Common Sense

by

Thomas Paine

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Common Sense: 1. Of the Origin and Design of Government Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Some writers barely distinguish between “society” and “government.” However, those two things have completely different origins. Society is produced by human “wants” and government by human “wickedness.” The first unites human affections; the latter restrains human vices.
Paine follows Enlightenment ideas about the nature of society and government, breaking them down into simple distinctions accessible to the common reader. Government, basically, serves to check human wickedness so that people are free to pursue their desires in a moral way.
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While society is always a blessing, government is, at best, a “necessary evil.” In fact, government can even cause great misery. Government is a “badge of lost innocence” in that, if human beings were always good, government wouldn’t be needed. However, given that government is necessary in order to secure the goodness of society, it makes sense to prefer the form of government that will provide that security while incurring the least expense and offering the greatest benefit to people.
Paine builds off his claim about human vice to show that government’s restraining and preserving function is a sad necessity, and he anticipates his coming critique of monarchy by pointing out that government can take forms that actively oppress the people it’s meant to serve.
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Paine argues that a small group of people settling in the wilderness will first be concerned with society. As long as members of this tiny society behaved justly to one another, government would remain unnecessary. However, inevitably, as the population grows, mutual bonds and duties will weaken, and government will become necessary “to supply the weakness of moral virtue.” This will initially take the form of dividing up society and electing representatives for each part. The frequent mixing of elected with electors is the basis for strong government and the happiness of the governed.
Paine illustrates the difference between government and society by imagining a voluntary “society” (implicitly America) which develops a need for government as it grows. He also envisions representative government, which depends on elected officials knowing their electorate and sharing their electorate’s interests.
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So, the origin of government is the inability of moral virtue to govern the world. The end of government is “freedom and security.” Paine further holds that, according to nature, the simpler something is, the less likely it is to become disordered, and the easier it is to fix if it does.
Paine reiterates the origin and goal of government and suggests that complex governments are more likely to worsen the problems they’re intended to solve.
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With this principle in mind, Paine offers a few comments on the constitution of England. When tyranny reigned, that constitution was indeed “noble” and “glorious.” But it is imperfect and incapable of delivering what it promises. It is also fatally complex, thus it’s difficult to remedy its faults.
By “constitution,” Paine doesn’t refer to a specific document, but to a tradition of governance dating back to the medieval Magna Charta and currently embodied by England’s King and Parliament.
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Paine argues that two “ancient tyrannies” are represented by the English constitution: monarchical tyranny (the King) and aristocratical tyranny (the Peers). These two tyrannies are compounded by “new republican materials” (the commons). It’s not accurate to claim that these three powers provide an adequate check on one another, Paine claims. To say so presupposes that the King cannot be trusted. It also presupposes that the commons are more inherently trustworthy. But since the King in turn may check the power of the supposedly wiser commons, the system is absurd and seemingly no one can be trusted.
Paine makes a bold critique of England’s government, arguing that even its defenders don’t have an adequate case—no matter what authority is claimed for the Peers and commons, it’s obvious, he says, that the King holds ultimate power. Such a government goes far beyond the simplicity Paine envisions as ideal for society.
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Further, monarchy is inherently “ridiculous.” A King is closed off from the very society he must know intimately in order to govern it well. The three powers provided for by the constitution are inevitably “a house divided” with the power to mutually destroy one another—the weightiest of the three will always rule over time, even if temporarily checked by the other two. Even though England isn’t an absolute monarchy, it’s obvious that the crown holds the greatest weight. The presence of a parliament only makes kings more “subtle,” not more just.
Paine directly mocks monarchy, showing his radicalism for the time. Because his own ideal government is based on the proximity of governors to the governed, the isolation of monarchs from the people is an offense to him. Further, he argues that the supposed checking influence of the parliament only enables monarchs to become craftier in maintaining their power.
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