Attempting to review Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is somewhat absurd. After all, as a political pamphlet, it set itself one task above all: to persuade its readers and that aim it has unquestionably achieved. You cannot possibly read an account of the American Revolution which does not mention Thomas Paine. America’s independence seems now to be unquestionably common-sense.
Yet it was fascinating to read Paine in the context of the Joanne Freeman’s course on the American Revolution (which by the way is highly recommended).
Before the American Revolution, we hear many times that most people may have disagreed with Parliament but they still liked to think of themselves as loyal subjects of the King. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet does away with any niceties of the sort:
“England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones, yet no man can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honourable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. – It certainly hath no divinity in it.”
Paine goes on to argue that leaving the American Revolution will necessarily happen: the only question is whether it will happen imminently or will be left to the care of future generations (and then concludes that it would be cowardly to leave to posterity).
This was all, as expected from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. What surprised me, however, was a short treatise included in this edition, called Agrarian Justice . Agrarian Justice basically argues that poverty is an unnatural state that arose due to the existence of civilization, and therefore it should be amended with Paine’s attempt at devising a universal basic income. Now, I’m not a political economist of a historian of ideas, but I found this little essay fascinating, if only because it shows that the concerns of the 21st century are not necessarily unique to their time.
Anyway, these two short pamphlets are definitely a recommended read for anyone with an interest in the history of the United States (or the history of 18th-century thought).
P.S. An additional benefit of reading Common Sense is that once you read it, you can sing along with Angelica Schuyler in “Hamilton”,
“I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine
So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane…”
That is literally the reason I picked up this book in the bookshop, and I’m not even ashamed…