Common Sense, first published in January 1776, quickly became the most widely read and distributed work in the American colonies, save for the Bible. Because of its treasonous character, and to concentrate attention on the argument, not the man, the pamphlet was published anonymously. Thomas Paine’s name was first publicly associated with the document in March 1776. Paine later gave all his royalties from the 48-page publication to the Continental Army of the United States.
Condensed from Common Sense, with minimal editorial revision:
“Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness…”
Society in every state is a blessing; government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.
At its worst, though, government is intolerable, for when we are exposed to the same miseries that we might expect without government, our calamities are heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.
So, what makes government necessary? Vice. Even the blessings of society cannot stop people from relaxing their duty and attachment to each other.
So, to counteract moral defects, people set up governments, the first parliaments making room for every man to have a seat. But as society grows and territory expands, the convenience of leaving the legislative part to be managed by a select number chosen from the whole body becomes apparent. The more the people, the greater the need to augment the number of representatives, and to divide the whole into convenient parts.
To prevent the elected from forming interests separate from the electors, elections must be held regularly.
The English constitution, on the other hand, exhibits the base remains of two ancient tyrannies — the monarchy and the aristocracy — compounded with republican materials. The monarchy is ridiculous, and its rationale absurd. The English pride in government? Mere prejudice. It is wholly owing to the constitution of the people — not to the government — that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.
“…it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion.”
So where does inequality come from? Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but neither nature nor religion grounds the distinction between king and subject.
As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture, for monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews.
To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession. The first degrades ourselves; the second, claimed as a matter of right, insults and imposes on posterity. Nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.
Hereditary succession opens a door to the foolish and wicked. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, 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.
The most plausible case for hereditary succession is that it preserves a nation from civil wars. Were this true, would be weighty, but the whole history of England disowns the fact. Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest, in which time there have been no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions.
“…I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense…”
The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. All plans and proposals prior to the nineteenth of April (when the hostilities started) are like the almanacs of the last year — which, though proper then, are useless now.
Some say that as America has flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, just so that same connection will prove necessary towards her future happiness. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, it is never to have meat.
Lately, in parliament, it has been asserted that the colonies have no relation to each other but through the parent country, — that Pennsylvania and the Jerseys, and so on for the rest, are sister colonies by the way of England. If true, then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families.
Europe, and not England, is the parent of America.
This new world has been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny that drove the first emigrants from home pursues their descendants still.
Britain, being now an open enemy, extinguishes every other name and title. Reconciliation our duty? Farcical.
Everything that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’tis time to part. Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America provides a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven.
The authority of Great Britain over this continent sooner or later must have an end.
It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from the former ages, to suppose, that this continent can longer remain subject to any external power. It is absurd for a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance has nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet.
A government of our own is our natural right: It is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance.
Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom has been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England has given her warning to depart.
America, receive the fugitive — and prepare an asylum for mankind.
“When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”
I have never met a man, either in England or America, who has not admitted that a separation between the countries would take place one time or other. Opinions now vary only on the matter of the time, so let us find the best time.
But we need not go far: the inquiry ceases at once; the time has found us.
Our greatest strength is not our numbers but our unity, yet our present numbers are sufficient to repel the force of all the world.
Debts we have none; and whatever we may contract on this account will serve as a glorious memento of our virtue. Further, the fewer our numbers are, the more land there is yet unoccupied, which instead of being lavished on the king’s worthless dependents may be applied to the discharge of future debt and also to the constant support of government. No nation under heaven has such an advantage.
Nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined declaration for independence.
Want to quote Tom Paine’s exact wording? Read the original.