Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ Makes Sense Today

Though 247 years old, “Common Sense” includes a plethora of noteworthy statements still resonating among Americans today.
Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ Makes Sense Today
Portrait of Thomas Paine, circa 1792 by Laurent Dabos. (Public Domain)
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“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense,” wrote Thomas Paine, author of the famous January 1776-published “Common Sense.” Though 247 years old, this booklet includes a plethora of noteworthy statements still resonating with Americans today.

Paine was not a scholar, did poorly in school in his native England, and even failed as a sailor and an excise tax officer. But his chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin in London in 1774 and his subsequent emigration to America routed him into a surprisingly suitable vocation: journalism.

Thomas Paine's house in Lewes, Sussex, England. (Kto288/CC BY-SA 2.5)
Thomas Paine's house in Lewes, Sussex, England. (Kto288/CC BY-SA 2.5)

Only two years after arriving in Philadelphia, Paine observed enough of the ensuing protests and patriotism to write “Common Sense,” sub-headed as “Addressed to the Inhabitants of America.” It is in the opening sentence that he provides the first of many profound statements: “a long Habit of not thinking a Thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Paine’s intention for “Common Sense” was as a strong defense of American independence from England. Even after armed protests by colonists broke out against British soldiers, due to such grievances as taxation without representation, many colonists were reluctant to consider challenging the authority of King George III.

Yet, Paine’s thought-provoking words in “Common Sense” focused readers on America’s exceptionalism and the opportunity to establish a distinct form of government. Arguably, “Common Sense” helped motivate colonial leaders to garner fortitude enough to declare independence.

Understandably, “Common Sense” tagged Paine as an antagonist to the monarchy as well as among British soldiers occupying America. For example, he wrote:

“There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of Monarchy. … The state of a king shuts him from the World, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, by unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.”

Instead, Paine conveys the hopeful outcome of rebellion: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”

Just as the founding fathers imparted, a new government must have checks and balances, and Paine recognized that “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”

Portrait of Thomas Paine, circa 1806-07, by John Wesley Jarvis. Library of Congress. Public Domain)
Portrait of Thomas Paine, circa 1806-07, by John Wesley Jarvis. Library of Congress. Public Domain)

Toward the end of “Common Sense,” Paine advocates for what becomes the theme of the Declaration of Independence: “A government of our own is our natural right: and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance.”

After writing “Common Sense,” Paine traveled with the Continental Army and produced another work, The American Crisis (1776–1783), which inspired patriots fighting in the American Revolution with such now-famous lines as “These are the times that try men’s souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.”
Cover page of "Common Sense" , 1776, by Thomas Paine. (Public Domain)
Cover page of "Common Sense" , 1776, by Thomas Paine. (Public Domain)
“Common Sense” is available for anyone to read for free on sites such as Project Gutenberg, but copies are also available for sale at bookstores and online. However, Coventry House Publishing, Ohio, continues to publish “Common Sense” in its original 1776 style under its “History & Academic Texts” book section.
‘Common Sense’ By Thomas Paine Coventry House Publishing, Jan. 30, 2016 Paperback: 88 pages
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A 30-plus-year writer-journalist, Deena C. Bouknight works from her Western North Carolina mountain cottage and has contributed articles on food culture, travel, people, and more to local, regional, national, and international publications. She has written three novels, including the only historical fiction about the East Coast’s worst earthquake. Her website is DeenaBouknightWriting.com
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