First Appreciation of Thomas Paine and His ‘Common Sense’

by Laksiri Fernando

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” – Thomas Paine

( April 7, 2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) There were few in history who were genuinely internationalist. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was one whose Sri Lankan admirer, living currently in Germany, is our Amarasiri. This is written on his request in Colombo Telegraph. By saying so, I have broken the first principle of Thomas Paine who said “In the following sheets, the author hath studiously avoided everything which is personal among ourselves. Compliments as well as censure to individuals make no part thereof.” But our Sri Lankan ‘common sense’ is different. From the beginning, we gratify ourselves or friends and ‘censure’ the real or imagined enemies. We have lot of them in our baggage.

Paine was a cosmopolitan in a true sense of the word and believed in ‘multiple citizenships’ to himself. He played a major role in the American and French revolutions and tried his best to emulating them in Britain and Ireland, unfortunately without much success. In today’s parlance, he could have been branded as an international NGO dude or conspirator.

He was born in England (Norfolk) to an artisan family and his father was a tailor, making corsets to the nobility. That was also Paine’s occupation for a while. He had only a basic education, nevertheless with excellent writing skills from the beginning, and an open mind to the world of politics. Fighting for justice apparently was ingrained in his blood. When he emigrated to America in 1774, he was 37. That is where he blossomed into a radical and a popular philosopher. Otherwise he was considered a conservative. He apparently had some contacts with Benjamin Franklin by the time of his migration to America. His later acquaintance was mainly with Thomas Jefferson. What attracted him there perhaps was the simmering revolutionary firmament against the British crown. He was an outright republican.


Listen to Common Sense by Thomas Paine

Role in the American Revolution   

Paine obtained employment as an assistant editor in the ‘Pennsylvania Magazine’ based in Philadelphia. Most of the other time, he was in Kopi-Kade (coffee-houses), associating with revolutionaries there. In January 1776, he published his ‘Common Sense’ pamphlet, the most powerful and widely read manifesto for independence from Britain. This was after the battles in Lexington and Concord in 1775 where many souls had to be sacrificed. Within a year, it sold over 150,000 copies and that is how he became a major figure in the American revolution.

There were series of writings even thereafter during the revolution. His pen became more powerful when there were set backs, than victories. All what he wrote were inspirational. When Washington’s troops had to withdraw in December 1776, facing the advancing brutal British troops, he wrote:

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Even in supporting the revolution, he was not ready to compromise what he believed to be justice and truth. When he was serving the Continental Congress, he had some quarrels with other ‘comrades’ or colleagues on matters of principle. The dispute with Silas Deane was one. He faced other odds with many as he was a newcomer to the scene. Some wanted to keep their authority or seniority. Therefore, his association with the Continental Congress also was short lived. But finally, he was proved to be correct. Silas Deane almost became a betrayer to the revolution by 1981. Even before, Paine was vindicated and appointed to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1779. He could be considered as a founding father of the United States. ‘The American Crisis’ was a pamphlet series that he wrote during 1776 and 1783 to earn his commitment to the revolution. In recent times both Presidents Reagan and Obama quoted him in their inaugural addresses.  

His commitment to the revolution and America was unconditional. But he couldn’t become a blind patriot. Even Quincy Adams was discourteous to him on this matter. He said Paine had “no country and no affections that constitute pillars of patriotism.” What had to be admitted or admired was that Paine’s commitment was not to the country per se, but to the principles; what he believed to be justice or more correctly as ‘liberty and equality.’ Throughout Europe he stood for representative government instead of hereditary politics or monarchy.

Why Common Sense?

Paine was not an abstract theorist. That is why he appealed to the common sense. Liberty or equality was not abstract principles to him; they were closer to reason, nature and human sentiments. That is what he believed. However, he was a visionary. He believed and said, “We have it in our power to begin the world all over again.” Perhaps here he was little ‘utopian.’ He had to learn from bitter experiences that it is not so easy. He had his own disillusionments on these counts, especially after his role in the French revolution.

What is admirable about Paine particularly was he was a self-made man. He was wholly self-taught in political theory. He admitted that he had never read John Locke. Then what produced his political ‘philosophy’ was the circumstances and his thoughtful or often polemical reactions to them. Maybe he had a high IQ or something similar to that. Therefore, many reviewers (i.e. J. G. A. Pocock) found it difficult to fit him into any kind of category. He had benefitted immensely from coffee-house political arguments. He was reacting to them in a more thoughtful manner. It is said that he had an amazing memory. He also had a lot of travel baggage in terms of experiences and ideas. That is the best explanation that we can give for the roots of his ideas. Those were not definitely located in previous books.

He was also an innovative man, though not always practical. After the American revolution, he slowly left behind politics for a while, until he was inspired again to go to France in 1787. Not that he gave up or disillusioned about changing the world. But he wanted to experiment something else. He was involved in a series of innovations. He was experimenting a ‘smokeless candle’ and I think he succeeded. Now these are common. More importantly, he was designing a single-arched iron bridge. The rationale was that the concrete bridges stood on piers were unstable when ice floated during the spring. He designed a bridge of thirteen sections to represent thirteen states of new America. But the Pennsylvania Assembly was undecided whether to fund such a bridge, until he lost his patients and left the country. He did build such bridge in London (at Lisson Green), more as a show piece, but became dismantled after a while.

French Revolution

Paine shuttled between England and France during 1787 and 1792. His friend, Thomas Jefferson, was American Ambassador in France during this time. He was close to Girondins (sort of republicans) in France. Paine was there during the revolution, practically active. Despite his lack of French, the French were so open minded to elect him to the National Convention. His American writings and particularly Common Sense was his reputation. It was already translated.

He became more prominent with his defence of the French Revolution written in ‘The Rights of Man’ (1791 and 1792 in two parts) against Edmund Burk’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ (1790). In political theory, The Rights of Man could be considered more important than Common Sense. It is important even in learning the genesis of human rights today. Paine was charged for sedition in England for his radical views. But by the time, he was in France and helping the drafting of a Republican Constitution. He never returned to England thereafter.

He soon became a controversial figure in France as well. Because many of his ideas were well ahead of time. He was arrested in 1793. By that time, he has completed his ‘Age of Reason’ which was primarily a discourse on secularism against the Church and priestcraft. His ambiguity of nationality finally helped him. Was he an American, an English or a French? If not a French, how could he was elected to the National Convention? His prosecutors were confused. Different laws applied to different nationalities in France. Finally, he was released in 1794.

There were several other works by Thomas Paine. All these were pamphlets. In his ‘Dissertation on First Principles of Government’ (1795), he criticised the New Constitution of France (1795), particularly on the limited suffrage, and called for universal suffrage. More important might be his ‘Agrarian Justice’ which called for land to the tiller and equal distribution of land to all those who reach the age of 21. Here he was talking about redistribute or economic justice. Thus, he is considered one of the initial advocates of the welfare state. In Britain, he is a hero of the political left. The late Tony Benn and Michael Foot served as presidents of the Thomas Paine Society in Britain.

Final Days

To come back to his life and times, finally, he returned back to America in 1802 although he was feeling annoyed of America not defending him when he was in trouble in France. By this time his publicly claimed friend, Thomas Jefferson, had become the President (1802). Jefferson fortunately did not betray him altogether. Paine stayed at the White House for a while. He continued writing, but deteriorated in health. He however couldn’t gain his former stature, increasingly becoming vituperative in his closing writings against Federalists. It is not sure whether he lost his common sense. He died in 1809 under squalid conditions.

However, what he has already written, gives him a foremost place in modern and democratic political thinking. ‘Common Sense,’ ‘The Rights of Man,’ ‘Age of Reason’ and ‘Agrarian Justice’ are my best choices. Influencing two revolutions in his time was no small feat. Even in England, he inspired several grassroots movements for democracy, justice, liberty and equality. He was a cosmopolitan and an internationalist. He perhaps was the first personification of interdependence of political change and social developments in several countries at the same time. This interdependence today has become more globalized. His tragedy of life also signifies its limitations even today.


Note: This article benefitted from Mark Philip’s Introduction to ‘Thomas Paine: Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings’ (Oxford World’s Classics) among other sources. Equally important was and would be a recent ‘A Political Biography of Thomas Paine’ by W. A. Speck (2015).

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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