Common Sense : Theme
Appeal to Reason
Paine as a writer from the Age of Reason (1650–1790) asserts that government is not some machinery given by heaven to humans, as in the idea that kings rule by divine right. He demonstrates the eighteenth-century liberal approach to solving problems through human reason rather than relying on tradition, religion, or historical institutions. He tells the American colonists that their loyalty to King George III seems right because it is a habit. That does not make it right. By exercising reason, one finds out whether something is currently the best solution. He makes “An inquiry into the constitutional errors in the English form of government” (p. 11). The British constitution, for instance, was once a glorious improvement over absolute monarchy, but that does not mean it is the best for American colonists. In fact, if one looks at the facts, British rule is not best for Americans. He lays out his case, appealing to the reason of his audience to verify what he has said. This appeal to the reason of all citizens is thus in itself a democratic practice, showing that the opinion of all must be taken into account and not just the opinion of one person—a king.
Paine makes a case that the American colonists are situated in such a favorable time that a new form of government can be planned to serve their interests. He calls for representatives of all the colonies to come together in a Conference to set up this government for the continent. This is not just a temporary solution to their problems of British domination. Americans cannot be Europeans; they must secure the interests of their posterity on this continent. The Americans have a chance to show that if government is not working, especially a foreign or colonizing government that does not have the people's interests at heart, it can be changed by the citizens to a better form. They can experiment and have input to their own government. This planned government by reasonable men must be better than what he asserts is the whim of inferior and selfish men who are worshiped as kings. This government from the ground up rather than top down is a new idea but very empowering, accounting for the rapid spread of democracies and democratic philosophies in the world during and after the American Revolution.
Monarchy is a Corrupt Form of Government
Monarchy, or rule by a hereditary kingship, is an ancient form of government that Paine sets out to show is an outdated and inefficient, barbaric practice. His inquiry into its origins is effective in that he refutes one of the principal arguments for monarchy: the divine right of kings. Kings were often crowned by the church, and the king given political rule over the worldly kingdom as a caretaker from God. This idea had already been challenged by the English during the English Civil War (1642–51) that had culminated in the execution of Charles I as a gesture that kingship and its abuses were over. It had also been challenged in the Protestant Restoration (1660–1685), when the English invited the return of kings but under the control of a constitution. Paine, as a revolutionary liberal, is not satisfied by this. He charges that the English king may be hampered, but he still rules by whim. One way Paine undercuts the authority of kingship is by appealing to something even more ancient, Biblical scripture. He calls George III a “Pharaoh of England” (p. 29) equating him with the absolute rulers of Egypt who were worshiped as gods, and who persecuted the Israelites. Americans often compared themselves to the early Israelites of Biblical times wandering in the wilderness trying to found a righteous land. Paine's introduction of the prophet and judge, Samuel, is a proof against the divinity of kings. Samuel ruled the Israelites by receiving instructions directly from God. When he retired, the people asked for a king. Paine quotes Samuel's response to them that kings are not lawfully from God; they bring corruption. Unable to persuade them, he eventually crowns Saul and David as the first kings. Paine shows that Samuel's judgment against kings was sound. He equates kingship with original sin: “original sin and hereditary succession are parallels” (p. 18). The practice cannot be divinely ordained because “it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, and the improper” (p. 18). Kings are also equated with war. He asserts that without kings there would be no war. Civil wars are due to fights over succession. A democracy would therefore remove the threat of external and internal war. Kingship is thus a form of “idolatry” or worship of a form rather than worship of God. Samuel told the Israelites that God did not like kings to be worshiped in his place. Many of these ideas were current during the Puritan Revolution (1640–1660) in England that linked monarchy with idolatry and sin, a justification for killing Charles I.
The American Revolution Is the Cause of all Mankind
One of the more successful ideas coming out of the American revolutionary writing of Paine, Jefferson, and others, is that it was not just a rebellion over the local control of trade, or even over local self-government, but that it was a conflict over the principle and ideal of freedom. The Americans prided themselves on waging a war for the future of the world and its people. Paine makes the bold assertion that “We have it in our power to start the world over again” (p. 52). He appeals in utopian fashion to the hope for a different order of human life: “The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men” (pp. 52, 53). This prophetic statement is made, as much of early American writing was, with a Biblical tone of righteousness, though Paine has secularized the focus. Instead of asserting that government comes from God directly, he asserts it must come from the faculty God gave humans: reason. Democracy is seen as the most natural form of government. Paine calls for a conference of reasonable men to construct government ensuring the rights of freedom, property, and diversity of religion. A government based on “the natural rights of all Mankind” (p. 6) is therefore “not local, but universal” and “all Lovers of Mankind are affected” (p. 5).