Paine argues that “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.” This is a good summary of Paine’s approach throughout Common Sense—of making a rhetorical appeal to his readership’s ability to evaluate long-held traditional assumptions. Though he characterizes this evaluative ability as mere “common sense,” his approach is multi-faceted. By repeatedly appealing to his readers’ reason, and even encouraging them to reassess their moral faculties, Paine makes a rhetorically powerful case that independence is ultimately not just a reasonable step, but a moral imperative.
Paine appeals to his readers’ rational and emotional faculties in order to sway their opinions, encouraging them to rely on these faculties themselves to evaluate his claims. Early in Common Sense, he writes, “In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense; and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves; that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day.” Paine is actually saying a lot with this statement. He asserts that he’s only offering common-sense facts—that he’s simply appealing to the reader’s reasoning abilities and readiness to set aside preconceived ideas. He essentially asks the reader to aspire to a generous character. In sum, Paine is inviting the reader to engage in an active process of evaluation that draws upon one’s own intellect and character and (at least ostensibly) doesn’t just take Paine’s ideas at face value.
Paine even argues that the impulse to rebellion and independence is actually a good and salutary one, because it’s rooted in God-given moral feelings. “The Almighty hath implanted in us these unextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes. […] They distinguish us from the herd of common animals. The social compact would dissolve, and justice be extirpated from the earth, […] were we callous to the touches of affection. The robber, and the murderer, would often escape unpunished, did not the injuries which our tempers sustain, provoke us into justice.” In other words, the desire for independence is, ultimately, a concern for justice, out of respect for human dignity—on the same level as the desire to punish a robber or murderer. Readers should employ those healthy “affections” in the service of the cause of independence.
Not only does Paine encourage his audience to employ their reasoning skills, he doesn’t hesitate to impugn those who fail to do so—or those whose faculties are, in his view, insufficiently developed. Paine argues that those who continue to push for America’s reconciliation with Britain have suspect motives. “Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation, may be included within the following descriptions. Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men, who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class, […] will be the cause of more calamities to this continent, than all the other three.” In other words, supporters of reconciliation have vested interests in England or the war, or else they’re blind to reason, whether willfully or not. Others are simply too attached to the comforts of continued attachment to Europe to recognize what’s best for them. Interestingly, Paine sees the latter group as the most potentially problematic, because they are insufficiently attached to American interests. But no matter the specific motive at play, Paine urges his readers toward self-examination and a possible reassessment of their moral reasoning.
Paine goes on to argue that those who don’t support independence, on the grounds that they don’t see British behavior as atrocious, are either sheltered from suffering or else morally debased. “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? […] 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[.]” Paine appeals to the sufferings of those who’ve lost property or loved ones at the hands of the British army in order to stir fervor for independence. By implication, not only should those who have suffered these “violations” desire independence, but everyone who hears of them should be moved accordingly.
Common Sense is a short, rather unsystematic pamphlet, but its argumentation is surprisingly complex. Having made a case for government as a “necessary evil” and rejected monarchy as a viable form of government, then argued for the practical desirability of independence, Paine goes on to make his most effective moves through a memorable and affecting moral appeal. The latter is what fired the American popular imagination most strongly and likely did the most to garner support for Paine’s revolutionary cause.
Reason, Morality, and Rhetoric ThemeTracker
Reason, Morality, and Rhetoric 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.
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.
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.