As I mentioned, the fundamental rhetorical basis of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is its reliance on plainly observable facts and reasoning that asks no more of its readers than to exercise their inherent sense of logic – their (drum roll please) common sense – to judge the quality of its arguments. The reason for this is because Paine intended his pamphlet for a popular audience. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who in the 1770s and 1780s tended to write for people as well-versed in the classics and Enlightenment philosophy as himself, Paine chose not to depend on his readers being particularly well-read, well-educated, or even literate. To do so would have limited the number of those capable of understanding the ideas he wanted to communicate, and perhaps better than the Founders themselves Paine understood that for the American Revolution to succeed it would need to be a popular movement.
Thus the arguments Paine deployed throughout Common Sense approached the prospect of independence from Great Britain (at the time of publication in January, 1776 still a topic of debate) less from an abstract philosophical perspective – concerned with natural rights, natural law, sovereignty and custom – than one characterized by pragmatism and expediency. Rather than argue that separation was necessarily a fundamental or objective good, something Paine seemed to more or less take for granted, his assertions instead focussed on the practical economic and political benefits of independence and the relative ease with which it could be achieved. Whereas Jefferson or Adams rationalised disobedience and armed resistance to British authority as flowing out of the “right of revolt” described by English political theorist John Locke – whereby rulers who did not uphold their end of the unspoken social contract could legitimately be overthrown and replaced – Paine claimed that revolution and independence were permissible, even desirable, for no more reason than the end result meant a better life for the average American. He approached this overarching conclusion from many different directions and deployed many different tools along the way, from the facts and figures of British naval construction to basic English and colonial American history. Whatever the avenue of approach, however, Paine’s tone managed to avoid outright condescension. Rather than speak down to his audience he phrased his arguments in terms that placed a premium on clarity, practicality, and simplicity, and made use of references (Biblical, historical and contemporary) that were eminently accessible to the average colonial citizen.
Composed of an introduction and four parts, Common Sense begins by contemplating the origins of “Government in general” while making certain specific comments about the unwritten English Constitution. Before delving into these general remarks, however, Paine’s introduction opened, tellingly, by exhorting readers to understand that though many of the ideas about to be discussed at length were both radical and unfamiliar, tradition was not necessarily a guarantee of goodness or rightness. “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong,” Paine wrote, “gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom […] Time makes more converts than reason.” This admission/admonition by Paine seems to demonstrate awareness on his part of the task before him in attempting to push against centuries of accepted wisdom with little more than the force of reason at the same time that it rather neatly encapsulates one of his overall aims.
By January, 1776, when the first edition of Common Sense was published in Pennsylvania, the British (and earlier English) colonization of North America had been ongoing for over 150 years. Though in that time the relationship between the colonies themselves and the Crown had not always been particularly harmonious the 18th century had witnessed a steady period of stable relations and a general acceptance of the bond between the colonial governments and post-Glorious-Revolution Britain. Admittedly the events of the 1760s and 1770s had weakened the integrity of this abiding status quo, between the imposition of unprecedented taxes on basic commodities and the harsh response to resulting attempts at resistance, but Paine’s task was still far from easy. The Revolutionary War, which began in April, 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, remained confined to Massachusetts and Lower Canada (Quebec) until June, 1776 with the British invasion of New York. The majority of Americans at the time of Paine’s writing were thus accustomed to British rule, and to monarchy in general, and had yet to be touched by the nascent Revolution in a meaningful, personal way. Common Sense therefore needed to dissect the basic assumptions of its readers, about how governments should function and how important their connection to Britain really was, at the same time it made its case for separation and independence.
To that end, the sixth paragraph of the first section of Common Sense contains as straightforward an explanation of the theoretical origin of government as is likely to be found in any prominent example of 18th-century philosophy. Neither taking the knowledge of his readers for granted not doubting their ability to grasp a complex idea if put to them in the right way, Paine set out very early on in his most influential political tract to establish a baseline understanding of what the purpose of government was supposed to be. Specifically, he described government as arising first out of the need felt by all people for personal security. Collective security, whereby people depend on each other for mutual protection, followed as a potential solution, which begat formal structure, delegated administration, representative government, and some form of democracy. At the core of this explanation, as Paine phrased it, was an emphasis on the spontaneous nature of government. It arose not as the consequence of the leadership of a king, as monarchy would seem to imply, but was generated, nurtured and directed by the people whose lives and livelihoods it was to serve. As Paine explained it, because representative government and frequent elections, “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.”
This chronicle of the basic evolution of human civilization, though simply phrased, is not all that different from similar explanations put forward by philosophers like John Locke in their own political treatises. The theory that a “social contract” of some sort existed at the core of all forms of government was a favorite of the European Enlightenment and had been repeated and refined by any number of contemporary thinkers. Where Paine differed, in addition to the simplicity and concision of his language, was in his additional assertion that the validity of the social contract theory of the origin of government lay precisely in its lack of complexity. “I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn,” Paine stated, “that the more simple a thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.” Doubtless this was a powerful sentiment to the generation of colonial Americans who had suffered under the burden of several rounds of controversial taxation and been forced to endure contending arguments for and against natural rights, regulation versus revenue, and the unparalleled sovereignty of Parliament. Government, Paine insisted, should not be so complex as to elude the understanding of those it was supposed to serve. Rather it should be simple enough to avoid inefficiency or breakdown and easy to diagnose and repair in the event of the latter. The manner in which the colonies were governed as appendages of the British Empire in the 1770s was decidedly far from simple.
Though the various colonies enjoyed different forms of government themselves, and different relationships to the Crown, all of them were self-acknowledged subjects of the British Monarch and his/her heirs. Each colony had a legislature of its own that was elected via some form of suffrage involving property ownership and each had a Governor who was either elected by a subset of the colonial population or appointed by the Crown (or in the case of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland by its Lord Proprietor). Technically speaking none of the colonies fell under the authority of the British Parliament. While George III was acknowledged by its citizens to be the monarch of the colony of Virginia, Virginia was not formally a part of the Kingdom of Great Britain. Accordingly the assembled MPs and Lords in Westminster had no legal right to make law for the colonies. To that end, the administration of Britain’s various North American colonies was overseen after the 1690s by the Board of Trade, a committee of the Privy Council. As the Privy Council was a body of advisors to the Crown and not an arm of Parliament this arrangement would appear to have preserved the separation between the governments of the colonies and the government of Britain. Where things became complicated was with the fact that the head of the Board of Trade was often also the Secretary of State for the Colonies, a cabinet-level position within the British government. Accordingly, colonial affairs were treated in Britain as the responsibility of the government of the day, and Parliament frequently passed laws intent on regulating colonial trade in keeping with the overall administration of the British Empire. This became particularly controversial in the 1760s when the government of Prime Minister George Grenville attempted to levy a tax on stamped paper issued in the Thirteen Colonies; because the line between the power of the British Government and the power of the Crown had become blurred it was unclear who possessed legitimate authority over the colonial governments. This uncertainty led to public disagreement, vociferous debate, active resistance, harsh repression, and ultimately armed revolution.
Having endorsed simplicity in government as among the best ways to ensure transparency and stability, neither of which the colonies enjoyed under the administration of the Crown, Paine further pointed in the tenth through the twentieth paragraphs of Common Sense to specific elements of Britain’s unwritten constitution that seemed to him calculated to create inefficiency, confusion and conflict. Said constitution, he wrote, was composed of three basic elements; led by a crowned individual, Britain was a monarchy; partially governed by hereditary landowners, it was an aristocracy; daily administered by elected representatives, it was a republic. The first two elements Paine characterized as the residue of an earlier era, kept alive more by tradition than logic, while the third was the product of more recent historical events that was uneasily fitted to its surroundings. In theory these three parts were supposed to check each-other’s power, though Paine considered such a claim to be “farcical.” The monarchy in particular he singled out for criticism, and presented a series of simple statements aimed at demonstrating the contradictions inherent in the British attempt to fuse monarchical and republican elements in a single government.
Believing that the House of Commons had the ability to act as a check on the power of the monarch presupposed two things, Paine argued. The first was that the monarch could not be trusted to act in good faith at all times on the basis of their own discretion. The logical conclusion was a general consensus that, as Paine put it, “a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy.” The second assumption was that because the Commons was assigned the task of checking, obstructing, or otherwise supervising the monarchy, it must have been because they were, “wiser or more worthy of confidence than the crown.” Paine did not seem inclined to disagree with either of these claims. Indeed, as aspects of the so-called republican element of the British constitution I have no doubt they fully warranted his endorsement. The problem – the cause of Paine’s claim that the three-part constitution was a farce – arose from the monarch’s ability to in turn check the power of the Commons by vetoing legislation. Such an arrangement, he wrote, “supposes that the king is wiser than those whom is has already supposed to be wiser than him. A mere absurdity!”