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By Cory Wolfe
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, originally published anonymously and issued at Philadelphia on January 10, 1776, is one of the most historical Pre-Revolutionary American literary works ever written. The fifty-page pamphlet quickly became a best-seller and battle-cry of the Revolutionary movement as tens of thousands of copies swiftly circulated throughout the country. Here are a few lessons from Common Sense which are still relevant today:
- “Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.”
In the very first sentence of his introduction to Common Sense, Paine outlines a sentiment which most modern day lovers of Liberty can relate to. Paine later went on to explain that “time makes more converts than reason,” something which has become evident in the centuries since the publication of this work. While the tides of Liberty and Tyranny go in and out throughout time, one can recognize that mankind has become more free over time. Monarchies have all but died out over the past centuries. The prohibition on marijuana in the United States is in the beginning stages of its death, even lacking the congressional support to include in the federal budget enforcement of federal prohibition in states where marijuana is legal. We are no longer segregated by color or creed, nor is one group enslaved to another. Libertarianism has long held tyranny in low regard, often speaking out in the most unfashionable ways to contrast popular opinion, but over time creating converts and becoming popular and accepted.
- “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”
Society, Paine recognized, is produced by our wants. Government, on the other hand, is produced by our wickedness. The first goal of any people is to create society. The ability of one individual is far outweighed by the ability of a group of persons. Paine wrote that “four or five (individuals) united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but one man might labor out the common period of life without accomplishing anything.” Necessity is the invisible force which binds us to society. As the members of a society become more relaxed in their duties and attachments to one another, the necessity of government appears to amend the decline of moral virtue. At first, it may come about that every member of the colony assembles on occasion to deliberate on public affairs. As the colony grows, however, this will become impossible, and the next step will be to elect representatives to speak for all the citizens of the colony. As this trend continues, so does the distance between the government and the governed, and the potential to abuse governmental authority grows.
- “I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.”
In this quote, Paine alludes to one of the most basic principles of Libertarianism: simplicity in government. The more simple government and its policies are, the more powerful and knowledgeable is the individual. Absolute governments, though the bane of human existence, can claim the advantage of being simple. However, in the instance of such governments under which people are made to suffer, they will know the source of their suffering, know the solution to it, and will not be bewildered by a plethora of possible causes for it. The problem with exceedingly complex and bureaucratic government is that the people may toil for years internally and amongst themselves while never knowing the names of their oppressors. Some will say blame one thing, some another, and so on, resulting in every diagnosis recommending a different cure.
“No writer,” observed Thomas Jefferson in 1821, “has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style, in perspicuity of expression, happiness of elucidation, and in simple and unassuming language.” Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, among many other works, served as an inspiration to men of the Revolutionary Era, and his ideas still course through the veins of the Liberty movement centuries later.