In Common Sense, (eBOOKSHELF) Thomas Paine argues eloquently for American independence from autocratic rule from London Whitehall, an argument that begins with more general, theoretical reflections about government and religion, then progresses onto the specifics of the colonial situation. It is also an argument that has some bearing on the current ongoing movement for Scottish (as well as Catalan and Basque…) independence.
Distinguishing between government and society, Paine argues that the latter is all that is constructive and good that people join together to accomplish. Government, on the other hand, is an institution whose sole purpose is to protect us from our own vices. Government has its origins in the evil of man and is therefore a necessary evil at best. The sole purpose of government, he says, is to protect life, liberty and property, and that a government should be judged solely on the extent to which it accomplishes that goal.
He postulates a scenario in which a small group of people has been placed on an island, and cut off from the rest of society. In time, these people develop ties with one another, and lawmaking becomes inevitable. The people will be much happier, he says, if they are responsible for the creation of the laws that govern their society. He argues, implicitly, that such a system of representation is also better for the American colonists. Having expressed his disagreement with London’s rule in America, Paine attacks the British system of government: it is too complex, rife with contradictions, and its monarchy has far too much power. The British parliamentary system pretends to offer a reasonable system of checks and balances, but in fact it does not.
Paine discusses, in general, the notions of monarchy and hereditary succession. Man, he argues, was born into a state of equality, and the distinction between king and subject is unnatural. Paine, a religious man, concludes that the practice of monarchy originates from sin, and is an institution that the Bible and God condemn. He describes hereditary succession as an abominable practice, saying that even if people were to choose to have a king, that does not legitimize that King’s child becoming a future ruler. Hereditary succession, he argues, has brought with it innumerable evils, such as incompetent kings, corruption, and civil war.
Having dispensed with the preliminary theoretical issues, Paine discuss the American situation. In response to the argument that America has flourished under British rule, and therefore ought to stay under the king, he says that such an argument fails to realize that America has evolved and no longer needs Britain’s help. Some say that Britain has protected America, and therefore deserves allegiance, to which Paine responds that Britain has only watched over America in order to secure its own economic well-being, adding that most recently, instead of watching over the colonies, the British have been attacking them, and are undeserving of American loyalty.
The colonies have little to gain from remaining attached to Britain. Commerce can be better conducted with the rest of Europe — but only after America becomes independent. If the colonies remain attached to Britain, he says, the same problems that have arisen in the past will arise in the future and that it is necessary to seek independence now. To do otherwise would only briefly cover up problems that will surely reemerge.
As a colony of Britain, Paine argues that America lacks respectability on the international scene. They are seen simply as rebels unable to form substantial alliances with other nations. To prosper in the long term, the colonies need to be independent, and by declaring independence, America will be able to ask for the help of other countries in its struggle for freedom. For all of these reasons, Paine says it is imperative and urgent that the colonies declare independence.