Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the philosophy of revolution

This paper was originally written for a journalism history course At OWU.

The first thing that struck me when reading from Common Sense was the similarity of Thomas Paine’s work to another author, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  I don’t believe the similarity in style is simply due to the fact that these men wrote in nearly the same era.  It certainly has little to do with subject matter; Paine was goading a revolution, Rousseau was opining on philosophy.  But there is a similarity in the way they construct and maintain arguments, probably because their arguments were prompted by similar purposes.  Where Rousseau was challenging views long held by establishment philosophers, Paine was challenging established political beliefs.  Where Rousseau leaves the levels of abstraction we often find in philosophy and brings in real-life examples and histories, Paine elevates his arguments above just the coarseness of the British troops and questions the very philosophies that keep Britain in power in America.

But that is because Paine faced a lot of the challenges that James Franklin and other early American journalists and pamphleteers felt.  Though Franklin may have been stirring up controversy for the sake of controversy or just to strike out against the establishment, he was able, for the first time, to make politics the domain of public discourse.  In his papers, people gained a frame of reference for discussing things as they never were before.  He managed to call in to question the basis of authority of not only a specific clergyman, but the clergy in general.  Though Paine was more successful when it came to moving a revolution, at least Franklin got them talking, and here is what Paine is trying to do as well.

Paine is going a level deeper than Franklin or most of his contemporaries did.  By the time Common Sense was circulating, challenging authority by way of publishing trespasses was old hat.  So Paine went deeper.  He, in a manner similar to Rousseau, tried to get to the root of the problem by explaining how it came about in the first place.  In the excerpt he is trying to overcome the established attitude that the rule of law must equal the rule of England; he must not only attack the divine, hereditary right of kings, but also the idea that government is automatically right.  To do so, he first proposes that government and society are not one and the same.  Society, he explains, is the natural interaction of people; government is regulations set to stop people from interacting negatively-a necessary evil.

So far, this is not convincing.  Tories probably argued that Britain’s troops and taxes were similarly a necessary evil, needed to maintain the rule of law.  Paine, however, disagrees, describing the theoretical evolution of an original government to show help his readers examine why we want a government in the first place.  By this device he opens minds, then goes in for the kill-showing this evolution to end with a republic lead by the people and for the people.  Mere restatements of the following arguments about this particular monarchy’s claim to power would have had little effect without this breakdown of assumptions and illustration of a better way.

We must keep in mind that Paine was writing for a wide audience, but still hoping to persuade more educated readers as well.  The very structure of his argument, as I said earlier, partially reflects this, attempting to open minds.  But also the clear, well ordered illustration is important so that the mass audience is able to understand his idea once he has them open to them. Thus he disguises his quite theoretical and abstract theories as the story of a colony very similar to the American colonies.  He relates the problems with not uniting in terms of felling trees and building homes and has the first voters meet under a particular tree.  In this way he is colorful, but also interesting and illustrative to his readers.  John Dickinson had the same ideas when he disguised his arguments as Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.  He gave the readers a common reference frame and turned his highly political arguments into social and personal ones for the reader; Paine does the same with the philosophical.  Paine even makes use of some of Dickinson’s more well-known techniques: the excerpt begins by mentioning “some writers” who have been mistaken in their arguments-much as Dickinson answered the concerns of opposition letters before he even published his.

Again, what sets Common Sense apart is that it not only exposed problems with the current system, but began planning an alternative.  Dickinson, who was never the revolutionary that Paine was, never did go much farther than finding problems and explaining difficulties with the crown’s policies.  Publishers like Adams were great at sensationalizing and reporting misdeeds, but did little to back up their arguments with new ideology.  This was essential for the creation of a new nation.  You can spur a mob on to violence with nothing more than inflammatory rhetoric, but you cannot get them to organize a union afterward without some sort of plan.