Common Sense by Thomas Paine: Key Quotes Explained

Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense may be, after The Communist Manifesto, the most influential political tract ever written. It galvanised countless Americans living among the Thirteen Colonies, who were then unconvinced by the notion of independence, that breaking from British rule and declaring independence was the best course of action for the colonies.

Paine makes his argument using plain language, hence the title, Common Sense. He is very much addressing, not the scholars or the politicians, but the ordinary man and woman, to win them over to the cause. And his pamphlet – which sold an estimated 100,000 copies at a time when the population of the colonies was around 2.5 million – was a sensation.

Let’s take a look at some of the most illustrative and important quotations from Paine’s polemical tract which, in many ways, lit the touchpaper for revolution in 1776.

‘The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.’

These words appear in the introduction to Common Sense, and help to lift Paine’s pamphlet up out of its specific context and make it a universal plea for independence and anti-monarchical government.

‘Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one’.

For Paine, government is necessary in civilised society, but that doesn’t mean it is benign. It is only necessary because men sometimes need their individual, inner ‘evil’ to be restrained. Paine goes on to say that, ‘security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.’

In other words, people will trade a little freedom for the security that government provides, but they won’t part with more individual liberty than is absolutely necessary.

‘Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.’

Government, as this quotation argues, is there not as a positive, but as merely a check on the negative aspects of mankind. Paine then explains, ‘for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.’ Or, to put this another way, if things are as bad with a government as they would be without one, it’s our own fault for allowing such a bad government to rule over us.

‘In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes.’

Throughout Common Sense, Paine is squarely anti-monarchy, and this quotation comes at the end of a consideration of various historical examples of kings and monarchies that have caused problems for the people they rule over.

‘Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.’

This is one of the best-known quotations from the pamphlet. This sentence concludes the second part of Common Sense in which Paine had argued against the idea of a constitutional monarchy (an idea put forward by the English philosopher John Locke, among others). Paine removes the aura from around monarchs and emphasises that they are just human beings underneath their fine regalia: without their crowns, they are men with the same flaws and base instincts as the rest of us.

Instead of some hereditary privilege – such as the right to rule a nation as king or queen – Paine values individual behaviour. So an honest but ordinary man is more valuable to a society than a king who is dishonest. This is quite the claim, but it is rhetoric like this which helped to convert so many people among the Thirteen Colonies to the fight for independence.

‘I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.’

This quotation neatly sums up how Common Sense caused such a sensation among so many readers, both in the Thirteen Colonies and abroad (the pamphlet was also well-received in France). Throughout the 25,000 words of Common Sense, Paine avoids overly long and complicated words – something he also makes a point of doing in his later works, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason – so that his message can reach everyone, no matter what their education.

Of course, he’s also suggesting that the cause for independence only needs to be laid out in simple facts, with a straightforward argument that amounts to ‘common sense’: what everyone, deep down, knows is the right thing. Paine’s rhetoric is founded on simplicity, rather than clever scholarly references or convoluted political arguments.

‘It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to repel the force of all the world.’

Let’s conclude this survey of the pamphlet’s key quotations with one which appears near the beginning of the fourth and final section of Common Sense.


Paine acknowledges that the population of the Thirteen Colonies is far smaller than Britain. America has no navy to speak of. Yet he goes on to outline how, if they work together, Americans can use the shipyards and borrowed money to build a navy that can rival the Royal Navy owned by the British. What’s more, though they be (relatively) small, there is still enough men living among the colonies to form sizeable armies.

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