Thursday, July 04, 2013

Common Sense and Thomas Paine: what is it about that pamphlet?

At his print shop here, Robert Bell published the first edition of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet in January 1776. Arguing for a republican form of government under a written constitution, it played a key role in rallying American support for independence.
Picture source at The Historical Marker Database

We have it in our power to begin the world over again.
Common Sense, Appendix

In the previous post I looked at some of the events between Britain and its American colonies leading up to the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. The question I focused on is how so many of the American colonists went from a willing submission to Britain in 1763 (Ben Franklin’s words) to a declaration of independence in 1776. Writers reflecting the American spirit of the years leading up to 1776 highlight a hope for reconciliation after their grievances were addressed. Revolution was not inevitable.

Cue the publication of Common Sense in January 1776. All sorts of claims on its influence can and have been made. Did Common Sense singlehandedly change American colonists’ view toward a break with Britain? Did Paine simply give voice to feelings that colonists already felt? Or was it just a coincidence in timing with other events that led to the drive for independence? My own feelings, for what it’s worth (and so you know my take while you read this post), is somewhere in the middle of that triangulation. One indisputable fact was its popularity—fifty-six editions within a year of publication. The numbers vary but somewhere between two hundred thousand and half a million pamphlets sold (there were less than three million colonists at the time), reflecting a physical distribution and philosophical diffusion that is nothing short of astounding. It has been turned into a mythic achievement, picking up baggage and appropriation as the years go by.

But what’s in the pamphlet? It’s not very long, easily readable in two hours or less. I’m going to outline some of the main points and look at a few aspects I find compelling for its argument. As always, feel free to add your comments on the work—I’m always interested to see how a work strikes other readers.

There are many online sources available to read the pamphlet. I’m going to mention the print version at Project Gutenberg and the YouTube version synchronizing text and audio (courtesy of The Wikipedia entry has a nice summary of the sections.
I’ll include Professor Joanne B. Freeman’s series of lectures on the American Revolution since I really enjoyed them. The most relevant video is Lecture 10, although it’s worth noting the lectures around it are important if you are interested in the pamphlet.

There are four sections in most publications of the pamphlet :

  • Of the Origin and Design of Government in General
  • Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession
  • Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs
  • Of the Present Ability of American, with Some Miscellaneous Reflections
The opening lines differentiate society and government as well as spelling out why they are necessary:
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 POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; 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. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. WHEREFORE, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever FORM thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others. …

Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and of reason will say, it is right.

There are many arguments and suppositions following from this distinction but these are necessary points for everything that follows. Government is intended to be a check on human evils while society provides mutual assistance. Government could be said to be a necessary evil and should limit its role accordingly. Paine also draws an idea of government from what he sees in nature—simple is better. Simplicity limits disorder and makes repair easier.

In the second section Paine argues against monarchy in any form, even a “mixed state” where Parliament is supposed to be a check on the monarch. If a check is needed, then you concede that monarchy is dangerous. Hereditary succession does not guarantee the best leaders, nor does it save a country from civil wars. “In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes.”

In the third section Paine looks at the struggles between Britain and the American colonies. After summarizing many of the reasons and excuses given why the colonies should remain together, Paine proceeds to counter them, calling Britain an “open enemy.” One thing Paine doesn’t do is list grievances—he simply notes that injustices exist. He focuses on commerce and argues an independent America will do well in the world markets. Paine then proposes what he thinks the independent government should look like.

In the final section Paine evaluates the chances of military success and finds them favorable. Later editions of Common Sense contain an appendix where Paine looks at the damages that will accrue from reconciliation with Britain and exhorts his fellow Quakers not to be passive in the face of oppression. Paine expands the call from just members of his own religion to all Americans and declares that citizens have the natural right to replace their government.

In the introductory essay of the Penguin edition, Isaac Kramnic opines that Paine’s rage appealed to readers more than the “common sense” presented, which means he struck a nerve. The anger is veiled at times while seething from the page at other points. Also helping with its appeal is simple and direct language, something that most people of the time could easily follow. It rambles at times and gets bogged down occasionally but Common Sense presents hope and enthusiasm for independence, resembling a sermon exhorting men to action. The pamphlet addresses the prevailing arguments against independence and highlights not just the possibility but the necessity of it. Paine confronts the fears of the colonists and casts the actions he calls forth as noble actions.

Today it’s difficult to fathom how audacious Paine’s call for independence was in January 1776 and the risk that he took in writing it (as well as Benjamin Rush’s role in editing and publishing it). Paine wanted a loose-knit group of colonies to take on the world’s greatest power, potentially destroying everything they had gained to date. Paine’s message that independence wasn’t just possible but also necessary and right cast what had been a radical message into mainstream terms. The appeal to a higher cause addressed not just the political link with Britain but emotional ties, too. Paine went beyond tinkering with the system and having grievances redressed—his argument was that fairness wasn’t possible under the current arrangement so the whole thing should be scrapped.

I was surprised to see humor surface now and again in the work. The following passage sounds like something from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones; yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honourable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it.
(From Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession )

Paine peremptorily cuts short any arguments against his views in Common Sense by declaring his views as self-evident truths and labeling contrary opinions unnatural, childish, and farcical. That wouldn’t keep John Adams from calling Common Sense “a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass.” Thomas Jefferson wasn’t that fond of it, either. Given Paine's message and the sales of the pamphlet, though, I think it safe to say that Common Sense helped re-frame the way colonists assessed their relationship with Britain.

Happy Fourth of July!

Related posts on Thomas Paine and Common Sense:


Brian Joseph said...

Some historians argue that one vital, and for the time, unique, aspects of Paine's writings was that unlike almost every other writer of political note at the time, he was aiming at the masses as opposed as for the elite. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the other founders were critical of it.

The John Adam's quote is hilarious and characteristic of him.

Dwight said...

In Lecture 10, Professor Freeman has a great way of putting it: the pamphlet was popular culture, not low culture.

I listened as well as read Common Sense and it may be even easier to listen to than read, an important point for colonists who weren't literate.

Oh, one point Freeman ended with which was interesting, although I don't know the facts beyond her claims. She said Adams and Jefferson also both hated Plato's Republic as well as Common Sense. Is it a case of idealism vs. realism (or maybe better put as practicality)? I'm not sure there's a correlation but apparently there was consistency for the two.

Jean said...

Hey! I am listening to Freeman's series! Or at least, I began it; one a week. I love her.

I think it's a great idea to listen to CS; will have to get myself a recording.

He puts in some wild rhetorical flourishes, IIRC? Ones that don't make a ton of sense if you think about them but were certainly rousing.

Thanks for a great couple of posts.

Dwight said...

Freeman is a lot of fun to listen to. And yes, Paine adds some flourishes. And some biting sarcasm at times, too. He seems intent on ticking off all the right people.

Brian Joseph said...

Jefferson and Adams hating Plato's Republic is interesting. Of course Adams would hate it. He really opposed extremism and I see him as very practical. While I see Jefferson was often attracted to more radical, even utopian ideas the actual society depicted in The Republic was indeed very off the wall and I can even see Jefferson disliking it.