Thomas Paine’s Essay, Common Sense:
An Historical Perspective
As a loyal, law abiding resident of British Colonial America I would not find the arguments of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet entitled Common Sense a sufficient argument from which to justify turning against the duly constituted authorities to which my allegiance and loyalty were directed. First, it is important to review how Paine’s argument was constructed and my likely reaction to it. Secondly, it is important to explain Common Sense in the context of other pamphlets and literature of the time concerning the issues regarding loyalty to the crown or independence. Thirdly, it is necessary to understand the consequences one would face for not being moved to sedition by Paine’s inflammatory writing.
Paine begins his argument with a description by attempting to differentiate between society and government with society being a preferable result of our own wants and desires. Government is at its best state a necessary evil. Before he goes any further he has a problem with regard to appealing to me. As a Colonial American, in my case a Bible believing Baptist, I know that government is not a necessary evil but a gift from God to ensure the general safety and happiness of people. Paine’s error is the same as some of the so called “Tea Party” enthusiasts of today’s politics, the belief that man is somehow intrinsically good and in no need of close supervision, rules, regulation, or structure and that some mythological free market or natural desire of people to do right will prevail in a truly free, read that anarchic, condition.
The Bible says very clearly that mankind is inherently evil. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” and “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” and again, “....we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.... There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Paine ignorantly doesn’t understand mankind’s need for a Saviour (the KJV spelling) to deliver him from the consequences of his sinful nature. He makes this statement, “For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver.” This flies in the face of the Bible’s clear statements. This Bible, mind you, would probably have been the vehicle by which I learned to read and through which I viewed the world, read every day with the goal of reading it from cover to cover, again and again, as my ancestors did, rather than just as a reference book. This Bible laments on more than one occasion the apostasy of Israel, “every man did that which was right in his own eyes,” and the state of the so called Christian’s conscience in the latter days, “Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron.”
So, from the beginning, Paine is arguing from a false point. Government, even pagan, tyrannical government, for there were no Christian nations when the New Testament was first penned, is instituted at God’s discretion and under His authority. The contents of Romans, chapter 13, would suffice to show that Thomas Paine is not merely at enmity with the King of England, he is at enmity with the King of the universe. Much of the next several pages are minor points to buttress his contention that the English government is, at least, inadequate to govern America and, at most, to govern England. Referring to the “constitutional errors in the English form of government” is the tactic to which I am speaking, ignoring his prostitute reference entirely as being unworthy of mention.”
Paine then has the audacity, after his vulgar reference, to bring in an analogy of Israel’s error in going against God by demanding a king like the nations around them. What he fails to point out in his highly effective use of the Old Testament is that the Christian is constantly reminded of his duty to obey duly constituted legal authority except when that authority violates his duty towards God and that the argument of whether or not Israel should have had a king is backwards from the argument whether or not we should remain loyal to our own. Israel had no king but wanted one. We had a king but Paine was trying to convince us that he was unworthy of our loyalty. Thomas Hobbes said “And therefore, they that are subjects to a monarch cannot without his leave cast off monarchy and return to the confusion of a disunited multitude; nor transfer their person from him that beareth it to another man, other assembly of men...it is injustice.” The Bible itself declares rebellion to be the same as the sin of witchcraft so advocating rebellion is a serious matter.
Paine’s brief review of the recent history of the British monarchy and its preponderance of corrupt monarchs begs a question for common people like me. Loyalists, those who had not chosen the path of rebellion against the king, were rather troubled at the hypocrisy of all of this call for freedom from Great Britain. After all, due to the existing regulations in the state government of Maryland, where my family lived in the Eastern Shore’s Somerset County, only the wealthiest of the gentry could vote so most of us would not be able to participate in the new government begun in 1775. Nearly half of our free, white male population could not vote or hold office so what has been made different by a pursuit of freedom? This is hardly a compelling argument for me to willingly rebel against my king. This revolution appears to be an upper-class revolt and the benefit goes to them. At this point I have no part in it. So, the question for me at this point in Paine’s writing is why should I go against my religious beliefs and my own personal self interest to support his call to action. His call for representative government to replace kingly authority leaves me cold. Why trade one set of tyrants for another? In any event, as a man of modest means I had little power before the revolution but certainly counted on my right to petition the governor for redress of grievances. What I have now is confiscation of property and position because I am not convinced of the necessity or good of this rebellion.
Paine makes this unreasonable statement; “As Britain hath not manifested the least inclination towards a compromise, we may be assured that no terms can be obtained worthy the acceptance of the continent, or any ways equal to the expense of blood and treasure we have been already put to.” On March 5, 1770 Parliament repealed the Townsend duties except the tax on tea. On the same day a bunch of street thugs initiated the so called “Boston Massacre”. For three years America, thanks to the efforts of smugglers, paid virtually no imperial taxes. Agitators like Samuel Adams denied that Parliament had any right to legislate on any matters concerning the American colonies. My point in mentioning these things this way is that no effort on the part of Parliament to compromise would have changed the path on which the lawless, hotheads fired up for release from lawful authority were on. They would have accepted no compromise other than surrender of the American colonies to the wealthy men of position who demanded that freedom.
That the Parliament has the right to tax the colonies in order to defray the cost of their defense should go without argument to any reasonable person. To deny the right of the king to rule, the Parliament to legislate, or the validity of British Constitutional tradition to is a very dangerous path to take that could very well lead not only to civil war but to anarchy, a sad state of affairs for citizens of the greatest empire in the history of the world. Paine comments that a “government of our own is our natural right.” This is to deny that our interests have any representation in the British government. The fact is that nine tenths of British subjects do not choose their own representatives but are represented, if not actually, at least virtually as “”every Member sits in the House not as representative of his own constituents but as one of that august assembly by which all the commons of Great Britain are represented.” As we are colonies of Great Britain, our interests are served by the interests of Great Britain.
Finally, while his talk of building a navy and the paper tiger aspect of Britain’s Navy sounds interesting as does his brief mention of freedom of religion, at this point I wouldn’t trust him and would think him but talking through his hat. Britain’s Navy keeps us safe from foreign invasion taking place, which at the time of Paine’s writing does not appear on the horizon either. As I said, and as my opinion is the object of this paper, Thomas Paine’s arguments would not have influenced me to participate in a rebellion against the King’s or Parliament’s authority.
Before Paine’s pamphlet the most influential spokesman for the colonial position had been another pamphleteer, John Dickinson, whose Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer were the best selling and most widely read pamphlets in American history until Common Sense. Dickinson’s arguments were more conciliatory than Paine’s, appealing to British law, constitution, and custom in opposition to Paine’s trashing of the same. He says, “Let us behave like dutiful children who have received unmerited blows from a beloved parent. Let us complain to our parent: but let our complaints speak at the same time the language of affection and veneration.”
Previously to this, with regard to writings of some significance, was Silas Downer’s Discourse Delivered in Providence. In it, he says “government is necessary.” Perhaps, I suspect, Thomas Paine was parodying that line when he gave his statement on the evil of government I referenced earlier in the paper. Downer is more concerned with ceasing all trade with Great Britain than being completely discharged from duty to it and includes in his “Sons of Liberty” people in other possessions of Great Britain and in Britain itself. It does not appear to be a truly revolutionary manuscript such as Common Sense.
Speaking from the other side is Jonathan Boucher who points out how part of the reason for the revolt was the immense debt owed to the merchants of Great Britain by the “great men” of the colonies. This need to preserve wealth will become a factor later in the construction of the Constitution, in the opinion of at least one prominent historian, Charles Beard. Boucher’s On Civil Liberty, Passive Obedience, and Nonresistance, written and preached in 1775, opposed the inexorable move toward declaring independence.
Finally, the consequences of my decision not to be influenced by the writings of Thomas Paine to the effect of rebelling against my king are clear. I can be forced into exile like Jonathan Boucher or into service in a Loyalist regiment like Somerset County Sheriff Caleb Jones, which, eventually resulted in the same exile at the end of the war.
If I did not go along with the powerful crowd who wished to revolt from Great Britain and was not swept up in the frenzy created by Common Sense, and the majority of Americans were not, then I would face exile, imprisonment, confiscation of property, and possibly death. As history has revealed to us nearly 100,000 Americans had to flee the country, most never to return, in America’s first Civil War.
Postscript: Although this has been a mental exercise in order to honestly answer the questions posed, most notably, would I have been convinced by Paine’s Common Sense, I just want to clear the record that my family did not come to America until 1810 and did not settle in Somerset County until 1903. I, in reality, would have missed the revolution. In hindsight, knowing what I know now, I would have supported the revolution due to the hideous atrocities of the British Empire and the mess it left the world under its control in after the dissolution of its power. But, those are subjects for another paper in another class I suppose. I honestly don’t believe, at that time, that Paine would have influenced me to join the rebellion.