of as having beliefs, however strong? If there is some artificiality in saying that common sense has beliefs, there is none in speaking of its rejection of an opinion; the reasonit might be suggestedis that common sense does not declare itself in advance of attack upon it. The man of plain, ordinary common sense cannot readily be said, for instance, to believe that the things around him continue to exist in his absencethe idea of their not doing so does not cross his mind. But when he encounters the contrary opinion, his common sense asserts itself. On the supposition that the declarations of common sense are essentially reactive, to ascribe to it beliefs specified by what it rejectsand this the philosophers who have maintained its beliefs seem often to have intendedwould be a minor linguistic innovation, justified in that it makes its commitments explicit. The supposition would have to be modified in some cases. It does not come naturally to us to speak of a belief in our personal identity through time, because this identity is something of which we are aware. Nevertheless, it can be argued that here also common sense has commitments which are not apparent before its reaction to various assertions.

reaction to skepticism

A philosophy of common sense is a natural reaction to the fact, or to the threat, of philosophical paradox or skepticism. The French Jesuit Claude Buffier (16611737) saw us as threatened, since René Descartes, with skepticism about all matters of fact beyond the range of our consciousness, the states of which cannot be doubted. What we need is unimpeachable authority for the fundamental convictions shared by all normal men about matters of fact with respect to which consciousness can give no guarantees. Common sense supplies it. It puts us into assured possession of such "first truths" as that there is an external world, that our minds are incorporeal, that we are capable of free agency. First truths have characteristic marks: No attack upon them, and no attempt to prove them, can operate from premises that surpass them in clarity or evidence. They are, and always have been, acknowledged by the vast majority of humankind. Those who imagine they reject them act like others in conformity with them.


David Hume's work A Treatise of Human Nature (17391740) produced by reaction a more important philosophy of common sense than Buffier's. In parts of the Treatise to isolate what gave the book its most generally "shocking" aspectthings were reduced to the contents of the mind and the mind to its contents. While many of Hume's conclusions are capable of a milder interpretation than they were given by his readers, Hume himself did not pretend that a number of them were anything but profoundly disturbing to our natural beliefs. At the same time he thought these beliefs had us too tightly in their grip for reasoning to be able to pry us loose. In the Treatise "nature" has the last word, but its meaning is left uncertain. We must submit, but whether in submitting to nature we are also submitting to truth is quite another matter. In Hume's later An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, "common sense and reflection" are mentioned as correcting, in some degree, the indiscriminate doubt of an extreme skepticism, but nature and reasoning are still seen as coming into conflict. However, it should be remarked that there is another side to Hume in which these skeptical tendencies are in abeyance.

The "Scottish School"


A central purpose of Thomas Reid's An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), and of his two later books, was, with Hume kept steady in view, to defend common sense against philosophical paradox and skepticism. It was for Reid a doubly difficult undertaking; if, as he held, the truths of common sense were self-evident, how could they be denied? And again, if they were self-evident, how could they be made evident when denied?

The great source of paradoxical or skeptical repudiations of common sense, Reid thought, was an innocent-looking theory that he believed philosophers had very generally adopted in order to explain the possibility of our awareness of anything beyond the present contents of our minds. According to this theory, such awareness is secondhand, necessarily mediated by "ideas" within our minds that are representative substitutes for external things. As its implications were drawn out, the theory, Reid maintained, committed philosophers to a steadily increasing range of conflict with common sense, with no stopping before "ideas," losing their representative character, monopolize existence. The "theory of ideas" is to be found in John Locke, needing only, Reid believed, an unsparing logic such as Hume's to produce Hume's world. (Locke's An Essay concerning Human Understanding [1690], has a deceptively commonsense air; its tone is down-to-earth, and experience is set up as the source of knowledge. Locke wanted no paradoxes, and when they were approached by what he said, he was not very efficient at drawing conclusions.)

The truths of common sense cannot be made evident by deductive proofs, but, Reid maintained, there is always absurdity in opinions contrary to its dictates. His most general procedure in defending common sense was to remind us of its command over us. Common sense has so fundamentally determined the scaffolding of ordinary language that the philosopher, in trying to word an opinion which is against common sense, is liable to need another language; and his utterance is continually threatened with incoherence between its structure and its content. The beliefs of common sense govern the behavior even of those who repudiate them in opinion, and they are only fitfully repudiated even in opinion; the paradoxical or skeptical philosopher is no sooner off his guard than he is believing with, as well as acting like, other men. Reid stressed a truism about matters of common sense: They lie within "the reach of common understanding." If this were not so, the judgment of the great bulk of humankind would carry no weight against a philosopher's superior competence. But in "a matter of common sense, every man is no less a competent judge than a mathematician is in a mathematical demonstration" (Intellectual Powers, Essay VI, Ch. 4). Whether or not something is a matter of common sense may well have to be investigatedprejudices shamming common sense must be exposed; what Reid denied is that the philosopher is in a better position than anyone else to pronounce on the truth of what really comes from common sense.

Many of the opinions that Reid rejected as contrary to common sense do not appear to be in conflict with the necessities of action he held common sense to impose. Thus, he attacked Berkeley as having denied the existence of a material world, but Berkeley denied that the truth of his opinion would make any changes in our experience; stones, for instance, would remain the solid objects we find them to be. Reid's limited success in vindicating the beliefs of common sense by pointing to inconsistencies between the profession and the practice of dissenters was connected with his interpretation of many of these beliefs; they presented themselves to him as containing an element that lies beyond verification by experience and that might therefore be called metaphysical. He construed, for example, our belief in the existence of a material world as disallowing any phenomenalistic account of the nature of material things, our belief in personal identity as involving a reference of all our experience to its (immaterial) subject, our belief in the freedom of our will as involving indeterminacy of choice.

reid's followers

The notion of an appeal to common sense in great matters of philosophical dispute was crudely taken up by two of Reid's contemporaries, James Beattie (the poet) and James Oswald. When they were regarded as its representatives, the school that became associated with Reid's name could easily be spoken of as appealing to "the judgment of the crowd." Dugald Stewart (17531828), teaching and writing with Reid's moderation, though without his penetrating simplicity, consolidated the school's position in Scotland, and his books helped to make the influence of the ideas he shared with Reid strongly felt in France and America.

sir william hamilton

Sir William Hamilton (17881856) produced a philosophy in which doctrines of Reid and Immanuel Kant were fused into an unstable compound. It proclaimed the sovereignty of common sense and compromised its deliverances, which for Reid were necessarily objective, with an ambiguous assertion of the "relativity" of knowledge. According to Hamilton, the convictions of common sense come to us with the backing of our entire cognitive nature. They are tests of other truth; their own must be presumed, for they are too elementary to have antecedents from which they could be derived. The only possible falsification of common sense would be demonstrated inconsistency in its deliverances, and this would bring in epistemological chaos. J. S. Mill's An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865) gave a reactionary, obscurantist look to the authority that Reid and Hamilton claimed for common sense. The "psychological" method, which Mill opposed to their "introspective method," was damagingly designed to show how a beliefsuch as everyone's belief in an external worldhad grown up, taking on in the process the appearance of obviousness; the psychological method would undermine the doctrine that a belief is a dictate of nature by exhibiting its natural history.

Critical Common Sense

Reid and Hamilton both thought that criticism is or may be necessary in order to determine whether a belief is in fact a belief of common sense. They also held, however, that once this fact is established, it follows that the belief is true. The label "critical common sense" might be used, not too misleadingly, to distinguish from this position those philosophical views which combine the greatest respect for common sense with the insistence or admission that at least some of its beliefs are open to critical revision.


If common sense is identified with what is commonly believed and its criticism is thought of as designed to elicit and defend the truth in common beliefs, then Aristotle may be called the first commonsense philosopher. "We must," Aristotle said, "as in all other cases, set the observed facts before us and, after first discussing the difficulties, go on to prove, if possible, the truth of all the common opinions about these affections of the mind, or, failing this, of the greater number and the most authoritative; for if we both refute the objections and leave the common opinions undisturbed, we shall have proved the case sufficiently" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1145b27; cf. 1172b351173a2, Eudemian Ethics [attributed to Aristotle], 1216b2635).

c. s. peirce

The "Critical Common-sensism" argued for by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914) was largely defined in relation to the views held by the Scottish school. It saw the beliefs of common sense, Peirce said, as changeless, the same for all men at all times. It rightly thought of them as having a kind of instinctive characterbut instincts can undergo modification. Peirce was sure that these beliefs show some modification as people become civilized and civilization develops. They are not, as ordinarily held, beliefs that have been up for acceptance or rejection; they exist as lifelong "belief-habits." And they possess a logical feature in virtue of which they are doubt-resistant when criticized: They have an essential vagueness. Peirce illustrated this with "our belief in the Order of Nature." Let an attempt be made to give this belief precision, and what results will be found disputable. "But who can think that there is no order in nature?" (Collected Papers, Vol. V, p. 359).

The "Critical Common-sensist," Peirce said, tries to "bring all his very general first premisses to recognition" and to develop "every suspicion of doubt of their truth" (ibid., p. 363). But the doubt he is looking for must be the real thing, not "paper" doubt; we can no more induce genuine doubt by an act of will than we can give ourselves a surprise by deciding to. "Strong thinkers" are "apt to be great breath-holders," but holding one's breath against belief is not doubting. In claiming "indubitability" for a belief of common sense, Peirce was not declaring its truth"propositions that really are indubitable, for the time being" may "nevertheless be false" (ibid., p. 347). The future holds possibilities of surprise for all our beliefs. Yet Peirce seems to have held that though any one of our indubitable beliefs might turn out to be false, they could not all do so.

henry sidgwick

"Common sense organised into Science," Henry Sidgwick (18381900) remarked, "continually at once corrects and confirms crude Common Sense" (Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant, p. 425). Sidgwick saw common sense as a great mass of ore, rich in valuable metals, that needs philosophical smelting. It must have removed "inadvertencies, confusions, and contradictions" (ibid., p. 428). However, the procedures by which this is donerigorous reflection, the adjustment of its beliefs to the assured results of scienceare not alien to it. Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics (1874) contains a detailed examination of the "morality of common sense," directed toward showing its frequent vagueness, its areas of indecision, its compromises between conflicting ideas, and also toward showing how its fundamental convictions can be taken up into a form of utilitarianism that can reasonably claim the acquiescence of common sense.

g. f. stout

For G. F. Stout (18601944), common sense has been self-correcting in its evolution and it is still to some extent modifiable. The man in the street is not to be taken as its representative; the common sense of philosophical importance resides in the consensus of ignorant and educated belief. This unanimity is the result of a long development, during which idiosyncrasies of opinion have been worn down by mutual attrition, and mistakeswhich common sense itself can see to be suchhave been corrected. Common sense is less a matter of particular beliefs than "the persistence of plastic tendencies to certain most general and comprehensive views" (Mind and Matter, p. 11). These include such strongly metaphysical dispositions as "the tendency to find Mind in Nature generally" (ibid., p. 14). When a conflict arises between common sense and some scientific or philosophical opinion, the final decision, Stout maintained, rests with common sense, "however indirectly"; for common sense must either be provided with reconciliatory explanations or be brought to see that the considerations in favor of the opinion more than cancel the presumption against it.

russell and broad

It is convenient to mention here two contemporary philosophers who have thought that there are philosophical opinions which can be described as common sense but who have thought that some of these opinions are quite radically mistaken. Science takes common sense as its starting point, Bertrand Russell says; it has arrived at results with regard to the nature of physical things and their relation to perception that are incompatible with parts of the "metaphysic" of common sense. One does what one can for common sense, but, according to C. D. Broad, sometimes not much is possible; nor should a philosopher feel disturbed at a break with common sense that results from seeing together facts that average people notice only separately and from taking into account other facts of which they are altogether ignorant.

Common Sense and Ordinary Language

g. e. moore

G. E. Moore (18731958) did not think that common sense never errs. He seems often to have treated universal, or very general, acceptance as the identifying mark of a commonsense belief, and, as he mentions, things that everybody once believed have turned out to be false. He was prepared to allow that, for all he knew to the contrary, there might be many false propositions included within the vague boundaries of "the Common Sense view of the world." Moore had no special interest in critically sifting the beliefs of common sense for truth and falsity. He was primarily interested in its massive certainties.

Moore's paper "A Defence of Common Sense" (1925) lists sets of propositions that are as obviously true as almost any imaginable: for instance (with considerable paraphrase for the sake of brevity), propositions stating that the earth has existed for many years; that its inhabitants have been variously in contact with, or at different distances from, one another and other things; and that these facts are matters of common knowledge. According to Moore, these "truisms," taken together, imply the truth of the commonsense view of the world in certain of its "fundamental features," for they imply that there are material things, space, time, and other minds besides one's ownin a clear meaning of each of the expressions "material thing," "space," "time," and so on. The abstract words contain ambiguities that are absent from, for example, "The earth has existed for many years," but Moore thought that some philosophers who have denied the existence of material things, of space, of time, or of other minds besides their own are to be understood as having expressed views incompatible with such banally obvious truths. He thus regarded them as paradoxically uttering opinions inconsistent with what they themselves know to be true. They constantly reveal this knowledge in its incompatibility with their opinions; a solipsistic philosopher, for example, sets himself to persuade others that he alone exists.

There is very great doubt, Moore thought, about the correct "analysis," in some important respects, of propositions of common sense that are quite certainly true. (Roughly, for Moore, the analysis of a concept or a proposition lays bare its structure by indicating the concepts it implicitly contains and the way they are combined.) Moore did not think that a phenomenalistic analysis of the concept of a material thing could be ruled out as absolutely impossible. It follows that, in his judgment, a philosopher who was using the sentence "Material things do not exist" simply to word a phenomenalistic doctrine and to repudiate its alternatives would not be repudiating a conviction of common sense that is manifestly true. And if this is so, it is hard to see what a philosopher could have in mind in using the words that would constitute such repudiation. By contrast, denials of the "reality" of space and time on the ground that their concepts are self-contradictory do appear to be in irreconcilable conflict with the most commonplace facts about position and distance, and about past, present, and future.

norman malcolm

The philosophical paradoxes that Moore attacked on many different occasions are construed in Norman Malcolm's essay "Moore and Ordinary Language" as disguised, variously motivated rejections of common language, and Moore's defense of common sense is construed as its vindication. A philosopher declares, for instance, "We can never know for certain the truth of any empirical statement." As interpreted by Malcolm, he is saying that it is never right to say "I know for certain" when it is logically possible that one is mistaken, that the words are always improperly used in this situation. Moore's reply, characteristically translating from the abstract to the concrete, pointed out the absurdity of anyone's suggesting, when he is sitting on a chair, that he believes he is, that he very probably is, but that he does not know it for certain. What Moore's reply did, on Malcolm's interpretation, was "to appeal to our language-sense," "to make us feel how queer and wrong" it would be to speak here in the way the philosopher proposes and substitute "believe" for "know for certain" or to turn to such words as "probable" ("Moore and Ordinary Language," p. 354).

"A philosophical paradox," Malcolm says (pp. 359360), "asserts that, whenever a person uses a certain expression, what he says is false." However, from the fact that the expression has a use in ordinary language, it follows, Malcolm argues, that it is free from self-contradiction (since a self-contradictory expression necessarily has no use) and therefore that it can be employed to make true statements. And this is enough to refute the paradox. Whether or not people always say something false when using these expressions becomes a matter to be settled by matter-of-fact evidence, and the paradoxical philosopher does not deal in evidence of this sort.

In Malcolm's essay a stronger claim is made in effect for Moore's refutations: They produce indisputably true statements employing the expressions that the paradoxes reject, for they present paradigms of the correct application of these expressions. And it is maintained that we could not learn the meaning of some expressions without such paradigms or standard cases; that we could not learn, for example, the meaning of "material thing" without being shown examples of material things, or the meaning of spatial and temporal expressions without acquaintance with spatial and temporal relations, or the meaning of "certain," "probable," "doubtful" without being introduced to the contrasted situations to which they apply. Thus, a statement denying that there is anything answering to one of these expressions must be false. Scrutiny of "the argument from paradigm cases" has been an incident in the recent shift of philosophical interest from common sense (at least under that name) to ordinary language.

ludwig wittgenstein

The way to philosophical paradox is opened, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), when some feature of ordinary language is misconstrued as only philosophers are likely to misconstrue it. This disorder, along with such other characteristic philosophical aberrations as directionless bafflement, is to be got rid of by bringing words back from their alienation in metaphysical discourse to the familiar surroundings from which they have been abstracted and watching them at work there. Philosophers have not carelessly misunderstood ordinary language; it is waiting for them with "bewitchment" and "illusion." In the emancipation that is achieved when one is able to "command a clear view" of the functioning of language, everything is left, but seen to be, "as it is." Wittgenstein rarely mentioned common sense. He referred in The Blue Book (Oxford, 1958, p. 48) to the "common-sense philosopher" (such as Moore or Reid) who, "n.b., is not the common-sense man." The commonsense man, Wittgenstein may be taken to suggest, is man before the philosophical Fall.

See also Paradigm Case Argument.


the notion of common sense

Berkeley, George. Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. London, 1713.

Buffier, Claude. First Truths. Translated anonymously. London: J. Johnston, 1780.

Isaacs, Nathan. The Foundations of Common Sense. London: Routledge and Paul, 1949.

Lewis, C. S. "Sense." In Studies in Words. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Also see the works listed below by Grave, Reid, Stewart, Peirce, Stout (Mind and Matter ), Malcolm, Moore (Philosophical Papers, Ch. 2), and Woozley.

the "scottish school"

Beattie, James. An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth. Edinburgh: A. Kincaid and J. Bell, 1770.

Chastaing, Maxime. "Reid, la philosophie du sens commun." Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger 144 (1954): 352399.

Grave, S. A. The Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.

Mill, John Stuart. An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1865. Chs. 3, 814.

Reid, Thomas. Works. 2 vols, edited by Sir William Hamilton. Edinburgh, 18461863. Hamilton's appendices include a long historical and expository dissertation on the notion of common sense.

Stewart, Dugald. Works. 2 vols, edited by Sir William Hamilton. Edinburgh, 18541860. Vol. III, Ch. 1.

"critical common sense"

Broad, C. D. The Mind and Its Place in Nature. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925. Chs. 24.

Broad, C. D. "A Reply to My Critics." In The Philosophy of C. D. Broad, edited by P. A. Schilpp, 803805. New York: Tudor, 1959.

Peirce, C. S. Collected Papers. 6 vols, edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 19311935. Vol. V, pp. 293313, 346375.

Russell, Bertrand. "Reply to Criticisms." In The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell. 2nd ed., edited by P. A. Schilpp, 700705. Evanston, IL: Library of Living Philosophers, 1946.

Russell, Bertrand. Human Knowledge. London, 1948. Part III; Part IV, Ch. 10.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. 6th ed. London: Macmillan, 1901.

Sidgwick, Henry. "The Philosophy of Common Sense." In Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant, edited by J. Ward, 406429. London: Macmillan, 1905.

Stout, G. F. Studies in Philosophy and Psychology. London: Macmillan, 1930. Ch. 6.

Stout, G. F. Mind and Matter. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1931.

common sense and ordinary language

Campbell, C. A. "Common-sense Propositions and Philosophical Paradoxes." PAS 45 (19441945): 125.

Chappell, V. C. "Malcolm on Moore." Mind 70 (279) (July 1961): 417425.

Chisholm, R. M. "Philosophers and Ordinary Language." Philosophical Review 60 (1951): 317328. Malcolm's reply follows immediately.

Duncan-Jones, A. E., and A. J. Ayer. "Does Philosophy Analyse Common Sense?" PAS, Supp. 16 (1937): 139176. Symposium.

Flew, A. G. N., ed. Essays in Conceptual Analysis. London: Macmillan, 1956. Chs. 1 and 6. Discusses paradigm cases.

Malcolm, Norman. "Moore and Ordinary Language." In The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, edited by P. A. Schilpp, 345368. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University, 1942.

Malcolm, Norman. "Defending Common Sense." Philosophical Review 58 (1949): 201220.

Moore, G. E. "A Reply to My Critics." In The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, edited by P. A. Schilpp, 660675. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University, 1942.

Moore, G. E. Some Main Problems of Philosophy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1953. Chs. 1, 57, 11.

Moore, G. E. Philosophical Papers. London: Allen and Unwin, 1959. Ch. 2, "A Defence of Common Sense," and Ch. 7, "Proof of an External World."

Passmore, J. A. Philosophical Reasoning. London: Duckworth, 1961. Ch. 6. Discusses paradigm cases.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell, 1953.

Woozley, A. D. "Ordinary Language and Common Sense." Mind 62 (247) (July 1953): 301312.

other recommended titles

Audi, Robert. The Architecture of Reason: The Structure and Substance of Rationality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Barker, S. F., and T. C. Beauchamp, eds. Thomas Reid: Critical Interpretations. Philadelphia: Monograph Series, 1976.

Chisholm, Roderick. Theory of Knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966; 2nd ed., 1977; 3rd ed., 1989.

Cornman, James W. Perception, Common Sense, and Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

Foley, Richard. Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Goldman, Alan H. "Epistemic Foundationalism and the Replaceability of Ordinary Language." Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982): 136154.

Guyer, Paul. "Kant on Common Sense and Scepticism." Kantian Review 7 (2003): 137.

Lehrer, Keith. Thomas Reid. London: Routledge, 1989.

Lemos, Noah. "Common Sense and 'A Priori' Epistemology." Monist 81 (3) (1998): 473487.

Lycan, William. "Moore against the New Skeptics." Philosophical Studies 103 (2001): 3553.

Moore, G. E. Philosophical Studies. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922.

Moser, Paul K. "A Defense of Epistemic Intuitionism." Metaphilosophy 15 (1984): 196209.

Moser, Paul K. "Epistemology (1900Present)." In Routledge History of Philosophy, Vol. 10: Philosophy of the English Speaking World in the 20th Century, edited by John Canfield. London: Routledge, 1996.

Reid, Thomas. Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, edited by B. Brody. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.

Reid, Thomas. Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, edited by B. Brody. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.

Schneewind, J. B. "Scottish Common Sense Philosophy." In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995; 2nd ed., 1999.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. "Reid on Common Sense." In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid, edited by Terence Cuneo. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

S. A. Grave (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)

Common Sense

views updated Jun 11 2018

Common Sense

by Thomas Paine


A pamphlet written in colonial America in the 1770s; published in January 1776.


Paine explains in plain but forceful language why the American colonies should separate from Great Britain and form an independent nation.

Events in History at the Time of the Pamphlet

The Pamphlet in Focus

For More Information

When Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, he had been in America only slightly longer than a year. He arrived in Philadelphia in October 1774, a thirty-seven-year-old tax collector and corset-maker from England who had just started to cultivate an interest in political writing a few years earlier. By the summer of 1776, Paine’s Common Sense had sold a remarkable 150,000 copies throughout the colonies and had persuaded probably an even greater number of colonists that they must sever their political ties to Britain. The document that Thomas Jefferson and his fellow delegates signed on July 4, 1776, may have been the colonies’ official declaration of independence, but Common Sense was the work that convinced America’s “common” people that independence was their best—or, more exactly, their only—course of action.

Events in History at the Time of the Pamphlet

Budding democracy in Philadelphia

Paine’s arrival in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, came at a time of intense political tension and excitement. As in other colonies, the Stamp Act (1765), the Townshend Acts (1767), and the Intolerable Acts (1774)—British acts imposing taxes on the colonists and limiting their rights—had stirred up questions about loyalty toward Britain. Within Philadelphia, colonial involvement in these and other political issues had broadened to include a growing number of middle-class artisans. In the 1760s a great debate had raged in Philadelphia about whether to replace Pennsylvania’s “proprietary” government, the colony’s ownership by the Penn family, with a direct royal government. Although this issue had waned by 1770, the aristocrats in the battling Proprietary and Quaker parties had brought middle-class Philadelphians into the debate. A greater number of people than ever before had begun to vote.

Most artisans—shipbuilders, watchmakers, and other skilled craftsmen—were not legally allowed to vote. Like the members of other colonies, Pennsylvanians were required to possess a minimum amount of land or money (in their case, fifty acres or fifty pounds) to have the right to vote. The law, however, was not strictly enforced in Philadelphia. This state of affairs ensured that the voices of middle-class colonists had an increasingly significant effect on local political decisions.

Thomas Paine must have been fond of this trend, for in his post as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, a position he held during his first few years in America, he frequently criticized class divisions and aristocratic privilege. In May 1775 he reflected on the contradiction between the respectable titles and ignoble deeds of some of these aristocrats:

When 1 reflect on the pompous titles bestowed on unworthy men, I feel an indignity that instructs me to despise the absurdity. The Honourable plunderer of his country, or the Right Honourable murderer of mankind, create such a contrast of ideas as exhibit a monster rather than a man. Virtue is inflamed at the violation, and sober reason calls it nonsense.

(Paine in Conway, p. 46)

Most of Paine’s experience with “unworthy” aristocrats came from his life in England, where he lived for many years as a common man on the verge of poverty. Before coming to Philadelphia, Paine probably shared the popular English


Paine was not just concerned with the equal treatment of white colonists. He also wrote frequently about the injustice of slavery in America. In one of the first essays written after his arrival, he calls for an immediate end to the “monstrous” practice of slavery—not just the slave trade—and accuses the colonists of hypocrisy: “With what consistency, or decency [can colonists] complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousands in slavery?” (Paine in Conway, p. 7). Ironically, in the same issue of the Philadelphia Journal in which this essay appears, an advertisement offers a black slave for sale.

image of America as a land of promise where merit, not rank, determined a person’s success. After a year of American life, he sought to use his writing ability to help ensure that this Utopian dream could become a permanent reality. Common Sense was the result.

Unequal relations in American society

The politically equal society that Paine saw emerging in Philadelphia was not, however, the dream of every colonist. Many of the wealthy merchants, planters, and lawyers who controlled colonial government were disturbed by middle-class participation in politics, a growing trend throughout the colonies. These rich and powerful colonists sought better treatment from their mother country, but they feared the social and political change that might come to the colonies if independence from Britain were achieved. These colonists feared losing the power and wealth that they had accumulated.

By the spring of 1776, many of these leaders, some won over by Paine’s passionate prose, had decided to support the struggle for independence. In their view, the success of Common Sense was a double-edged sword. It had contributed greatly to the surge of support for a movement for independence, but it had also triggered increased middle-class participation in politics. Soon after the publication of Common Sense, the prominent colonial politician John Adams wrote that Paine’s pamphlet, in criticizing the British political hierarchy, was too “democratical” it could spread dangerous ideas about political equality, ideas he called “Paine’s yellow fever” (Adams in Foner, p. xviii). By the summer of 1776, these ideas were spreading, up and down the colonies. Through his writing, Paine had linked the call for independence to the movement toward more democratic political participation.

Pamphlets in the colonies

Although Common Sense is probably the best known of any American pamphlet, it certainly was not the only one. Short, cheap, and easy to produce, these popular reading materials initiated and reflected political debates throughout Revolutionary America. They ranged in length from ten to fifty pages, and though some contained poetry or religious sermons, most expressed political concerns. Between 1750 and 1776 alone, some 400 pamphlets dealing with British-American relations were published. Since Philadelphia was the publishing capital of the colonies, many pamphlets originated there, but by the 1770s virtually every colonial city with a printing press produced them.

Although the prevalence of pamphlets helped to bring political discussion from the colonial assemblies into churches and alehouses, no pamphlet at the time received as diverse a readership as Paine’s Common Sense. While most American pamphlets were structured around legal and logical arguments and directed toward educated voters, Paine’s essay was written with uncommon passion and simplicity, for he hoped that his words would have a powerful impact on the whole spectrum of American colonists. He must have been successful in this goal, for one Connecticut man, explaining that Paine’s pamphlet was being read by “all sorts of people,” exclaimed to the author that:

You have declared the sentiments of millions. Your production may justly be compared to a landflood that sweeps all before it. We were blind, but on reading these enlightening words the scales have fallen from our eyes.

(Foner, p. 79)

The twenty-five printings of Common Sense published in 1776 were read by farmers and tradesmen, while illiterate colonists heard its contents from neighbors who read it aloud. By means of this popular literary tool, Paine managed to widen the circle of political discussion and appeal to the “common sense” of “common people.”

Religion and revolutionary thought

In England, the country that America’s first colonists left behind, God and king were worshipped hand in hand. The king led the Church of England and prohibited the practice of other religions—even other branches of Christianity. Some English citizens in search of more religious freedom left their country and chose to sail to America. Consequently, from its earliest days, America was looked upon by some as a sort of “promised land.” There were, to be sure, many colonists who established their own versions of England’s churches and tried to remain connected to the faith of their mother country. But a number of colonists came to America to escape the religious persecution they had suffered in England.

Later, in the mid-1700s, a religious revival called the Great Awakening swept the colonies, creating a renewed sense of the importance of religious tolerance. For most Americans, religious freedom was a valued part of the colonial experience. Paine reminded his readers of its value in Common Sense:

I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us. It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness... I look on the various denominations among us, to be like children of the same family, differing only in what is called their Christian names.

(Paine, Common Sense, pp. 108-09)

The degree of religious freedom was not the only concern of the Protestant colonists in their effort to establish a just society. Since the late seventeenth century, many American Protestants had been hoping and planning for the coming of a new world, a kingdom of God on earth. Their belief was that Christ would soon return to earth, where he would rule with God for a thousand years before a final judgment day. In order to pave the way for this kingdom, many of these “millennialists” believed that they had to bring about a series of changes to create a more virtuous society. Coming to the “New World” of America had been the first step in this process of change. After reading Paine’s pamphlet, many millennialists believed that American independence was the next step. In an appendix added after the first edition of Common Sense, Paine appears to make a direct appeal to these colonists:

We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.

(Common Sense, p. 118)

Even those Christians who did not share this millennial vision, however, were easily convinced by Paine’s call for separation from Britain. After all, by January 1776 the English government had already taxed their goods without their consent, outlawed the decisions of their colonial governments, and prompted its soldiers to fire on colony militias in Lexington and Concord. Colonists wondered if the king might not also seize one of their most precious remaining rights—religious freedom. To prevent this, and to create a safe haven for virtuous society, many colonists were persuaded that they must seek independence for their “promised land.”


Religious tolerance was valued among the colonists, but only to a limited degree. Even they could be intolerant of non-Protestant faiths. Most Catholics were shunned by their fellow colonists, a prejudice of which Paine was keenly aware. In Common Sense, he played on this anti-Catholic tension by equating British monarchy to “popery” (the practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church). Paine himself rejected all organized religion, although he was careful not to share this view with the readers of Common Sense.

The Pamphlet in Focus

The contents

Common Sense is divided into four main sections that together form a convincing argument for independence from England. The essay begins with a discussion of the origins of government. Paine’s aim is to distinguish clearly between society and government, and to make his readers understand that government is not a fixed institution but a creation of society. As such, it can be changed if it fails to serve its purpose—to protect the individual members of society from one another’s lapses in virtue. Paine then explains how the English constitution has neglected its duty to the people of England by resting the majority of its power in the hands of the king and aristocratic legislators instead of leaders elected by society.

Paine uses the next section to expand on this claim. He describes the injustices of monarchy and of inherited government positions. He also argues that the distinction between kings and subjects is an unnatural one, insisting that “[i]t is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion” (Common Sense, p. 75). To support his position, Paine cites lengthy passages from the Bible that proclaim the evils of monarchy and hereditary rule. He concludes with this forceful statement: “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived” (Common Sense, p. 84).

In the third section of Common Sense, Paine discusses the situation in America and encourages his readers to appreciate the importance of their position in history: “‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity [future generations] are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now” (Common Sense, p. 85). In an attempt to dispel the notion that Americans owe loyalty to England, Paine contends that their diverse origins make the colonists children of Europe rather than England. (One-third of the white colonists in America originated from a country other than England.) Furthermore, Paine continues, England has lost her claim to the colonies by mistreating them. He then argues that the colonies have grown too large to be governed by an outside force. The third section of Common Sense concludes with a brief description of one possible structure by which the united colonies could rule themselves.

In the fourth section of Common Sense, Paine cements his argument for independence by detailing the economic resources, military potential, and unity of the colonies. The time is ripe, he claims, for these young settlements to form a government.

Paine’s new political language

The ideas in Common Sense were revolutionary. Paine’s call for democratic government was something the colonists had never heard before in any popularly accepted text, although many had practiced a form of republicanism in their local governments for years. In fact, these ideas were so new to most colonists that Paine had to change people’s attitudes toward certain words to express his views. Before the publication of Common Sense, for example, democracy was a negative term. It had been used to refer only to the chaotic, undesirable system of direct democracy (government by the people, not their representatives). Instead Paine used it in its modern, positive sense to refer to a government by elected leaders. The very word revolution, so closely associated now with the war that Paine’s pamphlet helped to start, was “revolutionized” by Paine. He was among the first to use it to refer to political change; before, it had been used mainly to describe the orbit of planets.

Common Sense changed not only the political vocabulary of its time, but also the style of political writing that was practiced. Paine avoided the abstract, complex language of most political writing. He wrote with more simplicity and passion than his contemporaries. Moreover, he avoided making references to classical texts, aware that only educated colonists would understand such references. “As it is my design,” he once explained, “to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet” (Paine in Foner, p. 83). Unlike most writers of his day, Paine also drew common examples from the everyday lives of the people to illustrate the points in his text.

All of these stylistic differences set Paine apart from his fellow writers. Thomas Jefferson’s original June 1776 draft of the Declaration of Independence (also covered in Literature and Its Times), for instance, included the following description of the injustices that the British government had inflicted upon the American colonies:

These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them, and hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. We might have a free and a great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom, it seems, is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it. The road to happiness and to glory is open to us, too.

(Jefferson in Koch, p. 27)

An example from Common Sense that discusses the impossibility of American reconciliation with Great Britain, on the other hand, displays a much plainer approach:

Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord now is broken, the people of England are presenting addresses against us. There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did. As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the Continent forgive the murders of Britain.

(Common Sense, p. 100)

Paine’s use of graphic metaphors and his simple sentence structure reflect a language understood at the time by common Americans. While Jefferson’s style is fitting for a document such as the Declaration of Independence, Paine’s writing style was clearly suitable for a spokesman for the people.


Thomas Paine initiated Common Sense at the suggestion of a friend, Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor and closet revolutionary. Rush knew of Paine’s writing ability from his essays in the Pennsylvania Journal and was aware that Paine had written a political pamphlet two years earlier for the tax collectors of England.

Paine did not begin to write, however, until more than a year after relocating to America. By that time he understood the major sources of colonial tensions. When he first arrived in Philadelphia, he had thought that reconciliation with Britain was still a possibility. After months of heated political discussions with other colonists—and after the battles at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill—he changed his mind. By the fall of 1775 Paine felt that relations with Britain were irreparably damaged.

Although Paine was convinced that America must seek independence from England, he had a hard time putting his convictions on paper. Writing had always been a slow, painful process for Paine; it took him about two months to complete Common Sense. The final product, though, combined various popular ideas about government and society into one coherent and compelling argument for independence. In order to accomplish this, Paine drew on the liberal philosophy of Englishman John Locke and the notions of republicanism that were first introduced to the world by Aristotle. Paine claimed not to have read Locke, and studies on Paine suggest that he probably learned much of what he knew about political philosophy from discussion and debate rather than reading. Nevertheless, the ideas he expressed in Common Sense are easily traceable to these two schools of thought.

Locke’s liberal ideas centered around the notion of “natural rights,” freedoms that each individual is entitled to, regardless of rank or social position. Republicanism, on the other hand, focused not on individual rights but on “public good.” When Paine spoke of the right of individuals to participate in government, he was referring to Locke’s ideas. When he criticized the institution of monarchy, he was drawing on the notion of republicanism. Although many political philosophers see a clash between individual desires and public interest, Paine believed that both concerns were compatible. “Public good,” he once said, “is not a term opposed to the good of individuals. On the contrary, it is the good of every individual collected. It is the good of all, because it is the good of everyone” (Paine in Foner, p. 89).

Success and misfortune

As Paine struggled to complete his essay, Rush advised him on his drafts and suggested the title. Paine then brought a version of it to Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met in London, the scientist David Ritten-house, and the brewer and political radical Samuel Adams. These men edited the essay and made a few minor changes. Paine then sought out a publisher who was not afraid to print his essay. He knew that anyone associated with such a radical piece of writing could, at the very least, expect a wounded reputation. Another possibility was that the publisher of such material might be found guilty of sedition (inflammatory writing) and imprisoned (as Paine later was for a different work). Finally, a “republican printer” named Robert Bell, whose reputation was already ruined because he kept a mistress, agreed to publish Common Sense. In its first few printings, its author was known only as “an Englishman.”

Common Sense captured the attention of the colonies, selling thirty times as many copies as other pamphlets of the day. Its language and logic succeeded in reaching and changing the minds of many who perhaps an hour before reading the pamphlet were violently opposed to the idea of declaring independence. Paine’s work eventually came to be regarded by many as “the most brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language” (Bailyn, p. 67).

A popular writer who spent many hours creating his essays, Paine is regarded by many historians as the first professional pamphleteer. Other pamphlet writers were mainly employed as teachers, lawyers, or ministers. They made little, if any, money from their written work.

Ironically, Paine made nothing from the sales of Common Sense. Bell changed the terms of their agreement and thus swindled Paine out of his share of the profits, which he had planned to use to buy mittens for American soldiers. Although multiple editions were published and over 150,000 copies sold, Paine saw not a penny of profit. Bell, on the other hand, gathered a small fortune. Fed up with the publishing business, Paine eventually gave up the rights to his pamphlet, allowing colonial publishers to print copies of the work at their own cost and profit. Paine’s failure to profit from Common Sense was a prelude to the sad years that would follow. Although he wrote other best-selling works, his life ended in poverty and relative isolation.

For More Information

Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1967.

Conway, Moncure Daniel, ed. The Writings of Thomas Paine. Vol. 1. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967.

Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Fruchtman, Jack, Jr. Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994.

Koch, Adrienne, and William Peden, eds. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Random House, 1944.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. In The Writings of Thomas Paine. Vol. 1. Edited by Moncure Daniel Conway. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.

Common Sense

views updated May 23 2018


The common-sense philosophers of the Scottish schoolincluding Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, James Beattie, George Campbell, and James Oswaldargued against George Berkeley and David Hume that ordinary human perception and moral judgment need not be defended against skeptical inquiry but ought to be taken as self-evident. As Campbell put it, "to maintain propositions the reverse of the primary truths of common sense, doth not imply a contradiction, it only implies insanity" (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1776). The common-sense school was criticized by Immanuel Kant for its "appeal to the opinion of the multitude" (Prolegomena, 1783); Joseph Priestley, for example, wrote in his "examination" of Reid, Beattie, and Oswald (1774) that common sense is for persons of "middling" capacities. Nevertheless, their ideas enjoyed immense influence, not only in Great Britain but also in Germany and elsewhere. The idea that ordinary language can express principles of common sense, emphasized in the works of the Scottish school and also present in the work of the Italian jurist Giambattista Vico, led to interest in common sense on the part of later philosophers, including Henry Sidgwick, G. E. Moore, Hans-Georg Gadamer, J. L. Austin, and Hannah Arendt.

While most members of the Scottish school are read today primarily for historical interest, the work of the Presbyterian minister and professor of moral philosophy, Thomas Reid, has undergone a revival in recent years. Reid began his career at Marischal College in Aberdeen, where he founded the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, or "Wise Club." The group concentrated much of its energy on the work of fellow Scot David Hume. While the poet, zealous Christian, and anti-Humean polemicist, James Beattie, joined the society some nine years after its founding, most of its members were more concerned with establishing an empirical foundation for British learning than with combating potential heresy. Hume called Beattie's Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770) "a horrible large lie in octavo"; though Hume disagreed with Reid's criticism of his work and once suggested in a letter to a mutual friend that pastors ought to stick to "worrying" each other and leave the philosophers to their arguments, he generally treated Reid with respect.

Hume's work was of great interest to the Aberdeen philosophersand to members of the Scottish common-sense school in generalbecause it brings Cartesian skepticism to conclusions that, for them, are so contrary to ordinary human experience that they demonstrate the futility of all such philosophizing. In his Inquiry (1764), Reid writes that "since we cannot get rid of the vulgar notion and belief of an external world, [we ought] to reconcile our reason to it as well we can." Half a century earlier, Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, had argued in a commonsensical vein that it would be easier to imagine half of mankind mad than to deny the conclusions of "natural knowledge, fundamental reason, and common sense" ("Sensus Communis," 1710). For Shaftesbury, human beings have a natural faculty of moral sense.

One difficulty with tracing the influence of the idea of common sense is the variety of meanings attached to it even by thinkers in close geographical and historical proximity. Reid's commonsense access to moral judgment is much more like reasoned appeal to a self-evident principle than Shaftesbury's combination of feeling and thinking, and Francis Hutcheson's use of the term "moral sense" implies still less reason and still more immediate sensation than Shaftesbury's. Reid's realism is starkly opposed to Berkeleyan idealism, yet both authors appeal directly to the authority of common sense.

These difficulties aside, however, it is possible to specify several important views that set the Scottish common-sense school apart. First, common-sense philosophy criticized both moral and epistemological skepticism from the point of view of ordinary reason. This argument sometimes took the form of ad hominem attack on Hume: "Even the author of the Treatise of human nature, though he saw no reason for this belief [in hardness of bodies in nature], but many against it, could hardly conquer it in his speculative and solitary moments; at other times he fairly yielded to it, and confesses that he found it necessary to do so" (Reid, Inquiry, 1764).

Second, philosophy takes its starting point from the self-evident principles of common sense. For Oswald, these self-evident principles included many Christian religious doctrines, and indeed a good bit of the common-sense school's subsequent popularity lay in its claim to defend the religious views of ordinary British citizens from the perceived incursions of system-building philosophers. Reid's position on religion and self-evidence is more complex and interesting; for example, he argues that it makes no sense to deny the validity of perception while accepting that of reason because both faculties "come out of the same shop."

Third, not only does common sense furnish pragmatic certainty about the evidence of our senses and the existence of our selves, but it also provides natural insight into moral questions. Along with commonsense views of right and wrong comes the conviction of one's own human agency. Reid developed this idea into what contemporary philosophers would call an incompatibilist defense of freedom: for Reid, free human agents begin causal chains of events independent of natural causes.

The German reception of the Scottish common-sense philosophers is frequently described by commentators as a "misreception." Generally, while German readers were enthusiastic about the contributions of the Scots, they tended to empty the idea of "common sense"of the moral and social elements present in Reid's and others' work. The "popular philosophy" movement of the mid-eighteenth century in Germany shared the commonsense zeal of the Scottish school, and members of both groups criticized the absurdities of academic philosophizing. As Christian Garve put it (writing, in 1798, his observations on the most common principles of ethics), common sense is not "common because it is contemptible, but because it is, or should be, the common property of all human beings" Unlike the popular philosophers, Kant was highly critical of the Scottish common-sense school and its reading of Hume in his Prolegomena (1783); however, he took the concept of common sense itself seriously in his Critique of Judgment (1790). There Kant distinguished between "sensus communis, " considered as an idea of a comparative sense, and "common human understanding," which includes qualities exhibited by all normal human reason.

Of course Kant, unlike the Scottish school, denies that either sensus communis or common sense frees us from the need to justify our sensations and beliefs. However, Kant did provide some intriguing suggestions about both concepts' functions; each, in a different way, serves to replace unavailable certainty in judgment with an approximation of collective judgment. This aspect of Kant's treatment of common sense inspired Hannah Arendt's interesting independent reflections on the topic, which include the suggestion that when it comes to choosing between moral approbation and disapprobation, the "criterion is communicability, and the standard of deciding about it is common sense."

See also Enlightenment ; Knowledge ; Moral Sense ; Skepticism .


Arendt, Hannah. Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, edited by Ronald Beiner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Beattie, James. An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth: In Opposition to Sophistry and Skepticism. 1770. Reprint, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999.

Broadie, Alexander, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Campbell, George. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. 1776. Reprint, edited by Lloyd F. Bitzer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Garve, Christian. Einige Betrachtungen über die allgemeinsten Grundsätze der Sittenlehre. Wroclaw, Poland: W. G. Korn, 1798.

Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. 1783. Rev. ed., translated and edited by Gary Hatfield. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Oz-Salzberger, Fania. Translating the Enlightenment: Scottish Civic Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Priestley, Joseph. An Examination of Dr. Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, Dr. Beattie's Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, and Dr. Oswald's Appeal to Common Sense in Behalf of Religion. London: J. Johnson, 1774.

Reid, Thomas. An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense, edited by Derek Brookes. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. Authoritative, new critical edition.

Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of. "Sensus Communis, an Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour in a Letter to a Friend." 1710. Reprinted in Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, edited by Lawrence E. Klein. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Yaffe, Gideon. Manifest Activity: Thomas Reid's Theory of Action. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004.

Elisabeth Ellis

Common Sense

views updated May 11 2018


More than any other speech, pamphlet or newspaper article, Thomas Paine's Common Sense transformed pre-Revolutionary opinion among the bickering thirteen colonies from confusion and complacency to a near-universal acceptance of full political and economic independence from England. Written in January, 1776 when America appeared to be on the verge of losing its war against Britain, Common Sense was both a plea to persevere and an appeal to fight for new ideals that would later be expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Winning the War for Independence made possible the creation of new republic that adopted those guiding principles.

Prior to the publication of Common Sense, citizens and leaders of the colonies were deeply divided as to the action to take as they struggled with issues such as taxation without representation. And while there was no doubt about the anger felt by most regarding the repressive policies of the British government, few were willing in 1775 to even toy with the idea of full independence. Even the more radical colonial leaders, such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, still believed that the crisis with England could be resolved through the political system—that the British Parliament and powerful colonial ministers could be persuaded to give New World colonists the full rights accorded British citizens in the

homeland. Even after violence broke out at Lexington and Concord in April, 1775, Continental Commander in Chief George Washington offered a toast to King George III at dinner while fighting the Crown's troops during the day.

a call to arms

Ironically, the author whose document literally changed the political landscape was himself an Englishman. Born in 1737 of tradesman stock, Thomas Paine had held a variety of jobs but never quite found his niche. As an excise officer he had begun to show his skill as an author, writing a petition to the government in London to raise the salaries of his fellow tax collectors. And whereas Paine's petition fell on deaf ears, his time in London resulted in a meeting with Benjamin Franklin, who was working on behalf of the Pennsylvania colony. Self-educated and with an interest in science, Paine was able to secure from Franklin letters of recommendation; and in 1774 he decided to immigrate to the New World with the hope of changing his fortunes.

He settled in Philadelphia, at the time the largest city in the colonies, behind only London in the whole of the British Empire. In short order Paine became a successful writer and co-founder of the new Pennsylvania Magazine. Emboldened by the success of his articles and encouraged by Franklin, Paine decided to put pen to paper for a larger cause.

enlightenment underpinnings

Given their immersion in French intellectual society, both Thomas Jefferson and Franklin were schooled in the principles of the Enlightenment movement—belief in human reason and individual liberty, skepticism of the divine right of kings. But it was Paine, fully aware of British Enlightenment theorist John Locke, who most dramatically spread the ideas of liberty, equality and individual self-governance in the practical context of the struggle with England. He declared, "… [T]here is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island."

Published on January 10, 1776, Common Sense put democratic theory in simple language that drew upon analogies that common citizens could understand. It went first to the crux of the issue, that people were given by God the fundamental right to form a government based on reason. Paine began with an argument that fundamentally changed the political discourse of the colonies. He protested that the monarchy claimed to be a "race of men [who] came into the world … exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species" before going on to chastise the "crowned ruffian" George III as the root of the current crisis. An example of Paine's biting analysis of monarchy: "One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion."

After he hacked away at the root, Paine went on bring the entire tree down, laying out the current situation and arguing that independence was virtually the only means of improving it: "I have hear it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished under her former connexion with Great Britain, that the same connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may well assert, that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat; or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty."

To say that Common Sense spread like wildfire would be an understatement. In an era when news traveled at a snail's pace and pamphlets rarely spread beyond a local audience, the arguments in Paine's changed the entire political debate throughout the colonies with near-miraculous speed. So popular was the pamphlet that within a year at least 500,000 copies were in circulation, roughly one copy per colonial household. As John Adams (who had written his share of pamphlets) wrote to his wife Abigail, Paine had "a better hand at pulling down the building."

And as it spread, not only did the argument of peace with England wither but George III went from a benevolent father-figure to the personification of a tyrannical oppressor. Those few who favored some new form of American monarchy virtually disappeared from public discourse as the cause of a republic became the clarion call. General Washington went from toasting the King to using Common Sense to inspire his beleaguered troops in the field. Soon, leaders such as Adams, Franklin and Jefferson spoke freely of total separation from England.

Paine himself joined the revolutionary army, later traveled to France in support of its own 1791 revolution, and wrote many other influential pamphlets such as The Rights of Man. But in a strange twist of fate Paine died in the new America in 1809, not as a founding father, but as an almost forgotten figure. Most people failed to value his contribution. Others knew better. As John Adams said at the time: "I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Thomas Paine."


A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now, some, Massenello may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge. Should the government of America return again into the hands of Britain, the tottering situation of things, will be a temptation for some desperate adventurer to try his fortune; and in such a case, what relief can Britain give? Ere she could hear the news the fatal business might be done, and ourselves suffering like the wretched Britons under the oppression of the Conqueror….

Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord now is broken, the people of England are presenting addresses against us. There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did. As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain. The Almighty hath implanted in us these inextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes. They are the guardians of his image in our hearts. They distinguish us from the herd of common animals. The social compact would dissolve, and justice be extirpated the earth, of have only a casual existence were we callous to the touches of affection. The robber and the murderer, would often escape unpunished, did not the injuries which our tempers sustain, provoke us into justice. 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 mind.

I have never met with a man, either in England or America, who hath not confessed his opinion, that a separation between the countries, would take place one time or other. And there is no instance in which we have shown less judgment, than in endeavoring to describe, what we call, the ripeness or fitness of the Continent for independence.

In addition to his direct influence on his contemporaries, Paine captured the idea that America had a larger role to play in history. "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected…" This sense of a mission to be a beacon of freedom and spread democracy has been deeply imprinted upon American society, culture, and identity.


Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Liell, Scott. 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 2003.

Mccullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Internet Resources

Brians, Paul. "The Enlightenment." Washington State University, 1993. Available from <>.

Michael Davis

See also:Boston Massacre: Pamphlets and Propaganda; Paine, Thomas; Sons of Liberty.

Common Sense

views updated Jun 27 2018

Common Sense

Thomas Paine, 1776

In January 1776 thomas paine published his fifty-page pamphlet Common Sense. It called for political independence and the establishment of a republican government. The pamphlet created a sensation, as much for its passionate rhetoric as for its political views. It sold more than 500,000 copies within a few months and is credited with creating the political momentum that led to the issuance of the declaration of independence on July 4, 1776.

In Common Sense, Paine turned his vitriol on King George III and the institution of the monarchy, calling the king a "royal brute" and a "crowned ruffian." Insisting that people did not have to live under such a regime, he declared "that in America the law is king."

Common Sense

This is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin; whereas it is more than probable, that, could we take off the dark covering of antiquity and trace them to their first rise, we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang; whose savage manners or preeminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers: and who by increasing in power and extending his depredations, overawed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions.…

* * *

England since the conquest hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones; yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it. However it is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of herditary rights: if there were any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and the lion, and welcome. I shall neither copy their humility, nor disturb their devotion….The plain truth is, that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into.

* * *

In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which, in plain terms, is to empoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.

* * *

Selections from Common Sense by Thomas Paine.

But where, say some, is the king of America? I'll tell you, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the royal brute of Great 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.

Common Sense

views updated May 17 2018


For Aristotle, one of the internal senses that discerns the differences among proper sensibles, as, for example, between sweetness and whiteness, which are perceived respectively by the external senses of smell and sight (Anim. 425b 8, 427a 12). Aristotle does not use the expression κοιν ασθησις, which was employed by the scholastics in the Latin form, sensus communis; used in Aristotle's sense, especially by St. thomas aquinas (In 2 anim. 13.390), it designates the unity of sense knowledge: "for by common sense we perceive that we live" (see central sense). For Thomas reid and the Scottish school (see scottish school of common sense), common sense is the assembly of beliefs (such as realities of objects, spirits, etc.) that man irresistibly holds to be true by reason of instinct or immediate suggestion. According to Reid, the perception of an object includes belief in its real existence, and this is not the result of any reasoning, but the immediate effect of man's natural bent (Inquiry, 6.20). This belief comes from nature; it is bound up with perception as the body is bound up with earth. In Reid, common sense is identified with universal consensus, but he dogmatizes the notion by assuming that it is the absolute criterion of truth, having its justification in itself.

[m. f. sciacca]

Common Sense

views updated Jun 11 2018


"COMMON SENSE," influential revolutionary pamphlet by Thomas Paine, published in Philadelphia, January 1776. Paine stressed the logic of America's independence, emphasizing the defects of Britain's monarchy and the economic costs of participating in Britain's repeated European wars. Reconciliation with Britain, Paine wrote, would constitute "madness and folly." "Common Sense" avoided abstract philosophy, favoring instead the ordinary language of artisans and biblical examples to support Paine's arguments. The "plain truth" (Paine's original title for the tract) he espoused found a broad readership; around 100,000 copies circulated in 1776 alone, and the pamphlet stirred politicians and ordinary citizens to embrace American independence.


Conway, Moncure Daniel. The Writings of Thomas Paine. 4 vols. New York: B. Franklin, 1969.

Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Sally E.Hadden

See alsoIndependence ; Revolution, American: Political History ; andvol. 9:Common Sense .

common sense

views updated May 29 2018

com·mon sense • n. good sense and sound judgment in practical matters: use your common sense| [as adj.] a common-sense approach. DERIVATIVES: com·mon·sen·si·cal / ˌkämənˈsensikəl/ adj.