Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

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Thomas Paine


selections from

Common Sense



[Instructor’s note: The American Revolution is often characterized as a "conservative revolution" because it gained independence from British rule but otherwise left the colonies' power structures largely intact.

The writings of Thomas Paine, however, represent the Revolution's more radical edge, as the making of a new nation is depicted as an opportunity for new equality and values. As in Paine's later Rights of Man (1791), which responds to Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke ("the father of modern conservatism"), Paine questions the value of custom and suggests that reason can lead humans to a better future than models from the past.

Literary interests:

Is Paine's writing in favor of the American Revolution a rhetorical masterpiece or something more like propaganda? Note annotations of rhetorical devices and figures of speech, particularly metonyms and/or symbols.

Like his older contemporary Benjamin Franklin, Paine's writing is marked and enlivened by use of aphorisms a.k.a. proverbs, maxims, or wise sayings, e.g.:

  • "A long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT." [para. 1]

  • "Time makes more converts than reason." [para. 2]

  • "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind."

Discussion questions:

1. What are the appeals to Americans then and now? What pleasures might a patriotic American take in reading Common Sense, both in style and content?

2. What parts are unappealing, disturbing, or limiting? Note particularly the negative reference to “Indians and Negroes.” (para. 9)

3. What changes does he anticipate in the country that make the American Revolution a special time or opportunity?


from Common Sense 1776 

Introduction to the Third Edition

[1] Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour [popularity]; 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 defense of custom. [custom = tradition, habit]

[2] But the tumult [of resistance and reaction] soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason. As a long and violent abuse of power, is generally the Means of calling the right of it in question (and in Matters too which might never have been thought of, had not the Sufferers been aggravated into the inquiry) and as the King of England hath undertaken in his OWN RIGHT, to support the Parliament in what he calls THEIRS, and as the good people of this country are grievously oppressed by the combination, they [people of this country] have an undoubted privilege to inquire into the pretensions of both, and equally to reject the usurpation of either [seizure of authority or rights from us by the English king or its parliament].

[3] In the following sheets [pages], the author hath studiously avoided every thing which is personal among ourselves. . . . The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, 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 [involved]. The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword [<metonyms &/or symbols], declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating [eradicating] 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.

[4] P. S. The Publication of this new Edition [of Common Sense] hath been delayed, with a View of taking notice (had it been necessary) of any Attempt to refute the Doctrine of Independence: As no Answer hath yet appeared, it is now presumed that none will, the Time needful for getting such a Performance ready for the Public being considerably past. Who the Author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the Object for Attention is the DOCTRINE ITSELF, not the MAN. Yet it may not be unnecessary to say, That he is unconnected with any Party, and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle.

Philadelphia, February 14, 1776 . . .

Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution

[5]  . . . 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. . . .

[6] 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: 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 furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress [clothing], is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers [gardens] of paradise. [implying that humanity's original state, related to the garden of Eden, was a state of equality]

[7] For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; 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*; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others. . . . [*cf. "social contract"]

[8] A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that 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. If we omit it now, some, Massanello [tyrant] may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge. . . .

[9] Ye that oppose independence now, ye know not what ye do; ye are opening a door to eternal tyranny, by keeping vacant the seat of government. There are thousands, and tens of thousands, who would think it glorious to expel from the continent, that barbarous and hellish power [the British], which hath stirred up the Indians* and Negroes* to destroy us, the cruelty hath a double guilt, it is dealing brutally by us, and treacherously by them.  [the Indians* and Negroes* to destroy us: Paine here isolates early American minority groups left out of the Founders' sociall contract (and in possible conspiracy with foreign agents)]

[10] To talk of friendship with those [the English] in whom our reason forbids us to have faith . . . is madness and folly. Every day wears out the little remains of kindred [kinship] between us and them . . .

[11] Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord now is broken, the people of England are presenting addresses against us.

[12] There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did. As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain. The Almighty hath implanted in us these unextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes. They are the guardians of his image in our hearts. They distinguish us from the herd of common animals. The social compact* would dissolve, and justice be extirpated from the earth, or have only a casual existence were we callous to the touches of affection. The robber, and the murderer, would often escape unpunished, did not the injuries which our tempers sustain, provoke us into justice. [*cf. "social contract"] [Romantic rhetoric]

[13] O 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.

Of the Present Ability of America: with some Miscellaneous Reflections

[14]  . . . 'Tis 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. The Continent hath at this time the largest body of armed and disciplined men of any power under Heaven: and is just arrived at that pitch of strength, in which no single colony is able to support itself, and the whole, when united, is able to do any thing. Our land force is more than sufficient, and as to Naval affairs, we cannot be insensible that Britain would never suffer an American man of war to be built, while the Continent remained in her hands. Wherefore, we should be no forwarder [more prepared] an hundred years hence in that branch [naval forces] than we are now; but the truth is, we should be less so, because the timber [lumber for building ships] of the Country is every day diminishing, and that which will remain at last, will be far off or difficult to procure.

[15] Were the Continent crowded with inhabitants, her sufferings under the present circumstances would be intolerable. The more seaport-towns we had, the more should we have both to defend and to lose. Our present numbers are so happily proportioned to our wants, that no man need be idle. The diminution of trade affords an army, and the necessities of an army create a new trade.

[16] Debts we have none: and whatever we may contract on this account will serve as a glorious memento of our virtue. Can we but leave posterity with a settled form of government, an independent constitution of its own, the purchase at any price will be cheap. But to expend millions for the sake of getting a few vile acts repealed, and routing the present ministry only, is unworthy the charge, and is using posterity with the utmost cruelty; because it is leaving them the great work to do, and a debt upon their backs from which they derive no advantage. Such a thought's unworthy a man of honour, and is the true characteristic of a narrow heart and a piddling politician.

[17] The debt we may contract doth not deserve our regard if the work be but accomplished. No nation ought to be without a debt. A national debt is a national bond; and when it bears no interest, is in no case a grievance. Britain is oppressed with a debt of upwards of one hundred and forty millions [pounds] sterling, for which she pays upwards of four millions interest.  . . .

[18] The infant state of the Colonies, as it is called, so far from being against, is an argument in favour of independence. We are sufficiently numerous, and were we more so we might be less united. 'Tis a matter worthy of observation that the more a country is peopled, the smaller their armies are. In military numbers, the ancients far exceeded the moderns; and the reason is evident, for trade being the consequence of population, men became too much absorbed thereby to attend to anything else. Commerce diminishes the spirit both of patriotism and military defence. And history sufficiently informs us that the bravest achievements were always accomplished in the non-age [infancy] of a nation. With the increase of commerce England hath lost its spirit. The city of London, notwithstanding its numbers, submits to continued insults with the patience of a coward. The more men have to lose, the less willing are they to venture. The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel.

[19] 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. The vast variety of interests, occasioned by an increase of trade and population, would create confusion. Colony would be against colony. . . . Wherefore the present time is the true time for establishing it. The intimacy which is contracted in infancy, and the friendship which is formed in misfortune, are of all others the most lasting and unalterable. Our present union is marked with both these characters; we are young, and we have been distressed; but our concord [harmony of spirit] hath withstood our troubles, and fixes a memorable era for posterity to glory in. . . .

[20] As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith. . . . For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe that it is the will of the Almighty that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us. It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness; were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle I look on the various denominations among us to be like children of the same family, differing only in what is called their Christian names. . . .

contemporary cartoon of Paine













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