Common Sense : Part 1 Summary : Chapter 3
Summary on Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs
Again the author claims to offer “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense” (p. 20). He will give facts and let the reason of the reader judge for itself. He mentions that volumes have been written already on the pros and cons of separation from England, but now, “the period of debate is closed. Arms, as the last resource, decide the contest” (p. 20). Paine claims that the king has chosen this route by his action. Parliament was prepared to make some slight concessions to Americans but only for a time. Now, the larger view must be taken.
The author claims Americans must act for posterity: “The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth” (p. 21). Everything has changed since the 19th of April (1775) with the British troops attacking American colonists at Lexington and Concord. This is a new era, and reconciliation is no longer a possibility. Now the injuries of Americans will be discussed.
First, he considers the argument that Americans flourished under British protection, and it must therefore continue to be good for them. No, says, Paine, the child (America) has to grow up and leave the parent country (England). Second, some say Britain protects us from our enemies. Actually, British troops are in America to protect British property, for America is their rich subservient colony. Next, he considers the argument that Britain is the only unifying factor in the colonies that are actually unrelated to one another. Paine says that many colonists did not come from England but from other European countries. Europe is thus the parent of Americans, not England. At any rate, England has made itself the enemy of Americans through its behavior of attack and plunder.
Americans do not need Britain. They are rich and dedicated to trade with all of Europe. It is in Europe's interest to have a free America. There is no advantage to remaining with Britain but there are many disadvantages, such as being dragged into European wars. There is the great distance between the two countries that makes it ridiculous for one to rule the other. Separation is inevitable, and this is the right time.
Americans are in a precarious situation not knowing if their property is secure while Britain rules. He gives as example the prosperous city of Boston, now under siege. How can we go back and trust a government that has put fire and sword to our citizens? He is not exaggerating, he says, but appealing to “those feelings and affections which nature justifies” (p. 27). Americans have already exhausted every peaceful means. To think the British will change is foolish. They repealed the Stamp Act, but a year or two later there were other taxes and tariffs.
The British government cannot do justice in the ruling of America, for it is already too large and complicated. How can a continent be governed by an island? The King is an enemy of liberty and insists on being America’s lawgiver. America can never be first in the thoughts of the British government. It cannot attract emigrants when its government is insecure. Finally, it is only continental independence that can keep the land free of civil war. As a republic it can foster equality that will bring peace to the land. In this historical moment, Americans have the chance to invent a better human government.
The author gives a few of his ideas of what the new government should be like, such as fostering freedom of religion, and proposes a Continental Congress or Conference to come up with a Charter of the United Colonies. There will be equality and no king, for in America “THE LAW IS KING” (p. 34). There are injuries that cannot be forgiven, so Britain and America must part.
Commentary on Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs
Paine wants to make it clear that Americans have no recourse but war with and separation from England. He shows that things have gone too far with all the incidents that have taken place, such as the closing of ports, the siege of Boston, the clash of troops with citizens, and so forth.
He gives practical ideas why America has to be free in terms of being able to rule itself and take care of its business. It can be in a better position with trade and internal governance, able to avoid entanglement in European affairs. He mentions that America is profitable for Britain, and the unspoken argument is that America can make more money and successful trade agreements on its own. On a loftier note, he continues the idea of a moral reason to separate for the sake of posterity and freedom.
A lot of the argument builds on the fact that subjugation to a king is immoral. A king is in an abusive position, and he is only one person. A hereditary position makes no sense in the commercial scientific world that is arising at this time. Paine looks ahead to new possibilities of life with economic and political freedom and equality for all. Hereditary privilege is a thing of the past, he announces. Self-governance is a natural right, a doctrine that will be spelled out in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.
It is interesting that Paine thinks self-governance will help America avoid civil war, when history showed this idea to be wrong. Paine thought that there would be one unifying government instead of individual state governments that would be tempted to war with each other. The regional differences, however, were one of the sticking points at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The South wanted to retain slavery, while the North wanted to abolish it.
Paine, Jefferson, and other revolutionaries used the new ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke to make this move of gaining freedom and self-governance seem “natural” rather than violent or rebellious. The British king can call it treason, but the colonists justify revolution as their natural right, and they have many liberal philosophers of the time to back them up.