Thoughts on Paine’s Common Sense: Part 1

I’ve been studying Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, and am struck by how the material is of benefit today. Therefore, I’m starting a series in which we’ll look at sections of his pamphlet and see how his thinking applies to the current situation in which we find ourselves politically here in these United States.

The introduction to his book is as follows:

PERHAPS the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

As a long and violent abuse of power, is generally the Means of calling the right of it in question (and in Matters too which might never have been thought of, had not the Sufferers been aggravated into the inquiry) and as the King of England hath undertaken in his own Right, to support the Parliament in what he calls Theirs, and as the good people of this country are grievously oppressed by the combination, they have an undoubted privilege to inquire into the pretensions of both, and equally to reject the usurpations of either. In the following sheets, the author hath studiously avoided every thing which is personal among ourselves. Compliments as well as censure to individuals make no part thereof. The wise, and the worthy, need not the triumph of a pamphlet; and those whose sentiments are injudicious, or unfriendly, will cease of themselves unless too much pains are bestowed upon their conversion.

The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested. The laying of a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure, is the AUTHOR

P. S. The Publication of this new Edition hath been delayed, with a View of taking notice (had it been necessary) of any Attempt to refute the Doctrine of Independance: As no Answer hath yet appeared, it is now presumed that none will, the Time needful for getting such a Performance ready for the Public being considerably past.

Who the Author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the Object for Attention is the Doctrine itself, not the Man. Yet it may not be unnecessary to say, That he is unconnected with any Party, and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle. Philadelphia, February 14, 1776.

I would like to call two things to your attention.

  1. The distinction which he draws between right and wrong–and things which have not been considered wrong for so long that people assume that they are right. I believe in the context that he is referring to the powers which a monarch of that time exercised over his subjects, but this is a good principle to consider. I am not advocating that we simply throw everything over because it has been around for a while and must therefore be wrong. I am saying that we all fall into the thinking of “well, it’s been like that forever, so it must be the right way.”
    For one to argue that as a consequence of traveling down a road for a long time we must be headed in the right direction is pure foolishness, yet that is precisely what we do when we cite precedent over principle on a whole slew of public policy issues. It was not wise in Paine’s day and it is still not wise today.
  2. The strong statement which he makes in defense of leaving references to particular people out of his essay altogether. While he does not say it in these words, I believe he (in keeping with the thrust of this and other missives which he wrote) is desirous of appealing to reason and not emotion. It would seem that he was trying to do his best to ensure that his writing would be examined with as much objectivity as was possible–on the merits of his arguments, as it were–rather than have people disinclined to read or agree with him because of an enmity between themselves and any supporter of Paine’s arguments which might have been included in these pages. The corollary to this (engendering a particularly positive view on the part of some readers because of those whom he could have quoted or referred to) is also true.
    It is far too common today that arguments which would otherwise have weight in the public eye are put down or overlooked or otherwise abused because of the people who spoke them or support them. However, we should all remember that truth is truth–no matter its source. Likewise, lies are lies no matter the source. For any of us to agree with a lie because we support the one who speaks it or to disagree with the truth because we would castigate the one who speaks it is to place ourselves above truth and error and above right and wrong. In short, it is to assume that the normal rules to us do not apply.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Paine’s Common Sense: Part 1

  1. I’m a fifth-grade teacher in Colorado, and a crucial part of teaching civics is providing students with our primary sources: the founding documents. This is critical in understanding what “We the People” means. Today, like 230 years ago, those documents instill in students the belief that all voices are important. Every one of our citizens is needed to pursue liberty. Futures do not have to be inevitable and “Little voices” can make dramatic impacts on events. That is Paine’s greatest contribution to our country. His pamphlet, Common Sense, spoke to all the voices in the 13 colonies during a time of great indecision. He gave a vast number of citizens a vision of what each could do, 176 days before the Declaration. A belief that power should radiate from the citizens. That message is still foundational for all our students today.

    Mark Wilensky,
    author of “The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine: An Interactive Adaptation for All Ages”

    1. Mark,

      Thank you for your perspective (and your work) on Paine’s little pamphlet. May your students, and many others, come to understand the principles contained therein.

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