© 1776 Tom Paine
After the battles of Lexington and Concord that scotched any idea of peaceful reconciliation between Britain and its former colonies, but before the Declaration of Independence that stared the colonies on their march toward united nationhood, rabble-rouser Tom Paine penned a now famous pamphlet intended to fire up support for the glorious cause. It’s an ambitious little book, containing an argument for independence , a review of America’s material ability to take on the greatest power in the world, and a rebuttal of arguments for reconciliation, targeted mostly against Quakers. While not as oft-quoted as “The Crisis”, he argues powerfully and leaves no doubt as to why it might have been so explosive at the time.
Paine’s bone to pick with royal governance stems not merely from the fact that they are abusive, or incapable of effective administration considering the distance between Parliament and North America, a distance bridged only by months of sea travel; he is against monarchy [b]in principle[/b], which is presumably why its publication was so dramatic. He asks the reader to examine the origin of kings — not a one of them fell from heaven. William of Normandy who fathered the English line was merely a successful French brigand; did his triumph on the battlefield suddenly imbue him with divine right? And even if it did, isn’t it patently obvious that virtue is never inherited? What good king hasn’t been followed by an execrable sons like Commodus?
The only real government is autonomous and here Paine’s condemnation retains more value beyond historical consideration. While no one today argues for the divine right of kings, kings are still among us — clothing themselves not in royal purple, but in republican brown or the humble uniform of military service. They are presidents and chairman, not imperators, but regardless of their language they still set their sights ahove the heights of the clouds and seek to rule people ‘for their own good’. While the king and parliament may make their case in tradition, Paine argues as a man of the enlightenment, looking toward the future and arguing to self-interest: as long as America remains tethered to Britain, its trade and people will suffer every time the monarchies of Europe go to war, as is their wont. Far better to declare independence and then make a killing in trade while the the kings drag one another to hell.
A short, fiery piece, Common Sense merits its place in America’s revolutionary imagination.
This is one of those books that should be read in every school. It speaks to us today as it did more than two centuries ago.
It would be far better if Americans knew the principles behind our government instead of taking it for granted — they might realize self-government is more than casting a vote for this ruler or that one.