Common Sense | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Common Sense | Part 4 : Of the Present Ability of America, with Some Miscellaneous Reflexions | Summary



Thomas Paine uses Part 4 to assure his readers independence from Great Britain is possible. The colonies have a lot going for them: strong militias, a reasonable number of people and ports to defend, and minimal debt. Independence can be achieved if the colonists work together as a nation instead of in the interest of their individual colonies.

One of Great Britain's greatest strengths is its navy. While large in number, Paine insists only a handful of the ships are fit for service due to age and regular wear and tear. Though the British Isles are small, the territory they rule is enormous, which thins the naval fleet so much as to render it ineffective. He states that if America had "only a twentieth part of the naval force of Britain, she would be by far an over match for her" because American ships would only have to protect their own coastline. But America doesn't have a navy. That's both a good thing and a bad thing. Navies cost money, and the British have racked up an enormous amount of debt building theirs, which Paine details in a cost analysis chart. An American navy wouldn't be nearly as expensive, he argues, because the colonies already have the supplies needed for building ships, such as tar, timber, iron, and cordage. If the ships are built and the colonists decide they don't want them, they can always be sold to other countries for a profit.

Even better, merchants could be given monetary incentives to build and arm ships to use for trade during peacetime. That way the ships would be put to use for the benefit of the colony and avoid the harbor rot afflicting so many English ships. Paine contends a navy is essential for protecting American shores, as "[a] common pirate" could easily take over a major city "in a brig of fourteen or sixteen guns." England is too far away to protect the colonies, so it is up to the colonists to do it themselves.

Paine believes now is the perfect time to separate from England. There is still enough unclaimed American land to be sold for profit to "discharge of the present debt" and support the government. The population is small enough to rally everyone around a common cause, and businesses are not so established as to prevent men from joining the army. The territory is so young bad habits of governance have not yet been established, and Paine urges colonists to "begin government at the right end" by first forming the governmental structure and then choosing men to be in charge of it instead of the other way around.

Paine ends the main body of Common Sense with a few reminders and suggestions. Among other things he believes the colonies should keep their borders open to "a diversity of religious opinions," as religious persecution is one of the reasons why Europeans moved to North America in the first place. After reiterating his ideas from Part 3 about the charter and how representatives should be elected to office, he encourages readers to think of themselves as rebels against the Crown, not as British subjects. That will make it harder for the British to quell the uprising. The focus must be independence, not reconciliation, as other countries, including France and Spain, won't have any interest in helping the colonies strengthen their relationship with England. Finally, it is of the utmost importance to maintain a peaceful relationship with Great Britain once independence is gained so free trade between the two can flourish. The quest for independence is an important one, and though it may feel odd at first to rise against the familiar, Paine assures his readers they will soon adapt in the name of freedom.


While a call to action is a strong way to end a persuasive essay, it will not work with all readers, particularly not those concerned with the details of the solution. Paine is savvy enough to know that his audience is a practical one. Before they are willing to take action on his theory, they must see the plan in action.

Thus his focus shifts in Part 4 from ideology to practicality; namely, how the colonists are going to pay for and fight a war. Paine convinces his fellow colonists they can win independence from Great Britain by downplaying the strength of the British navy, which at the time was the strongest and most robust in the world, and by portraying the formation of an American navy as easy and inexpensive. Building a naval fleet takes time and manpower. Supplies may be local, but shipbuilders need to be paid. Paine glosses over these realities and instead focuses on the debt currently carried by Great Britain. As of his writing, the British national debt was £140 million plus an additional £4 million interest, which totals just over $23 billion in today's dollars. He attributes this enormous debt to the size of Britain's navy, then shows the navy makes up just a fraction of the amount owed.

Anyone reading between the lines can see there is far more to the debt than ships and sailors, and it is a good guess that much of it was created during the French and Indian War. The debt incurred by that war was the reason why the British government increased the taxes on goods imported to the colonies, which started the feud between colonists and Parliament. War is expensive, and Paine neglects to mention all the other costs the colonies will need to cover if they go to war for their independence. He shrewdly shows only the benefits of independence, not the pitfalls.

Paine is similarly sly when talking about the need for religious tolerance in the colonies. He proclaims "there should be diversity of religious opinions among us" because so many people originally came to the colonies to escape intolerance in their homelands. He's no stranger to the problem—his father was a Quaker, a religion that was against the law in England in 1689 and viewed with suspicion long thereafter. But Paine isn't talking about complete religious tolerance, just tolerance of people from varying Christian denominations: "I look on the various denominations among us, to be like children of the same family, differing only [in] ... Christian names." Practitioners of Judaism, Islam, and even atheism are not part of his vision for the future nation.

Today that type of stance may seem purposefully discriminatory or even racist, but it was in tune with the times in which Paine was living. Many of the thousands of Muslims in America during the colonial era were slaves forbidden to practice their faith. There were several Jewish settlements in the colonies over the years, but inhabitants often found themselves harassed by government officials. Out of nearly three million colonists, perhaps only 1,000 were Jewish. There wasn't much public knowledge—or tolerance—for faiths other than those rooted in Christianity. Paine himself was a Deist, which means he believed in God but not revelation (God's revealing of himself) or the teachings of a church, yet he understood the attachment many colonists felt to their particular religion. His call for religious tolerance appeals to 97 percent of the white population, whose voice was the only one that mattered in colonial America.

While many would argue America's youth is a hindrance, Paine argues it is the rebellion's greatest asset. The colonies and their inhabitants aren't as established as those living in England, a country that has already been around for hundreds of years. All the white people who live in the colonies are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Most don't have family businesses or social statuses to uphold, which means it's not entirely out of the question to ask thousands of them to join the Continental Army in the fight for independence. As an older nation, Great Britain doesn't have that luxury. Beyond its salaried army and navy, it will have a difficult time getting civilians to offer their lives for a settlement they've never seen. "The more men have to lose, the less willing they are to venture," Paine writes. From his point of view Americans have nothing to lose except the constraints of British rule.

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