Effectiveness of Paine’s Approach in Common Sense
By Lacey Flodine
Thomas Paine is responsible for some of the most influential pamphlets about the colonial situation in the 1700’s. He found himself in the right position and time to make his opinions known through his writing. He was a journalist in Philadelphia when the American relationship with England was thinning and change was on the horizon. Paine became famous at this time for writing Common Sense, as well as his sixteen Crisis papers. Through his particular style of reasoning and vehemence, Paine’s Common Sense became crucial in turning American opinion against Britain and was instrumental in the colonies' decision to engage in a battle for complete independence.
Part of the effectiveness of Paine’s Common Sense was his “plainness.” He wanted everyone, laymen and lawmakers alike, to be able to read and comprehend what he was saying. He did not feel he needed overly flowery speech, in fact, that would not serve his purpose. His desire to stir up the people would not be met if he wrote in a style that took too much in-depth analysis for the common person to understand. Paine said he wanted to write “so as to bring out a clear conclusion that shall hit the point in question and nothing else.”
At the start, Paine explains that in the essay to come he is offering the reader nothing but “simple facts, plain arguments,” and of course, “common sense.” He says he asks the reader for nothing more than to read on without prejudice and let their feelings decide for themselves. However calmly Paine approaches the beginning of his work, though, later he will certainly show himself to be quite passionate. He begins his argument with more general, theoretical reflections about government and religion, and then progresses into the specifics of the colonial situation.
Paine uses grand terms to describe the importance he feels this matter takes, stating: “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.” Throughout this work there are examples of this, as Paine leans more and more toward overstatement with his passionate remarks. Paine is quick to explain that reconciliation is not an option and has already passed away “like an agreeable dream,” and so it is only right to examine the other options now left. Being connected and dependent on Britain is not beneficial. Paine denounces the argument that America’s prior connection to Great Britain has been a positive thing and so would continue as such by giving the example of a child who has been living on milk never moving on to eating meat.
Paine moves on to talk about society and government. To Paine, society is everything good that the people can accomplish by joining together. Paine makes it clear that he is not particularly fond of government, whose only purpose is "restraining our vices". One theme throughout this work is Paine’s view of government as a necessary evil. Paine says that government has its origins in the evil of man, and that its sole purpose is to protect life, liberty and property, and that a government should be judged on the extent to which it accomplishes this goal. His reasoning for this is that he feels the “natural state” of man is to live without government, so there should only be government to alleviate the problems of man. If a government fails in this task, it is blameworthy. And in this is where he finds his foundation for rebellion.
Tying in with this is another recurring theme of “natural state.” Many parts of Common Sense detail imagined “natural states” in which man might have found himself. They explore what man might do in another situation, without the current problems of government. Paine uses this imagined natural state to demonstrate particular political dilemmas. These “parables” of his sometimes take things to an extreme, but that is exactly what makes his writing so poignant. He continually drives his message home with examples that are completely without hidden meaning, but only a clear example to further his point.
Paine becomes bolder through the pamphlet saying: “I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge; not a single advantage is derived.” He explains that the goods the colonies produce will still fetch a price in any other European market, and they could buy imported goods elsewhere as well. Paine continues to insist that the “injuries and disadvantages” that would be received by a continued connection to Great Britain make alliance worthless to the colonies.
At this point, some more of the themes of Common Sense show themselves, one of them being Paine’s dislike of monarchy, both as an institution and the particular monarchy in Britain. Paine puts the theoretical attack in Biblical terms, arguing that the monarchy originated in sin. Paine presents his specific problems with the British monarchy with his attack on hereditary succession, and also lists his many grievances with the present king. Another common piece of Paine's argument is that America will eventually be independent. Sometimes he states this as a fact, and other times he seems to be persuading the reader, detailing the extent of the rift separating the colonies and the English king. Since many people were unsure about the idea of a revolution that would sever them from the king, establishing the principle of American independence was an integral part of Paine’s arguments. Only by convincing his readers that American would inevitably be independent one day could he make a case for a full rebellion.
Paine explains why the current time is a good time to break free of Britain. Primarily, he focuses on the size of the colonies, and on their current capabilities. He discusses the British Navy and explains how America could have their own similar army. Paine sees this as a way of ensuring America's security and prosperity in trade. He argues that America needs to be united now, while they are starting to grow, before they become too large and lose any feeling of unity. In order to prosper in the long term, the colonies need to be independent from Britain. Paine says that, by declaring independence, America will be able to ask for the help of other countries in its struggle for freedom. For all of these reasons, Paine says it is important and urgent that the colonies declare independence.
It is toward the end of Common Sense that Paine really lets go of his rational tone for a more vehement persuasion. He first says that while he doesn’t want to give “unnecessary offense,” he thinks that people who agree with reconciliation are men not to be trusted, weak, blind, prejudiced, and so on! He continues on a rant comparing Britain to murders and asking if the people had not had their homes burnt, lost a child or parent, and had property destroyed? He says those that have and can still “shake hands with the murderers” are “unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant!”
Paine holds that what he is saying is neither inflaming matters or exaggerating them. He continues to use strong words to maintain his point, declaring a government of their own is their natural right, and threatening those that would disagree with him saying they “are opening a door to eternal tyranny by keeping vacant the seat of government.” Once again revisiting his points he says that the “last cord is now broken,” between England and the colonies. With his particular style of plain fact coupled with expressive, passionate language, Paine wrote one of the most important documents to the American Revolution. His final call to action begs all lovers of mankind and those that dare to oppose tyranny to stand forth.
© Lacey Flodine