Study Guide

Common Sense

Common Sense Summary

Thomas Paine opens the book with a general rant about the big decision that's facing all of America: the decision either to remain under British rule or to fight a war for independence. According to Paine, the entire world should want America to be free, since this will set an example for freedom and liberty that other countries could follow. 

As the text unfolds, Paine lists all of the major problems with the British political system, especially the fact that they have rulers (kings and aristocrats) who inherit their power instead of gaining it through a democratic election.

For Paine, there is no path to freedom without democracy, and that's one of the main reasons that America needs to separate from the British.

Once he's laid out his opening points, Paine considers all of the arguments put forward by people who want to stay connected to Britain. One by one, he shoots these arguments down and shows that they are nothing more than excuses made up by cowards who don't want to put their lives on the line for freedom.

In the end, Paine takes aim at a group of religious pacifists known as Quakers and tells them they shouldn't be getting their religious views mixed up with American politics. In his closing lines, he asks all patriotic Americans to join him in mocking and despising anyone who would dare say that God condemns the America War for Independence.

  • Introduction

    • Paine opens the pamphlet by admitting that the ideas he's about to lay out might not be incredibly popular at the moment (i.e. the summer of 1776). But he's confident that once people have had a chance to digest his arguments, they'll see that independence from the British is the only way for America to move forward.
    • Paine continues by insisting that the cause of American independence affects more than just America. The whole issue of tyranny and absolute power (like the kind held by the King of England) is something that affects almost every country in the world, and Paine hopes that America will one day become a shining example of democracy and freedom to these other countries.
    • Finally, he concludes his short intro by saying that he has chosen to publish this text anonymously because he thinks that his ideas should stand for themselves. In truth, he's also probably worried about getting arrested by the British.
  • Chapter 1

    Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, With Concise Remarks on the English Constitution

    • According to Paine, it's important for people not to confuse the concepts of Society and Government. Society is when people come together to support one another and to accomplish something that they couldn't do on their own. Government, on the other hand, is a force that seeks to punish anyone who steps out of line. In other words, Government only exists because people do bad things. If people were kind to one another, we wouldn't need Government.
    • At best, Government is a sort of necessary evil for Paine. And people need to know that the larger a society grows, the more it will have to rely on a limited number of people to represent everybody. In other words, it becomes hard to take a vote on every single issue when you've got hundreds of thousands of people spread over a large area. That's why people tend to elect representatives like members of congress.
    • After making these arguments, Paine sums up his point by saying that Government needs to express the direct desires of the people as a whole. And do you know who doesn't do this? A king!
    • And that's exactly what America had to deal with up until 1776, when the King of England was telling them what to do.
    • At the moment of this pamphlet's publication, there are three levels of British Government: The King, the Aristocracy, and the Commons (elected representatives). The first two levels are based totally on which family someone was born into, and they have nothing to do with the skill or wisdom of the people who are ruling.
    • There are all kinds of contradictions with this British system. For starters, the Commons is treated as a check against the power of the King. But the King is supposed to be elected by God, so why would a political system want to put a check on the will of God?
    • Paine takes this contradiction as a sign that the British don't really know what they're doing when it comes to Government.
    • Ultimately, the English people only continue to support their nonsensical political system out of national pride. They think it's a part of their tradition and don't care whether it makes sense from a logical point of view. Basically, there is nothing that keeps England from becoming a completely bloodthirsty dictatorship—which it already is, according to Paine.
  • Chapter 2

    Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession

    • In Paine's opinion, all people are born as equals. But that doesn't mean they should stay equal their entire lives. Some people rise in the world and some people fall as a result of stuff that happens after they've been born, like working hard, or hardly working.
    • But there is no reason at all for the division between a King and his subjects. A King does nothing to earn his role as King. He's just born into it because his dad was a King.
    • To make his case against kings in general, Paine takes us way back to the earliest stages of human existence, when there was (according to him) no such thing as kings. And because there were no kings, there were no wars either. That's because the only reason wars happen (again, according to Paine) is because kings start talking smack at one another and then send a bunch of soldiers off to die in order to show which king is more powerful.
    • Like many people during his time, Paine unfortunately (and wrongfully) blames the Jewish people for ruining the modern world.
    • He claims that Jewish people were the first to copy the "Heathen" practice of having kings because they were lazy cowards who wanted someone to tell them what to do.
    • On several occasions, the people they wanted to be king told them "No thanks. I don't wanna be king." This is because God is the only person with the power to rule.
    • Over history, though, the Jewish people kept pushing the agenda. They didn't just want one person to be king, though. They wanted all his sons to be kings forever, too.
    • And that's how the idea of inheritance came into play.
    • According to Paine's reading of the Bible, the Lord Almighty punished the Jewish people for trying to create a human-god by turning someone into a king. Thus, the Bible is firmly against the very idea of someone being a total ruler. And, uh, Jews presumably? Where's that famous common sense now, Paine?
    • For Paine, the idea of a king isn't so bad on its own. It's the fact that every male descendant of that same family will become king just because they're born into it. Paine insists that this system has given the world many more terrible leaders than good ones. Ok, Paine's common sense has reappeared. Phew.
    • Even England itself was conquered by (the appropriately named) William the Conqueror, who was actually French. Ever since then, it's been the descendants of a French dude who have ruled over the nation. Paine doesn't see why people would continue to honor the descendants of a brutal lunatic, especially one who isn't from England to begin with.
    • Another terrible thing about having kings is that kings can sometimes be extremely young or extremely old, which leaves them vulnerable to being brainwashed by any crafty servant or advisor who has their ear. Shades of Iago?
    • In some cases, kings don't actually do anything at all for their countries. They have no political responsibilities apart from attending ceremonies and living off the wealth of the people.
    • So where are all the good, decent kings? There are none, because good, decent people aren't rewarded by ascending to the position of kings. Only the sons of kings become kings.
  • Chapter 3

    Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs

    • Paine admits that lots of people before him have written about the tensions between the British and the Americans. But he's dead certain that the time for talking is over and the time for fighting has begun.
    • And history would prove him right, since it was right around this time that the Americans started their war for independence. Good job, Painey boy.
    • For Paine, the cause of American Independence is the single most glorious and just cause that the world has ever seen.
    • Nowhere in history can you find a conflict where one group (the Patriots) is so clearly right and the other (the British) so clearly wrong.
    • Now, says Paine, is the time for Americans to unite against a common enemy. Any slight crack will be like a cut on a young tree, growing bigger and bigger as the tree grows.
    • For the sake of argument, though, Thomas Paine decides to consider the opinions of people who think that the Americans should leave the British in control.
    • The first argument is that America has grown and thrived under British rule.
    • For Paine, this is like saying that a child who has grown up drinking its mother's milk should never graduate to adult food like meat.
    • Others might argue that Britain has defended America with its army.
    • Paine replies that Britain has defended America and Americans as pieces of property and nothing more. The British have no stake in the welfare of Americans.
    • Also, Britain is constantly getting into wars with Spain and France and sending American soldiers off to die for reasons Americans know nothing about.
    • Others will argue that Britain is America's parent country and that Americans in the thirteen colonies are only bound together by their common British ancestry.
    • But Paine is quick to point out that America is a country of immigrants from all over Europe, and most of these immigrants have come because they are fleeing oppression. In other words, Americans are united by their love of freedom, not a common British ancestry.
    • Besides, Thomas Paine insists that America doesn't need British help in order to defend itself against the world. It can do that by being an important center of commerce.
    • Or in other words, if America becomes a good trading partner with all the countries of Europe, no single country will allow it to fall under the control of another. All countries will fight one another to keep America free.
    • Frankly speaking, the British rule over America is going to end sooner or later, and Paine is tired of scaredy-cats trying to pass the responsibility onto the next generation. Anyone who is interested in reconciling with Britain is either a person who stands to gain by it (a traitor), a coward, a fool, or a moderate person who gives Britain more credit than it deserves. In Paine's mind, this last person is the most dangerous because he/she seems the most sensible.
    • Drawing on a quote from John Milton, Paine argues that reconciliation is impossible because the harm Britain has caused to America has gone too deep.
    • On another note, Britain is simply too far away from the U.S. in order to govern the place effectively. Remember that this is before steamships or transatlantic communication. Every time the ministers needed advice on something, they had to send a sailboat 4,000 miles across the ocean.
    • Paine claims that if America stays with Britain, the king will keep America from growing to its full potential because this would only give America more power.
    • Instead, the king will do everything he can to keep the colony just poor enough to be easily controlled. Also, the king's final say in all American laws will allow him to stack the chips in his favor more and more as time goes by. That's why Paine thinks the Americans have to kick the British out ASAP.
    • Some people are even afraid that American independence will lead to a civil war because the colonies won't have the guiding hand of the king to make them cooperate. Paine dismisses this idea as a bunch of hooey. Little did he know that the U.S. would go on to have one of the biggest civil wars ever.
    • Paine says that the United States will be able to avoid all internal conflict by having a government that properly represents all the states and the people in them. He calls for an elected President, which is exactly what the U.S. will end up doing.
    • He also outlines the concepts for congressional districts and a complete United States Constitution (which he calls a "charter"). In the details, he mentions that people in the new country should have total freedom of religion and personal property. These ideas would become cornerstones of the United States Constitution.
    • At the end of the day, Paine is certain that freedom all over the globe is in jeopardy, and that America has the chance to become the last place on Earth where it exists. The stakes seem pretty high.
  • Chapter 4

    Of the Present Ability of America, With Some Miscellaneous Reflections

    • Paine opens this chapter by saying that he has never met a person who didn't think that America and Britain would eventually separate. But many people don't agree that now (i.e. 1776) is the right time to act. Paine wants to do away with this hesitation as quickly as possible.
    • America's resources are diminishing every day because Britain is using them all up. Meanwhile, America has more than enough able men to form an army. Britain will never give them an opportunity to get any larger as long as Britain is still in charge. Plus, raising an army would give everyone in America a job to do.
    • Some people might worry that raising an army would put America into debt. But Paine dismisses this by saying that no modern country exists without a debt.
    • Just to make his point more clearly, Thomas Paine starts adding up what it would cost for America to build a fleet of ships to take on the British. He even gives us a running tab to reassure us that the numbers are right. America is more than capable of raising the money.
    • On top of his other arguments, Paine reminds his readers that a huge part of America (especially the original thirteen colonies) is coastline, which gives them the advantage of launching ships from wherever they need.
    • Some will argue that once America has kissed and made up with Britain, Britain will protect them with its navy. But the British have also shown that they can't be trusted, so America needs its own independent army.
    • If Britain and America ever got into a naval war, America would only require one ship for every twenty Britain has. This isn't because America would make awesome ships, but because Britain has colonies all over the world that it constantly has to send its ships to.
    • It's not only ships that America could make in bulk, but also cannons and rope. That's because America is rich in a lot of important resources, like iron.
    • Paine also thinks that it's important for America to unite before its population grows too large. Large countries tend to have small armies because so many of the people are involved in business and commerce.
    • And in a controversial moment, Paine argues that, "Commerce diminishes the spirit, both of patriotism and military defence" (4.18). Many people today would say that American business and patriotism go hand in hand, but Paine insists that business is self-involved, while patriotism requires you to value something more than yourself.
    • Many people will argue that America is still too young a country to govern itself properly. But Paine argues that youth is the perfect time for a person (or a country) to learn good habits, since these habits will stay with it.
    • In other words, America will stay obedient to the British if that's what it chooses to do now, and it will become brave if it chooses to stand up for itself now.
    • At this point, Paine returns to his earlier idea of a U.S. Charter or Constitution, repeating that it must protect religious freedom. That's because the British haven't been very receptive to the different forms of Christianity that have popped up in the U.S.
    • Apart from all that, it is clear that other countries in the world will fight against the Americans as long as they're regarded as rebels against their home country of Britain. That's because these countries want to discourage rebellion in their own lands.
    • But if America declares itself an independent country, it'll be in the interest of France and Spain to help them get free of Britain, which is their European rival.
    • Paine would be right on this, too, as French soldiers would ultimately help the Americans fight to get away from Britain. On some level, the French probably did it out of spite.
  • Appendix

    • This section of Common Sense was something Paine added after the rest of the pamphlet made its first appearance. In it, he wants to talk about the speech from the King of England that was published in America the same day his pamphlet came out.
    • The King's Speech made a lot of threats to the American people, telling them they'd be crushed if they kept rebelling. Paine wants to respond to this speech by telling Americans to remain brave and keep fighting.
    • Paine adds that at this point in American history, it doesn't really matter what the King of England says or does. America will be a free country and no one needs to listen to that old windbag anymore.
    • Paine makes sure to reiterate that America will never reach its full potential as an economic and military power as long as it's the colony of someone else, especially a tiny island (England) that's 4,000 miles away.
    • At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Paine repeats that sooner or later, America will become independent. The longer it waits, though, the bloodier its war for independence will be. At the moment he's writing, there is a very straight line leading America to independence and a crooked, complicated one leading them to reconciliation with Britain. And if the situation drags on too long, America will be ruined and neither independence nor reconciliation will be an option.
    • Now that violence has broken out and Britain has attacked the U.S. in a number of different ways, Paine won't allow his readers the option of thinking they should just give in to Britain. The country has come too far to back down now.
    • The way Paine sees it, a future America will be governed in one of three ways: 1) by a legally elected Congress, 2) by a military power, or 3) by a mob. That's why an independent America will have to form a solid Constitution that'll keep dictators from ever taking power.
    • America has been given a great gift in having a common enemy, because Paine is confident that the fight for independence will bind the three colonies together going into the future.
    • Before concluding, Paine wants to take on the arguments that have been recently published by the American Quakers, which say that peace is the only path forward and there's no point ever in going to war, since God will take care of everything.
    • Paine begins by saying that the religious person who wrote the Quaker pamphlet shouldn't be talking about things he knows nothing about. After all, the Quaker writer has argued that religious people should trust in God's judgment and not get involved in political affairs. But as Paine points out, this writer has directly involved himself in politics by condemning the war with Britain, whether for religious purposes or not.
    • Further, Paine claims that he and the Quaker writer want the same thing in the end, which is peace. Paine simply insists that fighting for American independence will result in a much longer peace in the future than surrendering will in the present.
    • If anything, the Quaker writer should have written his pamphlet for the British, who were in fact the first people to take up arms against Americans. They're the ones who should let things be and allow America to become independent.
    • Basically, the pacifist ideas of Quakerism means that these people are willing to tolerate anyone who rules over them, no matter how awful that person is.
    • Paine closes this Appendix with one last insult to the Quakers and pacifists who are unwilling to stand up and fight for America on religious grounds. He basically calls for all red-blooded Americans to look down on these people as irresponsible cowards with weak arguments.