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Common Sense | Part 2 : Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession | Summary

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Summary

Thomas Paine finds the concept of royalty to be very problematic. From his point of view all people are born equal, and they remain so unless a "subsequent circumstance" occurs. Circumstances can be natural, such as gender. Other circumstances are religious in nature, such as the notions of good and bad. As leaders with an abundance of power, kings are different than and separated from the rest of the population. The root of these differences is neither natural nor religious, which leads Paine to conclude the very idea of royal rule is wrong.

Paine supports his argument with biblical evidence, pointing out how there were no kings in the early days of humanity, and perhaps not coincidentally there were no wars. His interpretation of the Bible indicates "the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings." When the Israelites tried to name Gideon king, he replied, "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you. The lord shall rule over you." More than a century later when the Jews ignored Samuel's advice and named a king, God punished them for worshipping someone other than himself.

Paine argues if these stories aren't true then none of scripture can be believed. Paine says kings come into power in three ways: by chance, by election, or by force. William the Conqueror, for example, came from France and "establish[ed] himself king of England against the consent of the natives." Unlike the monarchs who followed him, he was not born into his kingship. That's fine with Paine, who argues hereditary succession is unnatural. "[N]o one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever," Paine writes. Even if they did, they would not be able to ensure future generations were worthy of inherited power.

Likewise it is unacceptable for the public to name one family as rulers into perpetuity. Taking away the right of a population to elect a leader is akin to original sin, "which supposes the free will of all men lost in Adam." Those who rule by heredity are naturally separated from the general public. Drunk on power and an inflated sense of self, they cannot relate to the common person, which makes them "the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions" to rule. This leads to the oppression of their subjects. While some argue hereditary succession prevents civil wars, Paine finds the opposite to be true, citing the eight civil wars and 19 rebellions since the 11th-century Norman conquest that brought William the Conqueror to power. Warring factions are always vying for control of the Crown, which leaves England in constant turmoil. This is in part because of the royal idleness caused by England's constitutional monarchy, which leaves much of the governing to Parliament. In Paine's view the king "hath little more to do than to make war and give away places." He hurts the country more than he helps it.

Analysis

Thomas Paine uses logic and reason, hallmarks of the Enlightenment philosophers of the era, to systematically prove why the concept of royalty violates the natural and religious worlds. By walking readers through his thinking process, he ensures they come to the same conclusion as him. It's a very persuasive tactic, and it also shows how absolute Paine is in his convictions. Everything is black and white with Paine—there are no shades of gray. Either all of the Bible is fact or nothing within its pages is true. That way of thinking doesn't leave any room for historical inaccuracies or misinterpretations, and when applied to the colonies' quarrel with England it allows little leeway for compromise. Paine is not the compromising kind. Everything with him is all or nothing. Either the American colonies become their own independent nation or they remain dependent on England forever—he offers his reader no third choice.

Paine also relies upon biblical allusions, or references, to support his arguments against royal authority. He knew the classical Greek and Roman texts cited by many of his fellow political activists meant little to most readers and even less to the uneducated population, whom he hoped would hear his work read in taverns and other public places. But nearly everyone was familiar with the Bible. The first story he references, that of Gideon, is a simple one. Gideon leads the Israelites to victory over the Midianites, then declines the Israelites' offer of a kingship because only God can rule over people. Samuel's story is a little more complicated. He leads the Israelites for nearly all his life, though he is not given the title of king. When his sons prove to be unworthy of following in his footsteps, the Israelites come to Samuel and ask him for a king. He's a little upset about it—they never asked him to be king—but God assures Samuel the Israelites don't lack faith in him, but in God. Following God's instructions, Samuel cautions the Israelites against having a king. They insist they must have one. So Samuel seeks out Saul, God's choice for king. When the Israelites meet Saul, Samuel points out his great height, which makes him very different from the people he's ruling. The Israelites don't care and shout "Long live the king!" God smites the Israelites for worshipping another by sending rains to ruin their wheat harvest.

In addition to using biblical references to show how God punishes those who worship kings, Paine goes back in not-so-ancient history to remind readers of how kings also do that themselves. Great Britain has a long history of families battling for their "rightful" place on the throne. The "[c]ontest for monarchy and succession, between the houses of York and Lancaster," also known as the War of the Roses, was responsible for a 67-year war, while the English Civil Wars between supporters of English monarch Charles I and their opponents across England, Scotland, and Ireland lasted 10 years. Even wars between aristocratic families take a toll on the common person. Regular citizens lost their homes, their means of income, and their lives as they waged war in the name of the would-be royal families. Paine is warning readers this could very well happen again if a) the American colonies don't separate themselves from the monarchy and b) the American colonies adopt a system of monarchy for themselves.

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