COMMON SENSE

As 1776 dawned, America presented the unusual spectacle of colonists at war against the British empire but still pleading for their rights within it. Even as fighting raged, Congress in July 1775 had addressed the Olive Branch Petition to George III, reaffirming Americans’ loyalty to the crown and hoping for a “permanent reconciliation.” Ironically, it was a recent emigrant from England, not a colonist from a family long-established on American soil, who grasped the inner logic of the situation and offered a vision of the broad significance of American independence. An English craftsman and minor government official, Thomas Paine had emigrated to Philadelphia late in 1774. He quickly became associated with a group of advocates of the American cause, including John Adams and Dr. Benjamin Rush, a leading Philadelphia physician. It was Rush who suggested to Paine that he write a pamphlet supporting American independence.

Its author listed only as “an Englishman,” Common Sense appeared in January 1776. The pamphlet began not with a recital of colonial grievances but with an attack on the “so much boasted Constitution of England” and the principles of hereditary rule and monarchical government. Rather than being the most perfect system of government in the world, Paine wrote, the English monarchy was headed by “the royal brute of England,” and the English constitution was composed in large part of “the base remains of two ancient tyrannies... monarchical tyranny in the person of the king [and] aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the peers.” “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God,” he continued, “than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” Far preferable than monarchy would be a democratic system based on frequent elections, with citizens’ rights protected by a written constitution.

Turning to independence, Paine drew on the colonists’ experiences to make his case. “There is something absurd,” he wrote, “in supposing a Continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” Within the British empire, America’s prospects were limited; liberated from the Navigation Acts and trading freely with the entire world, its “material eminence” was certain. Paine tied the economic hopes of the new nation to the idea of commercial freedom. With independence, moreover, the colonies could for the first time insulate themselves from involvement in the endless imperial wars of Europe. Britain had “dragged” its American colonies into conflicts with countries like Spain and France, which “never were ... our enemies as Americans, but as our being the subjects of Great Britain.” Membership in the British empire, Paine insisted, was a burden to the colonies, not a benefit.

Toward the close of the pamphlet, Paine moved beyond practical considerations to outline a breathtaking vision of the historical importance of the American Revolution. “The cause of America,” he proclaimed in stirring language, “is in great measure, the cause of all mankind.” The new nation would become the home of freedom, “an asylum for mankind.”

The cover of Common Sense, Thomas Paine’s influential pamphlet denouncing the idea of hereditary rule and calling for American independence.

From Thomas Paine,

Common Sense (1776)

A recent emigrant from England, Thomas Paine in January 1776 published Common Sense, a highly influential pamphlet that in stirring language made the case for American independence.

In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense...

Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; hut how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth enquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind...

One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ass for a lion...

The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ’Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent—of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the context, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor...

I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain.... But the injuries and disadvantages which we sustain by that connection, are without number.... Any submission to, or dependence on, Great Britain, tends directly to involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint.

О 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.

From James Chalmers,

Plain Truth, Addressed to the Inhabitants of America (1776)

Common Sense inspired a wide ranging debate about whether American freedom would be more secure inside or outside the British empire. James Chalmers, a Maryland plantation owner, made the case for the Loyalists, as those who opposed American independence were called.

If indignant at the doctrine contained in the pamphlet entitled Common Sense I have expressed myself in the following observations with some ardor... [it is because] I adore my country. Passionately devoted to true liberty, I glow with the purest flame of patriotism [and have an] abhorrence of Independency, which if effected, would inevitably plunge our once preeminently envied country into ruin, horror, and desolation

Can a reasonable being for a moment believe that Great Britain, whose political existence depends on our constitutional obedience, who but yesterday made such prodigious efforts to save us from France, will not exert herself as powerfully to preserve us from our frantic schemes of Independency?... We remember with unfeigned gratitude, the many benefits derived through our connections with Great Britain, by whom but yesterday we were emancipated from slavery and death... We venerate the constitution, which with all its imperfections (too often exaggerated) we apprehend almost approaches as nearto perfection as humankind can bear...

His scheme of independency would soon, very soon give way to a government imposed on us, by some Cromwell of our armies.... A failure of commerce [would] preclude the numerous tribe of planters, farmers and others, from paying their debts A war will ensue between the creditors and their debtors, which will eventually end in a general abolition of debts.

Volumes were insufficient to describe the horror, misery and desolation, awaiting the people at large in the form of American independence. In short, I affirm that it would be most excellent policy in those who wish for True Liberty to submit by an advantageous reconciliation to the authority of Great Britain.... Independence and Slavery are synonymous terms.

QUESTIONS

1. What does Paine see as the global significance of the American struggle for independence?

2. Why does Chalmers equate independence with slavery?

3. How does the language used by the two writers differ, and what does this tell us about their views of politics?

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