Study Guide

Common Sense Society and Class

By Thomas Paine

Society and Class

Secondly—the remains of the aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the peers. (1.12)

On top of having a king, England has an entire shelf of upper class society that's dominated by aristocrats who, like the king, inherit all of their money and status without ever having to work for it. Paine hopes that a future America will be able to do better.

But there is another and greater distinction, for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is, the distinction of men into kings and subjects. (2.2)

It's really pretty simple for Thomas Paine: the existence of kings goes entirely against the natural order of things. Nature would never reward a certain lion simply for being the son of another lion. If that lion was weak, something would kill it, plain and simple. It wouldn't be able to hide behind a throne.

The king and the aristocrats of England have nothing to do with the rest of English society. They just sit on their fortunes and contribute nothing to making their country a better place. That makes Tommy boy mighty mad.

In the early stages of the world, according to the scripture chronology, there were no kings; the consequence of which was, there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion. (2.3)

Paine believes that the only reason there is war in the world is because countries are ruled by kings that aren't elected by their people. Paine then demonstrates through the examples of Holland and Switzerland that societies with democratically elected leaders tend never to go to war.

As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings. (2.5)

There's nothing in nature that says people should respect and obey someone just because that person was born into the right family. In nature, all the power goes to the animals that are either the strongest or the hardest working. For Paine, the only natural way to live is in a world where exceptional people are able to rise in society based on their merits.

Here was a temptation in its fullest extent; not a kingdom only, but an hereditary one. (2.8)

Paine largely blames the Jewish people for bringing monarchy into the modern world. And worse yet, (Paine says) they're responsible for the concept of hereditary monarchy—meaning that all of a certain king's descendants get to rule after he has died. Being a king would be one thing if you were elected for life. But being a king for the totally arbitrary reason of birth is more than Paine can stand.

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession. (2.10)

Kings are horrible as far as Paine is concerned. But what's just as bad is the idea of heredity, meaning that all of a king's descendants get to have total power regardless of whether they're good or bad. A king could be a total fool and it wouldn't matter, since kings aren't elected by the people.

A small number of electors, or a small number of representatives, are equally dangerous. (4.23)

In envisioning a future American society, Paine worries about making the number of voters too small. He thinks that the more people who can vote, the more a democracy will be able to represent the true values of its society. To have only a few voters would run the risk of recreating the British system, where only a handful of people get to call the shots.

Since the publication of the first edition of this pamphlet, or rather, on the same day on which it came out, the King's Speech made its appearance in this city. (A.1)

It turns out that the same day Thomas Paine published his original Common Sense pamphlet, a Speech from the King of England came to America and threatened anyone who dared disobey England. Paine takes these treats as just more evidence of how America needs to develop its own society instead of listening to an old windbag who never earned a dime in his life.

But this general massacre of mankind is one of the privileges, and the certain consequence of Kings. (A.2)

When a country fails to reward those with the most talent or the best work ethic, it collapses into tyranny. And that's something that hurts everybody, according to Paine.