Thomas Paine’s 1776 political pamphlet, Common Sense, was revolutionary in a number of ways. Paine was one of the first to openly advocate for American independence from Great Britain, and in doing so, he sought to appeal to the everyday colonial American reader instead of to fellow political theorists. In order to make his radical case, he first lays the groundwork for his argument by discussing the nature of government itself, building on a prior tradition of English political thought. Paine argues that government is actually, at best, a “necessary evil” for restraining human vice, and therefore that the simplest, least intrusive form of government should be sought.
Paine’s argument rests on the fundamental assertion that society and government are altogether different things. People conflate society and government, but they’re actually distinct aspects of human experience: “Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them […] Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. […] The first is a patron, the last a punisher.” Essentially, society consists of those things that citizens enjoy pursuing in common, while government is there to protect such pursuits by punishing vice. Government only exists to ensure that society remains sustainable. Embedded within this argument is Paine’s belief that human beings are naturally inclined to vice. This human corruption means that even “society”—a good thing—inevitably lapses at some point, and people’s voluntary commitment to each other suffers as a result: “but as nothing but heaven is impregnable to vice, it will unavoidably happen, that in proportion as they surmount the first difficulties of emigration, which bound them together in a common cause, they will begin to relax in their duty and attachment to each other; and this remissness, will point out the necessity, of establishing some form of government to supply the defect of moral virtue.” In other words, virtue in and of itself isn’t sufficient to govern society; some sort of external enforcement is required. Again, in Paine’s view, government exists to guard against humanity’s inevitable faltering in moral virtue.
Unsurprisingly, given Paine’s belief in human vice, he argues that government is inherently limited in how much good it can achieve, and that, in fact, it can often do harm. In Paine’s view, government, by its nature, can never be as good as society: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil […] for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.” Paine means that, even at its best, government is only a restraining influence; at its worst, it creates new obstacles to people’s happiness. Given the fact that government is a necessary evil, the simplest possible form of government is the most desirable. Paine explains, “I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, […] that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered[.]” That is, whatever form of government “appears most likely to ensure [security] to us, with the least expence and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.” People should seek a form of government that’s least likely to create worse problems than it solves, in other words—one that’s not overly complex or burdensome to the people it’s designed to serve.
Later in Common Sense, Paine offers some proposals for the establishment of a new American government. For example, he maps out a representative scheme for a new congress and suggests a method by which the colonies can take turns putting forward one of its citizens as president. Of course, none of these proposals survived in their original form, even once the 13 colonies declared independence. But Paine’s basic instincts about the nature and purpose of government have remained influential in the American consciousness ever since, among commoner and career politician alike—much as he intended.
The Role of Government ThemeTracker
The Role of Government Quotes in Common Sense
Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
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.
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.