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(Rare) Common Sense

January 10, 2014



On this day in 1776, Thomas Paine, one of history’s most influential republicans, published Common Sense, a condensed argument not only for the independence of the 13 colonies, but for the logic, sanity and dignity of republican principles.

The pamphlet is nowadays regarded as by far the most influential popular publication of the American revolutionary period, a game changer which ensured that a critical mass of restless and imaginative people became ambitious for a better mode of governance. In addition, Common Sense carefully dissects the whole basis of the hereditary principle and finds it wanting. Many of us have our favourite quotes…

“For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have the right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others forever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.”

It was Paine who so pithily pointed out that to have a hereditary head of state was as absurd as to have a hereditary doctor or a hereditary lawyer.  In Common Sense and later in Rights of Man, Paine speaks not only of certain constitutional freedoms, but a kind of temporal freedom – the freedom of each living generation to decide for themselves, without being oppressed either by the crushing weight of dead ancestry or the entailed obligation of hypothetical futurity.  The only thing that gives legitimacy and dignity to authority is a mandate, a recent, living expression of the popular will.  Deference to birth is a species of necromancy.

Indeed, along with deference to birth, a healthy republican civics needs to eschew deference altogether, recognising a government of laws and not men, and rejecting talismanic names or saviour figures.

Thanks in no small part to Thomas Paine, monarchism has been in steady global retreat since 1776 and most humans now accept the elective rather than the hereditary principle as the basis of their sovereignty.  Thanks to Thomas Paine, the perceived need to renew a mandate to rule has become a global phenomenon.  “Strongmen” (and very very occasionally “Strongwomen”) remain a problem however – and they are often backed with hereditary wealth.

Paine himself of course, was too hot for any one nation to hold – and his corporeal remains are now confused and lost to us.  Paradoxically, this is an entirely appropriate fate for one for whom kneeling at a tomb was political anathema.  His books are alive and well and deserve to be read anew, and the best way of honouring him is by scribbling energetic notes in his margins rather than chiselling sententia on cold stone.



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