Study Guide

Common Sense Chapter 4

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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.

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