American Classics

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776)

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, published in Philadelphia in January 1776, is properly recognized as a major turning point in the American Revolution.  Paine effectively publicized the basic argument that Patriots like John Adams and Richard Henry Lee had been making privately in the Continental Congress – that the cause of the British North American colonies could be achieved only by declaring their independence from Great Britain, and not through continued attempts at reconciliation with the home country.  Paine’s case for independence included, inter alia, the argument that the united colonies would be able to maintain their security in a hostile world – and also what proved to be enduring, and controversial, assertions about America’s place in that world.


Heretofore, for reasons of security and economics, the colonists of British North America assumed that their security, prosperity, and liberties had to be achieved within the British Empire.  France, Spain, and their native allies in the New World constantly threatened the colonies’ physical existence.  The colonies were also deeply integrated into the trans-Atlantic economic system of the Empire; there seemed no other choice in a world dominated by mercantilist policies. The struggle for survival had ideological as well as economic and geopolitical dimensions: the colonists saw themselves as part of an Anglo-American Protestant bulwark of liberty against the aggressive designs of continental tyranny and Popery, which aimed to create a Universal Monarchy.  Despite their historic differences with their royal governors and Parliament in London, the colonists nevertheless believed that they were part of the world’s freest political regime. The French and Indian War (1754-1763) was seen in British North America as a great victory not just for imperial security but also for the global forces of liberty, and the colonists believed they had played the decisive role in winning that war.  They assumed that the subsequent growth of power and territory by Anglo-America would serve to spread liberty in the future.

The colonists had valued highly their particular form of government – that of the British Constitution, with its internal balance among three essential orders (King, Lords, and Commons), which had been duplicated to the extent feasible in the colonies. Continental monarchies like France might be highly advanced in terms of the arts and sciences, literature, commerce, and refinement. But their luxury and inequality made them inferior to societies like that of England that were based on respect for equality and political virtue. The colonists stressed the British, not merely English, Constitution, for its role in creating an empire of liberty that was grounded in both national interests and imperial concerns. According to Benjamin Franklin, for instance, London had wisely granted autonomy to its provinces and thus solved the great imperial problem in which “great empires had crumbled first from their extremities” because the central government lacked the necessary information to reign in bad governors.  To be sure, there had been serious differences from time to time between center and periphery but they had always been worked out, largely defaulting to a position of colonial autonomy on local matters (at least as the colonists saw things). The French and Indian War had demonstrated graphically to men like Franklin that the imperial core actually gained strength from the periphery.  The colonists saw themselves playing an increasingly elaborate and vital role in the Anglo-American regime as time went on.

After the French and Indian War, however, a significant number of Americans interpreted London’s effort to rationalize the imperial structure and reduce the burden of its wartime debt – through the Stamp Tax, and so on – as an immense conspiracy against their individual and corporate liberties.  These Patriots, or Whigs, perceived it as a plot by the political center to force a fundamental constitutional change on the peripheries of the empire, as well as to destroy the freedom of the home country itself.  Americans debated the best means to resist the presumed corruption of the British Constitution and the effort by Parliament to alter the compact between London and the colonies.  After a decade of debate and resistance to British policies, the most radical elements of the American political leadership concluded that fundamental regime change – independence and republican (at least non-monarchical) government – was necessary to achieve these objectives.  The American revolutionaries formulated far-reaching arguments about the nature of politics and the right to alter and abolish governments.  These arguments were designed to persuade those who feared that the breakup of the British Empire would be a grave setback for human liberty and a boon to the forces of despotism.

The radical Patriot case for independence came into focus relatively late in the process of resistance to Parliament, and up until the very end it could not be made openly because of its treasonous content. But it was implicit in the colonial case throughout.  It was a hard argument to swallow for many colonists who not only retained their historic and sentimental attachments to the Mother Country, but who also feared that, separated from the economic and military power of England, they would become easy prey to French or Spanish absolutism, as well as to their own internal differences.  In their view, British North Americans need the protection of the mother country to defend their lengthy and exposed coastline, a vulnerable frontier on the interior, and their commerce.  One of the most important figures among Loyalists was Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson.  Hutchinson argued that the only practical alternative to the existing imperial arrangement for the colonists was not a freer, independent America, but rule by another external power, “which would allow them less liberty than they are sure of always enjoying while they remain English subjects. . . . I hope it will never be our misfortune to know by experience the difference between the liberties of an English colonist and those of the Spanish, French, or Dutch.”

Pennsylvania political activist Joseph Galloway agreed.  If America rejected the authority and protection of the mother country, “she must in all probability soon become the slave of an arbitrary power – of Popish bigotry and superstition.”  According to Galloway, the imperial relationship had served the colonies well.  Their commerce had flourished, they enjoyed unprecedented freedoms, they could depend on imperial protection from foreign threats and they could look forward to a happy and prosperous future that included a rapid expansion across the continent.  Galloway doubted that the colonists – with no army or navy to speak of and no military infrastructure – could wage war successfully against Britain.  America’s only hope of victory would be to ally itself with France and Spain.  Galloway and others doubted that these continental despotisms, which possessed their own empires and which had concerns about the stability their own domestic rule, would be eager to legitimize popular rebellion, even against their ancient enemy, Britain.  That said, if America, aided by France and Spain, actually defeated Britain, it would find itself at the mercy of foreign regimes far worse than that of King George and the British Parliament.  What was more likely, however, the colonies would be defeated and ruled henceforth with an iron hand by London.

The best choice for Americans, as the Loyalists saw matters, was to stay in the Empire and continue to fight the good fight for liberty, for themselves and for their brethren in England, as their ancestors had done.  Even if the King and the Ministry were engaged in a malevolent conspiracy against colonial liberties – which the Loyalists disputed – time, in the form of geography, demography, and economic growth, was on the side of British North America.  The colonists should not force the issue, especially as they had been incapable in the past of uniting for the common defense (as the failed Albany Plan had demonstrated).  When Great Britain, burdened with debt, next found itself at war, the colonies then would be in the best position to bargain and better define the imperial regime in their interests.

It was not only the die-hard Loyalists who expressed grave concerns about America’s security if the colonies to be severed from the protecting hand of England.  A moderate faction of Patriots, led by level-headed men such as John Dickinson and John Jay, likewise emphasized the critical role that the Mother Country had played, and presumably must continue to play, in imperial defense. Thus, the colonies owned due deference to her on matters of security.  The moderate Patriots sought a middle ground that created a practical, if not always theoretically consistent, division between imperial and local affairs.  Unlike the Loyalists, however, the moderates did not believe that it was practical to kick the can down the road, or that the imperial structure that London was now trying to enforce on the colonies could be tolerated for the indefinite future. The colonists must be granted responsibility for local matters that did not concern the Empire as a whole, and a mechanism must be found in which colonial contributions to imperial defense were not coerced by an overbearing Parliament (no taxation without representation).  The moderates supported colonial policies of forcible resistance and commercial opposition to British aggression, but with the object of reconciliation, rather than separation. They sought to compel London to embrace a reformed imperial structure that would better secure colonial rights and liberties and actually integrate the colonies more deeply into the Empire.

The would-be American revolutionaries, those who favored independence and who thought reconciliation impossible because of English intransigence, needed to make a persuasive case for regime change that would address the criticisms of Loyalists and bring the moderates into their camp.  The revolutionary leadership had to demonstrate that an independent America was viable internally and externally; that separation from the British Empire would advance and not damage the larger cause of human liberty, enlightenment, and political reform; and that the new nation would not fall prey to the forces of despotism.  They realized that outside aid, in some form and at some level, would be necessary to succeed in a conflict with the world’s leading military and economic power.  Well before the Continental Congress officially declared independence, its representatives had begun sounding out foreign opinion and seeking military and economic assistance from abroad.  The moderates went along with this proto-American foreign policy, to a point – they thought that the judicious threat of an alliance with France and other continental powers was necessary to provide leverage over London to negotiate a restructuring of the imperial relationship.  They likewise believed that it was necessary to create and maintain a colonial militia and army to resist British efforts to suppress the rebellion – but again, only to gain leverage for future negotiations, not to fight a war of independence, or as the beginning of a military establishment that would provide for independent American security thereafter.

The radicals in Congress had considerable confidence, contrary to Galloway’s warnings, that the geopolitical imperative among continental European powers to weaken Britain – aided, in France’s case, by the desire for revenge from defeat in the Seven Years’ War – would override potential allies’ concern about American republicanism.  As for the prospects of an alliance with France after over a century of conflict with the French in North America, American leaders noted that sudden reversals of alliance among European powers were hardly unknown.  Nevertheless, the American revolutionaries were not prepared merely to rely solely on old-style European diplomacy or the calculations of despots.  They appreciated the need to appeal to the politically influential enlightened classes of Europe – the lawyers, merchants, writers, and sympathetic government officials who constituted the Republic of Letters and who considered themselves the defenders of the rights of mankind, even if they were not republicans themselves.  The enlightened, particularly in France, represented a pro-American pressure group that the European monarchs had to take into account.

These calculations by the radical Patriots still begged the question: what would happen after independence?  Could a republic, with its reputation for factional strife, survive in a world of hostile monarchies – especially a confederation of republics, whose complicated structure and varied interests added yet another layer of political problems? Would not France and/or Spain reverse alliances yet again and turn on the newly-independent America, perhaps joining with Britain to re-partition the continent?  Would not the United States be shut out of the markets of the world – or enter them only at the sufferance of others?

John Adams and the Patriot radicals believed that these problems were soluble.  When it came to matters of international politics, Americans would limit foreign relationships to the realm of commerce, avoiding “entangling” political-military alliances.  The radicals believed that an independent America’s entrance into the Euro-Atlantic state system would bring about a new configuration of international power, and rules of behavior, which would be conducive to American security and prosperity.  Nations – including England – would vie for the immense advantages of having access to a vibrant and growing American market.  No European nation would want to be shut out of that market, and they resist efforts by other European powers to gain exclusive access to that market by threatening America militarily.  American trade, freed from the restrictions of the British Navigation Acts, would provide abundant revenue to fund the new federal and state governments, without oppressive taxes, and pay for whatever military establishment might be needed for national defense.  The radicals assumed that this establishment need not be large or become a threat to domestic liberty. America’s geographic distance from the main centers of power in Europe, and the restraints imposed by the European balance of power, would limit the size of the threats that the United States would have to face.

The radical case was made largely behind the closed doors of Congress and in private circles.  Publicly, the radicals had to be more circumspect.  Opinion in Congress and the public writ large outside of New England and Virginia was decidedly in the moderate camp and the radicals could not afford to get too far out in front.  They must sail, as John Adams said, at the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy. The floor was left open for a persuasive appeal from that would move public opinion towards independence and reinforce the belief that the united colonies could survive and prosper in a hostile world.


Thomas PaineThomas Paine was perhaps the least likely candidate to make that case. Born and raised in England, he had failed as a teacher, shopkeeper and corset maker, and had been dismissed from his post as tax collector.  He hung around the fringes of radical English politics – where he would have been aware of arguments sympathetic to the American cause – but he made no particular mark there.  He decided to go to America and obtained a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin.  Once he arrived in Philadelphia in late 1774, he began to contribute verses and essays to local newspapers.  This brought him to the attention of various politically active figures, including Benjamin Rush, a noted physician and member of the radical Patriot faction.  Through contacts with Rush and others in his circle, Paine undoubtedly learned of the arguments in Congress surrounding America’s political future and decided to take up his pen on behalf of the more advanced position.  The original working title of his pamphlet was Plain Truth but apparently at Rush’s suggestion, it was changed to Common Sense.  The pamphlet was published anonymously in January 1776.  It was frequently attributed to a leading figure in the radical camp – Rush, Franklin, and John Adams were most often mentioned. But it contained a good deal that Paine chose to add on his own, especially the scripturally-based attack on the institution of monarchy (though Paine himself was a free-thinker).

The sources of Paine’s ideas, besides those he would have picked up through his radical Patriot contacts, remains something of a source of controversy among historians. (They also struggle to reconcile his seemingly contradictory strands of thought over time, such as between his apparent libertarianism and advocacy of what seem to be welfare-state policies.)  Bernard Bailyn writes:

Paine combined the extreme left-wing political views that had developed during the English Civil War period as revolutionary republicanism and radical democracy and had survived, though only underground, through the Glorious Revolution and Walpole’s complacent regime; the prophetic sectarian moralism that flowed from 17th century Puritan roots and that had been kept alive in the militancy of the radical Baptists and the uncompromising Quakers whom Paine had known so well; and finally, and most important, in the indignation and rage of the semi-dispossessed, living at the margins of respectable society and hanging precariously over the abyss of debtors prison.

In terms of his views on foreign policy, Paine undoubtedly drew on a long-standing tradition in English politics adverse to continental commitments and to standing armies.

The impact of Common Sense on public opinion, and the course of history, was undeniable, something of which most political pundits can only dream.  Within a few months it had sold over 100,000 copies, perhaps in later editions reaching 500,000 in England and America, an astonishing figure for the times (the colonial population was approximately 2.5 million).  Its reach was far more extensive than that even those numbers might suggest.  It was read aloud at taverns and other meeting places. Handwritten summaries and bootleg copies circulated widely. The debate over independence, and a compelling case for separation from England, now fully entered into public discourse.

Common Sense addressed a variety of concerns about independence that had held moderate Americans back, including those dealing with the viability of republican government and the presumed likelihood that the colonies would be at each other’s throats once outside the control of a central government in London.  For our purposes, we concentrate here on those aspects of Paine’s arguments dealing with what would become American foreign policy.

As to the apparently telling claim by the Loyalists, and many moderate Patriots, that the colonies needed British protection from other empires and their Indian allies, Paine countered:

That [Great Britain] has engrossed us is true, and defended the [American] continent at our expense as well as her own is admitted, [but] she would have defended Turkey from the same motive, viz. the sake of trade and dominion… We have boasted the protection of Great Britain, without considering, that her motive was INTEREST not ATTACHMENT; that she did not protect us from OUR ENEMIES on OUR ACCOUNT, but from HER ENEMIES on HER OWN ACCOUNT, from those who had no quarrel with us on any OTHER ACCOUNT, and who will always be our enemies on the SAME ACCOUNT. Let Britain wave [sic] her pretensions to the [American] continent, or the continent throw off the dependence, and we should be at peace with France and Spain were they at war with Britain. The miseries of Hanover last war ought to warn us against connections.

In other words, the colonies’ traditional security problems with France and Spain were caused by their attachment to Great Britain – an attachment maintained by the Mother Country out of her selfish interests, not out of altruism or sentiment – and were not solved by that attachment. Americans often found themselves threatened by hostile powers, or at war, because they had been dragged into conflicts that stemmed from Great Britain’s own great-power rivalries.

France and Spain never were, nor perhaps ever will be our enemies as AMERICANS, but as our being the subjects of GREAT BRITAIN… Europe is too thickly planted with kingdoms to be long at peace, and whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign power, the trade of America goes to ruin, BECAUSE OF HER CONNECTION WITH ENGLAND. The next war may not turn out like the last, and should it not, the advocates for reconciliation now, will be wishing for separation then, because, neutrality in that case, would be a safer convoy than a man of war.

Separation from Britain, in turn, would also secure long-term American peace and prosperity.  From this Paine drew a general conclusion that resonated deeply in the new nation’s strategic culture:

…any submission to, or dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she never can do, while by her dependence on Britain, she is made the make-weight in the scale of British politics.

America’s true interest, Paine argued, “is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port.”  America produced the necessities of life, Paine observed, and so as long as “eating is the custom of Europe,” there would be unlimited opportunities for trade on American terms.  “Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and our imported goods must be paid for, buy them where we will.”  Trade, not British armies and navies, was America’s protection, “and her barrenness of gold and silver [will] secure her from invaders.” America, in fact, was a system unto itself.

Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems; England to Europe, America to itself.

Americans should reject the idea that they were part of the European system, at least not as a consequence of their artificial membership in the British Empire.

Much hath been said of the united strength of Britain and the colonies, that in conjunction they might bid defiance to the world. But this is mere presumption; the fate of war is uncertain, neither do the expressions mean any thing; for this continent would never suffer itself to be drained of inhabitants, to support the British arms in either Asia, Africa, or Europe. Besides what have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; . . .

Paine believed that continued ties with England made unnatural enemies of those nations and peoples who would otherwise be friends – and that such friendships would be the natural state of affairs for the new United States in a commercially-focused international system, one not driven by classic military/naval/imperial considerations. This was a system which American independence would promote, at least over the longer term.  But to the extent that the latter considerations mattered in defeating Britain in a war for independence – and for maintaining American security thereafter – the new nation was self-sufficient in the necessary elements of state power.

In almost every article of defense we abound. Hemp flourishes even to rankness, so that we need not want cordage. Our iron is superior to that of other countries. Our small arms equal to any in the world. Cannon we can cast at pleasure. Saltpetre and gunpowder we are every day producing. Our knowledge is hourly improving. Resolution is our inherent character, and courage hath never yet forsaken us.

There was no shortage of American military manpower which could be called into service. The key, though, was the nation’s latent maritime power.

No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce. We need go abroad for nothing. . . We ought to view the building a fleet as an article of commerce, it being the natural manufactory of this country. It is the best money we can lay out. A navy when finished is worth more than it cost. And is that nice point in national policy, in which commerce and protection are united. . . . To unite the sinews of commerce and defense is sound policy; for when our strength and our riches play into each other’s hand, we need fear no external enemy.

Paine dismissed the argument that America must stay in the British Empire in order to enjoy the protection of the Royal Navy.  Given Britain’s extensive global commitments, Americans could never be sure that the British ships would be available to protect their commerce or coastlines when needed.  By the same token, the new nation need not be burdened with the costs of building and maintaining an immense fleet, either to fight a war of independence or to maintain its security thereafter. No other power besides Britain possessed the capability of overwhelming America in the maritime sphere; and as for the former mother country:

. . . if America had only a twentieth part of the naval force of Britain, she would be by far an overmatch for her; because, as we neither have, nor claim any foreign dominion, our whole force would be employed on our own coast, where we should, in the long run, have two to one the advantage of those who had three or four thousand miles to sail over, before they could attack us, and the same distance to return in order to refit and recruit. And although Britain, by her fleet, hath a check over our trade to Europe, we have as large a one over her trade to the West Indies, which, by laying in the neighbourhood of the continent, is entirely at its mercy.

Although Paine’s argument was aimed specifically at the problems caused by America’s political attachment to Great Britain, the same political and strategic logic with respect to the colonies’ former enemies. To be sure, the united colonies could take advantage of such temporary assistance as France or Spain might provide, in order to overcome Britain’s resistance. Such foreign assistance would not be forthcoming unless the Americans formally declared their independence, however, because European nations were hardly likely to aid the colonies, only to see them return to the British Empire as part of a negotiated reconciliation.  But once independence was won, Paine’s readers might reasonably infer that the newly independent nation did not need a foreign policy that would rely on a European protector or require a political-military alliance. And for its part, the United States would become the refuge of liberty from a world of despotism and war.  “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mind.”

Even in offering this appeal of political-military isolationism from Europe, and of American exceptionalism, Paine, at least implicitly, raised the stakes of the American Revolution to the point where, in the future, it would be difficult to maintain the nice distinction between international commerce (engagement) and politics (isolation). “The cause of America is the cause in great measure the cause of all mankind.  Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which their affections are interested.”  To justify America’s nascent republicanism, as well as the cause of independence, Paine in Common Sense had attacked the legitimacy of monarchy writ large – not just that of a particular King, George III, or the peculiar corruption of the English Constitution with its King in Parliament, but the institution of kingship altogether.  He was particularly scathing about the propensity of monarchies to wage war as a means of further oppressing their peoples. “The republics of Europe are all (and we may say always) in peace. Holland and Switzerland are without wars, foreign or domestic: Monarchical governments, it is true, are never long at rest; the crown itself is a temptation to enterprising ruffians at home; and that degree of pride and insolence ever attendant on regal authority swells into a rupture with foreign powers, in instances where a republican government, by being formed on more natural principles, would negotiate the mistake.”

Toward the end of the Revolutionary war, Paine would argue that the progressive aim of the American Revolution was not to spread of republican government but to foster the growth of international harmony between nations of different political systems and principles – the creation of world community based on compacts or treaties of commerce and peace between sovereign countries.  The eighteenth century, Paine argued, had demonstrated that wars were not profitable.  The only barrier to political compacts of nations was the prejudice that nations had developed towards each other during previous periods of history.  “Forms of government have nothing to do with treaties,” Paine wrote.  “The former are the internal policy of the countries severally; the latter their external policy jointly; and so long as each performs its part, we have no more right or business to know how the one or the other conducts its domestic affairs, than we have to inquire into the private affairs of a family.”

But Common Sense’s broad-based attack on monarchy, in the name of human liberty and republican government, resonated with radicals beyond the shores of America. That attack could not easily be shrugged off by dynastic Europe, especially when its privileges came under assault during the French Revolution.  Nor was the global cause of human liberty likely to be ignored by American republicans when revolutionary France seemed under assault by European despotism. Paine himself, in The Rights of Man (1791-92), writing in London and Paris, sought to internationalize the conclusions of Common Sense against the arguments of Edmund Burke (Reflections on the Revolution in France) and American skeptics such as John Adams (Discourses on Davila). In that sense, Common Sense reflected the division within the American mind about the proper attitude towards the promotion of popular government and the rights of mankind.  Whether that attitude required active American intervention, or at least a decided tilt in favor, of popular rights abroad (assuming one could identify those rights), was yet another matter.

All that was in the future.  For now, Paine’s Common Sense memorably set out, albeit in a somewhat unsystematic manner, many of the arguments about America’s place in the world that the radicals had been putting forward privately, and that would influence the nation’s thinking about foreign policy for generations. Soon thereafter, the Declaration of Independence established what turned out to be the canonical arguments for opposing oppressive rule and justifying regime change. A few months later, Congress’ Model Treaty (Plan of 1776) outlined the desired place of the United States in the Euro-Atlantic state system and the means by which the United States could influence that system – and the regimes that constituted the Republic of Nations – for the better.