60 in 60: #10 – Paine’s Common Sense (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

Common Sense
by Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Memorable Line
“No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April 1775 (massacre at Lexington), but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of — for ever; and disdain the wretch, that with the pretended title of FATHER OF HIS PEOPLE can unfeelingly hear of their slaughter, and composedly sleep with their blood upon his soul.”

The Skinny
Thomas Paine’s classic call for independence is much more than a polemic against the English oppressor.

Relevance? Argument?
Two things surprised me in reading Common Sense, a book I’d only encountered before in excerpts in textbooks. The first was the depth of emotion I felt, mostly pride, while reading Paine’s introduction, which reminds the reader how risky the enterprise, how much the words could have cost him, and how important those words turned out to be. The second concerned the flexibility of the text–how it manages to make a cogent abstract argument for independence, and yet also, in such a confined space, provides useful in-depth examples of ways in which colonies transformed into a nation could make a go of it, both from military and economic point of views.

Herein we also find a history of English-American relations, a summary of the English monarchy, an argument from the Bible’s standpoint for democracy,* a listing of grievances, a rationale for independence–all wedded to an undeniable passion for the cause and all concluded in the span of 60 pages, not including the appendix. It’s a remarkable feat of compression, one that would have pained Swift and been beyond Montaigne, while bearing similarities to Seneca.

Herein, too, I found that Paine’s book made me consider Rousseau’s A Social Contract in a different light. In combination, the former informs the latter with its specific detail, while the latter provides for the expansion of ideas “WinZipped” or taken for granted in Paine’s book. Paine’s book can exist without Rousseau’s, but, for me, Rousseau’s is somewhat too abstract without recourse to the passion of A Common Sense.

After the pride I felt reading Paine’s introduction, a different emotion crept up on me during his early arguments, especially this part during a discussion of the unequal weight of the monarchy in the English governmental structure of the times: “But the provision is unequal to the task; the means either cannot or will not accomplish the end, and the whole affair is a felo de se; for as the greater weight will always carry up the less, and as all the wheels of a machine are put in motion by one, it only remains to know which power in the constitution has the most weight, for that will govern; and though the others, or a part of them, may clog, or, as the phrase is, check the rapidity of its motion, yet so long as they cannot stop it, their endeavours will be ineffectual; the first moving power will at last have its way…” Reading this filled me with a sadness and disgust every bit as powerful as the pride I had felt before, in that Paine–in forming the argument against rule by England, the argument for independent government–is, for the modern American reader, forming the argument against rule by what has been one of the most renegade administrations in the history of the United States presidency.

* And thus introducing, in its prejudice against Jews, another theme of American democracy: that, despite words on parchment, we are not all equal under the law or God, even if what constitutes equal rights has become wider, if not wide enough, during the evolution and periodic devolution of this country.

Conclusion
Much of American history, often ironically presaged, can be found in Paine’s little pamphlet.

Question for Readers
Has the United States “in the flesh” lived up to Paine’s faith in it as an idea?

Next up, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Comments

  1. says

    Congratulations on discovering the wisdom of one of history’s deepest thinkers. A mentor introduced Paine to me early in my life, and I came to admire and embrace his principles. Readers will find numerous readings by and about Paine at the School of Cooperative Individualism website. One essay I recommend, in particular, is his ‘Agrarian Justice’, a remarkable statement in his own time and even today.

  2. says

    Before there were Marx and Engels, there was Paine. Dude walked his walk, that’s for certain, playing an active role in both the American and French Revolutions and ultimately losing almost everything. He ended up dying poor, mistrusted by his neighbors, back in the adopted country he fervently wanted to be free. I always feel guilty about not having the time to cover Paine in my classes – when I taught 8th grade, all I was supposed to do is say “Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense and The Crisis, which inspired the colonies to declare their independence.” In 11th grade, we focus strictly on post-1865 US society, so there’s no time to explore the ideas of someone who had a great influence on two of the three great 18th century revolutions (the other being the Haitian Revolution).

    Has the US lived up to Paine’s ideals? No. Likely today he would be labeled a “Liberal” or more likely a Revolutionary who would resist mightily provisions such as the Patriot Act or the attempt to shut out immigration from Central America. If he had lived a bit longer, I could have seen him traveling down to Latin America and participating in their 1811-1825 revolutions. Dude still is too revolutionary for most American textbooks to handle without extreme caution. I love that about him.

  3. says

    As a fifth-grade teacher in Colorado, probably the most important thing I can instill in students is the belief that all their voices are important. Their future does not have to be inevitable. “Little voices” can make dramatic impacts on events. That is Thomas 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 fear and indecision. He gave a vast number of citizens a vision of what each could do, 176 days before the Declaration of Independence. A belief that power should radiate from the citizens. That message is still paramount to all our students today. For that pamphlet alone, Paine needs to be recognized as a intrical part of the American miracle.

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

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