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Thomas Paine and Common Sense

In early 1776 the sentiment surrounding the idea of revolution was evenly divided in Britain’s colonies in America. The feelings were split evenly between those for a revolt, those opposing it and those who were neutral. In January 1776 Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense. The ideas and theories expressed in the pamphlet were very compelling and thorough. Compelling enough to sway much of the undecided colonists to agree that revolt is the necessary course of action.

Paine states in the introduction to Common Sense “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at fist a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” This argument is not one of listing injustices or even reasons for revolt but it does provoke the reader to decide if his thoughts are genuine or from not thinking critically about the times and situations.

Now that we my “suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution,” the faults shall be found. Paine argues one theoretical position that could influence those loyal to the King himself. If the British constitution is a system of checks and balances and the commons are the check on the king then this infers, “That the king is not to be trusted.” This brings to light an underlying fault with the way the British system of government is arranged. Paine is against a divided form of government.

He feels that simpler government is best. That way the people know whom to hold responsible. He also feels the king did not get better with the creation of a chambered government only subtle. He later states that the system, “hath all the distinctions of an house divided against itself.” He then again makes the argument that the loyalists have not opened their eyes to the faults of the British form of government. Paine says that those in favor of the current form of government feel that way “more from national pride than reason.”

Paine contends that there is no reason to feel loyalty to Britain. He feels that all the actions of Britain are in its self-interest. He feels the colonies would not need defending if Britain would not bring its enemies to the colonies. There would not have been a French and Indian war because the colonies would not be enemies of the French. Paine believes that the protection that the British give to its colonies is the same protection a “shepherd gives to his sheep.” This supposes that the British Empire only cares about its colonies in North America because they supply raw materials and a market for manufactured goods.

Paine concludes Common Sense by contending that the colonies have an opportunity to make a government the correct way. His argument is that forms of government such as Britain have formed themselves in the opposite order necessary for proper government. “First, they had a king, and then a form of government; whereas the articles or charter of government should be formed first, and men delegated to execute them afterwards.” He strongly urges the colonists to take advantage of their “present opportunity.” He calls them to, “begin government at the right end.”

In The Declaration of Independence authored mainly by Thomas Jefferson many arguments are made for the right of the colonists to rebel. Among these arguments are the theories of consent of the governed, natural rights of man and self-evident truths. The natural rights of man are those given by God and cannot be taken away or even given up. By losing these rights a person would become less human. Some of these rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” as named by Jefferson. Jefferson felt that the current state of affairs in the colonies did not allow for these rights to be realized. He listed the crimes committed by the British government that violate these rights. Among these violations were; depriving in some cases trial by jury, cutting off trade with other nations and making the military superior to the civil authority.

The pursuit of happiness to Jefferson was not a subjective term. Arguments have been made by people such as Amartya Sen that his definition of happiness was objective. True happiness is when the capacities of people are realized. When people are in an unhappy life their definition of happiness becomes adjusted. This recalls Paine’s argument that “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”
Jefferson also stated that “Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” This demonstrates that there must be very serious reason for dissolving the current government. The “long train of abuses and usurpations,” that were committed by the British government were reason enough to rebel.

The cost of violating the natural rights of man and the pursuit of happiness is the consent of the governed. If a people feel that they are being oppressed in any way then the legitimacy of the government comes into question. The government must derive its power from the governed. People give up some of their rights and property for the security afforded by a governing power. If the sum of the investment into government is not reciprocated by equal amounts of security and opportunity then the government is unjust, abusive and must be dissolved.

The men who argued against revolution often cited God and the bible for reasons against leaving the empire. They argued for the divine rights of kings therefore theorizing that going against the king would be going against God. Jonathan Boucher makes a theological argument that Christians; according to the Gospel must have “obedience which is due to the respective constitutions of every nation in which they may happen to live.” He also stated that “The doctrines of the Gospel make no manner of alteration in the nature or form of civil government.” This reinforces the theory that going against a government is the same as going against God.

Many believed that Britain had a fair government because different social classes were represented. The British constitution was believed to be the greatest contract of government in the world. The idea that a few men could draft a government from nothing was almost unthinkable. Government must be formed over time; it must rise up slowly out of nothing and not from a pen. The risk of such an undertaking could not yield a result comparable to the British government.

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