Does Thomas Paine's Common Sense still make common sense?
When we think of the founding fathers, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and others come to mind. But what about Thomas Paine, author of the pamphlet, Common Sense? Written in early 1776, before the Declaration of Independence, it is widely credited with building popular support for independence. Common Sense is still, to this day, on a per-capita basis, the best-selling title ever in America. It is estimated to have sold 100,000 copies within three months of publication, when the colonies had about two million in population, and ultimately reached 500,000 in circulation.
In the pamphlet, Paine lays out reasons in support of American independence. I wonder, is his rationale still relevant today. Do his arguments have any guidance to offer us today? In other words, does Common Sense still make common sense?
The Role and Size of Government
Paine looks at government as a necessary evil, commenting that “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil”. Paine goes onto to argue for a small government - “Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that … (the form) with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.” . Years later, in 1849, philosopher Henry David Thoreau, of Walden Pond fame, had the most famous formulation in his essay, “Civil Disobedience” - “That government is best which governs least…, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—That government is best which governs not at all;”
What would Paine think if he saw some of things the government is involved in today? Which seems to be about everything. Here is an example from the 1930's: During the New Deal the government attempted to regulate kosher chickens, by prohibiting customers from picking specific chickens at the butcher (I’m not kidding). The Supreme Court overturned the law, one of the last times the Commerce Clause of the Constitution was used to limit Federal. Now here is one government regulation probably near and dear to many – according to U.S. Federal law, it is illegal to advertise wine in a manner that suggests it has intoxicating qualities. And don’t mess up by selling wine with a brand name that includes the word zombie. That’s forbidden too. If Paine could see how the government grew into a multi-trillion dollar enterprise with regulations affecting all sectors of the economy, he would probably have to write "Common Sense 2" , Subtitled ‘What the f**k happened?”
Paine is concerned about taxes – especially in a monarchical form of government. He notes that the prophet Samuel warns the Israelites against wanting a king, stating that a king would “…take the tenth of your feed, and of your vineyards, ...and he will take the tenth of your men servants, and your maid servants, and your goodliest young men and your asses, and put them to his work…and he will take the tenth of your sheep”.
Imagine that, a 10% tax rate, how oppressive! Look at the burden we face today:
- Social Security – 15.4% (employer and employee combined)
- Federal Income Tax – as high as 37%
- State income tax – as high as 13% in some states
- Sales Taxes – as high as 10% in some states.
That could exceed 50% – compare that to the oppressive 10% rate Paine was concerned about. Paine underestimates how high taxes can go under a democratic system, even without a monarchy. I’ll bet the Beatles would agree, as they commented on a 95% tax rate:
Let me tell you how it will be
There's one for you, nineteen for me
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman
Paine moves onto the subject of Monarchy. He hates it. Acknowledging that many Englishman are in favor of their system of government, including the Monarchy, he starts off with “And as a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.”
His argument against Monarchy is threefold.
- There is no reason that some people would be ‘more equal’ than the rest – “Male and female are the distinctions of nature; good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth enquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.”.
- Hereditary succession is wrong – “To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; …(it) is an insult and an imposition on posterity.”
- In arguing against the ‘divine right of Kings’ – Paine describes William the Conqueror of England as “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.”
Ultimately Paine turned out to be correct. With few exceptions, the remaining monarchies today are constitutional, meaning the Monarch is a powerless figurehead. The only instance I can find a Monarch affecting government policy recently was the Japanese Emperor at the end of World War II. The Emperor apparently intervened to get Japan to surrender after the atomic bombs had been dropped, over the objections of some of the military leaders.
Independence and Trade
Paine went onto the case for independence. His argument is that being a British colony limits our freedom to trade with whomever we want and could involve us in foreign wars.
Regarding trade, he comments that “The commerce, by which she (America) hath enriched herself are the necessaries of life, and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.”. He continues that “Europe is too thickly planted with kingdoms to be long at peace, and whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign power, the trade of America goes to ruin, because of her connection with Britain.”
These arguments are spot-on. Consider the subsequent French Revolution in 1792 and the war that resulted between England and France. The United States stayed neutral for almost twenty years until the War of 1812. By then the country was larger and stronger than it was in 1776 and able to defend itself. What would the fate of the US have been if it was still part of Great Britain, and Great Britain lost the Napoleonic wars? I doubt the Louisiana Purchase would have occurred if the US was still a British colony – would France be selling territory to its sworn enemy?
Over 140 years later, the same issue repeats itself. When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, President Wilson wanted the United States to stay neutral. Both sides wanted U.S. goods and resources to support their war efforts. Certainly the U.S. made money selling goods to both sides, although the bulk of the trade went to support the Allies since the British were blockading Germany. Three years into the war, in 1917, the U.S. did enter the war after Germany started unlimited submarine warfare. But this was still a choice the United States was able to make. In comparison, all the British Commonwealth countries entered the war in 1914 when it started. Casualties for some of these countries were high – in Australia, from a population of fewer than five million, more than 60,000 were killed. New Zealand incurred 18,000 deaths out of a population of about one million. Canada had over 60,000 deaths out of a population of about seven million. These casualty rates, as a percentage of the population is over ten times higher than that experienced by the United States, which had about 110,000 deaths out of a population of ninety-two million in that war.
Paine covers a wide variety of other subjects in his pamphlet. These still make common sense today:
- On immigration he notes that we are a country of immigrants from all over the world, not just England – “Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, are of English descent. Wherefore I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England only, as being false, selfish, narrow and ungenerous.”. He continues stating that if America should be British, then Britain should be French! – “The first king of England, of the present line (William the Conqueror) was a Frenchman, and half the Peers of England are descendants from the same country; therefore, by the same method of reasoning, England ought to be governed by France.”
- One interesting argument he makes is about the problems distance creates for governance – “To be always running three or four thousand miles with a tale or a petition, waiting four or five months for an answer, which when obtained requires five or six more to explain it in, will in a few years be looked upon as folly and childishness.” We have instant communications today, but don’t you feel that Washington DC is still too distant from your city or town to provide effective governance?
- Paine supports freedom of religion - “I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be diversity of religious opinions among us: It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness.”
There is a strong libertarian thread in Paine’s thinking and mistrust of power. These are still relevant today. I think we can conclude, that, yes, Common Sense still makes common sense, over 240 years later.
Paine had an interesting life. After publication of Common Sense, he later wrote ‘The American Crises’ pamphlet, late in 1776 to inspire American soldiers. It includes the famous quote, “These are the times that try men's souls”. When the French Revolution broke out, Paine wrote “Rights of Man”, defending the Revolution, its causes and purpose. England, fearing a revolution itself, tried him in absentia and sentenced him to hang, calling the “Rights of Man” seditious libel.
Paine was elected to France’s constitutional convention, but later arrested, narrowly avoiding execution by guillotine. In 1794 He wrote the “Age of Reason”, another best seller, criticizing the political power of organized religons and supporting the ‘deist’ movement, which takes a rational view of science rejecting revelation and miracles.
He was pretty unpopular by the time he died and only six people attended his funeral. After his death a supporter from Great Britain came to the United States and exhumed and stole some of his remains, wanting to create a grand memorial. England was not particularly enthusiastic about honoring the person who helped bring about the American Revolution, so this plan was never realized. Paine’s remains have been missing ever since.