Skip over navigation

Common Sense

Thomas Paine

Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession

Of The Origin and Design of Government in General

Thoughts on the Present State of Affairs in America

Summary

Paine asserts that mankind was originally in a state of equality, and, therefore, present inequalities must have been brought about by some circumstance. Paine says that a common distinction that lacks any natural or religious basis, is the division between kings and their subjects. This distinction, unlike those between male and female or good and evil, is not one "of heaven," and Paine wishes to inquire into its origin and its consequences.

Originally, Paine says, there were no kings in the world. Then, the ancient Jews copied the custom from the "heathens" who surrounded them. This was a grave mistake, and Paine maintains that in establishing a king for themselves, the Jews sinned. Man is supposed to have only God ruling over him, and to introduce a king, who in ruling over the people is like a God, is a grave misdeed. Eventually, Paine says, the Jewish people asked the prophet Samuel for a king. Samuel attempted dissuade the people, but they insisted that they wanted to have a King like the other nations, and God assented, even though he thought it evil that the people should want someone other than God to rule over them.

Having considered the biblical origin of monarchy, Paine concludes that it is a practice begun in sinfulness. The many pages of scriptural evidence make it clear that God stands in opposition to monarchy. Paine moves on to attack the notion of the hereditary succession of the monarchy. Paine argues that, since all men are born equal, no man could have the right to establish his family as forever presiding over others. Even if a person deserves certain honors, his children may not deserve them, and that person has no right to pass those honors on.

Paine also observes that the recent kings of England have mostly been bad, which he says should indicate, even to those who favor hereditary succession, that the present line of kings does not exercise legitimate power.

Paine wonders where the power of kings originally comes from, and decides that this power is always based on one of three things: election, random selection, or usurpation. Paine says that if a king is chosen by election, this means all future kings should be chosen in the same way, and if the king usurped his throne, then the entire reign is illegitimate. Any way you look at it, hereditary succession is not valid. Paine adds that hereditary succession brings other evils with it. For example, people who see themselves as born into an elite existence are often "ignorant and unfit." Lastly, Paine refutes the theory that hereditary succession reduces civil wars, as there have been at least eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions in Britain's history. Monarchy and hereditary succession, Paine concludes have produced nothing in the world but bad governance and bloodshed.

Analysis

To the contemporary reader, Paine's slogging through mounds of biblical evidence might seem less interesting and less relevant, but in Paine's time, the bible shaped opinions on most matters. It was not uncommon to believe that kings ruled by divine right, and for this reason, many were hesitant to revolt against a King—after all, if the king's power was genuinely divine, a revolt against the king was akin to a revolt against God. Paine tries to undercut this line of thinking by attacking it on its own terms, and presenting Biblical passages that reject the idea of a divinely appointed monarchy. In this case, Paine presents an arsenal of Biblical evidence to show that monarchy is neither a natural nor a preferable institution.

Of further interest is the question of what role the biblical arguments play in Paine's own thought. Is Paine's belief that the Bible abhors monarchy central to his belief that America should be independent, or does he merely include a biblical argument in order to counter opponents who based their ideas on the gospel? Although he was raised a Quaker, Paine's political beliefs were decidedly secular. His conception of government, especially as presented in the first section of this pamphlet, is largely informed by abstract, liberal, and philosophical speculation, not by religious dogma. Furthermore, Paine generally opposed the mixture of religion and politics, as indicated by his response to the Quakers in the appendix to Common Sense. Still, Paine was acutely aware of the role the Bible played in the minds of his contemporaries, and it is to convince them that he includes the arguments of this section.

In arguing against hereditary succession, Paine exhibits a tendency to rely on a kind of logic known as a false dilemma, wherein only a certain number of explanations for a phenomenon are presented even though other explanations are just as likely. For example, Paine says that the first king must have been chosen "either by lot, by election, or by usurpation," deliberately ignoring the idea that the king was divinely appointed, a possibility to which many of his contemporaries would have subscribed.

More Help

Previous Next
Theme: America as an Example of Democracy

by awritersjourney, July 04, 2013

Originally the paragon of the Ancient Greeks, democracy returns to the Western World with its advent in the Americas. Paine argues that for America to assume this type of government it would serve as an example for the rest of the Western World which is run by monarchies. As part of the "New World", Pain suggests, America now has the opportunity to practice better government institutions that will allow all individuals "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Theme: America as an Example of Democracy

by awritersjourney, July 04, 2013

Originally the paragon of the Ancient Greeks, democracy returns to the Western World with its advent in the Americas. Paine argues that for America to assume this type of government it would serve as an example for the rest of the Western World which is run by monarchies. As part of the "New World", Pain suggests, America now has the opportunity to practice better government institutions that will allow all individuals "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Theme: America as an Example of Democracy

by awritersjourney, July 04, 2013

Originally the paragon of the Ancient Greeks, democracy finds its new home in the beginnings America. Paine argues that this form of government can begin the change in the "New World" for better institutions of government. America, as a beacon of the democratic system, ultimately has the potential to provide all of its citizens with a chance for " life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Follow Us