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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Common Sense and the American Revolutionhomesitemap
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Workshop 2:  Lectures & Activities

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Lecture Transcript Two:
Summarizing Paine's Argument

Lecturer: Professor Pauline Maier


Image of Pauline Maier

Professor Maier: Okay, who's going to tell me what Paine's argument for independence was? Larry?

Larry David: One thing we discussed in our group was the idea of the design of government—why governments are put in place, how they are set up, why monarchy was created, and the fallacy of hereditary king and hereditary monarchs.

Professor Maier: Okay. It's an argument against the British system of government. Look at the subtitle of the pamphlet. He is discussing the design of British government. That opening part, you know, he says, "I'm going to take on ...." He has a basic principle of nature, he said, on the importance of simplicity. Things can't be too complicated. And then he says, "On this basis, I'm going to discuss the so much boasted constitution of England." Obviously there has been tremendous reverence for English government. He's taking on a sacred cow, if you will. It's part of what's so arresting. You know, what people are told to respect he deals with in language that is not respectful. So he gets people's attention that way.

And he says it's a terrible design. It has two basic errors: monarchy and hereditary succession. Isn't that the thrust of his argument? That we can't stay in the British Empire because it's never going to be any good. They've got a faulty government. You can't have freedom where you've got things so fundamentally flawed as monarchy and hereditary rule, right? You know, he has various arguments against these. You know, it's against the natural—Monarchy offends natural equality. There is no reason why one family should be better than another; it's a sin of the Jews. He uses scripture. And then hereditary succession—He has this wonderful line that he pulls out for his uses. You know, hereditary succession is obviously against nature, or we would not so often receive an ass in the place of a lion. You know that the son of a great ruler need not have his talents for ruling; that this isn't—that ruling requires capacities, and they don't go on from generation to generation naturally. Another member of this generation once referred to the absurdity of the concept of a hereditary mathematician.

So there are fundamental principles of "This government is no good, so we should start over." And then toward the end you get his plan for American government, where, you know, he says, "We're afraid to go forward because we haven't thought about where we're going."

Okay. Let me throw this out. Now let's start talking about how we should organize the governments which we are going to found for our own self-government, founded not on kings, founded not on nobles like monarchy, the House of Lords, king, lords. Ours is going to be like the House of Commons alone. It's going to be based on the people. And he lays out plans that start discussion. This is part, the most important part, I think, of this pamphlet. It's a transition in the debates of the revolutionary movement, no longer looking back toward Britain, suddenly looking forward. And then he says with this very affecting way, "Our cause is the cause of mankind. We're showing the way for a better world. We have the capacity of establishing a birthday for mankind. The rest of history will be different for what we do." It's very inspiring.

Okay. Now turn to those local declarations of independence. Did they attack the British system of government?

Cheryl Maloney: They attacked the king as being not a good ruler and not allowing the colonies to be really an equal member of the empire. So I think it's that they're not getting their rights as Englishmen, not that the English system is wrong.

Professor Maier: Okay. So in a word, how would you say they are? They don't attack a system; they attack the individual king. What gives the emotional force to those documents, do you think? Ron?

Ron Morrison: They talk about, after attacking the king, they talk about being independent, that they should be independent. You know, I don't want to digress on what we're saying, but it amazes me how everybody is talking about independence, but a lot of the people who were talking about independence were slaveholders, and that in itself is amazing. They want their independence, but they're holding other folks in bondage.


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