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Common Sense | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Common Sense | Summary



The initial publication of Common Sense on January 10, 1776, was divided into four parts. Starting with the third edition, which was printed just a month later, Paine added an introduction and Part 5, which he termed "The Appendix."

Introduction to the Third Edition

Paine prefaces the main body of his text with an assurance that he, the anonymous author, is providing a critical view of the current situation between England and the American colonies that is uncolored by personal bias. He admits his ideas are unusual and most likely unpopular, but says people will come around to his point of view the longer they think about it and the more they realize the cause of the colonies is the cause of all humankind.

Part 1

Paine uses Part 1 to describe the purpose of government, which is to protect a society once its membership has grown too large for individual involvement, and to detail the failings of the British government in particular. He believes there is an imbalance of power within the country's parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch, with the king and aristocratic House of Lords siding against the elected representatives of the House of Commons. Paine also finds fault in the use of hereditary succession, which places descendants of aristocrats and kings into positions of power once their predecessors are deceased, and with the way royals are sequestered from the rest of the world. He argues it is impossible to rule a people whom one knows nothing about.

Part 2

Paine uses biblical and historical evidence as well as reason to explain how the concept of monarchy is a violation of religion and nature. He believes all people are born equal, so it makes no sense for one person to wield power over everyone else just because of his or her lineage. Doing so is not only a transgression of logic but one of religion. Paine says scripture makes it explicitly clear God is the only ruler of humans and those who defy that rule are punished.

Monarchs are not a guard against civil war as some argue—they are instead usually the cause of it, as evidenced by the numerous civil wars and revolutions since William the Conqueror usurped the throne in the 11th century. These wars don't just affect the families at odds with one another—they negatively impact the common people sent to battle and those left at home to clean up the wreckage. Paine attributes this constant warring to the structure of the British government. He asserts Parliament does most of the ruling, which leaves the king too much time on his hands. Conflicts are created just to keep the king entertained.

Part 3

Part 3 is Paine's explicit call for colonial independence from Great Britain. Though he once saw the merits of reconciliation, he believes Great Britain's use of force at the battles of Lexington and Concord, which resulted in deaths and injuries on both sides, has obliterated any chance of a mutually beneficial relationship between the two parties. Paine addresses common claims in support of British rule, refuting each one by one. He paints a picture of a ruling country that cares little about its distant subjects and a group of colonies that are stronger on their own without monarchal rule. Independence would protect the American economy during Britain's feuds with other world powers, and it would allow the colonies to form financially beneficial relationships beyond (and better than) the one they have with Great Britain. Paine argues Great Britain is too small and too far away to protect the colonies any longer, and it is in the international interest for the colonies and England to separate.

Paine then outlines his plan for an independent American government. It consists of two branches, the president and Congress. Districts from each colony will elect congressional representatives, who then elect the president. All laws must be approved by congressional majority, and the presidency will be rotated evenly between each colony. Paine also describes the formation of the committee that will issue the charter to form the government. He ends Part 3 with a call for all who support the end of the monarchy to publicly identify themselves.

Part 4

Part 4 contains the odds and ends of Paine's argument for independence that didn't have a logical place in Part 3. He encourages the creation of an American navy using the natural resources bountiful in the colonies such as wood, iron, and tar, then describes how such a fleet would be financed and maintained. He argues the need for independence is urgent, and he gives a list of reasons why this is the perfect time to secede from colonial rule. This includes the youth of a nation that has not yet formed bad habits and a relatively unestablished population that has little to lose should the pursuit of freedom lead to war. He reiterates the international advantages of separating from England, as well as his plans for the country's government. He also emphasizes the need for religious tolerance and encourages readers to think of themselves, not as subjects of the British Crown, but as rebels against it. When independence is won, the colonies and England can resume a peaceful relationship.

Part 5

Paine shares his thoughts on the two letters published since the initial publication of Common Sense—one from King George III and one from Sir John Dalrymple. Paine says the king's "speech," which arrived in the colonies on the day of Paine's pamphlet's release, only fuels the need for independence. Dalrymple's letter, which praises the king, is dismissed as being out of touch and sycophantic, or overly fawning.

Paine gives a brief recap of arguments from previous parts of the text—the need for independence and the impossibility of reconciliation—before calling on colonists to unite as one nation against the British. The best way to do this is by forming a government, which will bring people together while allowing for a legal, and hopefully safe, transition from subject of the Crown to independent nation.

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