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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

Thomas Paine's Common Sense and American Crisis

“THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Today we are looking at the rise of Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine was an American journalist who authored two of the most influential pamphlets in colonial history. We will see how he came to fame and the ideas that he embedded into these works.

Before Thomas Paine was the man we all heard about, he lived in England, where he was trying to find his purpose. He served as an apprentice to his Quaker father, then sailed the seas as a young privateer, and finally returned to England where he established his own store. While running the store, he married Mary Lambert but tragedy would strike when she became pregnant and went into labor early. Thomas Paine would lose his wife Mary, their baby, and then soon after, his store. His lot was hard to bear. In the next few years, he would once again work random jobs, some political, and married Elizabeth Ollive. Some of these jobs wouldn’t last due to his either not showing up or just not doing what he was supposed to do, and, like these jobs, his marriage with Elizabeth wouldn’t last. After the divorce, he moved to London where he contrived to meet Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was impressed with the young man.

With the guidance and help of Dr. Franklin, Thomas Paine chose to sail to the American colonies in 1774, seeing there was nothing left for him in Britain. Paine barely arrived in one piece. He had fallen ill on the voyage and it took him six weeks to recover. In March of 1775, he became a citizen of Pennsylvania and was appointed the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine and wrote in the American Magazine.

In these papers, Paine brought a new political perspective by writing about the evils of slavery, worker’s rights, and the ideas of American liberty. These papers became popular due to Paine’s pen and leadership of the magazine, turning it in a political direction. Around this time, the American colonies started to rebel against Britain and the First Continental Congress was meeting to discuss reconciliation with the Mother Country. They just wanted to get their rights back from Britain that they felt entitled to as Englishmen. No one argued for full blown independence. Just under a year later in 1776, and with a push from Benjamin Rush, Thomas Paine would begin writing something that would change people’s perspectives on the future of the continent. He would write “Common Sense” and then “The American Crisis.”

In Common Sense, Paine argues for American Independence. He was one of the first to do so and because of its treasonous nature, he wrote it anonymously. The pamphlet was written in simple, passionate language and it applied to the common colonial man a collection of complex philosophical ideas that had been discussed for years by the elite.

Common Sense is broken up into four sections. The first section is “OF THE ORIGIN AND DESIGN OF GOVERNMENT IN GENERAL. WITH CONCISE REMARKS ON THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION.” To begin, Paine works in the theoretical realm as he discusses the difference between society and government. He writes “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.“

This section heavily relies on John Locke’s ideas on government, saying that the government's sole purpose is to protect life, liberty and property. Paine then adds that we should only judge a government by how well it does that. He moves on to a thought experiment telling the reader to imagine people cut off from the rest of the world as if in a “state of nature.” These people would eventually form a society and because issues would inevitably arise, they would have to form a government to deal with those issues. Paine then relies on Montesquieu’s ideas by saying that people would be much happier if they are responsible for the creation of laws that rule them. In other words, people would be happier having a democratic or representative form of government.

In the rest of the first section, Paine attacks the British form of government because it is riddled with contradictions, has no checks and balances, and has granted their King too much power. Paine would notice how much the Americans disliked the British government but were oddly loyal to Britain. He writes, this “arises as much or more from national pride than reason.”

The second section is titled “OF MONARCHY AND HEREDITARY SUCCESSION.” Paine uses John Locke’s argument about how we are equal in the state of nature and writes that the distinction made between King and subject is unnatural. He shows that the practice of monarchy originates from sin. To back up this claim, he uses pages and pages of the bible along with English monarchical history to show God’s condemnation of kings and how his people always suffer under one. He writes “In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. ’Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.” This isn’t just an attack on King George III, but on all monarchies.

The third section is titled “THOUGHTS ON THE PRESENT STATE OF AMERICAN AFFAIRS.” By the time Paine introduces this section, he has prepared his readers to not trust the British government and to want to do something about it. He begins the third section by saying “IN the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.” He states that America has outgrown Britain and separation is not only achievable but inevitable. He goes on to say this is the time to separate because the Americans are more than capable of taking care of themselves. Things will only get worse if independence happens in the future because America is, and will be more so, too large and complex to be governed by Britain. And finally, Britain is not protecting, but attacking America! He ends by detailing a proper government for America that would unite the colonies.

The fourth and final section is titled “Of the present ABILITY OF AMERICA, with some miscellaneous REFLECTIONS.” In this section, he asserts that America has the ability not only to break free from Britain, but also to become a strong nation rivaling any country that would dare try to swoop them up and dominate them independently. He once again stresses that independence will eventually happen and that "the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity."

In summary, his main arguments in Common Sense were

  1. Monarchy goes against God’s will and that we should have a representative form of Government that serves the people.

  2. It is unnatural that a larger country is ruled by a smaller island that is an ocean away.

  3. America has a unique opportunity to be the beacon of freedom and to create a new nation that would remake the world over again.

  4. England is stunting the colony's growth for its own gain and America could be so much more on its own.

  5. Conciliation has not worked in the past and independence is inevitable.

Common Sense was an instant hit and changed the national discourse from gaining back English rights to being a totally independent American country. It was highly controversial among the colonists, but it paved the way for Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and set the colonies on a course that they could not turn away from. In time, the Americans would have their victories along with their defeats.

Paine’s ”American Crisis” was a series of papers written from 1776 to 1783 to sustain the colonists' motivations. In 1777, the revolution was on the brink of death. During the horrific winter at Valley Forge, many troop enlistments were almost up and the British had just invaded Philadelphia making the Continental Congress flee and giving all their power to General Washington. The troops barely had anything to eat, and clothing was scarce. The soldiers would leave bloody footprints in the snow due to the lack of something as simple as shoes. To make matters worse, disease was rampant. It's estimated that 2,500 soldiers died of exposure and disease. Washington had to do something to motivate the troops to stay and fight. He had the opening lines of Crisis read to his men. “THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Crisis worked and it motivated the troops to reenlist and fight for their country.

Crisis contained a lot of the same ideas that Common Sense established. Instead of just focusing on independence, it really demonized Britain and its loyalists here in the colonies, calling them cowards. It then justified the American cause by saying it was supported by God, and then highlighted the bravery of the continental soldiers. Paine states, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Paine had successfully sparked the American desire for independence in “Common Sense” and sustained that desire in “The American Crisis.” He was revolutionary in multiple ways and pushed the Americans to be more radical. These works made Paine extremely popular. He was able to mix the ideas that only the elites had previously enjoyed with the common language of the common people. This brings us to today’s question. What would motivate you to go through horrendous situations to achieve a purpose? Let us know what you think in the comments below. While he was very successful in the American revolution, he would not be as successful in the next, the revolution in France. We have witnessed the rise of Thomas Paine but in the next episode, we will see how he fell.



Ayer, A.J., Thomas Paine. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man": A Biography. Atlantic Monthly

Press, 2007.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason: Being investigation of true and fabulous theology. New

York: The Truth Seeker Co., 1898.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Girad, Kansas Haldeman-Julius Company, 1920.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense and The Rights of Man. London: Phoenix Press, 2000.

Paine, Thomas. The Complete Writing of Thomas Paine. New York: The Citadel Press, 1945.

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