Thomas Paine, author of the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, posed a variety of arguments in favor of colonial separation from Great Britain. These arguments fall largely into two categories: ideological and practical. The ideological arguments look primarily to the future, in which he anticipates the establishment of a more representative and thus less oppressive form of government. The practical arguments are more rooted in the colonies’ contemporary circumstances and his analysis of the past effects of British monarchy.
Paine’s ideological arguments are primarily based on the conception of government as a “necessary evil” (Paine, 1776). In comparison to society, whose establishment is part of a natural social order, Paine believed government to be imposed from without in order to protect the inhabitants of a society from unjust and immoral acts. Although he thought this to be necessary to ensuring the safety of inhabitants and their property, he also understood the danger that it posed to individual freedom. Common Sense argues that in order to mitigate the oppressive potential of government, monarchy must be abolished and a more straightforward means of governance established.
On page three of the pamphlet, Paine describes a theoretical democracy in action. He insists that frequent elections could ensure that any representative of a constituency would continue to uphold the same interests, and it would thus be possible to form a system of government that reflects the common interests of the community. The system he describes is a simple representative democracy. When he compares it to the existing English constitutional monarchy, it is clear that his thought experiment in democracy is more straightforward and thus preferable in his estimation.
Later in the pamphlet he goes on to provide more detailed explanations. A direct line of thought could easily be traced from Paine’s musings on democracy to the American Declaration of Independence. In this important document Thomas Jefferson, with the help of other voices of colonial dissent, lays out a short but compelling explanation of the need for American independence from Britain. Paine’s own thoughts are echoed therein when Jefferson asserts that governments can only be called just when their power is derived “from the consent of the governed” (1776). In another striking similarity, this seminal document also establishes democracy as an alternative to the oppressive English monarchy, citing the grievances of the colonists against the unfair rule of the king. . [Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
After proving the ideological basis for believing that a more effective system of governance could be established independent of British rule, Paine goes on to tackle some of the more practical arguments in favor of separation. He does this by furnishing counterarguments against colonial independence, then disproving them with contemporary and historical evidence. The primary arguments against independence faced by the author relate to the concept of Great Britain as a parent country, and on the value of reconciliation in order to avoid conflict. Paine expertly refutes both of these arguments.
As he notes, the hereditary line of English monarchs that ruled at the time was descended from previous French invaders. This alone should discredit the idea that the colonies were obliged to remain aligned with England as their country of origin, as England itself did not at the time defer to the French. In addition he points out that the very notion that the colonies formed as a direct extension of England is fallacious. In fact, colonists were not universally of British origin and were drawn instead from all over Europe in attempts to escape the tyrannical rule of a variety of European monarchies. < Click Essay Writer to order your essay >
To those who would argue that reconciliation was the only means of establishing peace within the colonies, Paine points out that previous attempts at working toward improved relations within the context of the contemporary system had already failed. He cites as an example the city of Boston, which he describes as a “seat of wretchedness” (Paine, 1776) due to British acts of retribution. After the Boston Tea Party, in which colonial citizens fought only for their right to representation in the British parliament rather than total independence, the response of the monarchy was to impose even more oppressive laws, intentionally impeding further the colonists’ struggle for freedom.
Although he doesn’t deny that reconciliation with England may have been possible prior to these events, Paine’s arguments prove that in the colonies’ contemporary circumstances separation from Great Britain would be the only true path to freedom and peace. The arguments put forward in Common Sense are of great historical significance, as they informed public opinion prior to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the civil war that ensued.
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Paine, Thomas (1776). Common Sense (3rd ed.). National Humanities Center.
U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776)