This is the First Part of a Four Part analysis of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. I hope this motivates the reader to read the actual work themselves
Part One will focus on Paine’s Opinion of Government.
“Society is produced by our wants; and government by our wickedness.”
When Thomas Paine opens Common Sense with these words, we can see clearly that the intellectual inspiration for the American Revolution was ingrained with a hatred that government itself exists.
Some will and have argued that this is merely a hatred of King George’s British government. This claim is patently refuted by the next paragraph –
“Society in every state is a blessing, but government in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state and intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we might furnish the means by which we suffer.”
The essence of this statement is that yes, King George’s government is a far worse state to live under than if there were no government at all; but furthermore, all government is but a necessary evil. He does not distinguish that one form of government is evil and the other virtuous; but that all government has only varying degrees of evil inherent to its very existence.
Even with this, Paine does not characterize King George’s as even the most evil in the world –
“Wherefore, laying aside all national pride and prejudice, in favor of modes and forms, the plain truth is, that it is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.”
This statement is very insightful as not only does it corresponds with modern times with we transpose ‘Turkey’ for the Middle East in general; it also sets the tone for what later will become the concept of Self-Determination. The phrase “wholly owing to the constitution of the people” can only mean that Paine believes that the only reason ‘the people’ are ever oppressed is not because the government has made that it’s policy; rather it is because ‘the people’s constitution’ allows them to be oppressed.
What does Paine attribute oppression itself to? When he speaks ‘Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession’ he sets it out plainly –
“Oppression is often the CONSEQUENCE, but seldom or never the MEANS of riches.”
A century after Common Sense was written, the world would refer to this as ‘Marxist Rhetoric.’ Rightfully so, but it gives more motivation into the fact that Class Hatreds have fueled every Revolution, including our own.
Paine also goes into the history of the government. He describes how his contemporary Holland had been without a King for over a century and was doing fine.
“Antiquity favors the same remark; for the quiet and rural lives of the first patriarchs hath a happy something in them, which vanishes away when we come to the history of Jewish royalty.
Government by Kings was first introduced into the world by the Heavens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set foot for the promotion of idolatry.”
Here Paine goes beyond the belief that government is inherently evil, to outright saying that government is a tool and invention of the Devil. The words are so blunt so that the reader knows that there are no vagaries as to what he is saying. He further examines the scripture of the Bible from which governments have always taken their divine power –
“ ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’ is the scripture doctrine of the courts, yet it is no support of monarchial government, for the Jews at that time were without a King, and in a state of vassalage to the Romans.”
There is a change in these words as Paine now does differentiate by use of the ‘monarchical’ qualifier before ‘government.’ What prompts this linguistic change is unclear, but it is the first time that the qualifier is used.
Part Two will focus on Paine’s views of Revolution – both in theoretical terms as well as directly to the American Revolution that was underway at the time he wrote Common Sense.