Thomas Paine: Common Sense (Excerpt)
Things to think about when reading Common Sense: Paine is criticizing the English form of government with its three legislative branches: the monarch (the executive), the House of Lords (the senate), and the House of Commons (the general assembly or house of representatives). Why does Paine associate the system of checks and balances with tyranny? How does he think a republican form of government should be structured?
I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered; and with this maxim in view, I offer a few remarks on the so much boasted constitution of England. That it was noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was erected is granted. When the world was overrun with tyranny the least therefrom was a glorious rescue. But that it is imperfect, subject to convulsions, and incapable of producing what it seems to promise, is easily demonstrated.
Absolute governments (tho' the disgrace of human
nature) have this advantage with them, that they are simple; if the people
suffer, they know the head from which their suffering springs, know likewise
the remedy, and are not bewildered by a variety of causes and cures. But the
I know it is difficult to get over local or long standing prejudices, yet if we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials.
First. The remains of monarchical tyranny in the person of the king.
Secondly. The remains of aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the peers.
Thirdly. The new republican materials, in the persons of the
commons, on whose virtue depends the freedom of
The two first, by being hereditary, are independent of the people; wherefore in a constitutional sense they contribute nothing towards the freedom of the state.
To say that the constitution of
To say that the commons is a check upon the king, presupposes two things.
First. That the king is not to be trusted without being looked after, or in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy.
Secondly. That the commons, by being appointed for that purpose, are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the crown.
But as the same constitution which gives the commons a power to check the king by withholding the supplies, gives afterwards the king a power to check the commons, by empowering him to reject their other bills; it again supposes that the king is wiser than those whom it has already supposed to be wiser than him. A mere absurdity!
There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.
Some writers have explained the English constitution thus; the king, say they, is one, the people another; the peers are an house in behalf of the king; the commons in behalf of the people; but this hath all the distinctions of an house divided against itself; and though the expressions be pleasantly arranged, yet when examined they appear idle and ambiguous; and it will always happen, that the nicest construction that words are capable of, when applied to the description of something which either cannot exist, or is too incomprehensible to be within the compass of description, will be words of sound only, and though they may amuse the ear, they cannot inform the mind, for this explanation includes a previous question, viz. how came the king by a Power which the people are afraid to trust, and always obliged to check? Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can any power, which needs checking, be from God; yet the provision, which the constitution makes, supposes such a power to exist.
The nearer any government approaches to a republic the less business there
is for a king. It is somewhat difficult to find a proper name for the
John Adams on Thomas Paine and Common Sense
Why does John Adams think Common Sense is so dangerous?
In the Course of this
Winter appeared a Phenomenon in
thought it best to suppress
my name too: but as common Sense when it first appeared was generally by the public
ascribed to me or Mr. Samuel Adams, I soon regretted that my name did not appear.
I had a new Edition of it printed with my name and the name of Mr. Wytlie of
Virginia to whom the Letter was at first intended to have been
addressed. The Gentlemen of New York availed themselves of the Ideas in this Morsell in
the formation of the Constitution of that State. And Mr. Lee sent it to the
Convention of Virginia when they met to form their Government and it went to