Paine’s major goal in Common Sense is to convince his American readership to embrace the cause of independence. To do that, he builds a case that remaining connected to Great Britain would be harmful to the American colonies. By first building on the imagery of America’s “childhood” in a variety of ways and presenting long-term risks of reliance on the “mother country,” Paine implies that America’s subservience to Britain is inherently unhealthy and limiting. Thus, he argues that it’s unnatural and counterproductive for the young American colonies to remain perpetually linked to Great Britain.
Paine uses the metaphor of parent and child, and the imagery of youth, to argue against continued connection to Britain. Continued dependence keeps America in perpetual childhood: “We may as 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.” In other words, just as a child or youth isn’t expected to maintain childish ways throughout life, common sense dictates that an infant nation shouldn’t have to remain indefinitely dependent on its mother country. Paine also uses the argument about youth in another way—to argue that America’s youth is the most promising time to form healthy habits of nationhood. “Youth is the seed time of good habits, as well in nations as in individuals. It might be difficult, if not impossible, to form the Continent into one government half a century hence. The vast variety of interests, occasioned by an increase of trade and population, would create confusion.” By contrast, the colonies’ “present union is marked with both these characters: we are young, and we have been distressed; but our concord hath withstood our troubles, and fixes a memorable aera for posterity to glory in.” In other words, as the nation grows in size and complexity, the difficulties of forming a nation will compound. It’s better, then, to undertake the task while the colonies’ youthful friendship with one another, founded on shared suffering, remains vibrant.
In addition, Paine claims that it’s not even just for England to claim sole “parentage” of America. “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America,” he argues. “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.” In Paine’s view, it’s presumptuous to call England America’s parent when refugees from so many European countries now call America home. He uses America’s reputation as a refuge for the persecuted to further weaken England’s claim on America—England is now behaving like a “monster,” not a mother, and thereby forfeits whatever claim it might once have had for America’s childlike, dutiful dependence. Not only is the young nation hampered by continued dependence, but its continued connection to Britain actively cuts against American interests in a number of other practical ways. Regardless of what Britain claims, Paine argues that the country hasn’t been looking out for America’s present advantages. “We have boasted the protection of Great-Britain, without considering, that her motive was interest not attachment; that she did not protect us from our enemies on our account, but from her enemies on her own account.” The American colonies, then, have been passively taking for granted the value of British guardianship, when, all the while, Britain has been maintaining its hold on America with its own political and economic benefit at the forefront of its concerns.
Continued dependence would actually hamper America’s long-term prospects, too: “any submission to, or dependance on Great-Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint.” The biggest example of such a hindrance is that America would become needlessly entangled in Britain’s foreign concerns—including antagonizing countries that would otherwise become America’s allies. Finally, delaying an effort toward independence only serves to make America a less desirable homeland in the long run: “[A] kind of government by guardianship, which can last no longer than till the colonies come of age, […] will be unsettled and unpromising. Emigrants […] will not choose to come to a country whose form of government hangs but by a thread, […] numbers of the present inhabitants would lay hold of the interval, to dispose of their effects, and quit the continent.” If America is maintained in this unsettled state for long, it will lose its appeal to both potential and even current occupants, which would be disastrous for America’s continued thriving.
Near the end of Common Sense, Paine raises the stakes of his argument by claiming that Britain’s King George III “MAY ACCOMPLISH BY CRAFT AND SUBTILTY, IN THE LONG RUN, WHAT HE CANNOT DO BY FORCE AND VIOLENCE IN THE SHORT ONE. Reconciliation and ruin are nearly related.” In other words, even if an outward “reconciliation” were achieved with the British crown, the crown’s agreement would be merely an alternate means of maintaining oppressive rule in the long run. But Paine doesn’t present this more forceful and radical part of his argument until he’s established a foundation for it by showing how dependence, in and of itself, is an unfruitful condition for America.
Independence vs. Dependence ThemeTracker
Independence vs. Dependence Quotes in Common Sense
The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested. The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure, is the AUTHOR.
In short, 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.
The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. 'Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent— of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ’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. Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.
We may as 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. But even this is admitting more than is true, for I answer roundly, that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power had any thing to do with her. The commerce, by which she hath enriched herself are the necessaries of life, and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.
Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.
But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask. Hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and still can shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.
Wherefore, her own interest leads her to suppress the growth of ours in every case which doth not promote her advantage, or in the least interferes with it. A pretty state we should soon be in under such a second-hand government, considering what has happened! […] And in order to shew that reconciliation now is a dangerous doctrine, I affirm, that it would be policy in the king at this time, to repeal the acts for the sake of reinstating himself in the government of the provinces; in order, that HE MAY ACCOMPLISH BY CRAFT AND SUBTILTY, IN THE LONG RUN, WHAT HE CANNOT DO BY FORCE AND VIOLENCE IN THE SHORT ONE. Reconciliation and ruin are nearly related.
But where says some is the King of America? I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of 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.
O ye partial ministers of your own acknowledged principles. If the bearing arms be sinful, the first going to war must be more so, by all the difference between wilful attack and unavoidable defence. Wherefore, if ye really preach from conscience, and mean not to make a political hobby-horse of your religion, convince the world thereof, by proclaiming your doctrine to our enemies, for they likewise bear ARMS.