Study Guide

Common Sense Analysis

  • Tone

    Supremely Confident

    Thomas Paine wants you to feel like an idiot if you disagree with him. For him, there can be no nuance when it comes to fighting the British. As he states in blunt terms, "O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!" (3.53).

    The idea here is to read this and think, "Me! Me! I love mankind!" and generally feel patted on the back whenever you agree with Paine and kinda sheepish whenever you don't. For Paine, anyone who doesn't support war with the British is a freedom-hater and a total jerk. This is a massively effective tone to use when inciting patriotic passion.

    It's also probably a pretty effective tone to use in a lot of situations. Maybe the next time you need someone to loan you twenty bucks, you can say "Oh ye that love mankind! Ye that dare loan me, not only ten dollars, but twenty, stand forth!"

    You'll either a) get twenty bucks or b) get some weird looks. Worth a shot in either case, in our humble opinion.

  • Genre

    Philosophical Literature

    Common Sense lays out Thomas Paine's philosophy on democracy, freedom, and American independence from Britain. All of his ideas come to us through philosophical arguments, which he says are nothing more than the result of pure reason and common sense.

    You can even see his concept of common sense come through the way he writes. You can also see his concept of common sense come through in, well, the title. This text pretty much screams "I am a philosophical work! Hear me roar!"

    Common Sense might be a bit tough to read today. Weird words like "shew" keep cropping up all over the place, much like in other awesomesauce philosophical texts of the era (like A Vindication for the Rights of Women) but Paine's writing was as straightforward as it got back in 1776. His audience was thankful for it, too, and they showed their appreciation by snapping up his pamphlets by the hundreds of thousands.

    And also by, um, starting the Revolutionary War and founding the United States of America.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Thomas Paine titles this pamphlet Common Sense because he believes that all of the arguments and ideas he makes are nothing more than the products of good, well, common sense.

    And many Americans tended to agree, falling in love with Paine's no-frills way of making his points without reference to fancy literature or philosophy. Paine's common-sensical style of arguing completely changed the landscape of America from the 18th century onward.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    "And here without anger or resentment I bid you farewell. Sincerely wishing, that as men and Christians, ye may always fully and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right; and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others; but that the example which ye have unwisely set, of mingling religion with politics, MAY BE DISAVOWED AND REPROBATED BY EVERY INHABITANT OF AMERICA." (A.40)

    Thomas Paine ends his argument for American independence by taking on a Quaker writer who claims that only God can decide the course of history and that Americans shouldn't wage war with the British. Paine skewers this Quaker dude for bringing religion to bear on politics and having a negative influence on the fight for freedom.

    In the end, Paine even calls for every patriotic American to turn their backs on this person and the ideas he promotes. He's perfectly confident that his ideas are the product of common sense, but he's not above bullying people to make sure they agree with him.

    It's also worth noting that Paine ends this pamphlet with a super-bombastic all-caps explosion. We're tempted to say "Hey, there. Settle down now, Paine," but hey—who are we to argue with a guy who shaped American history, just because he abuses the 18th Century version of caps lock?

  • Setting

    Colonial America

    In order to make his case for war with Britain, Thomas Paine needs to convince his readers that America is properly situated for such a war. At the time Paine was writing Common Sense, many people thought that America wasn't a populated enough country to take on the British, but Paine answered that,

    It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to repel the force of all the world. (4.3)

    On top of his argument for human resources, Paine is proud to say that America has more than enough natural resources to sustain its war with Britain. In 1776, only a quarter of American land was populated by European colonists, and it seemed to Paine as though the country had infinite resources.

    As Paine happily argues, "Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce. We need go abroad for nothing" (4.10). As we can see, the physical setting of America is a central part of Paine's argument for why America could—and should—wage war with Britain.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    There's going to be a little toughness in the fact that Thomas Paine wrote this book more than 200 years ago, but apart from that, you should be able to follow his general arguments. This pamphlet, remember, was something that illiterate soldiers were able to understand back in the day. So no excuses here—just be sure to focus and follow our handy-dandy notes. You'll be starting your own revolution in no time.

  • Writing Style

    Simple and Accessible

    Many literary historians agree that the main reason Thomas Paine's Common Sense became such an insanely influential book is because of the straightforward writing style Paine used to communicate his arguments. And yeah, we know that today it sounds crazy-antiquated an indecipherable. But probably in a couple of centuries everything that we're writing on Shmoop will sound dusty and stuck-up.

    Back in the day, Paine was writing for the people.

    After wall, it'd be hard to read Common Sense out loud to large assemblies if Paine's sentences were super long and his language was full of dense metaphors. Instead, Paine makes his points with clear, punchy writing, making bold statements like, "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind" (I.4). Hey, even that sentence stands up to the test of time pretty well; it's pretty hard to get lost in a statement like that.

    It's also hard to disagree with it (rhetorically, in any case) since it's so quick and to-the-point. You'd have to frame your argument as a kind of 18th Century "Nuh-uh. Maybe on opposite day."

    And that, friends, is a pretty lame rhetorical style.

  • Independence and Freedom

    These are more "concepts" than symbols, but boy oh boy are they important.

    In fact, the biggest concepts you're going to find in Common Sense are the concepts of independence and freedom. For starters, Thomas Paine is certain that independence and good government are the only things that will keep a country from falling into civil war.

    As Paine writes,

    … the most powerful of all arguments, is, that nothing but independence, i.e. a continental form of government, can keep the peace of the continent and preserve it inviolate from civil wars. (3.38)

    Basically, it's better for America to go to war with Britain to get its independence instead of going into civil war with itself later.

    For Paine, there is no doubt that as Americans, "A government of our own is our natural right" (3.50). He insists that any country whose rulers aren't democratically elected is not a free country at all. And it's only by having elected officials that a country can start

    … securing freedom and property to all men, and above all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience. (3.47)

    Some of this stuff might look recognizable, because many of these same ideas ended up forming the basis of the United States Constitution.

  • U.S. Constitution

    Nothing symbolic about the Constitution, Shmoopers. This is the real deal: it's a concept rather than an image or an allegory.

    Thomas Paine isn't just worried about America becoming free from Britain. He's also concerned about what'll happen afterwards, since he already takes future American independence as a given. Way to be cocky, Paine. Aren't you afraid you'll jinx it?

    In order to avoid making the same mistakes Britain did, he argues that The United States needs to create a sacred document that will force all future leaders to follow proper democratic processes. As he writes,

    The conferring members being met, let their business be to frame a continental charter, or Charter of the United Colonies. (3.47)

    What he's basically talking about here is the seed of what would become the United States Constitution.

    In his sketch of a constitution, Paine insists that any political ruler needs to be elected by the people in order to fight for the interested of those people. He gets quite specific at times, saying things like:

    … let the assemblies be annual, with a President only. The representation more equal. Their business wholly domestic, and subject to the authority of a Continental Congress. (3.43)

    Some is this is really accurate in its predictions of a future American system. It's almost as if the people designing the thing took Paine's advice on almost everything.

  • Common Sense

    This is another concept, Shmoopers. But, like the above, it's uber-important.

    As the title suggests, Thomas Paine bases the arguments in his pamphlet on the concept of common sense. In other words, he doesn't use a whole bunch of overblown language or fancy literary references to get his point across.

    Instead, he speaks in language anyone can understand and lays out his reasons for things one by one. All the while, he says,

    To examine that connection and dependence, on the principles of nature and common sense, to see what we have to trust to, if separated, and what we are to expect, if dependent. (3.6)

    In other words, he expects every one of his readers to think carefully about what he's writing and judge for themselves whether they come to the same conclusions.

    At various points in this book, Thomas Paine assures his readers that the only thing informing his opinions is good common sense. He makes sure to deny any other motives when he says,

    I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence. (3.30)

    For him, American independence is a matter of pure reason, and not one of petty emotions. That's why he believes the cause of independence will endure until it's fulfilled.

  • Narrator Point of View


    Yeah, Thomas Paine might act like he knows everything about everything sometimes, but he's still just a limited First-Person narrator in this book. He even refers to himself as "the author" instead of "I," but no amount of fancy linguistic trickery is going to throw us off the scent of a First-Person narrator here.

    It's interesting to see just how much Paine tries to sound like a third-person objective narrator when he writes stuff like, "In the following sheets, the author studiously avoided every thing which is personal among ourselves" (I.3). Nice try, Tommy. We see you hiding there.

    In other words, he's trying to tell us that his common sense has made him into an objective source of knowledge on American independence. It's all just a trick to make his arguments more credible in our minds, but you have to admit it's an effective one. We sometimes forget that he's just one man giving his first-person opinion, and think of him as The Voice of Reason, er, Common Sense.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage and "Call"

      Thomas Paine opens this book by establishing that Britain's rule over America is nothing short of a brutal dictatorship. He calls upon all Americans to unite in an army and to fight to drive the British out of America. At first, Paine just talks about how wonky the British political system is. But as he continues, he draws specific conclusions showing how Britain's corrupt politics are causing monstrous in justices in America, such as the seizure and destruction of people's private property.

      Dream Stage

      It looks as if the cause of American independence is a no-brainer at this point. The British are a tyrannical power and America needs to step up and fight them off. What could possibly be complicated about that? But just when it looks like the argument is over, Paine decides to address some of the arguments that people in America have made against the idea of fighting the British.

      Frustration Stage

      There are many people in the U.S. who think that America would be better off if it just made up with Britain and put the whole revolution idea away. For starters, people say that Britain's mighty navy will protect America from foreign invasion by places like Spain or England. Others say that the cost of a war will plunge America into a crippling debt from which it will never recover. Finally, some people say that America is too young and immature to govern itself. Thomas Paine dismisses these arguments one by one, but they must still have some sway with public opinion if he's going out of his way to mention them.

      Nightmare Stage

      Tomas Paine closes his pamphlet by urging his readers to act immediately for the cause of American independence. The longer they wait, the bloodier and more brutal their war for independence is going to be. Throughout this part of the pamphlet, there's a clear fear that Americans will ultimately take the safer route and submit to British rule instead of fighting for their freedom.

      The Thrilling Escape, Death of the Monster

      The Thrilling Escape or "happy ending" to Paine's pamphlet really comes after the pamphlet itself was published. Millions of Americans would go on to find inspiration in its message and follow Paine's call to fight the British. George Washington even had the pamphlet read out loud to his troops to help inspire them for battle. In the end, Paine's dreams of a free America and a U.S. Constitution would ultimately come true, completely changing the course of global history along the way. Well done, Paine.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      Toss the Brits

      Thomas Paine opens the pamphlet by laying out the central conflict America is facing: whether or not to grab a gun (or, like, a few hundred guns) and free itself from British rule.

      In Paine's mind, this conflict isn't just about America become free, though, because freedom is something that's quashed by dictatorial governments all over the world. Paine hopes that a free and independent United States will become an inspiration to anyone in the world yearning to be free. So kicking the British to the curb is both good for America and good, by proxy, for the world.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Paine-Staking Details

      As he gets into the beating heart of his argument, Paine goes beyond his moral reasons for American independence and starts laying out the practical reasons. He argues that America will never reach its economic potential while it's still under British rule, because Britain keeps shipping all of the country's profits and resources back to England. Paine doesn't think that's cool at all.

      On top of that, Paine wants his readers to know that it would be perfectly possible for America to raise an army that was capable of defeating the British. His practical details include exactly why, and exactly how, America can get its revolution on.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Now Now Now

      Once he feels like he's laid out his argument, Paine hits us with a flurry of reasons why America has to act immediately in freeing itself instead of waiting for some magical right moment in the future. The longer America continues under British rule, the more its resources and strength will be siphoned back to the mother country. Also, Paine is the kind of guy who believes firmly in carpe-ing the dang diem.

      Falling Action

      Down With the King

      In the Appendix to Common Sense, Thomas Paine talks about a speech by the King of England. This speech contains threats to crush any American resistance to British rule. Paine uses this threat as further evidence of the need for America to stand up to Britain and throw off its tyrannical power right away.

      He also addresses an anti-war pamphlet written by a Quaker. This pamphlet argues that Americans must trust in God to let history figure itself out instead of fighting the British. Paine insists that this argument makes no sense: history is written by the victors, after all.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      People Who Disagree With Me Should Shut Up

      Paine concludes his Appendix (and the pamphlet as a whole) by saying that the people who condemn fighting against the British (and fighting of any kind) are misguided and shouldn't be listened to. Not only that, but Paine calls upon all Americans to shun these people's arguments and to condemn them as cowards at best and traitors at worst.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      The first third of Paine's pamphlet introduces the argument for American independence and focuses on the contradictions and corruption that are built into the English Constitution. Paine finds it insane that the constitution would give divine power to a king and then give a group of elected officials (The Commons) the power to deny this king's wishes. He also has no time for aristocrats, who don't earn their positions of power but only inherit them on the basis of which families they're part of.

      Act II

      After thoroughly trashing the English political system and the idea of inherited power, Paine turns to a discussion of the current state of affairs in America. Things aren't exactly sunshine and rainbows and unicorns: the British have recently taken military action to show that they're willing to oppress Americans with violence in order to keep everyone in line.

      There are a lot of people who think there's still time to patch things up with the ruling country, but Paine argues that the time for reconciliation is over. It's time for America to stand up and seize its independence. U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!

      Act III

      The third part of Paine's argument mostly lays out all of the reasons why an American insurgence would be successful. For starters, Paine painstakingly lays out calculations for how much it would cost to build an American fleet of ships that could take on the British navy. Next, he shows why America's natural resources would provide Americans with everything they need to furnish supplies for a successful army. When he's done with this, he restates his case for why America needs to act sooner rather than later in fighting the British: time is of the dang essence, y'all.

      In an Appendix published later than the rest of the pamphlet, Paine criticizes a few things that have been written since he first published. The first is a speech from the King of England threatening America with certain doom if they rebel. Paine uses this as another clear example of why America must throw off its oppressors. He also goes after a pacifist Quaker writer who has argued that Americans shouldn't get involved in armed conflict because God will sort everything out in the end. Paine is especially hard on this point of view, and he wraps up his arguments by calling on Americans to shun and insult anyone who preaches pacifist or Quaker ideas about the American Revolution.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • The Book of Judges (2.8)
      • The Book of Samuel (2.9)
      • John Milton (3.25)

      Historical References

      • King George III (I.2)
      • William the Conqueror (2.13)
      • Henry VI (2.20)