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Common Sense

Common Sense Summary


Here you will find a Common Sense summary (Thomas Paine's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Common Sense Summary Overview

The discourse commences with a distinction between society and governance. Society symbolizes the positive and constructive accomplishments achieved through collective human efforts. In contrast, governance is seen as a necessary evil, established to safeguard us from our own flaws. Its origins stem from human misconduct and its primary function is to protect life, liberty, and property. The efficacy of a government should be evaluated based on its success in fulfilling this objective. The narrative then transitions to a hypothetical scenario where a group of individuals are isolated on an island. Over time, these individuals form relationships, leading to the inevitable establishment of law. The argument posits that such individuals will experience greater satisfaction if they are actively involved in the law-making process. The narrative further criticises the British governing system, underlining its complexity, contradictions, and the disproportionate power it affords to the monarch. Despite a facade of checks and balances, the British system is deemed inadequate. The discussion proceeds to the concepts of monarchy and inheritance of power. All humans are born equal, hence the division between ruler and subject is unnatural. Paine asserts that monarchy is a sinful practice condemned by the Bible and God. The narrative brings to light the pitfalls of hereditary succession, such as inept rulers, corruption, and civil war. The narrative then transitions to the American situation. The argument refutes the idea that America's prosperity under British rule justifies ongoing allegiance. It asserts that America has matured and no longer requires Britain's support. Furthermore, the argument suggests that America would fare better in commerce with Europe as an independent entity and remaining attached to Britain could lead to recurring issues from the past. Finally, the narrative endorses a representative democracy for the independent colonies and encourages America to break free from Britain to gain respect on the international scene. As an independent nation, America would be able to forge substantial alliances with other countries and seek their aid in the struggle for freedom.

chapter 1

Thomas Paine starts "Common Sense" by discussing common misconceptions about the relationship between society and government. He distinguishes between the two, asserting that society is a universal good, while government is "a necessary evil." Society helps us achieve our dreams, while the purpose of government is to prevent destructive behavior. Paine stresses that government's ultimate role is to provide security, and its effectiveness is gauged by its ability to fulfill this duty. Paine delves into the essence of government by imagining a small group of people isolated from the world. They would need to interact in order to survive, eventually forming a society. As long as they maintained mutual respect, they wouldn't require laws. However, recognizing human imperfections, they would need a government. Initially, a meeting place to discuss public issues would suffice, but as their society expanded, they would need representatives. Regular elections would ensure that these representatives truly represent the people's wishes. Paine asserts that representation, not monarchy, is key to "The strength of government and the happiness of the governed." He criticizes the British constitution for being overly complex and filled with tyranny, arguing it's naive to think it functions on checks and balances. Paine portrays government as an entity solely designed to contain human wickedness, while society "promotes our happiness positively". He suggests that government is merely a deterrent, while society is responsible for any positive or creative endeavors. He speculates on how he might feel about modern governments, which take on positive projects to improve public life. Paine uses a parable to express his thoughts about government, though it's clear he's commenting on the American situation. He likens America to his imagined secluded land, with the initial settlers representing the isolated individuals. However, he acknowledges that this comparison is flawed since America wasn't completely isolated, being under European influence. Paine aims to explore how government arises naturally, but acknowledges that the first settlers brought with them pre-existing English governance concepts.

chapter 2

Paine argues that humanity began in a state of equality, so current inequality must be the result of certain developments. He criticizes the separation between rulers and subjects, considering it unnatural and without religious justification. The division, unlike the differences between men and women or good and evil, is not a "heavenly" distinction and Paine wants to explore its roots and implications. Paine suggests that initially, there were no kings. The ancient Jews, however, adopted this practice from their non-believer neighbors, which he views as a severe error. He contends that introducing a human ruler akin to a God was a serious wrongdoing. The Jews, according to Paine, requested a king, and despite prophet Samuel's discouragement, they persisted. God finally agreed to their demand, even though He disapproved of their desire for a ruler other than Him. After examining the biblical birth of monarchy, Paine concludes that it is a sinful practice. He believes scripture opposes monarchy. He then criticizes the concept of hereditary monarchy, arguing that since all men are born equal, no one has the right to establish his lineage as perpetual rulers. He points out the recent bad rulers of England as evidence of the illegitimacy of their power, even for those who support hereditary rule. Paine ponders the origins of royal power, identifying three possible sources: choice, chance, or force. He suggests that if a king was chosen, all future kings should also be elected and if a king seized power, his rule is illegitimate. Hereditary power, Paine states, is invalid and carries its own problems, such as arrogance and incompetence. He additionally refutes the idea that hereditary rule minimizes civil wars, citing numerous British civil wars and rebellions. Monarchy and hereditary rule, according to Paine, have only led to poor governance and conflict. In Paine's era, the Bible was a key influence on public opinion. Many believed divine right gave kings their authority, making people reluctant to rebel against a king. Paine challenges this belief, citing biblical reasons to oppose the idea of a God-appointed monarchy. He presents extensive biblical evidence to argue that monarchy is neither a natural nor beneficial institution.

chapter 3

Paine calls on readers to cast away their bias and objectively assess his upcoming observations. He rebuffs the belief that America must stay closely tied to Britain to prosper, comparing it to the flawed notion that an infant who thrives on milk should never consume meat. He emphasizes that America would have been better off had it not been under the influence of multiple European nations. He disputes the idea that Britain has been a guardian to the colonies, stating Britain has protected the colonies merely for its own profit, not out of goodwill. Had the colonies been independent, they wouldn't have been antagonized by nations that are Britain's enemies. Hence, Paine contends that being a British colony itself provoked the necessity for protection. Paine argues that the ancestry of Americans isn't significant. Britain, being an adversary, has no valid claim to American loyalty. The onus of reconciliation does not rest on the colonies. He suggests that America gains nothing from its alliance with Britain, and the economic strain imposed on Americans due to their association with Britain is sizable. For instance, Bostonians frequently face the risk of their property being seized by British soldiers. Paine also asserts that making peace with the British will only trigger the reoccurrence of the current tumultuous situation. He believes it's unrealistic to expect a peaceful and normal existence under British dominance. The unrealistic expectation that the British will not impose another oppressive tax is also highlighted, given they enforced unfair tariffs shortly after revoking the Stamp Act. Paine declares that it's not feasible for Britain to govern the vast and intricate America. He observes that it's absurd for a tiny island to rule over a large continent. Paine warns that if the colonists do not strive for complete independence, the struggle will merely be postponed, and future generations will be forced to revolt against the British. He once believed reconciliation could be possible, but the Battle of Lexington and Concord convinced him otherwise. Paine further introduces his vision of an appropriate American government. He proposes methods for electing congress and the President and calls for a "Continental Conference" to develop a "Continental Charter" to ensure the protection of basic rights. Paine insists that the law should be supreme in America, and vital laws should be incorporated into a constitution. He concludes with an earnest appeal for freedom from British autocracy.

chapter 4

Paine emphasizes the imminent inevitability of America's separation from Britain. He believes the time is right given the country's abundant manpower ready for battle. He contends that the expenses of the impending war will be justified only if it brings about total freedom, not merely changes to tax laws. Paine argues that America, free from national debt, can afford to raise a formidable navy to rival Britain’s. He highlights the strategic advantage of America's natural resources and unprotected coastline. The navy will not only protect the Atlantic coast but will also boost America's trade prospects. If Britain's control over America persists, Paine warns, the country's potential will decline. He believes in seizing the opportunity for independence while the continent is still sparsely populated. Paine advocates for the control of land distribution to be in the hands of colonies rather than the British elites, which could help in debt repayment. He adds that the colonies should unite now before an increase in population makes collaboration for independence challenging. Listing four reasons, Paine insists the only viable path for the colonies is to seek complete independence. This would enable the colonies to be seen as independent by other nations, thus facilitating negotiation and alliances, rather than being viewed as rebels against Britain. He likens the delay in declaring independence to procrastination over an unavoidable task, "the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity." Addressing the perceived invincibility of Britain, Paine reassures the doubtful that America isn’t too small to challenge the world's largest empire. He illustrates how America, with its resources, could construct a navy to rival Britain's. He details the cost implications and sourcing materials, reinforcing the feasibility of his proposition. His meticulous plan aims to convince skeptics that the seemingly impossible task of America breaking free from Britain is indeed achievable.


The appendix to Common Sense, included in the second release in 1776, isn't part of the original discourse on independence; it is Paine’s response to contemporary concerns and a reiteration of his arguments. The first section of the appendix emphasizes: the immediate need for colonial independence, the simplicity and unity in independence over reconciliation. The second portion, "To the Representatives of the Quakers," is Paine’s response to Quaker objections to the revolution. Paine begins by affirming his religious tolerance and belief in God, then criticizes the Quaker authors for their political interference and self-appointed representation of all Quakers. He mirrors their presumptuous tone to highlight their folly. Paine concurs with the Quakers' principles of love and peace, stating that permanent peace can only be achieved via total colonial separation from Britain. He defends the revolution as a response to British aggression on American soil. The Quakers' criticism of colonists for resorting to arms, Paine argues, is unjust. Their disapproval should be directed at the British, not the colonists who are simply defending themselves. He urges Quakers to denounce the king's wrongdoings, not the colonists' self-defense efforts. Paine disputes a biblical quotation used by the Quakers, asserting that if the ways of the English king pleased God, there would be peace, not revolution. If the Quakers genuinely believe that governments are solely God's affair, Paine suggests, they should refrain from political matters altogether, accepting the outcome of the revolution as God's will. He mocks this viewpoint, arguing that if governments were indeed God's business, no one could be blamed for overthrowing a king. Paine ends by rebuking the conflation of religion and politics, hoping for the day when such blending "may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of America."

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