Published in January 1776, nearly seven months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s 47 page tract Common Sense moved the American masses toward independence. Largely because of Paine’s writing, the localized dissent of radicals coalesced into the will of an emerging nation.
In the pamphlet’s introduction (Common Sense was originally published anonymously) Paine states “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” This impending war for independence wasn’t just about America vs. King George III, indeed Paine had been in America for only a year prior to this writing, it was about basic human rights. The central question of the time: How does a new government escape the tyrannies of the past yet avoid anarchy in the present?
Government is a Necessary Evil
To find his answer, Paine examines the purpose and origin of government, and in doing so leans head on into a scathing criticism of the English constitution. In commentary not far removed from Romans 13:3ff, he illustrates the need for government only as a means of establishing laws and punishing those who break them. Government is a “necessary evil.” Necessary because man is fallible and cannot be trusted not to act selfishly or injuriously toward his neighbor. Evil because government cannot be trusted to avoid its ravenous appetite for power. Government is “rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.”
England’s constitution (organization of government) consisted of three parts:
- The monarchy
- The aristocracy
- The commons
The Hereditary Nature of Monarchies
Monarchy and aristocracy, being hereditary institutions, are “independent of the people” having no real accountability to them or censure from them. Although the commons were an elected body and were, ostensibly, a check on the power of the king, George III had little to fear in that regard. The hereditary nature of monarchies, and the centuries old traditions that buffer them kept power safely in the hands of the king.
From Paine’s perspective, the concept of “checks and balances” was an absurdity. He had yet to see three equal branches of government keeping one another accountable to each other, and more importantly, to the people. Taking liberties with the context of Matthew 12:25, as did Abraham Lincoln in 1858, Paine describes Britain’s system of checks as a “house divided,” impossible to govern as intended and likely to collapse into the tyrannies of the strongest branch.
Monarchies are Prone to Tyranny
To convince the American colonists that monarchies are prone to tyranny, and, in fact, evils are inherent to them, Paine once again turns to his undoubtedly well-worn Bible with the account of the nation of Israel asking God, via Samuel, for a king. (1 Samuel 8:6). God answered that they would have their king, but warned them that a king would tax them, take their property, send them to war, and otherwise oppress them. This was a powerful similitude for the Americans who read it as it bolstered Paine’s argument for independence.