Thomas Paine's Common Sense Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Common Sense as a Formal Rejection of Monarchy

America's fight for independence would emerge quite naturally out of the needs of its people to establish a form of governance, of economy and of society reflective of the demands created by the path of development of the colonies. Its people would be assisted in their ascent to this revolt by no small degree of propaganda, which would help to represent the trespasses of kingship as a form of governance for the masses. Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, remains the most famous and representative of such literature, making as its subject the moral argument that men are inherently entitled to individual rights, proper representation and free from tyranny.

In a text designed to produce a sense of revolutionary outrage, Paine crafts a philosophical treatise on appropriate governance designed to counter that which had very organically emerged in the colonies with the increasingly archaic nature of monarchy such as that imposed upon the colonists by the British. In his pamphlet, Paine openly calls for and advocates armed resistance as a means to the defense of the economic and governmental systems developing separate from the British Crown, establishing his text as a microscope on this period in American history by seizing on its core philosophical conflict. He characterizes the distinction between kingship and the evolving colonial democracy as being irreconcilable, contending that "men of all ranks have embarked in the controversy, from different motives, and with various designs; but all have been ineffectual, and the period of debate is closed. Arms, as the last resource, decide the contest." (82) Couched in Paine's sense of righteous indignation, the text achieves its greatest success in its emotional vitriol, largely driving toward this point by making the concerted argument that the colonists can tolerate the imposition of kingship so far as they can tolerate the sacrifice of the freedoms which had become inherently associated to persistence in the nascent America.

The indignation stems from Paine's advocacy of progressive thoughts on the rights of man. In his text, he write with great rhetorical flourish of the natural tendency of individuals toward civil liberty. This endows his work with the sense of a divine endorsement of individual liberty and an explication of the rational movement toward democratic governance. Of Thomas Paine's recommendation that the colonists awaken to the injustice being dealt them at the hands of the monarchy, there is a principle encouragement toward the acquiescence to democracy which would be used to define a moral divergence between the aspirant colonial leaders and members of the oppressing British Crown. It is perhaps this which functions as the greatest learning experience in reading his text, as it draws a clear sense of the ethical impetus underlying the coming revolution.

As to the work's greatest strength, its comments on democracy are compelling and even defining. Drawing a hypothetical discussion of a spontaneously occurring new civilization which clearly intimates the experience of the colonists, he remarks that there is an inherent drive amongst these pioneers to consent "to leave the legislative part to be managed by a select number chosen from the whole body, who are supposed to have the same concerns at stake which have who appointed them." (Paine, 67) This clear endorsement of the natural proclivity of the colonists toward democratic organization would find clear favor with a people enjoying the manifold benefits of existing in a society separate from the dominance of the crown. Particularly, there would be a resonance with colonists in the idea that each of them might be accorded equal and inviolable rights. As Paine notes, this is an idea hinted at by the British Law of Commons, but made immediately ridiculous by the inbuilt inequality of the monarchy as a form of government. This both points to a clear bias on Paine's part toward the plight of the colonists and their selected form of governance, a weakness if only for the fact that, ultimately, there would come to be far more commonalities between British and American governance than would have been implied by Common Sense.

Still, the work does compliment an existing body of knowledge on the subject by connecting the Constitutional movement of his time with many of the great philosophical advancements of the centuries preceding the revolution. At the core of Paine's argument is a sense of the natural rights that had become an underpinning to the constitutional movements of the enlightenment era. This is to indicate that in Paine's perspective, government is a necessary evil, predisposed thusly by the inherent evil impulses in men. He remarks that "government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocent; the palace of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise." (65) The utopian notion that men might well govern themselves is, the author contends, a fallacy, hardly concordant with the true drives for individual power, acquisition and status in humanity. This internal contradiction in man contributes to Paine's understanding of government as something which, in its necessity, must be restrained. This enters us into a conversation on the nature of monarchy as a fundamental failure in government formulation to accord the rights of man and the sensibility of sound stewardship.

In particular, Paine identifies kingship not simply as a form of government which denies man equal representation, but also as one which pointedly and explicitly defines a class system which a minority of wealthy elite control the interests and benefits of government, society and economy. This defies the logic of free-market progress, which would in a certain regard be the inherent communality in operation within the pre-revolutionary colonies. Here, the needs for survival and the construction of a functional and independent economy would produce a natural system of shared prosperity that distinguished itself from the monarchical practices dominant throughout Europe. Amidst the increased friction between these two ideological forces would emerge the impetus for revolution, with the illuminating evidence of the fundamental wrongness of kingship precipitating the intellectual arguments in favor of revolt. As Paine phrases it, crediting the natural economic behavior of the colonists for helping to realize this ideological shift, "this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this (not on the unmeaning name of king) depends the strength of government, and the happiness of the governed." (67) As I speak on this subject today, there is an aspect of this sentiment which might be obscured by the broad and aggressive philosophical principles explicated. In Paine's use of the word "community," the writer draws a sharp line in the sand of history.

Indeed, community is a concept apart from the realities of feudalism. There is expressed the idea of some sophisticated social body which is neither formed of peasantry nor of aristocracy. The implications of interdependence, shared interests and social justice would naturally emanate from the development in America's colonies of these communities. Formed on productive cultural, residential, social and economical imperatives with a collective impact, these communities would evolve to the selection of their own representative governments whose purposes would parallel this collectivity.

An important offshoot of this natural occurrence though would be the formulation of a counterpoint to the persistence of kingship. In fact, as Paine characterizes it, we come to understand kingship as being counterintuitive to the natural process produced in America for its fabrication according to lineage. To our conversation today, I would assert that there is perhaps no more central statement in Paine's position on kingship than that which contends that monarchy and aristocracy, "being hereditary are independent of the people; wherefore in a constitutional sense they contribute nothing towards the freedom of the state." (69) While we have identified such language as propaganda steeped in philosophical disposition,…

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