Common Sense | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Common Sense | Part 3 : Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs | Summary



Part 3 of Common Sense is Thomas Paine's formal call for independence of the American colonies from Great Britain. Like many colonists Paine was once in favor of coming to a compromise with the king and Parliament, but the shots fired by British soldiers at the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, irrevocably changed his mind. He believes the use of British force against the king's own subjects effectively destroyed any chance of an honest, mutually beneficial relationship between the two parties. The king has already rejected the colonists' overtures of peace, so independence is the only option.

Paine makes his point by refuting commonly held proreconciliation arguments. To those who say the colonies "flourished" under England's jurisdiction in the past and should therefore remain there, Paine points out that just because a child thrived on milk in its infancy doesn't mean it should never be allowed to have meat. Countries, like children, require different sustenance as they grow and change. Paine further explains how the colonies may have "flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power" been in control of them in the first place. He says that things are good in the colonies under England's rule, but they could probably be much better. Paine also asserts the British government's reaction to the Massachusetts uprisings has created an irreparable rift between the Crown and the colonies. A reconciliation, no matter how much desired by both parties, will be weakened by the remembrance of grievances past.

Some people argue England has consistently protected the colonies. Paine says this protection stems from England's motive of "interest not attachment." England protects America only when it is beneficial to Crown and country. The king's goal is "to keep this continent as low and humble as possible." America will not be allowed opportunity for growth unless that growth directly benefits England. Internationally this puts the colonists at a huge disadvantage. Should England go to war with another world power, such as France or Spain, the colonies will by default be at war too. American colonists have no interest in defending Great Britain from invasion or taking part in territory grabs on the Crown's behalf. Their concern is not the expansion of the British Empire, but the expansion of the American economy. It is better for the colonies to be independent from England so they can maintain positive trading relationships with all of Europe and declare their own neutrality during times of international upheaval.

According to Paine, England has no right, natural or otherwise, to be the governing body of America. For starters the ocean separating America and England is "strong and natural proof" God never intended one to have authority over the other. Should the colonists need help, England is too far way to provide any adequate defense or assistance in a timely manner. He also argues England is too small of an island to be wielding power over a territory as large as North America. Moreover, it is not England's duty to rule America as its inhabitants come from all of Europe, not just the British Isles. It is "Europe, and not England, [who] is the parent country of America." If anyone were to rule, it would be Europe as a whole.

Paine theorizes those who oppose independence do so because there isn't a concrete description of how the colonies would be governed after the separation from England. He outlines a plan for a two-part government consisting of a president and a congress. The president will be selected by the congress, whose members are elected by the public. Laws must have at least three-fifths congressional approval to pass. The congress will be initiated by the Continental Conference, which will consist of two members of the current Continental Congress from each colony, as well as "five representatives of the people at large." After framing a Continental Charter, which establishes the rules pertaining to electing and maintaining a congressional body, the conference will disband and legislators will be elected. The only "king" in America will be the law, which is paramount to all else.

Paine concludes his argument by stating a government of the people and by the people is a natural right. Those who disagree with independence are "opening a door to eternal tyranny" and oppression, which currently runs rampant across Asia, Africa, and Europe. "Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!" Paine urges. It is the only way independence will be gained.


The battles of Lexington and Concord were a turning point for many people in the colonies, particularly those in the northeast corridor. On the morning of April 19, 1775, British general Thomas Gage started 800 British troops (known as the Redcoats because of their uniforms) on a march from Boston, Massachusetts, to nearby Concord to seize weaponry amassed by the colonists in a storage shed. Along the way they stopped in Lexington to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams for leading the radical anti-British society the Sons of Liberty. Hancock and Adams were long gone thanks to a tip-off from Paul Revere the previous night, and the Redcoats were confronted instead by 100 local minutemen, or members of the local militia. Historians disagree who shot first, though Paine insists in Common Sense it was the British, and the resulting melee ended with the deaths of 10 minutemen and the injuries of nine others. The Redcoats continued their march to Concord to destroy the colonial weapons cache. They had no intention of continuing the fight started in Lexington, but the 1,000 minutemen waiting for them on their way back to Boston disagreed. The ensuing battle was intense. Fifty Americans, some of them civilians, and 73 British soldiers died, and hundreds more were wounded. This was the first armed encounter of colonial resistance against the British, and it pushed many colonists to take a more critical look at the relationship between the colonies and their ruling government. It also united the individual colonies against Great Britain. For the first time people saw themselves as part of a common nation, not just an individual town or territory. Paine capitalizes on this sentiment in Part 5 of Common Sense.

Common Sense is a classic example of a persuasive text. Persuasive texts are written to convince the reader to accept a certain point of view or take a specific action. They begin with a thesis statement, which is the author's main idea. The rest of the text is used to support the thesis. That can be done in a variety of ways, a few of which Paine uses in Part 3.

  • Stating and refuting the opposition's argument. One way to persuade someone to agree with a particular point of view is to acknowledge and disprove the things the other side will say. Paine explicitly does this throughout Part 3. "I have heard it asserted by some," "It has lately been asserted," he says before using logic and reason to prove the reasons some give for maintaining a relationship with England null. It is hard to argue with someone who uses this tactic because they have already told you why you're wrong.
  • Providing solutions. Disproving someone's argument isn't enough to gain support for one's own. There must be evidence, or at least reasoning, that what one is suggesting is feasible. That's why Paine describes his vision for the future government of an independent America in such detail. He shows his audience exactly how independence will work and how it will benefit the common individual. People are more likely to agree with one's point of view if they understand the end goal and the ways of getting there.
  • Calling readers to action. Change doesn't happen just because people start to think differently. It isn't enough for Paine to change his readers' minds about independence from Great Britain—he has to get them to do something about it. "Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!" he writes. He is commanding those who agree with him to publicly share their point of view. Revolutions don't happen without public support, and identifying oneself as part of the cause encourages others to do the same.

The government structure Paine outlines in Part 3 is extremely close to the government settled upon by the framers of the Constitution. The president, Congress, and the judiciary branch (which Paine does not call for) work as a triad that checks one another's powers. This structure works in a very similar way to England's government in that the king and British Parliament are supposed to work together. Where England failed, in Paine's opinion, is that they allowed life appointments (and sometimes beyond) for the monarchy and those in the House of Lords. Paine argues elected officials have a greater duty to the public because they will one day return to it. Kings and aristocrats will never mingle with "regular" people, so they will never face repercussions for actions that harm the populace.

There are of course some notable differences between Paine's ideas and the U.S. government as we now know it. In addition to Paine's omission of the judiciary branch, he called for the president to be elected by members of Congress from a pool of congressmen from one colony. The designated colony will change every election cycle until each colony has been represented. The system he proposed was modified into the modern-day Electoral College.

There is also a discrepancy between the number of congressional representatives Paine originally called for and how many there are today. Paine said there should be at least 390 members of Congress with at least 30 members representing each state. He only planned for one congressional house, but the Constitution specifies there should be two: the Senate (the upper house) and the House of Representatives (the lower house). The Senate is comprised of two members from each state while representation in the House of Representatives is based on state population. California has the most representatives, 53 out of a total of 435. Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming each only have one representative. Paine didn't specify how the number of representatives from each colony should be determined. If it was to be based on population, he would agree with today's distribution.

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