Common Sense


So the question of independence had always been thought of in filial terms: the colonies had once been children, dependent for their lives on the parent state, but now they had matured, and the question was whether or not they were strong enough to survive and prosper alone in a world of warring states. This whole notion was wrong, Paine declared. On this, as on so many other points, Americans had been misled by “ancient prejudices and … superstition.” England’s supposedly protective nurturance of the colonies had only been a form of selfish economic aggrandizement; she would have nurtured Turkey from exactly the same motivations. The fact is, Paine declared, that the colonies had never needed England’s protection; they had indeed suffered from it. They would have flourished far more if England had ignored them, for their prosperity had always been based on a commerce in the necessities of life, and that commerce would have flourished, and would continue to flourish, so long as “eating is the custom of Europe.” What in fact England’s maternal nurture had given America was a burdensome share of the quarrels of European states with whom America, independent of England, could have lived in harmony. War was endemic in Europe because of the stupidities of monarchical rivalries, and England’s involvements had meant that America too was dragged into quarrels in which it had no stake whatever. It was a ridiculous situation even in military terms, for neutrality, Paine wrote, is “a safer convoy than a man of war.” The whole concept of England’s maternal role was rubbish, he wrote, and rubbish, moreover, that had tragically limited America’s capacity to see the wider world as it was and to understand the important role America had in fact played in it and could play even more in the future.

… the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically adopted by the king and his parasites with a low papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe … we claim brotherhood with every European Christian, and triumph in the generosity of the sentiment. … Not one third of the inhabitants even of this province [Pennsylvania] are of English descent. Wherefore I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England only, as being false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous.

The question, then, of whether America had developed sufficiently under England’s maternal nurture to be able to live independent of the parent state was mistaken in its premise and needed no answer. What was needed was freedom from the confining imagery of parent and child which had crippled the colonists’ ability to see themselves and the world as they truly were.

So too Paine attacked the fears of independence not defensively, by putting down the doubts that had been voiced, but aggressively, by reshaping the premises on which those doubts had rested. It had been said that if left to themselves the colonies would destroy themselves in civil strife. The opposite was true, Paine replied. The civil strife that America had known had flowed from the connection with England and was a necessary and inescapable part of the colonial relationship. Similarly, it had been pointed out that there was no common government in America, and doubts had been expressed that there ever could be one; so Paine sketched one, based on the existing Continental Congress, which he claimed was so fairly representative of the 13 colonies that anyone who stirred up trouble “would have joined Lucifer in his revolt.” In his projected state, people would worship not some “hardened, sullentempered Pharaoh” like George m, but law itself and the national constitution, “for as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be KING .” The question was not whether America could create a workable free constitution but how, in view of what had happened, it could afford not to.

So too it had been claimed that America was weak and could not survive in a war with a European power. Paine commented that only in America had nature created a perfect combination of limitless resources for naval construction and a vast coastal extension, with the result that America was not simply capable of selfdefense at sea but was potentially the greatest naval power in the world—if it began to build its naval strength immediately, for in time the resources would diminish. So it was argued that America’s population was too small to support an army: a grotesquely mistaken idea, Paine said. History proved that the larger the population the smaller and weaker the armies, for large populations bred prosperity and an excessive involvement in business affairs, both of which had destroyed the military power of nations in the past. The City of London, where England’s commerce was centered, was the most cowardly community in the realm: “the rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel.” In fact, he concluded, a nation’s bravest deeds are always done in its youth. Not only was America now capable of sustaining a great military effort, but now was the only time it would ever be able to do so, for its commerce was sure to rise, its wealth to increase, and its anxiety for the safety of its property to become allengrossing.