Monday, September 19, 2011

Response to Common Sense, Part One

In Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, published in 1776, the author explains his reasoning on why the people of Colonial America should revolt against British rule. Common Sense was originally written as an anonymous pamphlet, one of many circulating America and Europe at the time, and Paine took credit for the work in only later editions.
     In the first part of the pamphlet, On the Origin and Design of Government in General, with concise remarks on the English Constitution, Paine introduces his argument through a discussion of the purpose and origin of government and points out the flaws in the British monarchy. Paine proposes that the British government of the 1770s was incapable of fulfilling the purposes of government because of its attempt to create a system of checks and balances despite its fundamentally flawed structure.
     Paine opens the first part of Common Sense with a comparison between society and government. He states, "Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil, and in its worst state is an intolerable one" (Paine 17). He expands on this idea by explaining that people create government themselves, and are therefore responsible for the treatment they receive at the hands of government.
     Paine continues by explaining the necessity for government. He proposes a hypothetical situation in which a small number of people grow into a large community and inevitably need to form a government. He begins with the origin of society. He states,
In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought... [T]he strength of one man is so unequal to his wants... that he is obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same.... Thus necessity, like a gravitating power, would soon form our newly arrived emigrants into society. (Paine 18)
As the time goes on and the community overcomes its initial challenges, Paine reasons, the people will have less need for society and begin to act only for their own benefit. Thus a government is formed, in order to keep people from harming each other. "It is more than probable," he asserts, "that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations and be enforced by no other penalty than public disteem. In this first parliament every man by natural right will have a seat" (Paine 18). But then he goes on to say that as the size of the colony increases, it would no longer be reasonable for every member to take part in regulating the colony; a few would be chosen to run the affairs of the community. Paine proposes the best way to do this would be to hold elections often, "[so] that the elected might never form themselves into an interest separate from the electors" (Paine 19). He goes on to say that the greater the motivation for the elected to act in the best interest of the people, the stronger and more prosperous the government would be.
     Paine then moves from analysis of government in general to analysis of the British government in particular. He points out that the simpler a government is, the easier it is to understand the faults in it, and therefore fix them. But if a government is as complex as the British government of the 1770s, "the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in which part the fault lies" (Paine 19).
     He then enumerates specific contradictions and flaws in the structure and system of the British monarchy. He names the divisions of power to be between the King, the Aristocracy, and the (House of) Commons.
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 England is an union of three powers, reciprocally checking each other, is farcical; either the words have no meaning, or they are flat contradictions.

First. — That the King it 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! (Paine 20)
Paine then expands upon this point by showing further flaws in the English system. He states that the rank of a king isolates him from the matters of his people, yet it is upon those matters that he is called upon to rule. He also points out that although the king is supposed to be sent by God through the divine right of kings, he must be checked by the other branches of government, namely "the Peers" and "the Commons." Paine asks, "how came the king by a power which the people are afraid to trust, and must therefore always be 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" (Paine 21).
     Paine writes this first part of Common Sense in a style that appeals to reason rather than emotion. For nearly all of the points he presents, he refers to a counter-argument, which he then disproves. For example, when explaining the contradictions within the system of checking the king's power, he introduces his argument with, "Some writers have explained the English constitution thus: the King, they say, is one, the people another, the Peers are a house in behalf of the King, the commons in behalf of the people; but this hath all the distinctions of a house divided against itself" (Paine 21). He goes on then to explain exactly why this system does not work so well as one might assume. The entire section is an introduction in which Paine does not state his main point, although the reader may infer his position. In this section, Paine familiarizes the reader with the topic of the British rule and the general subject upon which he is writing, and he more specifically addresses his thesis, that the American colonists should separate from British rule, in the subsequent sections.

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