‘Common Sense’ and the Life of Thomas Paine – The work of the forgotten Founding Father (July 2020)

Publisher: Penguin (Great Ideas Series) Cover Artwork: Phil Baines

The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.’

‘The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth’.

‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again’.

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own church” (not actually from Common Sense, instead from The Age of Reason).

The most talented writer of the revolutionary period, even, for my money, of the enlightenment period, was born in Thetford, England in 1737. Thomas Paine was born to the son of a corset maker, and left school at age 12 to become his father’s apprentice. Having briefly been to sea as a privateer, his wife and child died in childbirth when he was 22. By age 37 he was financially ruined by debt. Paine was middle aged, but had achieved nothing. It was hardly an auspicious start. But, he did have one ace; years before, he had met Benjamin Franklin by chance in London, and the future Founding Father was so impressed by the young man that he wrote him a letter of recommendation (it seems Paine’s proclivity of oratory was evident). So, he left England behind and sailed to America. Two years later he had written Common Sense and changed the course of history.

Common Sense (first published anonymously on the 10th of January 1776) was a rallying cry to American Revolutionaries on the brink of war and is an inspirational call to arms which retains its relevance to this day. So important were these 77 pages of text in prompting America’s declaration of independence, that John Adams attested that ‘without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain’. Within a few months of its publication, over 150,000 copies were distributed across America, making it, proportionally, the nation’s greatest best-seller ever (it’s still in print by the way). This is no surprise, given Paine’s accessible yet eloquent style of prose; which combines clear reasoning with verbal-agility and humour. In fact he specifically endeavoured to ensure that his writing was as accessible as possible, remarking that ‘I shall avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet’. This makes his work remarkably readable when compared to similar political treatises of the enlightenment period.

In Common Sense, Paine advocates not just the arguments for independence from Great Britain, but a number of enlightenment-era principles, such as a democratically elected assembly, religious freedom, and the rule of law. In doing so, he helps to lay the groundwork for the American constitution, and the principles which still lie at the nation’s core. But despite all this, Paine is rarely remembered alongside the Founding Fathers.

Paine seeks to define the purpose of government, describing it as a ‘necessary evil’, produced ‘by our wickedness’. The primary function of government, according to Paine, is security. If mankind was naturally good, there would be no need for a government to enforce order. However, ‘that not being the case’, each man ‘finds it necessary to surrender up part of his property to furnish means of the protection of the rest’. Hence, as Paine eloquently puts it, government is ‘the badge of lost innocence’, as it indicates our collective acceptance that man’s more harmful qualities must be kept in check. In fact, Paine, in one of his more famous quotations, states that ‘a government which cannot preserve the peace, is no government at all’.

And yet, argues Paine, Great Britain’s ‘grievous’ oppression of the American colonies, amounting to ‘a long and violent abuse of power’, means that the British, in their position as rulers, have not fulfilled this purpose of government. He goes on to critique the principle of hereditary succession in the British monarchy, railing against how ‘a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest’, and in so doing begins his advocacy for the equality of all men, which was to define much of his contribution to enlightenment-era thinking.

And now, dear reader, if you’ll indulge some sketchy comparative history, I posit that correlations with Brexit in Paine’s writing are evident. For example, within Common Sense’s arguments for independence he points out the numerous trading opportunities with Europe that will become available following America’s departure from a British monopoly. He assures doubters that ‘our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe’. Much like the proponents of Brexit today, Paine is forced to assuage doubts that independence will lead to economic damage, instead highlighting the opportunities it presents. In its present state, ‘the trade of America goes to ruin, because of its connection with Britain’ he writes.

What also becomes clear from Common Sense, is that Paine wrote the piece amidst an intense debate about the future of America (just as debate over Brexit has been divisive in the UK), and that he was attempting to rebuke a significant faction who favoured reconciliation, not war. To them, he puts the following arguments: 1) That the prolonging of a union would only allow King George to continue the subjugation of the American peoples in a subtler way, giving him the opportunity to ‘accomplish by craft (…) in the long run, what he cannot do by violence (…) in the short one’.  2) That even the best terms achieved in any reconciliation would amount merely to a ‘temporary expedient’, and that ‘emigrants of property would not come to a country whose government hangs but by a thread’. 3) That delaying the declaration of independence risks the splitting of the Americas into a civil war between revolutionaries and loyalists, ‘which may be far more fatal than all the malice of Britain’.

Towards the end of Common Sense Paine lays out a vision for what a liberated American government would look like, and it is not so different from the system we have today. Paine suggests annual congressional assemblies with a single president, elected by congressmen. Through such a congress, laws demanding a three fifths super-majority would be passed. Paine claims that these representatives, united together, and elected by ‘as many qualified voters as shall think proper to attend’, will create a whole which will have ‘truly legal authority’.

Finally, for his time, Paine had truly radical things to say on religion, as highlighted by the fourth quote at the top of this article. He paints a vision of a liberal, progressive state, one which secures ‘freedom and property to all men’. And in particular, one where religious freedom is a reality. ‘There should be diversity of religious opinion among us: It affords a larger field our Christian kind-ness’ he writes. Paine’s belief in the toleration of all Christian denominations would have been revolutionary in many quarters, and only highlights his deeply liberal and progressive principles.

In Common Sense the atmosphere of trepidation felt on the eve of the declaration of independence is palpable, but so is Paine’s bravery to assert what he believes is morally right: Rejection of tyranny, government by the people, security as the first function of the state, and economic and religious freedom. But above all, the rule of law, for as Paine states, ‘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’. No one has ever put it better.

Common Sense is a masterpiece. It is a hugely readable, eloquently written, and inspiring book which altered the course of history by being a driving force behind the declaration of independence, and by laying out many of the principles the world’s most powerful nation still lives by. The values of religious tolerance and the rule of law, are principles we rightly hold dear, and lose at our peril. The great tragedy of Paine, is that he never attained the recognition of his fellow revolutionaries, or enlightenment philosophers. His revolutionary (and popular) politics was feared by William (the younger) Pitt’s government, and he faced a slander campaign made even more toxic by his position as an English revolutionary traitor. His enemy’s went so far as to say he sodomised cats. That even manages to put the cage fights of today’s politics into perspective.

The tragedy is that Pitt’s tactics worked. On top of this, his fellow revolutionaries disowned him. It seems he was too much of a firebrand even for them, plus, it’s clear they envied his way with words. And, as they were second or third generation colonists and Paine wasn’t, it also seems possible they resented this upstart Englishman helping to run their revolution. Jefferson went so far as to ban his correspondence with Paine from being printed. When Mercy Otis Warren wrote the official history of the revolution (after Paine turned down the chance to do so), her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805) literally reduced Paine’s contribution to a footnote. Thus, he died in relative obscurity, and just six mourners attended his funeral.

Yet this was a man almost unparalleled in his literary influence during the revolutionary period, whose desire to bring about justice was unquenchable. Franklin once said that “Where liberty is, there is my country,” to which Paine replied, “Where liberty is not, there is my country”. And John Adams, while he disliked Paine, was ultimately forced to remark that ‘I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine’, adding, ‘call it then the Age of Paine’. Not bad for the son of a corset maker from Thetford.

So go on, read Common Sense – you won’t regret it.

Appendix I – For those who want a bit more evidence for why Paine was the greatest orator of his generation, I attach the opening paragraph of The American Crisis. This pamphlet was his second most significant contribution to the revolutionary war after Common Sense. It was written in sections between 1776 and 1783. Paine wrote what you see below on the eve of the Battle of Trenton (26th December 1776). At this point of the war, fortunes are firmly against the revolutionaries. Having just retreated across New Jersey, Washington is about to attempt a night time crossing of the frozen Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on Trenton. Washington ordered that Paine read these words to his troops. The next day, they won a decisive victory…

“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”

Appendix II – Considerable inspiration and factual material for this piece was drawn from Jill Lepore’s superb articles on Paine and the revolution for The New Yorker. They can be found here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/10/16/the-sharpened-quill

And here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/03/17/the-divider

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: