Common Sense

by

Thomas Paine

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Common Sense: 3. Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Paine states that in the coming pages, he will simply offer “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.” His reader, he says, should rely on his own reason and feelings, “[putting] on […] the true character of a man” and “generously enlarge his views beyond the present day.”
Paine presents himself as offering simple arguments accessible to the common reader. Moreover, he appeals to his reader as being capable of evaluating his arguments and of the moral character befitting this historical moment.
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Paine declares that the time for debate is over—England has decided that war is the way to settle the dispute between England and America, and America has risen to the challenge. He argues that this matter is not just the concern of a country or a kingdom, but of an entire continent; likewise, it’s not just an issue for the current age, but for posterity.
Paine argues that England is the aggressor in the current conflict, and that the conflict transcends the current historical moment. This is why his readers must “enlarge [their] views” and, unlike a self-serving monarch, show generous concern for future generations.
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Because the matter has progressed “from argument to arms,” Paine argues that “a new aera for politics is struck,” which calls for a new manner of thinking. Previously, both Britain and America saw reconciliation between their two sides as the ultimate goal, whether that goal was achieved by means of war or diplomacy. The time has come, however, to look into the contrary point of view.
Now that Britain is the aggressor, old arguments for reconciliation no longer apply. Paine’s open call for rebellion is radical, and because of this, he is careful to establish a reasonable basis for the shift from reconciliation to resistance.
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The colonies will sustain “many material injuries” by remaining dependent upon Great Britain. Paine proposes to examine the nature of that dependence, by the light of common sense, in order to determine what the consequences would be if America remained connected to Britain, and what would happen if it separated from Britain.
Paine sets out his plan of argument: he will assess the current state of things as well as the possible repercussions of both separation and reconciliation. Again, he grounds the rhetoric of rebellion in an appeal to “common sense” that is meant to resonate with the everyday citizen.
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Some have argued that because America once flourished in its connection to Great Britain, circumstances will remain that way forever. This is a fallacious argument, Paine says. It makes as much sense as saying that because a child has thrived on milk, he should never be given meat.
Paine introduces the recurrent symbol of the parent-child relationship to support his argument for separation—one to which ordinary readers can easily relate. He likens America’s colonial status to infancy, a stage of development that, as everyone knows, only lasts for a short time. By likening America’s connection with Great Britain to a child never trying solid food, Paine makes the case that to stay dependent upon the British would be akin to preventing a young person from growing up and reaching their full potential.
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Some argue that America has benefited from Britain’s protection in the past. Paine retorts that Britain would have defended any other possession in the same way, if its own trade and empire were at stake. People who make this argument fail to consider that Britain’s motive is the country’s own interests, not concern for America’s interests. If America were no longer attached to Britain, it would no longer have to worry about conflict with Britain’s enemies, should Britain go to war with Spain or France, etc.
Paine challenges the common assumption that Britain is beneficial to America even now. As a colony, America is of use to Britain, not the other way around. This argument is in line with Paine’s assertions about the fundamental selfishness and corruption of monarchy. In addition, it’s clear that Britain’s governance is not as answerable to the people as Paine believes it should be.
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Some also argue that Britain is America’s “parent country.” Paine argues that the King exploits this phrase in order to prey on weak minds. The reality, he says, is that Europe is America’s parent, not England. America has been a refuge for those seeking civil and religious liberty from all parts of Europe. England now directs tyranny toward its own descendants; this is the mark of a “monster,” not a mother.
Boldly, Paine directly attacks King George III as exploitative of his subjects. He also challenges the underlying logic of the parent/child metaphor, going so far as to suggest that England isn’t America’s parent after all. He points to America’s growing diversity as evidence for this, simultaneously strengthening a case for independence.
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Were it the case that all Americans were of English descent, that still wouldn’t obligate America to continued connection, now that Britain has shown itself to be America’s enemy. Furthermore, William the Conqueror and most English Peers are of French descent—if the logic followed, England ought to be under French rule.
Paine’s point about the ancestry of many English is likely meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it gives further support to his argument that the current allegiance of a country shouldn’t necessarily be based on its historical ties.
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In addition, continued military alliance with Britain is not a compelling argument, since America’s long-term desire is peaceful trade, not war. Paine holds that the desirability of trade with America will always serve as better protection than Britain’s military could, and that America is safe from invasion because of its lack of gold and silver.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Paine’s claims here are short-sighted; America became entangled in its own military conflicts soon enough, and had richer natural resources than were known at the time. However, his larger point is that America should have the chance to develop commercially without being restrained by Britain’s military interests.
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Paine challenges anyone to show him a single advantage that reconciliation with Britain would bring about—he maintains there is none. The disadvantages, on the other hand, would be many. Dependence on Britain would only ensnare America in European wars, whereas left to its own devices, America would befriend these countries and benefit from them in trade.
Having argued that there’s no inherent logic in remaining loyal to Britain, Paine now shifts to arguing that a continued allegiance would be actively harmful—starting with damage to potential allies.
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Even nature proves that separation between Britain and America is natural—the great distance between the two countries suggests that Britain was never meant to rule over America. The fact that America was discovered before the Reformation likewise suggests that God intended this land to become a haven for the religiously persecuted.
It's not clear how seriously a Deist like Paine would even have taken such claims to divine providence (the 16th century Protestant Reformation led to sustained conflict between Catholic lands and Protestant subjects, creating many refugees)—but they may have appealed to his target readership.
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Paine believes that those who cling to the hope of reconciliation have unworthy motives. They either have some vested interest in Britain, are weak or prejudiced, or are “moderates” who think more highly of Europe than they ought. This last group, with their poor judgment, will do lasting harm to America.
Where Paine has elsewhere made generous assumptions about his readers’ motives, here he openly challenges the motives of those who disagree with independence. He views excessive attachment to Europe (hence inadequate attachment to America) as the most potentially dangerous to the cause.
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Some also have the privilege of living at a distance from the crisis. If one imagines oneself in Boston, however, the picture becomes clearer. Once affluent, the residents of Boston now risk starvation, friendly fire, and British plundering—essentially stuck between two armies.
Paine appeals to his audience’s imagination as well as their logic. Boston had been occupied by the British since June 1774. It was then besieged by American forces from April 1775 until the British evacuation in March 1776—about the time of this writing.
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“Passive” temperaments still think reconciliation possible. But if one considers Boston’s plight with natural human feelings, one will realize that ongoing connection with Britain, for whom love and honor is no longer possible, will be a forced, unnatural arrangement. In time, the situation will only worsen.
Paine suggests that a compassionate person will empathize with those who are most directly suffering under British occupation, and this will clarify the logical conclusion that attachment to Britain is no longer sustainable.
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If someone claims to be able to overlook British violations, Paine says he should examine himself: have you lost property, or even a loved one, due to British aggression? If not, then do not judge those who have. If so, it’s cowardly and sycophantic to desire continued relationship with those who have committed such things.
Here is Paine’s most direct and harshest assessment of those who remain in favor of reconciliation—in effect, such people are complicit in the harms Britain has committed against innocent colonists. His rhetoric also serves to foster a sense of unity among Americans.
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Paine says that he is not being inflammatory, but only testing current events against those “feelings and affections which nature justifies.” He doesn’t wish to stir people to revenge, but to jar them from apathy. America must not conquer herself by timidity. The season for action is now. Since repeated petitioning has yielded nothing, it’s time to bring about a final separation, and not leave the unpleasant task for  a subsequent generation.
Paine anticipates the criticisms of those who might accuse him of being needlessly provocative in his descriptions of American suffering. In so doing, he regards American indignation, and hence pro-revolutionary sentiments, as “natural.”
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Britain cannot do justice to America at such a distance; it would take most of a year for petitions and resolutions to travel back and forth. Besides, it’s unnatural for a larger country to be governed by a small island. It’s not worthwhile to take up arms over a matter of law (the stamp-acts), or to fight at all, unless America is in earnest about independence. Ever since April 1775, Paine has rejected “the hardened […] Pharaoh of England.”
Paine refers to British parliamentary acts that drew revenue from the American colonies through taxation without representation. These acts were bad enough, he implies, but revolution should aim for something bigger and more lasting. He also boldly likens King George III to the oppressive Pharaoh of the Old Testament Book of Exodus, another eminently familiar metaphor for his largely Christian audience.
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Even if matters were to be resolved now, it would be ruinous for America. First of all, King George III would have arbitrary sway over the laws of America. England will constantly try to suppress America’s prosperity out of jealousy. Even if the King repealed the offensive acts, he would do so for the sake of reinstating himself as governor of America. Thus he would “accomplish by craft and subtlety […] what he cannot do by force and violence […] Reconciliation and ruin are nearly related.”
Paine reiterates that England, especially as represented by King George, is an abusive “parent” for America. By implication, he also ties this point back to his argument that those who govern should share in the interests of those governed. A monarch does not; he or she only oppresses. This is why reconciliation would ultimately be fruitless, even disastrous, for America.
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Secondly, even under the best of terms, America would be under a sort of temporary guardianship. Immigrants will not choose to move to a country that’s in such an unsettled state, and current residents might decide to leave.
Paine makes the interesting point that continued colonial dependence will make America unattractive to potential immigrants and thereby stunt its growth.
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Finally, the strongest argument is that only independence can guard against civil war. If reconciliation occurred, there would likely be a revolt somewhere in the colonies. There should not be any fear that, after independence, the colonies would fall into conflict among themselves, because they are equal.
Paine holds that revolt against Britain is inevitable, and better that the colonies pursue it together than separately. He doesn’t fear rivalry among the colonies themselves, taking for granted that they will be unified around a republican form of government.
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The only thing to be feared regarding independence is that there is not yet a plan laid down for its success. Paine offers a few suggestions. For example, each colony should send delegates to a Continental Congress. Presidents should be chosen by selecting a colony by lot, then voting for a delegate from that colony. There should also be a Continental Conference between Congress and people, which will undertake such tasks as writing a Continental Charter and choosing members of Congress. Their primary concerns should be securing people’s freedom and property and ensuring the free exercise of religion.
Though Paine’s specific proposals were not exactly realized (short of there eventually being a Continental Congress), what’s notable about his ideas is his emphasis on the people’s proximity to their government—trying to ensure, for example, that there is another level of representation even between Congress and constituency. Enlightenment-influenced natural rights (like freedom of religion) are also paramount.
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Should anyone ask about a King of America, Paine retorts that “he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain.” But to satisfy everyone on an earthly level, a day should be set aside for the proclamation of the Continental Charter so that the world will know “that in America THE LAW IS KING” (in contrast to an absolute monarchy, where the King is Law).
Paine takes a particularly bold jab at King George III while also contrasting the different forms of government. Monarchy lends itself to absolutism and hence abuse, while a country governed on the basis of law—especially on Paine’s model—ideally is based on representation of the people’s wishes.
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A government of the people’s own is a “natural right,” and it’s wisest to decide upon a constitution in a spirit of calm deliberation, rather than delaying and risking an uprising of the discontented. The longer Britain remains in power, the greater the risk of the British trying to stir rebellion themselves, even using slaves and Native Americans for that purpose.
Paine makes reference to a 1774 conflict known as Lord Dunmore’s War, in which the royal Governor of Virginia declared war on bands of the Shawnee and Mingo nations within his territories. In 1776, some members of those nations joined together to attack colonists, with British backing.
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The time for forgiveness is past. God has wisely placed certain sentiments in people’s hearts—those affections that seek justice for robbery, murder, and other grievances. Oppression is everywhere; it’s up to America to stand as a refuge for freedom.
Paine concludes his argument with another appeal to his readers’ moral reasoning. Again, he equates the desire for independence with the desire for justice, arguing that both sentiments are God-given.
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