- Historic Sites
The Most Uncommon Pamphlet of the Revolution
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
Common Sense , it must be said, is lacking in close rigor of argumentation. Again and again Paine’s logic can be seen to be grossly deficient. His impatience with following through with his arguments at certain points becomes almost amusing. In the fourth and final section, for example, which is on America’s ability to achieve and maintain independence, Paine argues that one of America’s great advantages is that, unlike the corrupt European powers, it is free of public debt, a burden that was well known to carry with it all sorts of disabling social and political miseries. But then Paine recognizes that mounting a full-scale war and maintaining independence would inevitably force America to create a national debt. He thereupon proceeds to argue, in order, the following: 1) that such a debt would be “a glorious memento of our virtue”; 2) that even if it were a misery, it would be a cheap price to pay for independence and a new, free constitution—though not, for reasons that are not made entirely clear, a cheap price to pay for simply getting rid of the ministry responsible for all the trouble and returning the situation to what it was in 1764: “such a thought is unworthy a man of honor, and is the true characteristic of a narrow heart and a peddling politician.” Having reached that point, he goes the whole way around to make the third point, which is that “no nation ought to be without a debt,” though he had started with the idea that the absence of one was an advantage. But this new notion attracts him, and he begins to grasp the idea, which the later federalists would clearly see, that “a national debt is a national bond”; but then, having vaguely approached that idea, he skitters off to the curious thought that a national debt could not be a grievance so long as no interest had to be paid on it; and that in turn leads him into claiming that America could produce a navy twice the size of England’s for i/aoth of the English national debt.
As I say, close logic, in these specific arguments, contributes nothing to the force of Common Sense . But the intellectual style of the pamphlet is extraordinarily impressive nevertheless, because of a more fundamental characteristic than consistency or cogency. The great intellectual force of Common Sense lay not in its close argumentation on specific points but in its reversal of the presumptions that underlay the arguments, a reversal that forced thoughtful readers to consider, not so much a point here and a conclusion there, but a wholly new way of looking at the entire range of problems involved. For beneath all of the explicit arguments and conclusions against independence, there were underlying, unspoken, even unconceptualized presuppositions, attitudes, and habits of thought that made it extremely difficult for the colonists to break with England and find in the prospect of an independent future the security and freedom they sought. The special intellectual quality of Common Sense , which goes a long way toward explaining its impact on contemporary readers, derives from its reversal of these underlying presumptions and its shifting of the established perspectives to the point where the whole received paradigm within which the Anglo-American controversy had until then proceeded came into question.
No one set of ideas was more deeply embedded in the British and the British-American mind than the notion, whose genealogy could be traced back to Polybius, that liberty could survive in a world of innately ambitious and selfish if not brutal men only where a balance of the contending forces was so institutionalized that no one contestant could monopolize the power of the state and rule without effective opposition. In its application to the Anglo-American world this general belief further presumed that the three main socioconstitutional contestants for power—the monarchy, the nobility, and the people—had an equal right to share in the struggle for power: these were the constituent elements of the political world. And most fundamental of all in this basic set of constitutional notions was the unspoken belief, upon which everything else rested, that complexity in government was good in itself since it made all the rest of the system possible, and that, conversely, simplicity and uncomplicated efficiency in the structure of government were evil in that they led to a monopolization of power, which could only result in brutal state autocracy.
Paine challenged this whole basic constitutional paradigm, and although his conclusions were rejected in America—the American state and national governments are of course built on precisely the ideas he opposed—the bland, automatic assumption that all of this made sense could no longer, after the appearance of Common Sense , be said to exist, and respect for certain points was permanently destroyed.