Readings > Thomas Paine, Common Sense


PERHAPS the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason....

The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested. The laying of a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure, is THE AUTHOR.

From Part I: Of the Origin and Design of Government in General. With concise Remarks on the English Constitution

"Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but [they] 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. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil, in its worst state an intolerable one."

"Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence. The palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, we would need no other lawgiver."

"The best form of government is the one most likely to secure our freedom at the least expense."

"Here then is the origin and rise of government, namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of [individual] moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz [namely]. freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with snow, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and of reason will say, it is right."

"I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz, that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered."

"Absolute governments (though the disgrace of human nature) have this advantage with them, that they are simple; if the people suffer, they know the head from which their suffering springs, know likewise the remedy, and are not bewildered by a variety of causes and cures."

"A thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy."

"Though we have been wise enough to shut and lock a door against absolute monarchy, we at the same time have been foolish enough to put the crown in possession of the key."

"It is scarcely worth our while to fight against a contemptible ministry only. Dearly, dearly, do we pay for the repeal of the [intolerable] acts, if that is all we fight for."

"Laying aside all national pride and prejudice in favor of modes and forms, the plain truth is, that [the ascent of liberty] is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government."

"For as we are never in a proper condition of doing justice to others, while we continue under the influence of some leading partiality, so neither are we capable of doing it to ourselves while we remain fettered by any obstinate prejudice. And as a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession [or bias] in favor of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one."

From Part II: Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession

"Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance; the distinctions of rich, and poor, may in a great measure be accounted for.... But there is another and greater distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is, the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS."

"The will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings. All anti-monarchial parts of scripture have been very smoothly glossed over.... These portions of scripture are direct and positive. They admit no equivocal construction. That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchial government is true, or the scripture is false."

"To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession, and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity. For all men [and women] being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever.... It is one of those evils, which when once established is not easily removed.... 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 [hu]mankind an ass for a lion." [By this quip, Paine means, giving us a bad king instead of a good one.]

"This is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin; whereas it is more than probable, that... the first [king in a line was] nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or preeminence in subtlety obtained him the title of chief among plunderers. [Hail to the thief!] "However, it is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right. If there are any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and lion, and welcome. I shall neither copy [their folly], nor disturb their devotion."

"But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession which concerns [hu]mankind. Did it ensure a race of good and wise men [to rule us], it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves [as] born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent... and when they succeed to the [head of] government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions."

"In short, monarchy and succession have laid not this or that kingdom only, but the world in blood and ashes. 'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.... The nearer any government approaches to a republic, the less business there is for a king.... For it is the republican and not the monarchical part of the constitution [that we] glory in... and it is easy to see that when republican virtue fails, slavery ensues."

From Part III: Thoughts on the present state of American Affairs

"In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense, and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he [or she] will divest himself of prejudice and pre-possession, and suffer his reason and feelings to determine [the truth] for themselves; that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off the true character of a [hu]man, and generously enlarge his [or her] views beyond the present day."

"Volumes have been written on... the struggle between England and America. Men [and women] of all ranks have embarked in the controversy, from different motives, and with various designs; but all have been ineffectual, and the period of debate is closed. Arms, as the last resource, decide the contest; the appeal was the choice of the king, and the continent hath accepted the challenge."

"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... [and] the habitable globe. 'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; [for our] posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings."

"Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity [will] read it in full grown characters."

"Alas! we have been long led away by ancient prejudices and made large sacrifices to superstition."

"It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount the force of local prejudice, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world. [A man born in any town who meets a neighbor many miles from home] drops the narrow idea of a street, and salutes him by the name of townsman.... And by a just parity of reasoning, Europeans meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are countrymen; [they are not bound by national] distinctions too limited for continental [or global] minds."

"Bring the doctrine of reconciliation [with the king] to the touch-stone of nature, and then tell me, whether you can hereafter love, honor, and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land? ...Hath your house been burnt? Hath you property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant." 'Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation [from a dependence on kings]. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'tis time to part."

"I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence... Every thing short of that [separation] is mere patchwork, that it can afford no lasting felicity, that it is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when, a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth."

"A government of our own is our natural right."

"Common sense will tell us that the power which hath endeavored to subdue us, is of all others the most improper to defend us. Conquest may be effected under the pretense of friendship; and ourselves, after a long and brave resistance, be at last cheated into slavery."

"Ye that love [hu]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.... O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for [hu]mankind."

From Part IV: Of the Present Ability of America, with some miscellaneous Reflections

"There is no instance in which we have shown less judgment, than in endeavoring to describe what we call, the ripeness or fitness of the Continent for independence."

"As all men [and women] allow the measure, and vary only in their opinion of the time [when America should declare its independence from England], let us, in order to remove mistakes, take a general survey of things, and [let us] endeavor if possible to find out the very time. But we need not go far; the inquiry ceases at once, for the time hath found us. The general concurrence, the glorious union of all things prove the fact. It is not in numbers but in unity, that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to repel the force of all the world."

"Can we but leave posterity with a settled form of government, an independent constitution... the purchase at any price will be cheap. But to expend millions for the sake of getting a few acts repealed, and routing the present ministry only is... using posterity with the utmost cruelty; because it is leaving them the great work to do."

"Youth is the seed time of good habits, as well in nations as in individuals. It might be difficult, if not impossible, to form the Continent into one government half a century hence.... Most nations have let slip the opportunity, and by that means have been compelled to receive laws from their conquerors, instead of making laws for themselves."

"Like all other truths discovered by necessity, it will appear clearer and stronger every day. First. Because it will come to that, one time or other. Secondly. Because the longer it is delayed, the harder it will be to accomplish."

"Our knowledge is hourly improving. Resolution is our inherent character, and courage hath never yet forsaken us. Wherefore, what is it that we want? Why is it that we hesitate?"

"Immediate necessity makes many things convenient, which if continued would grow into oppressions. Expedience and right are different things.... When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary."

"We have it in our power to begin the world over again.... Every day convinces us of its necessity."

"These proceedings may at first appear strange and difficult; but, like all other steps which we have already passed over, [these] will in a little time become familiar and agreeable; and until an independence [or interdependence] is declared, the continent [and world] will feel itself like a man [or woman] who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity."