The Context

The literary elite and abstruse academicians who revel in writing dense, jargon-laden tomes tend to sneer at “pamphlets” and commonly charge the intellectual activities, of those of their opponents whom they regard as beneath their consideration, as “pamphleteering.” They would be surprised to note that “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine, a text that played a key role in the American Revolution of 1776, in the popularisation of the ideas which undergirded that movement, in transforming loyal subjects of the British empire into votaries of secession, was a pamphlet.

Thomas Paine began work on the “Common Sense” in 1775 on the prompting of Benjamin Rush, an important civic leader in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Paine had arrived in this city from England a year earlier and was working as editor of the Pennsylvania magazine. The Continental Congress  was meeting in the city at the time and Rush advised Paine that it would be useful to make a persuasive argument for independence. There was much grievance against England, the mother country, but independence for many American political leaders was yet too radical a move. It was a highly controversial assignment and “Common Sense”, published in January 1776, became foremost among those documents which tipped the scales from resistance to revolution.

The main grievance of the colonists was that since they were not represented in the English Parliament, they should be taxed by their own assemblies. Widespread resistance by the colonists against the Stamp Act (1765) led to its repeal by the Parliament but that was accompanied with the Declaratory Act (1766) which defended in principle the right of the Parliament to tax the colonies. This was put into practice with the Townshend Acts (1767) which imposed duties on several imports. The main centre for resistance against these acts was in Boston where a scuffle with British troops in 1770 led to the death of five colonists, an event known as the Boston Massacre. Thereafter, the Townshend duties were repealed on all imports with the sole exception of tea, as a face-saving measure. In 1773, came the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell its tea in America without paying export duties in England. This meant cheaper tea for the colonists but also acquiescence in the right of the English Parliament to tax the colonies as expressed in the Declaratory Act. As Paine, reflected in hindsight on the implications of the Declaratory Act:

It is the nature of law to require obedience but this demanded servitude; and the condition of an American under the operation of it was not that of a subject but of a vassal.

In Boston, three East India Company ships were not allowed to unload their tea by the people and ordered to leave but they could not do so, even if they wanted to, since having docked in the harbour required them to pay duties on their goods, including tea. The rule was that if the duty was not paid in 20 days, the item would confiscated and sold by the government. On December 16, 1773, the day this was supposed to occur, around 200 Bostonians, dressed up as Indians, boarded the three ships and dumped their tea cargo into the sea, an event famously known as the Boston Tea Party.

In response, the English Parliament passed repressive acts against the colonies which united their resistance and led to the first convention of the Continental Congress in 1774. However, the delegates preferred to use constitutional methods rather than demanding independence. They declared that binding the colonies to the legislative authority of the English Parliament was contrary to the spirit of the English constitution and did not extend the dispute to withdrawing their allegiance to the English king on grounds that they owed him their loyalty for the protection of their life and liberty as subjects. Whatever retaliatory measures the Continental Congress adopted in opposing the English colonial laws, such as suggesting Massachusetts to form its own government and make military preparations, it was within the framework of the English constitution.

However, the English government misjudged the American mood and imposed martial rule in Massachusetts. Fighting broke out between English soldiers and colonial minutemen on April 19th, 1775, at Lexington and Concord which decisively switched the view of many thinkers, including Thomas Paine, for independence. The Second Continental Congress which met after this event ordered military preparations throughout the colonies and appointed George Washington as the commander-in-chief. Full-scale fighting erupted between English troops and American citizen militias in the famous Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. Nonetheless, some people still hoped for a reconciliation, including members of the Second Continental Congress who dispatched an Olive Branch Petition, pledging their loyalty to the English king, and continued to hope for it even after the petition was rejected and new military initiatives announced to restore the English writ in the colonies. The reason for their vacillation was that the colonies had only citizen militias, no proper army or navy; there was discord between the colonies; about a third of the American population were loyalists which means any war of independence would be accompanied with a bloody civil war.

Such was the charged environment in which Common Sense made its debut. Paine had no original or brilliant theoretical arguments to offer for the sake of liberty or against monarchy and even if any could be summoned, they would not have affected the English government. What the hour needed, and what Common Sense supplied and made it succeed, was precisely its no-nonsense, targeted polemic that could appeal to the American masses and unite them in the cause for an independent republic.

The Text

The rest of this post will cover the main highlights of Common Sense:

(1) Theory of Society and Government

Paine views society and state as positive and negative goods respectively. Society is the result of people coming together to reap the advantages of company and collaboration. However, humans are not morally perfect creatures and togetherness can lead to exploitation and oppression. Therefore, a state comes into being when people see the need to safeguard themselves and be able to freely go about their business without anxiety of being attacked. Security and freedom are the origins and ends of government. As Paine puts it:

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 patron, the last is a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.

People readily form a society because of the collective benefits it offers. People reluctantly form a state, a coercive institution, and surrender a portion of their liberty for the sake of safeguarding the whole.

(2) Simple and Complex Governments

Paine prefers simple governments because these provide the least scope for corruption and are most easily fixable if they do get corrupted. He severely criticised the complex government of England consisting of king, lords and commons, a system of checks and balances, which was admired by many Americans as the best guarantor against monopolisation of power. However, in reality, the king, through a system of patronage which consisted of offering pensions and jobs, could persuade the parliament to pass laws that conformed to his will. Thus, Paine quipped:

While we have been wise enough to shut and lock a door against absolute monarchy, we at the same time have been foolish enough to put the crown in possession of the key.

This, as he pointed out eloquently, made the system even worse than absolute monarchy for at least in that case people knew whom to blame for their suffering while the English constitution …

 … is so exceedingly complex that the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in which part the fault lies. Some will say in one and some in another and every political physician will advise a different medicine.

(3) English liberty

Some people contended that the English constitution was the basis of the highly-prized liberty of the English but Paine argued that such a view was nonsense for, as explained above, the English king ruled just as autocratically as any absolute monarch, only he could not do it just as openly. If England enjoyed a greater degree of liberty than other European countries, it was on account of the constitution of its people and not the constitution of its government.

This is an idea that echoes well in the context of the modern Indian government. While it is often suggested that India is a country of religious toleration and various freedoms on account of the constitution of its government, in reality it is so because of the constitution of the Hindus.

(4) Rejection of monarchy

Paine submits that while gender differences have their basis in nature and the difference between virtue and vice in religion, there is no legitimate foundation for a division between king and subjects, that some people have a right only to rule and others only to be ruled. Although himself a deist and hence a believer in a god of nature, Paine did not desist from invoking the Biblical view that kingship was a heathen practice akin to idolatry.

For Paine, the origins of monarchy lay in the will to power:

The first of [the monarchs were] nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtlety obtained in the title of chief among plunderers and who by increasing in power and extending his depredations over all the quiet and defenceless that purchased their safety by frequent contributions.

As I have explained in my book Natural Enmity, this is no different from the theory of kingship in the Pañcatantra which imagines its origin in the contest for power which is natural to human beings. Only, it does not go further to denounce kingship but rather elaborates on the nīti (prudence) that can enable society to contend with it.

In rejecting monarchy, Paine is, of course, disavowing the English constitution in which that institution plays a central role, and pleading for the establishment of an independent republic.

(5) Economic considerations

Paine argues that America will not be affected by the sundering of commercial ties with Britain because as an exporter of primary goods, America enjoyed a vast market in Europe.

(6) Foreign security

Against those who maintained that America was dependent on the English navy for its protection, Paine contended that their enmity with countries like France and Spain was itself an English legacy. If they became independent from England, then there would be no cause for their enmity with France and Spain.

(7) Parental ties with England

Against those who viewed England as the mother country, Paine offered the alternate perspective of Europe as the mother country for America became an asylum for those who sought to escape persecution from that part of the world. And from the disturbances in America it was evident that England continued to oppress the descendants of those who had immigrated to escape her oppression. For all this motherly affection, if American sought a reconciliation then the English king would rule them despotically, imposing his will on them through violence or subtler measures, and as some remain steadfastly loyal to England and others fight against their oppression by England, America would erupt into a civil war.

From the point of view of my study of the Pañcatantra, one appeal by Paine struck me the most. He derides those eager for reconciliation with England, who are willing to forgive and forget all that happened, and if they are not the ones who have lost their property or witnessed the suffering of their loved ones, then to not judge those who have, and if, indeed, they have as well and are yet willing to make peace with the murderers then he brands them as cowards and sycophants, unworthy of calling themselves friends or relatives of the victims.

Especially, Paine’s satirical imitation of those seeking accord with the English – ‘come, come we shall be friends again for all this’ – reminds me of the story from the Pañcatantra in which the serpent reprimands the Brahmin: ‘Look at the blazing pyre! Look at my shattered hood! Amity (prīti) once broken and later mended does not flourish by affection (sneha).’

Besides the above points, Paine also offered practical advice with regards to the formation of the future government for the colonies as also about how America could militarily defeat England but these we need not consider as they are not as sound and did not influence the Continental Congress to take them up. It is the vigour of his language and the insightfulness of his theoretical arguments that stirred the American people to support independence and what makes Common Sense a book worthy of study even today.

References: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense from The Cato Home Study Course.