Study Guide

Common Sense Themes

  • Warfare

    The central question informing Thomas Paine's Common Sense is whether or not the United States should go to war with Britain in order to gain their independence. Paine is firmly in the "Yes" column and wants his readers to be, too.

    But he can't convince them without talking about the stark realities of war and weighing them against the damage that'll be done if America keeps submitting to Britain. As we know today, America would eventually take up his call to arms and boot the Brits out of America. But at the time, there were still many folks who wanted nothing to do with a long and bloody war.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Do you think Paine gives his readers a realistic sense of what they can expect from war with Britain, or does he downplay how bad it's going to be? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
    2. What are some of the arguments Paine gives in favor of war? Are they convincing?
    3. Why does Paine go to such lengths to explain how much money it'll cost the U.S. to build the warships it needs?
    4. What is Paine's opinion of people who speak out against war? Is it a fair opinion? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Common Sense, we see that war can be justified if the costs of not fighting are greater than the costs of fighting.

    Despite the author's intentions, Common Sense shows us that war doesn't accomplish anything that wouldn't have happened anyway.

  • Injustice

    If the British didn't treat their American colonies so horribly, Thomas Paine might not have had to write Common Sense. But the truth is that the Brits imposed brutal taxes and treated Americans' private property as though it were their own.

    On top of that, Paine thinks that the Brits have a completely nonsensical political system and he doesn't want this same system ruining things for folks in America. Every person and every country has a breaking point when it comes to putting up with injustice, and for Thomas Paine, America has definitely reached the point at which it's totally appropriate to snap.

    Questions About Injustice

    1. Does Thomas Paine give a clear enough idea of why Britain is being so unjust to America, or is he vague? What are some of the specific injustices he lists?
    2. What is so unjust about the British political system, according to Paine? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
    3. Why does Paine think that war with Britain would be a "just" cause?

    Chew on This

    In Common Sense, we find that the only way America can ever be just is to make sure that its leaders are democratically elected.

    Thomas Paine's Common Sense shows us that the only real way to stop injustice is to put up with it until God sorts it out.

  • Patriotism

    For Thomas Paine, standing up for America and declaring independence isn't just about wanting war; it's about standing up for what's right and creating a new democracy that can inspire freedom all over the world.

    Unfortunately, the majority of Americans were waiting on the sidelines when Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, so Paine knew that he needed to do some convincing if he was ever going to mobilize people into a winning army. And nothing mobilizes people better than building up their sense of patriotism.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. How does Thomas Paine appeal to people's sense of patriotism in this text? What kinds of qualities does he associate with a future America?
    2. Why does Paine sometime pull away from patriotism or nationalism in making his arguments? What does he argue for instead?
    3. What does Paine think of the people who still side with Britain and want America to stay a colony? Are they all the same to him, or are there different types?

    Chew on This

    In Common Sense, Thomas Paine shows us that anyone who believes in freedom should fight with the American patriots. Anyone else is just a freedom hater.

    Thomas Paine tries to avoid feelings of patriotism because he wants people to agree with him only on the basis of common sense. For Paine, patriotism clouds people's judgment.

  • Passivity

    Thomas Paine knows that many readers of Common Sense will be staunchly against war with Britain for various reasons. He goes on to tackle these reasons one by one, but at the same time he hints that the type of people who make these arguments are cowards.

    For Paine, passive submission to Britain is not an option, not with all of the mental and physical violence that Britain has done to America over the years. When justice is being smashed, it is a person's duty to step up and defend it.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Do you think Thomas Paine is too hard on pacifists, or is his attitude justified? Why?
    2. What are some of the different reasons for people not wanting to go to war with Britain? Which is the most convincing?
    3. Why does Paine dedicate the last part of his Appendix to criticizing a Quaker author who wrote a text condemning America's war with Britain? How does Paine want people to think of this person and his/her ideas?

    Chew on This

    In Common Sense, Thomas Paine shows a hate-on for antiwar protesters that is still very much part of American culture today.

    In Common Sense, Thomas Paine demonstrates that pacifism always tends to do more harm than good in the long run.

  • Race

    People sometimes forget that even while Thomas Paine spends all of Common Sense talking about the importance of freedom, he was still writing in a country where slavery was a regular part of life. That's why it's important to remember that whenever Paine talks about freedom in this book, he's actually talking about freedom for white men.

    Black slaves and Native Americans don't quite make the cut for him, and as we see in some sections of the book, Paine also blames the Jewish people for many of the problems in the world. Yeah, don't let all the "Ra! Ra! America!" stuff cloud your judgment. Paine might have had some great ideas, but he had some serious shortcomings.

    Questions About Race

    1. What is Paine's main problem with the Jewish people in Common Sense? Would you call his opinions racist? Why or why not?
    2. What types of arguments is Paine making when he brings up the "savage" Native Americans in this text? Does he have anything good to say about these people? Use evidence from the text to support your point.
    3. Could Paine have made just as strong an argument without talking negatively about the Jewish people, Native Americans, or black slaves? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Common Sense, Thomas Paine shows us that the cause of American independence is unfortunately tainted by the legacies of slavery and Native American oppression.

    In Common Sense, it's possible to take out Thomas Paine's unfortunate references to racism without affecting the main thrust of his argument.

  • Society and Class

    Thomas Paine's major beef with the English isn't just their tyrannical rule over America; it's the entire structure of their society. And here's his problem: English people are born into rich and powerful families just like the king is born into power. Paine believes in a world where people have to work for whatever power and respect they end up getting, and he can't imagine how the British have tolerated such an unfair and bogus system for so long.

    Ultimately, he figures that it's just national pride and an empty sense of "tradition" that keeps the Brits hanging on to their social structure. America, on the other hand, has the ability to be different, to be a place where people can make their own way and succeed based on their merit instead of who their fathers are. A meritocracy, according to Paine, is just good Common Sense.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What kind of society does Thomas Paine like to envision for a future America" Do you think present-day America has made good on his dream? Why or why not?
    2. Why does society exist, according to Paine? What purpose does it serve and how can it work best?
    3. According to Paine, what social classes exist in America? Are there any? What's good about America compared to Britain when it comes to issues of social class?

    Chew on This

    In Common Sense, Thomas Paine dreams for an America that will one day have no social classes at all, and where everyone will be equal.

    In Common Sense, Thomas Paine is totally fine with inequality as long as the inequality is justified.

  • Religion

    One of the major deals in Common Sense is Paine's hope that the U.S. can be a place of total religious freedom. Many of the people who first came to America did it so they could practice their religion freely. But with the increasing interference of the British rulers, that became harder and harder. So in the end, religious freedom is one of the major cornerstones for Thomas Paine's argument for American independence.

    Questions About Religion

    1. When Thomas Paine argues for religious freedom in America, do you think he means religious freedom for everyone, or just for different types of Christians? Why?
    2. Why does Paine think that having a king is an offense to God? Is it a reasonable argument?
    3. What is Paine's response to the Quaker writer who argues that no one should ever go to war because God will take care of everything? Is it a fair response? Why or why not?
    4. Does Thomas Paine manage to follow his own advice about keeping politics and religion separate? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Common Sense, Thomas Paine shows us that sometimes God will support violence if it's for a good reason.

    Common Sense shows us that Thomas Paine's apparently "common sense" argument relies heavily on his readers belief in the Christian Bible.

  • Freedom

    At its core, Common Sense is about freedom in America. It's not just about freedom from the British, but the kind of freedom that will exist in America once it becomes an independent nation with its own constitution.

    First among the freedoms that Thomas Paine wants to see in a new America is the freedom for an individual to think and express whatever she or he wants to. But Americans will never be able to have that kind of freedom unless they're willing to stand up and fight for it. The war for freedom can't be won from the sidelines, and Paine firmly believes that every American (and everyone in the world, for that matter) has the responsibility to protect freedom at all costs.

    Questions About Freedom

    1. What are some of the things Thomas Paine has in mind when he thinks of freedom in an independent America? Support you answer with specific evidence from the text.
    2. Do you think that present-day America lives up to Thomas Paine's ideals of freedom? How so? How not so?
    3. What are some of the things, in Paine's mind, which prevent Britain from ever becoming a properly free society? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.
    4. Why does Thomas Paine say that the cause of independent America is also the cause of the whole world?

    Chew on This

    In Common Sense, Thomas Paine argues that it's impossible to have freedom unless you completely take away all of society's laws.

    In Common Sense, we find that freedom for all isn't a political belief at all, but simply the result of good reasoning.