Thomas Paine – Common Sense

Thomas Paine – Common Sense

A few years ago, I had a brief conversation with Tom Palmer in which he drew a contrast between the bourgeois Paine and the more aristocratic Edmund Burke. Paine is direct, unsubtle, and efficient, both in writing style and in his revolutionary fervor. Burke has a more lengthy, detached, and tradition-minded prose style, and a cautious, almost tentative political philosophy to match it.

Having finally sat down for a serious study of Paine for the first time, Tom’s point makes a lot of sense. Both men were liberals, in the correct sense of the term. But they were also very different from each other. Both supported the American Revolution. But where Burke opposed the French Revolution, Paine not only supported it, he participated in it. The two men also engaged in a war of words so heated that, while living in France, Paine was convicted in absentia in England for his attacks on Burke.

But that was all in the future for Thomas Paine in January 1776. Common Sense is a masterpiece of the pamphlet format, which was popular in 18th century America, as Bernard Bailyn describes in great detail in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Shorter than a full book or even a monograph, but longer than a magazine story, pamphlets were a common persuasive tool during Revolutionary times. They were also often read aloud, since literacy was far from universal in those days. This fact of life influenced pamphlets’ short length, their direct, simplified writing style, and their common use of universally-understood metaphors and references that everyone knew. Paine, though he was a deist and not a Christian, devotes a significant portion of Common Sense to the Bible’s warnings against the dangers of kings–many of which had come true under George III. In an appendix added later on, Paine appeals to Quakers to drop their pacifism and join the Revolutionary cause.

Among Paine’s more practical insights is that America and Britain essentially separated as soon as British troops fired their first shot. There was no going back to the way things were, even if people wanted to. Additionally, continued union would cause economic harm to the American people through no fault of their own. Otherwise-willing European buyers and sellers with no grudge against American merchants would keep their wallets closed and their ships away from Americans for as long as they remained British subjects. Continued allegiance to the crown was also potentially bad for American soldiers’ life expectancies if Britain were to press them into its military and its America-unrelated conflicts. Paine’s foreign policy non-interventionism was integral to the Founders’ thought, and today’s political leaders would do well to move in that sensible direction.

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