A Summary and Analysis of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

After the Declaration of Independence, probably the most important and influential document of the American Revolution was a short pamphlet written not by an American, but by an English writer who had been living in America for less than 15 months. But although his country of birth was the very nation – Britain – that Americans were fighting against to secure their independence, Thomas Paine was most of the most significant supporters of the American cause.

And Americans were clearly ready to hear what he had to say. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published at the beginning of that momentous year, 1776, rapidly became a bestseller, with an estimated 100,000 copies flying off the shelves, as it were, before the year was out.

Indeed, in proportion to the population of the colonies at that time – a mere 2.5 million people – Common Sense had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history, before or since. Common Sense, it turns out, was fairly common – and very popular.

But what made Paine’s pamphlet of some 25,000 words and 47 pages strike such a chord with Americans in 1776? Why did Paine write Common Sense, and what exactly does the pamphlet say? Before we offer an analysis of this landmark text, here’s a summary of Paine’s argument.

Common Sense: summary

Paine’s pamphlet is a polemical work, so he is not setting out to offer a balanced and even-handed appraisal of the facts. Instead, he views his role as that of rabble-rouser, stoking the fires of revolution in the heart of every American living under British rule in the Thirteen Colonies.

Common Sense is divided into four parts. In the first part, ‘On the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the Constitution’, Paine considers the role of government in abstract terms. For Paine, government is a ‘necessary evil’ because it keeps individuals in check, when their inner ‘evil’ might otherwise break out.

Paine then considers the English constitution, established in 1689 in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. The main problem is that England has monarchy and aristocratic power written into its constitution: the monarchy is a hereditary privilege which the individual king or queen has done nothing personally to ‘earn’, and the same is true of those who sit in the House of Lords and participate in government. (Paine was against all forms of hereditary power, believing the individual should earn whatever role they have.)

In the second part, Paine considers monarchy from a biblical perspective and a historical perspective. Aren’t all men equal when they are created? In that case, the idea that one man – calling himself king – is greater than his subjects, who are but his fellow men, is flawed. He cites various passages from the Old and New Testaments in support of his argument.

For example, he discusses 1 Samuel 8 in which God punishes the people for asking for a king. ‘That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true,’ Paine argues, ‘or the scripture is false.’ And few of Paine’s God-fearing readers would believe that the Bible could be false in what it showed.

Next, Paine turns from the biblical to the historical argument against monarchical government, point out how past kings have been problematic: for example, the Wars of the Roses lasted for decades and kept England in a state of turmoil as two warring royal houses fought for control of the kingdom. ‘In short,’ Paine concludes, ‘monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes.’

Finally, Paine also attacks the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke’s notion of a ‘mixed state’, a kind of constitutional monarchy where the monarch has limited powers. For Paine, this isn’t enough: most monarchs who wish to seize more power for themselves will find a way of doing so.

The third part of Common Sense, ‘Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs’, looks at the conflict between Britain and the American colonies, arguing that independence is the most desirable outcome for America. He proposes a Continental Charter which would lead to a new national government, which would take the form of a Congress. He then outlines the form that this would take (each colony, divided into smaller districts, who send delegates to Congress to represent them).

In the fourth and final section of the pamphlet, ‘On the Present Ability of America, with Some Miscellaneous Reflections’, Paine turns to the practicalities of fighting the British, both in terms of money and resources.

He draws attention to America’s strong military potential. Shipyards can be used to provide the timber to create a navy that could rival Britain’s. Economically, too, America is in a strong position because it has no national debt.

Common Sense: analysis

Before he arrived in America in 1774, Thomas Paine had a fine series of failures behind him: a onetime corset-maker and customs officer born in Norfolk in 1737, he travelled to the American colonies after Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met in London, put in a good word for him.

Paine was soon editing the Pennsylvania Magazine, and in late 1775 began writing Common Sense, which would rapidly cause a sensation throughout the Thirteen Colonies. George Washington wrote to a friend in Massachusetts, ‘I find that Common Sense is working a powerful change there in the minds of many men’.

What was it about Paine’s pamphlet that caused such a stir? It was partly good timing: anti-British feeling had been growing in the last few years, especially since Britain introduced a range of taxes in 1763 to help fund their wars in Europe and India; such a tax famously led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and the British retaliation that swiftly followed.


Nevertheless, in 1775 many Americans living within the Thirteen Colonies still favoured reconciliation with their British overlords. Put simply, many people didn’t have enough enthusiasm to go to war against such a powerful imperial nation as Britain. But Thomas Paine sensed that the appetite for a fight was there, if only someone could stir the populace to action; and he knew the right way to get the ordinary man and woman on side.

So Paine needed to do more than simply lay out the situation to such people. He needed to persuade them by showing in powerful and vivid language that Britain was a power-hungry imperial force under whose boot Americans were always going to suffer – unless, that is, they decided enough was enough.

With Common Sense, Paine helped to win over many of those waverers to the cause for independence. He did this, most of all, not by appealing to scholarly argument or intellectual reasoning but by going for the emotions of his readers (and listeners: many people gathered together to hear someone else read aloud from Paine’s essay). We should bear in mind the ‘common’ part of ‘common sense’: Paine was trying to reach everyone, regardless of education or social rank.

Painting the British king, George III, as a tyrannical power-hungry ruler who had overstepped the mark, Paine made the case against monarchical rule and in favour of democratic government. When Common Sense lit the touchpaper for revolution, Paine was more than prepared to put his money where his mouth is, too. He enlisted in the American army in July 1776 and continued to write pamphlets to boost morale throughout the years of bloody war that followed.

Common Sense was popular in America, but it was also translated into French and was eagerly taken up there. Indeed, Paine’s revolutionary call for an anti-monarchical system of government would later help to inspire the French Revolution in 1789, which Paine supported in its early stages. But it was in America that his revolutionary zeal first galvanised others to fight for independence from the monarch who ruled over them.

Fittingly, it was Thomas Paine, writing under the byline ‘Republicus’ in June 29, 1776, who became the first person to make a public declaration for the new country to be named the ‘United States of America’. An Englishman from rural Norfolk had helped to inspire countless Americans to make their country their own.

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