Originally published: 1776, 1783, 1791
287 pages

                 Chapter 2                  

COMMON SENSE, THE RIGHTS OF MAN, AND OTHER ESSENTIAL WRITINGS

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine took life personally. Much of the world he saw in 1774 offended him and as a result he became an author and patriot simultaneously. His first publication, in 1775, dealt with the subject of slavery and its immorality. Later he wrote in support of the two great revolutions of the eighteenth century in America and France. His intent in both cases was not simply to engage in an intellectual exercise, but to stimulate direct political action. Thus, while trying to help his compatriots in the Colonies defy tyranny and the suppression of human dignity (first and foremost by enlisting in Washington’s army) Paine also formulated the theoretical tenets of a government respectful of its citizens and their rights. He was an unusual critic; he did not just tear down what he felt was wrong, he also offered solutions to make things better.
     Paine’s first major effort, Common Sense, published in February of 1776, so roused the American public and so deftly put forth what the Colonists wanted that its principles found expression in the Declaration of Independence. Common Sense is unpretentious but was profound for its day. Because of its simplicity its ideas are nowadays often regarded as obvious. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington did not think so at the time, however, and they were influenced by what Paine wrote.
     Paine observes that  

67

                  [a] long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial 
                  appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry
                  in defence of custom.

Jefferson, Washington, and much of the American population were awakened by this simple thought and many were moved to action because of it.
     Paine’s objective was to create a government responsive to the people and based on their consent, one that could not act arbitrarily. One part of the design he offers is a method to control government through regular elections. Paine argues that government can be justified only through consensus and can be practiced only under the dominion of the governed. “Nothing but heaven is impregnable to vice,” he writes.
     It is to be noted, however, that there is a subtle, even obscure point about Paine’s electoral franchise. He offers it in a negative form as the Romans had; the election process was initially intended not as a method of selecting leaders but as an assurance of the public’s ability to remove those in power who became corrupt or proved themselves incompetent. Choosing those who might be the best leaders through a democratic process was thought to be an important yet only secondary consideration. Of course, choosing the best leaders would theoretically reduce the need to later replace officials because of incompetence or dishonesty. But as Bertrand de Jouvenel points out in On Power (Chapter 15) corruption—whether intellectual, political, or personal—is
embedded in human make-up; thus, as Paine was aware, it pays to plan ahead in designing institutions.
     Paine hoped to keep government uncomplicated as well. In this respect his style of prose matches his preference in administration. As a result his writings have recently fallen victim to academic pretentiousness with the accusation that he was simplistic. The scholarly and better-educated Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin are allegedly more worthy of attention. But readers with a fundamental understanding of Paine’s accomplishments, who recall his times and circumstance, do not deprecate his talents simply because he could (and did) clearly distill the issues.
     Paine’s second effort, The Crisis, is comprised of sixteen articles written during the Revolutionary War. The text begins with his most famous quotation, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” and

68  

later continues “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” The Crisis supports the righteousness of the American Revolution and spurred both the public and the fighting men to remain true to the cause. It accomplished this through the simple force of Paine’s rhetoric.
     Paine had experienced the war firsthand. He began writing The Crisis while at the front with Washington ’s army during December 1776 and he continued to make his views heard for the next six years. Paine’s fervor and the substance of his exhortations provided a focus that held the revolutionary movement together (intellectually and emotionally) across the countryside. What he wrote—a mix of propaganda, history, political and military analysis, homespun philosophy, and finally a demand for fidelity to the bigger cause—offers a concise review of what he and his compatriots experienced during the war. Its greatest value was the encouragement to action by patriots.
     The Rights of Man, written while Paine was in France during the revolution of 1789, was his final political effort and a forceful argument calculated to expose the bankruptcy of hereditary monarchy. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (Chapter 36) Edmund Burke had defended hereditary government, but Paine in his rejoinder reduced the issue to its basics. His argument that each succeeding generation has the sacrosanct right to choose its own form of government won the debate. Despite Burke’s justified reverence for the wisdom of the ages, Paine believed that the right to choose must remain in the hands of those being subjected to control; that government could not be handed down as an immutable legacy. He understood that government was simply a necessary evil, one needed to restrain ourselves when we fail one another. He argues, however, that governmental restrictions must be conditioned on the approval of those living under them.
     The cataclysmic method of the French Revolution—government by guillotine (which Paine witnessed firsthand)—distorted contemporary French understanding of government’s premises and intentions. Therefore, getting a clear view of the implications and possibilities of government without a monarchy was difficult for the French. Burke was understandably rooted in the past, but Paine’s ideas carried the philosophical day as they had in America. In the face of the horrible reality of mass and murderous equalitarian insanity, a disgusted and disillusioned Paine did join Burke in decrying the French Revolution’s excesses, but that is about the only point where the two men reached agreement.
     The Rights of Man provides a history of the first days of the Revolution

69  

including the destruction of the Bastille—the infamous Parisian fort and prison—and the march on Versailles, the king’s palace. Interestingly, Paine’s reply to Burke reflected a modern-day problem—distortion by the press for political purposes. As one reads Paine’s description of the revolutionary movements
which he experienced day by day, and recalls Burke’s exaggerated recitation of these same occurrences in his later writing, one realizes the need for objective measures to determine the significance of any event. The excesses at the beginning of the Revolution were exploited by Burke (who was not present) in his defense of hereditary government. Factual distortion to prove a point was hardly novel in Burke’s time and is hardly anachronistic today.
     Ultimately for both men the difficulty of melding principle with mob action was patent. Deducing what course of action made the most sense and attempting to come to rational conclusions could only be achieved with time. The excess of mayhem just before peace was restored in Paris was disastrous and neither author tried to defend it. In the end, and regardless of its horrendous consequences for the many who were involved, Paine holds that the causes of the Revolution were legitimate; it was a necessary evil (as an antidote to tyrannical government) no matter the devastation it produced or the distortion of its goals along the way. Based on the exigencies of the situations in both France and the American colonies Paine saw each revolution as inevitable, in the Machiavellian sense of the ends justifying the means.
     Paine’s last authorial effort, The Age of Reason, which is not part of this edition of his works, brought an ignominious end to a brilliant political life. In an era of fervent religious belief The Age of Reason sought to denigrate what Paine saw as religious superstition, and substitute in its stead the deistic beauty of a world built in God’s image. The reaction to The Age of Reason was a sad denouement to a life of accomplishments. Although the book had little effect on the secular success of Paine’s political efforts it had a great effect on him during the years following the French Revolution. His was a life devoted to making sense of the world. His intent in The Age of Reason was to expose what he saw as the folly of then-entrenched religious dogma. His manner was too cynical—if not blasphemous—for his contemporaries and they shunned him for it. At the end of his life, Paine was a social and religious outcast in the freest society on earth—the one that he had helped to create.  

70

About the Author

Thomas Paine was born in England in 1737, the son of a Quaker. After a brief education, he worked for his father and then for the British government in a tax office. In 1774, after several incidents that left Paine’s government career in question (he was twice dismissed from public employment) he met Benjamin Franklin in London who gave him letters of introduction and suggested that he immigrate to America.
     Paine began writing immediately upon his arrival in the colonies, and the following year, 1775, he published African Slavery in America—simultaneously condemning the institution and establishing himself as a social critic and philosophical investigator. A polymath, Paine read, digested, and distilled from the writings of others his philosophical foundation. Upon this base he passionately constructed his own ideas and conclusions, formed from what he himself knew to be right and valid.
    
Common Sense, which initially sold more than 150,000 copies, and ultimately passed the half million mark (the equivalent today of 40 million or more books) established Paine’s influence on the evolving rebellion against England and became a core resource for American revolutionaries during the events of the next decade. Paine’s dedication to the cause was unquestioned—he donated all profits from the sale of Common Sense to the sometimes ill-equipped and under-trained American army—and he served in the front lines of George Washington’s forces from the summer of 1776 until the spring of 1777. It was during this period that he wrote the first section of The Crisis, the last chapter of which appeared in 1783. After his military service Paine worked as secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs in the national government. He lost that position, however, again through bad judgment; in spite of those difficulties, he subsequently served as a clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly for almost a decade.
     In 1787 Paine traveled back to England but two years later became engrossed in the revolution in France. His third political manifesto, The Rights of Man (1791), a denunciation of Edmund Burke’s critical Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), evolved from his belief that Burke was wrong in forcing monarchy on each new generation. Rights further elucidates the ideas Paine had formed during the American Revolution. Paine was elected to the French National

71  

Convention in 1791 but was imprisoned in 1793 during the regime of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), leader of the Jacobins who had taken over the government subsequent to the fall of the monarchy. Paine’s jailing came because he had voted against the execution of the dethroned king Louis XVI (so much for free speech and democratic sovereignty in France). He was scheduled to die on the guillotine, but because of a clerical error the mark on his open cell door was incorrectly observed and he was spared execution. (Robespierre was not so lucky, falling to the guillotine in 1794.)
     The Age of Reason was published during Paine’s imprisonment. A steadfast attack on what Paine described as the Bible’s primitive superstitions, it was written in praise of the achievements of the Enlightenment; it was because of this book that Paine was accused of being an atheist. But he was not; he was a deist who sought after a religion of reason and of intellectual integrity. After his release from prison he stayed in France until 1802 when he crossed the Atlantic yet again. In the United States he was faced with the charge of being a heretic. What he had done for the American Revolution was ignored. He was mystified that the reputation he had made as a patriot had been superseded by his infamy as the author of The Age of Reason. After his death in New York City on June 8, 1809, the newspapers read, “He had lived long, did some good and much harm,” but Paine’s importance and reputation have deservedly undergone substantial rehabilitation since that time.

Available through:
Meridian/Penguin Group
375 Hudson St .
New York , NY 10014
ecommerce@us.penguingroup.com

72

 
Back to Top