Against Paine’s “Common Sense”

The purpose of this article is to refute the anti-monarchical ramblings of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.”

Thomas Paine: The Man

Before we discuss his inane ramblings, let us discuss Thomas Paine as an individual.  Paine was a convicted criminal and a subversive who supported both the American and French Revolutions.  We all know how the latter turned out.  While not describing himself as such, he was also a deist and a frequent attacker of Christianity.

In 1792, fearing an arrest for his seditious ramblings, he fled England and was elected to the National Convention of the illegitimate French Republic.  It should be noted that Paine was a foreigner and didn’t speak French, but that didn’t stop French revolutionaries from electing him. To his credit, it must be noted that Paine spoke against the regicide of Louis XVI — first on the grounds that Louis XVI aided the United States, and second on the grounds of his moral objection to capital punishment.

Eventually, however, more radical elements took over France, and Paine was soon arrested.  Paine would soon turn against his former friend George Washington, whom Paine believed did little to end his imprisonment in France.

Paine’s ramblings spawned such wicked ideas, that it is perhaps not totally unfounded to wonder if he were the result of some unholy union, the product of some demonic-human miscegenation.

Uncommon Nonsense

Paine begins his diatribe by claiming it is erroneous to confound society with government:

…they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness possitively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Paine famously (or infamously) goes on to call government a “necessary evil.”

This is an absurd and anti-traditional idea, though it is not surprise that Paine, or anyone else of the time period, would entertain such dangerous ideas.  The traditional view of government has always been one of divine origin, regardless of its form.  Whether it be a republic, aristocracy, or kingdom, traditional governments looked to the “above” — the divine — as their source of authority.

Further, government is the head of a society.  Society, or the community, is the extension of the family.  This is why it is natural and simple to favour monarchy, where the king is the father of the nation and the natural ruler of his people, just as a father rules the family.  This is a view shared by classical philosophers like Aristotle to eastern ones like Confucius.

Paine states that simple governments are best, but then calls absolute governments “the disgrace of human nature.”  This underlies a common misconception against monarchy.  Rarely are monarchies truly absolute.  Always have there been convictions and expectations that the king must follow.  Certainly that was the case with Britain.

Paine takes no notice of this and proceeds to attack the British Constitution for being “so exceedingly complex, that the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in which part the fault lies.”

Isn’t the only way to prevent absolute government, which is naturally the simplest, to make the constitution complex?

Paine then criticises the three parts of the British constitution:

First.—The remains of Monarchical tyranny in the person of the King.

Secondly.—The remains of Aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the Peers.

Thirdly.—The new Republican materials, in the persons of the Commons, on whose virtue depends the freedom of England.

Nowhere does Paine actually take the time to define what constitutes a tyranny.  For Paine, the very nature of the monarchy is tyranny.

It should be plainly obvious to the observer of history, that the British monarchy had become the creature of Parliament.  Long gone were the days of kings ruling without the consent of Parliament.  The regicide of Charles I and the overthrow of James II and VII made sure of that.

But that doesn’t stop Paine’s baseless claims:

That the crown is this overbearing part in the English constitution needs not be mentioned, and that it derives its whole consequence merely from being the giver of places and pensions is self-evident; wherefore, though we have been wise enough to shut and lock a door against absolute Monarchy, we at the same time have been foolish enough to put the Crown in possession of the key.

Let us keep in mind that Paine’s Patriot contemporaries were largely arguing the opposite of this.  Namely, that Parliament had usurped royal authority, as Benjamin Franklin put it:

[The parliament] seem to have been long encroaching on the Rights of their and our Sovereign, assuming too much of his Authority, and betraying his Interests.

Paine’s Biblical Illiteracy

Paine begins his second chapter with a flawed understanding of human nature:

But there is another and greater distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of Heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.

Hierarchy is the law of nature.  It is the nature of humans and most creatures of the earth.  It is plainly obvious to an observer of human nature that every society develops to those at the top and those at the bottom.  It matters not if the government is monarchical or republican or even communist.

A monarchy, however, is honest in this regard.  The very nature of that form of government hinges on the idea of social hierarchy.  There is one person at the top.  That person is the king, who is the father of the nation and the chief aristocrat.

But Paine’s assertion for there being no “religious reason” for royal government is by far the most fatuous and easy to debunk.  It is so absurd that he even contradicts it only a few paragraphs later: “The Heathens paid divine honours to their deceased kings…”

While it is true that the heathens did this, it was because they had a religious reason for doing so.  They believed their kings to be of divine origin.  Chapter VII of the Hindu Laws of Manu is a testament to this.  Very clearly there was a “religious reason” for monarchical government.

Then we see Christian scripture.  Daniel 2:21:

He [God] causes the changes of the times and the seasons, makes kings and unmakes them.

Proverbs 8:15-16:

By me kings reign and lawgivers establish justice; By me princes govern, and nobles; all the rulers of the earth.

Paine would go on to cite 1 Samuel 8 as scriptural evidence against kingship, calling it sinful.  We have already debunked the claim in a previous article.

Regardless, we will go over the gist once again.  In 1 Samuel 8, the Jews ask Samuel to give them a king because Samuel is old and his sons are corrupt.  Samuel reluctantly agrees, but warns the people of the bad things the king will do.  The passage then says that the people had sinned against god in asking for a king:

Grant the people’s every request.  It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king.  As they have treated me constantly from the day I brought them up from Egypt to this day, deserting me and worshiping strange gods, so do they treat you too.  Now grant their request; but at the same time, warn them solemnly and inform them of the rights of the king who will rule them.

The problem here was not the Jews demanding a king in general, but that they had not fully defeated their enemies, thereby breaking the covenant with God.  Deuteronomy 17 predicts and authorises the establishment of the Jewish kingdom, but only on specified conditions:

When you have come into the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you have occupied it and settled in it, should you then decide to have a king over you like all the surrounding nations, you shall set the man over you as your king whom the Lord, your God, chooses.  He whom you set over you must be your kinsman; a foreigner, who is no kin of yours, you may not set over you.

The fact was that the Israelites had yet to defeat their enemies and occupy the land in question.  See Judges 2:

It was I who brought you up from Egypt and led you into the land which I promised on oath to your fathers.  I said that I would never break my covenant with you, but that you were not to make a pact with the inhabitants of this land, and you were to pull down their altars.  Yet you have not obeyed me.

The funny thing about all this, however, was the fact that Paine was a deist and did not believe in any of the scripture he cited.  To this very fact, John Adams wrote of his conversation with Paine:

I told him further, that his Reasoning from the Old Testament was ridiculous, and I could hardly think him sincere.  At this he laughed, and said he had taken his Ideas from John Milton: and then expressed a Contempt of the Old Testament and indeed of the Bible at large, which surprized me.1

The Cult of Reason

It is a common error by many to believe that reason and empiricism make good constitutions and good public policy.  In other words, that a society can be run according to reason.  This is foolish thinking.

Is a man run by pure reason? No.  Man is a spiritual animal — one of instinct, desire, and feeling.  Man possess reason, for that much is certain.  But he is not a creature of reason alone.  Such a creature could not exist.

The Man of Reason is an impossibility.  He does not feel.  He despises nothing and loves nothing.  To him, the very notion of desire would be an alien thing.  He has no motive to move, to eat, to sleep, to reproduce.  Such a creature is fit for one purpose: extinction.

It is only natural that if a single man cannot be governed by reason alone, neither then can a society at large.

Joseph de Maistre makes a similar point:

One of the greatest errors of a century which professed them all was to believe that a political constitution could be created and written a priori, whereas reason and experience unite in proving that a constitution is a divine work and that precisely the most fundamental and essentially constitutional of a nation’s laws could not possibly be written.


 Reason can only speak. It is love which sings, and that is why we chant our symbols, for faith is only belief through love. It dwells not only in the understanding, but penetrates further to take root in the will.

A society crafted on reason is an alien thing.  It will lead only to questions and dissension.  It divides rather than unifies.   A society needs unity, otherwise it is no better than a festering boil.

This is the major problem with Paine and other such “Enlightenment” and Post-Enlightenment thinker.  They glorify reason like it is some kind of god.

Belief and Ideas

There are two general types of beliefs:

  1. The fundamental — which are foundational to a given society.  These include religion and form of government.
  2. Popular, common, or academic belief.  These are ideas which change frequently, those which move with the times; zeitgeist.

Ideas do not exist in a vacuum.  They carry emotional baggage.  This is even more true for fundamental beliefs.  History shows that a rapid, sudden change (or the attempt of such a change) leads to social upheaval and unrest.

The Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion which followed are a testament to this.   See also the American and French Revolutions, the Russian Revolutions, or the Chinese Revolutions.  The death toll and destruction of these events were enormous.

These are concepts which many like Paine simply ignore or fail to see altogether.  It is a form of ignorance that leads only to destruction and bad governance.

We will end with another wise quote from Maistre:

Let us begin at the foundation. If we had never heard governments spoken of and men were called upon to deliberate, for example, on hereditary or elective monarchy, we should justly regard one who should decide for the former as a madman. The arguments against it appear so naturally to reason that it is useless to repeat them. History, however, which is experimental politics, demonstrates that an hereditary monarchy is the government most stable, appropriate, and natural to man, while an elective monarchy, on the contrary, is the worst form of government known.


Additional Citations

  1. Eric Nelson. Royalist Revolution. Page 114.  Original quote from the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams. 3:333