Study Guide

Common Sense Chapter 3

By Thomas Paine

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.

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