Let’s try to imagine that we lived in America back when it was a British colony. During that period, people could be taxed for anything without being able to complain about it. The government was located across the ocean and it could take people’s properties and leave them helpless. How would you cope with this state of affairs?
A lot of people were in that terrible situation, so Thomas Paine decided to write a pamphlet calledCommon Sense. Throughout his pamphlet, he outlined some of the features that the ideal government should have.
So, what do we need to do in order to build a healthy society? We will answer this question in our book summary.
Here are some of the most important ideas that we’ll discuss in Thomas Paine’s Common sense book summary:
- why rules are vital for a society as they help manage people’s behavior;
- as societies grow, representation is needed more and more; and
- how the American economy was crippled by England up until the American Revolution.
COMMON SENSE CHAPTER #1: Helping one another is essential for human existence as it can give rise to societies.
How many humans do you need to change a lightbulb? You probably only need one for this simple task. However, there are many different jobs in life that can only be done if people help each other.
That’s mainly owed to the fact that in order to reach their full potential, humans need to work and live alongside other humans. Just think of all the things that we have to do over the course of our lives and that are only possible if other people help us. In the late 18th century, when Thomas Paine, the book’s author, was alive, these daily tasks included plowing fields, building houses, moving logs, etc. Today, however, people work together to perform delicate surgery or to create great product designs.
But societies not important just for making these tasks more simple, they are important because, in truth, humans rely on one another to survive. For instance, when we get sick, we need other people to take care of us such as family members, friends, nurses, and doctors.
Imagine what happened if you came down with a fever back in the 1700s. If you had no family, this common affection might have been fatal, as nobody would come running to bring you water, food, and medicine. Nowadays, surviving a common fever is easy and with a single phone call we can get medical help or food and water, but we still rely on other people.
This is the main reason why we need to be invested in creating a prosperous society. And it is only natural for our society to have some guideline. Why?
Because humans have flaws, vices, and moral shortcomings. These human traits have been part of our existence ever since God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
An inherent part of human existence is our immoral impulse, which can cause us to disregard other people’s well being in favor of our own or to cause them harm. Because this threat cannot be ignored, any human society will require a set of rules, or laws, that dictate how we should treat each other and what we must to in order to live in harmony.
COMMON SENSE CHAPTER #2: The most efficient way to rule society is the representative government and not the monarchy.
We are all fully aware of how complicated making even the simplest of decisions can be. Even small tasks such as choosing a restaurant, or naming a child can turn out to be huge debates and might even turn into conflicts. But imagine trying to come to an agreement with tens of thousands of people. It sounds impossible, right?
Consequently, a growing society will need representative governance. Because making decisions in large groups of people is an impossible task, growing societies need to find a more effective way to make decisions.
The best and most efficient way to do so is by designatingrepresentatives that will speak and decide for different groups in society. Since it’s important for every member of the society to share his personal views, these representatives must be chosen through elections.
But a one-time election will not be sufficient to ensure that the members of the society are fairly represented. As a result, elections must be held at regular intervals, as they create a connection between the electorate and the representatives. In order for the governing authorities to always be in tune with the needs of society, frequent elections must be held.
So, if these are the real needs of a healthy society, is monarchy effective? No, a monarchy is one of the worst governing systems.
Anyone who has a bit of logic and some common sense can understand that God has created all humans equals, and to elevate one individual comes in clear contradiction with His word. Consequently, being a king, or an omnipotent ruler of society, contradicts God’s will and nature itself.
But this is not the only thing that is wrong with the monarchy, another problem is that monarchy transfers power on a hereditary basis.
So even if there was a monarch who was wise, kind, and benevolent, what’s to say that his children or heirs will be the same? After one good ruler, society might be forced to deal with a complete lunatic or with someone who proves to be incompetent. If you think that this is unlikely, think again. Both of these things have happened in England within a single line of succession.
In fact, studies have shown that people who were born into power will easily be corrupted by it. Knowing that their future is unchallenged can drive any sane person mad or erratic.
We now know that the most egalitarian government system is the one that is based on elections. But in order to see the negative aspect of monarchy and the positives of representative governments, we need to take a look at a real-life example. In the next chapter, we will discuss an event that the author himself helped instigate - the American Revolution.
COMMON SENSE CHAPTER #3: America should claim its independence as it will be better off without the English monarchy.
Growing countries, just like teenagers, reach a stage where they need their independence in order to develop. It is natural for countries to demand their freedom, especially once they come of age. The case of the United States and their fight for independence is a perfect example.
Common sense dictates that claiming ownership over another country and its citizens should not be allowed. But the main reason behind the claim over America by the British was the fact that the majority of the American population was, in fact, British. Sadly for Britain, this turned out to be a misconception, as people are free to change their citizenship, and in this case, they chose to be American.
For example, a lot of British citizens have French origins, but that doesn’t mean that they identify as French. And even if Britain was America’s “mother country,” the fact that instead of helping her child grow, she exploited it was unacceptable.
The English monarchy crippled the American economy in many different ways such as by imposing harsh taxes, and by punishing the Americans who spoke against this unfair taxation. The English monarchy even went as far as to kill large numbers of protestors during the Boston Massacre.
Another example of mistreatment that was probably even more insulting than the heavy taxes was the fact that British America was not represented in the British Parliament. As such, the Americans had no power over their own laws, making the rule of the British monarchy tyrannical.
And what was the result?
By being in the service of another country, British America was losing economic power. Additionally, Britain had made laws that forbade the trade from American ports to countries like Spain and France while the British Empire was at war with them. This had a lot of negative consequences on the well-being and prosperity of the American people. The British prevented the American ports from functioning properly and from becoming thriving commercial centers.
In fact, it would have been very easy for the Americans to trade with many other countries, as they were rich in resources that were coveted all over the. Although at the time, only one-eighth of the modern-day American territory was covered, the Americas still had stocks of furs, iron, and other various materials and goods that were in very high demand at the time.
IN REVIEW: COMMON SENSE BOOK SUMMARY
What is the key message ofThomas Paine’s 1776 book Common Sense: Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, colonial America was a land oppressed by the tyrannical rule of the British monarchy. Thomas Paine’s logical, common-sense arguments in regards to the will of God and natural law reveal that claiming independence was the only thing that the Americas could do in order to thrive and grow as a nation. In order for the American citizens to have a better life, the American government found a more efficient governing strategy, one with frequent elections and capable representatives. What to read next: C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins
C.L.R. James’The Black Jacobins, written in 1938, traces the extraordinary history of modern day Haiti, then known as San Domingo. Being a French colony, the people of San Domingo rebelled against slavery and they were among the first colonies whose revolutionary initiatives had a positive outcome. The Black Jacobins, in particular, analyzes those events in relation to one of the greatest revolutionary figures of all time - Toussaint L’Ouverture. The book shows how Toussaint, a former slave, found inspiration in the ideals behind the French Revolution and managed to defeat the European powers and put an end to the horrifying practices of slavery in San Domingo.