Common Sense

by

Thomas Paine

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Summary
Analysis
Human beings were created equal, Paine argues. There is no natural or religious reason for dividing humanity into separate classes of king and subjects. The Bible shows that, at the beginning of history, there were no kings. Because of this, there were no wars, either. Only the pride of kings causes such strife.
Paine’s political philosophy is grounded on Enlightenment views of human equality, in contrast to pre-modern views that would have seen such class distinctions as natural and divinely ordained. To bolster his claim, Paine appeals to the Bible—by far the most familiar literary work for his audience.
Themes
The Case Against Monarchy Theme Icon
Ancient Israel copied monarchy from its heathen neighbors. Paine argues that neither nature nor scripture justifies this practice. Before kingship was introduced, Israel was administered by a kind of republic. When the people of Israel begged the prophet Samuel for a king, it was out of a desire to be more like their neighbors. This desire was idolatrous and displeasing to God, so God allowed the people to continue in their corrupt desires. Paine argues that the Bible is clear on the point that monarchy is an unchristian form of government.
Whether Paine views the biblical account as reliable “history” in the modern sense isn’t the main point of his argument (and his claim that earliest Israel was a “republic” is surely anachronistic). Besides its cultural familiarity, the biblical account of Israel’s tradition of corrupt kings serves Paine’s argument that monarchy is not only inherently corrupt, but it corrupts those who support and defend it.
Themes
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Reason, Morality, and Rhetoric Theme Icon
If monarchy is a degradation of humanity, then hereditary succession is even more corrupting, perpetuating the offense of monarchy unto posterity. Because human beings are equals, no person, even an exceptional one, has the right to set up his posterity as his or her indefinite successors—there is no guarantee that they will equal their ancestor’s worthiness, and they typically don’t. Furthermore, it’s unjust to impose a ruler on future generations.
Paine extends his argument about the corruption of monarchy to a similar claim about the typical monarchical practice of passing down the crown through generations. The practice is an unjust imposition on posterity and perpetuates the inequality which Paine finds intrinsically offensive.
Themes
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Since the emergence of most hereditary lines is shrouded in history and legend, it’s uncertain how successions got started. Perhaps some began as conveniences and later came to be regarded as entitlements. Paine refers to William the Conqueror as “a French bastard” and a “rascally” originator of English kingship. Certainly, Paine says, William’s legacy is of no divine origin.
Paine also turns to familiar historical examples to support his rejection of hereditary succession. Certainly William the Conqueror—the Duke of Normandy who invaded England in 1066—would be among the most famous Paine could choose, but his characterization of William is deliberately provocative, and no doubt meant to reflect on the Conqueror’s contemporary successor.
Themes
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The evil of hereditary succession is more pressing a concern than its absurdity—the practice lends itself to oppression. Men who consider themselves born monarchs easily grow insolent and become disconnected from the interests of ordinary people. This actually renders them dangerously ignorant and unfit to rule. Succession is also vulnerable to unscrupulous regents who take advantage of minor or weak kings. Paine tallies up eight civil wars and 19 rebellions in England alone, arguing that this proves that hereditary succession doesn’t make for peace.
Paine continues to build his argument about succession’s oppressive potential, arguing that it undercuts its intended purpose by distancing monarchs from their subjects yet further. An example of war caused by conflict over succession is the Wars of the Roses, fought between the rival York and Lancaster branches of the royal House of Plantagenet.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Finally, Paine argues that it’s unclear what role a king really has in England. He has little to do besides conduct wars and dispense favors. Better is one honest man, he concludes, “than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
If a king is far removed from his people and their needs, then he cannot be of much use to them, according to Paine’s view of the role of government. His preference for “one honest man” is also consistent with his Enlightenment view of equality.
Themes
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The Case Against Monarchy Theme Icon