Under our present denomination of British subjects we can neither be received nor heard abroad: The custom of all courts is against us, and will be so, until, by an independence, we take rank with other nations.

There was a great moment in The Last Days of Newgate by Andrew Pepper when a moral philosopher complains that the city of Belfast used to be filled with people who ‘read Paine and Franklin as avidly as they did Knox and Calvin.’ This inspired me to hunt down Thomas Paine, as I had not read anything by him previously. His pamphlet on Common Sense defined in ideological terms the independent state of America. Its wording can be seen in everything from the idealistic dialogue of characters in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing to the signs of Tea-Party protesters. Paine’s writing underpins the conceptual core of America and so means many different things to this nation of many races, religions and cultures.

Common Sense is a classic piece of Enlightenment rhetoric. Following the credo of rationalism above blind faith, Paine first outlines argumentation against the very idea of a king, or monarchy in order to lead into his critique of the British Empire. To this end he first focuses on our inherited understanding of a king, citing Biblical text regard the disjunct between the much-called for ‘King of the Jews’, and the dominion of God Almighty.

Following from his reading of the text, he argues that any self-appointed ruler acts against the authority of God. By claiming territory on Earth, that king rejects the role of God as creator of everything upon the Earth. Interestingly Paine does not treat of the Messiah, Christ Jesus, himself. He also alludes to the practice in ‘Popish countries’, to forbid the reading of the Bible for fear of encouraging, in his view, anti-monarchist thought.

It follows on from this that America, as a much larger continent, is beyond the ability of Europe to rule. Firstly, he argues, accepting British rule exposes the Americas to whatever conflicts should occur between the closely seated neighbouring European regimes. Secondly Americans have no recourse to their ruler, the British king, whose legitimacy as a ruler Paine questions. There is an apt assessment of monarchs introduced, that in taking the throne a king is immediately raised above all other people, yet when called upon to rule, the king is expected to have some knowledge, or experience of the issues that affect his subjects.

Finally though, and here Paine’s rhetoric gives way to facts and figures, America is simply too big to be dominated by an island separated from it by an entire ocean. The continent has the means to be almost entirely self-sufficient. Whatever imports are required can easily be afforded by sale of its natural resources. Paine even introduces in later editions of the original pamphlet a table illustrating a cost analysis of British rule.

It is this upfront assessment of the material benefits of American Independence that impresses the most. In fact my edition includes a shorter work by Paine, Agrarian Justice, which outlines his views on the creation of a national pension service. The business of civilization, in Paine’s view, is to care for the lives of citizens. He self-identifies as a pragmatic humanist, urging a violent break from Britain in order to facilitate a truly equitable state.

Of course even he admits that while the cause may be just, citizens of such a future America might slide back into the oppressive behaviours of their one-time rulers. At every stage of Paine’s argument there remains an essential questioning. It is this aspect of Common Sense that I find most appealing, as it acts as a check on those who would take the blood and fire revolutionary rhetoric to justify present-day acts of terrorism against elected US officials.

Paine himself of course received little of the post-humous acclaim he unquestioningly has today while he was still alive. The double-edge sword of his rational argumentation made him quite unpopular among the newly emerging American upper class. This is a great shame, as Common Sense is far too practical in its view of political duplicity to be written off as another basket-case utopia.

A classic Enlightenment text, as relevant today as when it was first read.

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