Common Sense : Part 1 Summary : Chapter 1
Summary of Part One: Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, With Concise Remarks on the English Constitution.
This part gives a philosophical background on the nature of government. Paine makes a distinction between society and government. Society is based on our wants and is a blessing, but government is a necessary evil that restrains wrongdoers from disrupting society. Government is for the purpose of security of the citizens. In a state of natural liberty, society is a desire to be with other people for affection and help. Because humans are not perfect, there will be disagreement among them, and then government must “supply the defect of moral virtue” (p. 8).
In an imagined first parliament among men, Paine says every person would be there. Later, parliaments had to be ruled by a selection of representatives chosen from the whole populace. It is a good idea to have frequent elections, for the sake of refreshing the government and making sure of the common interest of all parties. Frequent interchange and common interest are mentioned as the most important principles of government and the “happiness of the governed” (p. 8).
Having established what he calls natural and simple principles of government, he then examines the British Constitution. He grants that it was a noble document for the times when tyranny ruled the world. It is however, too complex and imperfect. First, it is based on the ancient tyranny of having a king; second, on the tyranny of aristocracy; and third, the republican commons are not totally free. A king and aristocracy (King and House of Lords) are hereditary and independent of the people. The commons (House of Commons) are elected, but these three houses are not equal in power and therefore, do not constitute a system of checks and balances. Instead, the British government is “a house divided against itself” (p. 11).
Paine attacks the idea of monarchy. The king shuts himself from the world and is no wiser than other men. The parliamentary houses are supposed to check his power. If they need to check the king, then his power cannot be from God (referring to the divine right of kings, or the king as God's representative on earth). The English pride in its government is not reasonable but a matter of nationalism. The will of the king rules in England as well as in France.
Commentary on Part One: Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, With Concise Remarks on the English Constitution.
Paine first tries to set up the simple idea of the purpose of government. It is just a convenience, a necessary evil to protect society from itself; therefore, a useful tool that evolved over time rather than something sacred. He wants to establish this point to refute those colonists who insist on being loyal to King George III of England, considering him their monarch. Loyalty to the king was still considered by many to be their sacred duty. If they joined the rebels they would be committing treason to the British crown and to the person of the king. There were many British loyalists in the colonies, and Paine is trying to convince them their loyalty to the king is old-fashioned and misplaced. He is doing public relations for the revolutionaries. For the average conservative person, Paine and his contemporaries were political radicals.
This practice of inquiring into the nature and origin of institutions and ideas was a hallmark of the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment thinkers who asserted that free men must use reason to examine what was previously just accepted by tradition. By tradition, England's three parts of government (King, the House of Lords and the House of Commons) was considered a legal triumph making England a modern constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy. This advance in social justice removed the absolute tyranny of a king, making everyone, even the king himself, subject to law. Paine points out that since the three components are not equal in power, however, there are no checks and balances. The king still has too much power. He further discredits the idea that kings rule by divine right, that God upholds monarchy. Paine and the American revolutionaries who find monarchy to be out of date precede the French Revolution, which came a decade later and considered the same ideas.