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Common Sense and the Founding of the United States of America
Perhaps not coincidentally to current events, a couple of weeks ago I suddenly had the idea that I wanted to read the small book “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine.
Published on 9 January 1776, this pamphlet set forth his persuasive arguments in favor of independence for the American colonies from Great Britain.
It is considered one of the most influential pamphlets in American history and is credited with uniting average citizens and political leaders behind the idea of creating a union of the thirteen colonies in to a single united government. As of 2006, it remains the all-time best-selling American title and is still in print today.
The American colonists been wanting to be free of the tyranny of King George of England for some time. Finally, the Revolutionary War began in April 1775 with the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere, as he warned the colonists the British were marching from nearby Boston to Concord, hoping to seize a storehouse of real guns and ammunition.
But there was no vision of the independence colonists were fighting for until Thomas Paine wrote and published "Common Sense". which outlines very clearly why America should declare independence from Great Britain and what their government should look like.
Common Sense was widely sold and read aloud in public places throughout the colonies. It’s ideas spurred the colonists to victory over Great Britain. Indeed, only 7 months later—4 July 1776—the colonists cut their ties to Great Britain with the Declaration of Independence.
For us, Common Sense reveals the very ideas in play when our country declared Independence and when the Founding Fathers established our government.
Here are some excerpts from “Common Sense” that we find particularly relevant right now.
Excerpts from “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine
Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; where they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher….
For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irrestiably obeyed, man would need no other lawgivers; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest…
In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest; they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought. A thousand motives will excite them thereto; the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. Four or five united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but one man might labor out the common period of life without accomplishing anything. When he had felled his timber he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed. Hunger in the meantime would urge him from his work, and every different want call him a different way. Disease, nay even misfortune, would be death; for though neither might be mortal, yet either would disable him from living, and reduce him to a state in which he might rather be said to perish than to die.
Thus necessity, like a gravitating power, would soon form our newly arrived emigrants into society, the reciprocal blessings of which would supersede, and render the obligations of law and government unnecessary while they remained perfectly just to each other; but as nothing but heaven is impregnable to vice, it will unavoidably happen that in proportion as they surmount the first difficulties of emigration, which bound them together in a common cause, they will begin to relax in their duty and attachment to each other: and this remissness will point out the necessity of establishing some form of government to supply the defect of moral virtue.
Some convenient tree will afford them a State House, under the branches of which the whole colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of REGULATIONS, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem. In this first parliament every man, by natural right, will have a seat….
And as this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this (not on the unmeaning name of king) depends the strength of government, and the happiness of the governed...
Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world. Here too is the design and end of government, freedom and security...
It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount the force of local prejudices as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world. A man born in any town in England, divided into parishes, will naturally associate most with his fellow parishioners (because their interests in many cases will be common) and distinguish him by the name of neighbor; if he meet him but a few miles from home, he drops the narrow idea of a street and salutes him by the name of townsman; if he travel out of the county and meet him in any other, he forgets the minor divisions of street and town, and calls him countryman, i.e., county-man; but if in their foreign excursions they should associate in France or any other part of Europe, their local remembrance would be enlarged into that of Englishmen. And by a just parity of reasoning, all Europeans meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are countrymen; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which the divisions of street, town, and county do on the smaller ones, distinctions too limited for continental minds.
... a government which cannot preserve the peace is no government at all, and in that case we pay our money for nothing…
“The science,” says he, “of the politician consists in fixing the true point of happiness and freedom. Those men would deserve the gratitude of ages who should discover a mode of government that contained the greatest sum of individual happiness with the least national expense.”
Dragonetti on virtue and rewards
...where, say some, is the King of America? I’ll tell you, friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Great Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God. Let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know...that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.
O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare opposed, 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.
Prepare an asylum for mankind. A place of protection, safety and shelter. Indeed the first Europeans who came to America did so seeing freedom from religious persecution. Freedom to be themselves and have their own spiritual beliefs.
Two hundred forty-four years ago self-determined men and women fought for freedom and justice.
It seems we may need to stand up for these rights again.