Book Review: Common Sense

Firebrand of Liberty, Thomas Paine.

During the 18th century, if you liked your politics radical, Thomas Paine was your guy.  Paine was the quintessential agitator.  A British expat and adopted American, Paine was a tireless polemicist who never met a revolution he didn’t like.  His thoughts on individual liberty were way ahead of the curve and his notions about the right relationship between government and the governed were downright Jeffersonian - you might even argue that it was Jefferson who drew inspiration from Paine.  

Paine’s most famous work was a pamphlet entitled Common SensePublished in 1776, the pro-revolutionary tract laid out the case for separation from Great Britain and roundly condemned not only King George III, but also the very institution of monarchy.  The influence it had was enormous.  From New Hampshire to Georgia, discontented colonists devoured Paine’s prose and the desired effect was achieved.  To this day it remains a seminal text of American political thought.  

The genius of Common Sense was that it gave voice to the collective anger and frustration felt by countless American patriots and it succeeded in spinning an already angry populace even further into the realm of tear-ass rebelliousness. 

In order to get into the revolutionary spirit, I read it for the first time while on my recent trip to Yorktown, Virginia.  It’s a quick read and moves right along.  I dug the parts where Paine gets really cutting and takes potshots at British royal history,

England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones; yet no man in his sense can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable 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 rascally origin.
— Thomas Paine

It’s paragraphs like this that lead me to believe Paine would make for a super snarky talk radio host were he alive today.  To portray him as a bomb thrower, however, is inaccurate.  Paine’s liberalism was earnest and Common Sense has plenty of political theory mixed with its acerbic wit.  He's a man that wants to get back to basics.  A believer in the fundamental goodness of humankind, Paine constantly rails against the corrupt systems that destroy humanity's spirit.   The seedling of modern progressivism is embedded within Paine's writings (for those of you interested in delving a bit deeper, look to the debate between he and Edmund Burke over the meaning and philosophy of the French Revolution as it prefigures the current ideological battle between right and left). 

Paine’s at his best when issuing impassioned calls to arms and by book's end I was ready to mount the barricades.  Go get ‘em Thomas, 

An original copy of Thomas Paine's Common Sense.  

Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord is broken, the people of England are presenting addresses against us. There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did. As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain...O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!
— Thomas Paine

Preach brother.    

Methinks I can hear the people sing.  There's definitely a chorus being taken up by the people of Hong Kong at the moment.