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The Most Uncommon Pamphlet of the Revolution
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
The entire set of received ideas on government, Paine wrote, was false. Complexity was not a virtue in government, he said—all that complexity accomplished was to make it impossible to tell where the faults lay when a system fell into disarray. The opposite, he said, was in fact true: “the more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered and the easier repaired when disordered.” Simplicity was embedded in nature itself, and if the British constitution had reversed the natural order of things, it had done so only to serve the unnatural purposes of the nobility and the monarchy, neither of which had a right to share in the power of the state. The nobility was scarcely even worth considering; it was nothing but the dead remains of an ancient “aristocratical tyranny” that had managed to survive under the cover of encrusting mythologies. The monarchical branch was a more serious matter, and Paine devoted pages of the pamphlet to attacking its claim to a share in the constitution.
As the inheritor of some thuggish ancestor’s victory in battle, the “royal brute of Great Britain,” as he called George in, was no less a ridiculous constitutional figure than his continental equivalents. For though by his constitutional position he was required to know the affairs of his realm thoroughly and to participate in them actively, by virtue of his exalted social position, entirely removed from everyday life—“distinguished like some new species”—he was forever barred from doing just that. In fact the modern kings of England did nothing at all, Paine wrote, but wage war and hand out gifts to their followers, all the rest of the world’s work being handled by the Commons. Yet by virtue of the gifts the king had at his disposal, he corrupted the entire constitution, such as it was. The king’s only competitor for power was the Commons, and this body he was able to buy off with the rewards of office and the intimidation of authority. The whole idea of balance in the British constitution was therefore a fraud, for “the will of the king is as much the law of the land in Britain as in France, with this difference, that instead of proceeding directly from his mouth, it is handed to the people under the formidable shape of an act of Parliament.” Yet, was it not true that individuals were safer in England than in France? Yes, Paine said, they are, but not because of the supposed balance of the constitution: “the plain truth is that it is wholly owing to the constitution of the people and not to the constitution of the government that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.”
This was a very potent proposition, no matter how poorly the individual subarguments were presented, for it was well known that even in the best of times formal constitutional theory in England bore only a vague relation to the informal, ordinary operation of the government, and although penetrating minds like David Hume had attempted to reconceive the relationship so as to bring the two into somewhat closer accord, no one had tried to settle the matter by declaring that the whole notion of checks and balances in the English constitution was “farcical” and that two of the three components of the supposed balance had no rightful place in the constitutional forms at all. And no one—at least no one writing in America—had made so straightforward and unqualified a case for the virtues of republican government.
This was Paine’s most important challenge to the received wisdom of the day, but it was only the first “of a series. In passage after passage in Common Sense Paine laid bare one after another of the presuppositions of the day which had disposed the colonists, consciously or unconsciously, to resist independence, and by exposing these inner biases and holding them up to scorn he forced people to think the unthinkable, to ponder the supposedly self-evident, and thus to take the first step in bringing about a radical change.