Of the Origin and Design of Government in General
Thomas Paine brought "Common Sense" to America
“If, to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy … to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce, and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libellous … let the name of libeller be engraved on my tomb.”
—Thomas Paine, responding to charges of “seditious libel”
Thomas Paine’s short, 47-page booklet, called a pamphlet in its day, could be argued to be the piece of writing that birthed the American Revolution.
Within it, Paine did not so much rally against specific actions and laws of Great Britain, but rather elevated the idea of independent and egalitarian self-rule. While criticism of London had been widespread for decades, this was the first intellectual and public discussion on the idea of complete independence.
While calls to unite against British taxation had been published before, “Common Sense” was a sensation in its day. Adjusted proportionally for the population in the American colonies of 1775, it is still the best-selling American title of all time. Even French and British audiences of the time gobbled up copies of his work.
Paine wrote in plain language, easy for anyone to understand and repeat. You didn’t have to be a lawyer or politician to understand what Paine was saying. If you could read, you met the intellectual standard. If you didn’t read, you might catch someone else reading it aloud at a tavern.
It was published in parts by newspapers across the colonies during 1776, and widely shared. Paine did not initially attach his name to it, for fear of retribution from British loyalists.
In the first chapter of it, Paine argued that government was a necessary evil to preserve the freedom that security grants, and that its most natural form was a representative republic, not a monarchy. He also argued that Britain’s form of pseudo-representation was also quite unnatural.
“Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise,” Pain wrote. “For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver.”
Paine suggests that it is for security alone that a person gives up “a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.”
Paine also suggests that the form of government most likely to deliver that security was preferable to any others. Paine criticized the British constitution as being complicated and “incapable of producing what it seems to promise”.
“…the constitution of England is so exceedingly complex, that the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in which part the fault lies…” he wrote.
The two Parliamentary houses were set too far apart from the people to be responsible to them, and the King, who had already been proven to be fallible rather than a representative of God, still held too much power.
“How came the king by a power which the people are afraid to trust, and always obliged to check? Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can any power, which needs checking, be from God; yet the provision, which the constitution makes, supposes such a power to exist.”
Paine, as he launches into “Common Sense”, implores Englishmen to set aside their favor toward their own, familiar form of government and consider instead all forms of government impartially. Judging a government, he submitted, required dispassionate reason and a lack of prejudice.
“…as a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one,” he wrote.
Paine established that government was necessary, that the current government was unsatisfactory, and prepared his readers to decide what kind of government might be superior.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the second of four chapters in “Common Sense”, titled “Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession”.