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Friday, July 20, 2007

The Common Sense of “Common Sense”


In January 1776, less than a year into the American War for Independence, Thomas Paine published Common Sense. In John Adams, historian David McCullough writes, In little time more than 100,000 copies were in circulation. In proportion to today's U.S. population, that's equivalent to 12 million copies, which puts the pamphlet in Harry Potter's league. I leave it to the reader to contemplate what this says about the literacy of a people so cruelly deprived of public schools. That eighteenth-century Americans would demand so many copies of a sophisticated piece of writing might be of some interest to those working overtime to solve our society's national reading crisis.

And sophisticated it was. Paine's famous pamphlet, first issued anonymously, may have won him neither fame nor fortune, but it paved the way for the formal declaration of independence later in the year. In fact, Common Sense called for such a declaration long before the document was signed on July 2, 1776:

Were a manifesto to be published, and despatched to foreign courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured, and the peaceable methods we have ineffectually used for redress; declaring, at the same time, that not being able, any longer, to live happily or safely under the cruel disposition of the British court, we had been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections with her; at the same time, assuring all such courts of our peacable disposition towards them, and of our desire of entering into trade with them: Such a memorial would produce more good effects to this Continent, than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain.

As Jefferson would later put in the Declaration, [A] decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that [we] should declare the causes which impel [us] to Separation.

Common Sense was no mere polemic aiming to fire up the masses for revolution and independence. Nevertheless, as McCullough writes, the little pamphlet had become a clarion call, rousing spirits within Congress and without as nothing else had…. By the time [John] Adams had resumed his place in Congress a month later, Common Sense had gone into a third printing and was sweeping the colonies. (Adams was at first suspected of being its author.) Though written with passion, it was a carefully reasoned tract that had several objectives: to delegitimize hereditary monarchy, to show the practicality of independence from the British Empire, and to set out ideas for a republican form of government. (Adams took Paine's ideas about government and the public's interest in them so seriously that he rebutted them in Thoughts on Government.) Imagine average people reading — and debating — a similar work today! Compare that debate to a typical presidential campaign — no, don't. It's too heartbreaking an exercise.

Paine had a way of cutting to the heart of an issue. On the legitimacy of monarchy, he pointed out that the British king was hardly an august figure, having descended from a conqueror from France. England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a 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.

Hereditary rule, he wrote, promised all sorts of evil. [I]t opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.

It occurred to me while reading this that democratic republics are not so different. While they eschew succession on the basis of family (usually), they nevertheless have their share of men and women who look upon themselves born to reign … soon grow insolent … their minds … early poisoned by importance. More than a few of the current crop of pretenders — um, contenders — come to mind.

Paine continues: In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that every lived.

Again Paine's words remind me of our own predicament. Substitute president for king and take it from there.

Free Trader

Paine of course was a free trader, ever cognizant of the connection between commerce and peace. He saw an independent America's future security guaranteed by trade: [W]hat have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because, it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port. Her trade will always be a protection,hellip;

He was unafraid of the new country's commercial future separate from the Empire: The commerce, by which she [America] hath enriched herself are the necessaries of life, and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.

On the other hand, membership in Empire had been no bowl of cherries:

But the injuries and disadvantages we sustain by that connection, are without number; and our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instruct us to renounce the alliance: Because, any submission to, or dependance on Great-Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she never can do, while by her dependance on Britain, she is made the make-weight in the scale on British politics.

Thus the key to peace and prosperity is trade and, to quote another Founder, avoidance of entangling alliances.

Paine could wax poetic when he needed to be:

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.

But his main weapon was reason and logic. Later, in The Rights of Man (1791), he would rise to greater heights in elucidating the classical-liberal philosophy of self-generating and self-sustaining social processes:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. hellip;Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.

Paine was truly a man of the Enlightenment– a needed reminder that classical liberalism was — more than anything — a philosophy of peace.


  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.