Independence Day is almost here, and what better way to celebrate it than by honoring Thomas Paine and “Common Sense”?
“Common Sense” was a short work but had an enormous impact on colonial America’s decision to break its ties with Great Britain. Paine was an English defector to the American cause. Born in 1737, he immigrated to America in 1774 after leading a life of disappointment in England. He initially settled in Philadelphia under the tutelage of Richard Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s son-in-law. A year later, he was hired to write for and edit The Pennsylvania Magazine, although he left his position the same year.
In January 1776, two years after arriving in America and six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Paine anonymously published “Common Sense” to immediate success. It sold more than 100,000 copies within the first three months, and even today remains one of the best-selling (if not the best-selling) American titles of all time. The pamphlet galvanized support for an armed rebellion and moved America from the lukewarm column into the solidly independent one.
Several factors assisted “Common Sense’s” wild success. First, it was easy to read. Even today, 239 years after it was published, the language remains incredibly simple. Compare “Common Sense” with the writings of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, or any of the other Founders, and the difference in language, tone, and diction is striking. Paine uses all the high-brow Enlightenment theories that other thinkers used, but he articulated them better than anyone before, and arguably since.
Secondly, it is a short work. The first edition was only 48 pages, and later editions did not add much to the page count. Combined with easy-to-understand language, the work was more accessible to more people, and was often read aloud to the illiterate. Third, and what I believe to be most important, Paine’s reasons for independence really were—and continue to be—common sense. Of course, Paine was biased against Great Britain, but his arguments are nonetheless compelling, and often agreeable. The title of the work is neither a misnomer nor hyperbole. His arguments really are common sense.
Among many great quotes and choice vocabulary, these are the top five quotes from “Common Sense.”
1. On the Legitimacy of the English Monarchy
England, since the conquest, has known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath as much larger number of bad ones, yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable 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. However, it is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right, if there are any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and lion, and welcome. I shall neither copy their humility, nor disturb their devotion.
2. On Governance from Abroad
It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from the former ages, to suppose, that this continent can longer remain subject to any external power. The most sanguine in Britain does not think so. The utmost stretch of human wisdom cannot, at this time, compass a plan short of separation, which can promise the continent even a year’s security. Reconciliation is now a falacious dream. Nature hath deserted the connexion, and Art cannot supply her place. For, as Milton wisely expresses, ‘never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.’
Every quiet method for peace hath been ineffectual. Our prayers have been rejected with disdain; and only tended to convince us, that nothing flatters vanity, or confirms obstinacy in Kings more than repeated petitioning—and nothing hath contributed more than that very measure to make the Kings of Europe absolute: Witness Denmark and Sweden. Wherefore, since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake, let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to be cutting throats, under the violated unmeaning names of parent and child.
3. On the Cause of Revolution
O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her.—Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.
4. On America’s Natural Advantages and Continental Government
In almost every article of defence we abound. Hemp flourishes even to rankness so that we need not want cordage. Our iron is superior to that of other countries. Our small arms equal to any in the world. Cannon we can cast at pleasure. Saltpetre and gunpowder we are every day producing. Our knowledge is hourly improving. Resolution is our inherent character, and courage hath never yet forsaken us. Wherefore, what is it that we want? Why is it that we hesitate? From Britain we can expect nothing but ruin. If she is once admitted to the government of America again, this Continent will not be worth living in. Jealousies will be always arising; insurrections will be constantly happening; and who will go forth to quell them? Who will venture his life to reduce his own countrymen to a foreign obedience? The difference between Pennsylvania and Connecticut, respecting some unlocated lands, shows the insignificance of a British government, and fully proves that nothing but Continental authority can regulate Continental matters.
5. On Religious Liberty
As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith. Let a man throw aside that narrowness of soul, that selfishness of principle, which the niggards of all professions are so unwilling to part with, and he will be at once delivered of his fears on that head. Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe that it is the will of the Almighty that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us. It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness; were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle I look on the various denominations among us to be like children of the same family, differing only in what is called their Christian names.
Under our present denomination of British subjects, we can neither be received nor heard abroad; the custom of all Courts is against us, and will be so, until by an independence we take rank with other nations.
These proceedings may at first seem strange and difficult, but like all other steps which we have already passed over, will in a little time become familiar and agreeable; and until an independence is declared, the Continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity.