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Common Sense

Thomas Paine

Themes and Terms

Summary

Of The Origin and Design of Government in General

Themes

Government as a necessary evil

From the outset, Paine makes it clear that he is not particularly fond of government, whose sole value he thinks lies in "restraining our vices". For Paine, the natural state of man is to live without government, and government's existence is justified only to the extent that it alleviates problems that would be created by this natural, anarchic way of life. If a government fails to improve society or, worse, actively causes some of the same troubles that would result from anarchy, it is particularly blameworthy.

State of Nature

Much of Paine's analysis proceeds by considering an imagined natural state in which man might have first found himself. This method of analysis, popularly used by political theorists such as Locke and Hobbes, considers man as he might have been before society was formed. Such an analysis then imagines what man would have been like, and what rights he might have had, if it were not for the interference of outside circumstance. Paine uses this imagined natural state to analyze a political dilemma with his parable of the settlers first coming to America. Furthermore, in discussing monarchy, Paine presumes men to be "originally equals", and in doing so, hearkens back to some imagined age where he presumes men to have all been equal.

The Inevitability of American Independence

A linchpin in Paine's argument is that America will eventually be independent. At times, he presents this as a simple fact that everyone accepts, but occasionally, he argues for it, citing the extent of the rift separating the colonies and the English king. Since many people were uncertain about the idea of a revolution that would sever them from the king, establishing the principle of American independence was an important first step for Paine to take in his arguments. By convincing his audience that America will be independent some day, it is much easier for Paine to make the case for an immediate and full rebellion.

The Inevitability of British Oppression

Yet another key point in Paine's argument derives from considering what will happen if America reconciles with Britain. Paine argues that even if the colonists reach an agreement with Britain, the problems that have developed between the colonies and the king will inevitably repeat themselves. New taxes will be levied and parliament will interfere with colonial life. Paine attempts to demonstrate this in two ways. First, he points to the history of colonial relations with Britain, especially the events surrounding the Stamp Act. Second, he attacks the structure of Britain's government, arguing that it is corrupt and unjust, and will inevitably lead the British to continue mistreating the colonies.

America's relationship with the rest of Europe

Paine is acutely aware of the benefits to be reaped through developing strong relationships with European countries other than Britain. This informs his argument in a number of ways. First, Paine points out that it would be advantageous for America to form commercial and political ties with these nations. Second, he notes that the current political arrangement of America's being subservient to Britain precludes the colonies from being able to independently engage in such alliances. He concludes that only if the colonies declare independence, will they be able to reap the opportunities offered by alliance with various European nations.

The Problems with Monarchy

A large part of Common Sense is dedicated to attacking monarchy, both as an institution and in its particular manifestation in Britain. Paine puts the theoretical attack in Biblical terms, arguing from the text of the Bible that the monarchy originated in sin. Paine presents his specific problems with the British monarchy, with his attack on hereditary succession and with the numerous grievances he makes against the present king.

Terms

Society

Paine thinks of society as everything good that comes out of people living and working together. It is the state of affairs whereby people collaborate to bring about positive aims.

Government

Government, according to Paine, is the force that aims to keep people from acting in accordance with their vices. Its existence is the unfortunate consequence of the fact that people sometimes act in evil ways.

Stamp Act

Passed by Parliament in 1765, the Stamp Act levied a tax on a large body of printed material in the colonies. The tax was aimed at recouping some of the large costs incurred by the British in the French and Indian War. This tax was met with great resistance by the colonists, who refused to buy stamps, rioted, and threatened tax-collectors. Furthermore, delegates from nine states convened at a Stamp Act Congress in order to voice a unified protest against the king. Parliament repealed the Act, although it also issued a Declaratory Act in 1766, asserting its right to tax the colonies.

Reconciliation

The notion that the colonies should attempt to resolve the dispute with Britain and remain a part of the British empire. Even after hostilities first broke out, there was a strong sentiment among Americans that it was unnecessary to break completely free of Britain. Many still felt a loyalty to the monarchy and thought it possible to come to a peaceful agreement with the British. This position, which was common in 1776, is the viewpoint that Paine wrote Common Sense to oppose.

Hereditary Succession

The notion that the power to rule as a legitimate king should be passed down by blood relations. This idea legitimated the passing on of the monarchy in Britain from father to son for generations on end. The idea also pervaded other areas of British society, where people were often seen as being born into a certain position in life, and limited to living the same lives as their parents.

Usurpation

The unlawful or unjustified seizure of the power to govern. In the context of Paine's argument, this comes up in the discussion of British royal power.

More Help

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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."

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