Common Sense | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Common Sense | Part 1 : Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution | Summary



Thomas Paine begins Part 1 by describing the differences between society and government. Society is good because it "positively ... unite[s] our affections." Government is a "necessary evil" because it "restrain[s] our vices." Society brings people together, while government divides and/or punishes them. That's not to say governments start out with bad intentions. Paine guides the reader through the hypothetical formation of a new, independent colony. As the colony grows, attachments between people dissolve and individuals can no longer be relied upon to "remai[n] perfectly just to each other." Government is then needed to protect the colonists from harming one another, or as Paine puts it, "to supply the defect of moral virtue."

As the hypothetical colony grows, the government itself increases in size. There is not room for every citizen to have an equal voice, so representatives must be chosen to speak for the entire population. In a perfect scenario, the representatives will be loyal to their electors because the representatives will someday "return and mix again with the general body" of the public. This ensures people will "mutually and naturally support each other." Paine believes this republican type of government is more effective and fairer than England's parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch.

Paine's qualms with the British government begin with its structure. The three components—the king, the aristocracy (also known as the peers, the upper house of Parliament), and the commons (the lower house of Parliament) are meant to balance one another so one doesn't have too much power. This doesn't make much sense to Paine, who argues such a setup is illogical as it indicates "the king is not to be trusted without being looked after" and the commons "are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the crown." But the king can also check the powers of the commons in return, which "again supposes that the king is wiser than those whom it has already supposed to be wiser than him." Logic aside, Paine points out the close relationship between the aristocracy and the king means the peers will always side with the king while the commons will always side with the public who elected them. As the side with the greater amount of power will be the one to rule, the king and the peers will always be in control while the commons' best efforts are rendered ineffectual.

Paine points out kings and aristocrats come to their positions through heredity. Their aptitude for the job is never considered, which means they might not be the best people to run the government. This is discussed at great length in Part 2. For now Paine focuses on the troublingly narrow worldview of a monarch. A king is sequestered from the rest of the world behind tall castle walls, which shields him from the experiences of the common person. He is supposed to be running a world he doesn't fully understand. Paine calls for an inquiry into the Crown's "overbearing part in the English constitution," which he believes is riddled with "errors."


Like other Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18 centuries, Thomas Paine has a lot of problems with government. That doesn't mean he favors getting rid of it altogether—he begrudgingly refers to government as a "necessity" imperative to the survival of society, and he demonstrates why in his example of the hypothetical colony. Government is a natural extension of humankind's desire to stay safe and happy. Yet Paine doesn't see that desired outcome in England or the colonies. The elite hold nearly all the power in Great Britain, which oppresses the working classes. Nearly everyone in the colonies is under the thumb of the English Crown, paying taxes for protection and services they never see. This expressly violates the logical purpose of government.

The British government is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. The monarch (the king or queen) is the head of state. This person appoints the prime minister, who must also have the support of the elected members of Parliament. The prime minister is the head of the government. He or she runs the day-to-day operations of the country alongside his or her cabinet, much like the president of the United States. Like the U.S. Congress on which it was based, Parliament is composed of two houses. The upper house, the House of Lords, consists of Lords Spiritual (high-ranking representatives of the Church) and Lords Temporal (people who hold aristocratic titles, which may be hereditary). The House of Lords works alongside the House of Commons, the chamber for representatives elected by the general public. The distribution of power between the three entities is intended to prohibit the monarch from engaging in authoritarian rule, but Paine believes it does the exact opposite. He thinks the peers, or aristocrats, will do whatever the king says. Together they outrank the voice of the commons. That results in laws primarily benefitting those with land, money, and titles. He argues "the will of the king is as much the law of the land in Britain as in France," where the word of the king is law. The only difference in England is the king's words are "handed to the people under the more formidable shape of an act of parliament." Paine thinks this is an unfair system that defies the purpose of having a representative arm of government in the first place.

Paine also has several grievances with the British Constitution. He refers to it as "imperfect, subject to convulsions, and incapable of producing what it seems to promise." It is so "exceedingly complex" that no one can really understand it, "and every political physician will advise a different medicine." Part of the problem is there isn't one specific constitutional document outlining the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of the government. Some things are covered by various laws, while others are conventions, or unwritten customs or rules. This led to a lot of confusion about the rights of English subjects living in the American colonies. For example, colonists interpreted the "no taxation without representation" clause to mean they didn't have to pay taxes because they had no representatives in Parliament, yet the British government insisted the colonies owed taxes to pay protection and reparations for the French and Indian War. American colonists assumed they had the same rights as British citizens living in the British Isles, while the British thought of Americans as inferiors undeserving of full British rights. Though both parties felt they were upholding the British Constitution, neither could agree on what it really said. Paine understands there is no use in trying to repair the British Constitution when nobody is clear on what it really means. British and colonial leaders are always going to advocate for what is in their public's best interest, and the British don't view Americans as part of their public. The only way to solve this problem, in Paine's opinion, is for the colonies to separate from England and create a new government of their own.

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