Common Sense, By Thomas Paine, January 10, 1776, Edited by Stanley L.
by Thomas Paine
January 10, 1777
edited by Stanley L. Klos March 1, 2000
OF THE PRESENT ABILITY of AMERICA, WITH SOME MISCELLANEOUS
I have never met with a man,
either in England or America, who hath not confessed his opinion, that a
separation between the countries, would take place, one time or other. And there
is no instance, in which we have shewn less judgment, than in endeavoring to
describe what we call, the ripeness or fitness of the Continent for
As all men allow the measure, and
vary only in their opinion of the time, let us in order to remove mistakes, take
a general survey of things, and endeavor if possible, to find out the very time.
But I need not go far, the enquiry ceases at once, for, the time hath found
us. The general concurrence, the glorious union of all things, prove the
It is not in the numbers, but in
unity that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to
repel the force of all the world. The Continent hath at this time the largest
disciplined army of any power under heaven, and is just arrived at that pitch of
strength, in which no single Colony is able to support itself, and the whole,
when united, is able to do anything. Our land force is more than sufficient and
as to navy affairs, we cannot be insensible that Britain would never suffer an
American man of war to be built, while the Continent remained in her hands.
Wherefore, we should be no forwarder an hundredyears hence, in that branch than
we are now; but the truth is, we should be less so, because the timber of the
country is every day diminishing, and that which will remain at last, will be
far off and difficult to procure.
Were the Continent crowded with inhabitants, her sufferings under
the present circumstances would be intolerable. The more sea-port towns we had,
the more should we have both to defend and to lose. Our present numbers are so
happily proportioned to our wants, that no man need be idle. The diminution of
trade affords an army, and the necessities of an army create a new trade.
Debts we have none, and whatever we may contract on this account
will serve as a glorious memento of our virtue. Can we but leave posterity with
a settled form of government, an independent constitution of its own; the
purchase at any price will be cheap. But to expend millions for the sake of
getting a few vile acts repealed, and routing the present ministry only, is
unworthy of the charge, and is using posterity with the utmost cruelty; because
it is leaving them the great work to do and a debt upon their backs from which
they derive no advantage. Such a thought is unworthy a man of honor, and is the
true characteristic of a narrow heart and a peddling politician.
The debt we may contract doth not deserve our regard if the work
be but accomplished. No nation ought to be without a debt. A national debt isa national bond: and when it bears no interest, is in no case a grievance.
Britain is oppressed with a debt of upwards of one hundred and forty millions
sterling, for which she pays upwards of four millions interest. And as a
compensation for her debt, she has a large navy; America is without a debt, and
without a navy; yet for the twentieth part of the English national debt, could
have a navy as large again. The navy of England is not worth at this time more
than three millions and an half sterling.
No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally
capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her
natural produce. We need go abroad for nothing. Whereas the Dutch, who make
large profits by hiring out their ships of war to the Spaniards and Portuguese,
are obliged to import most of the materials they use. We ought to view the
building a fleet as an article of commerce, it being the natural manufactory of
this country. It is the best money we can lay out. A navy when finished is worth
more than it cost. And is that nice point in national policy, in which commerce
and protection are united. Let us build; if we want them not, we can sell and
by that means replace our paper currency with ready gold and silver.
In point of manning a fleet, people in general run into great
errors; it is not necessary that one fourth part should be sailors. The Terrible
Privateer, Capt. Death, stood the hottest engagement of any ship last war, yet
had not twenty sailors on board, though her complement of men was upward of two
hundred. A few able and social sailors will soon instruct a sufficient number of
active landmen in the common work of
a ship. Wherefore we never can be more capable to begin on maritime matters
than now, while our timber is standing, our fisheries blocked up, and our
sailors and shipwrights out of employ. Men of war of seventy and eighty guns
were built forty years ago in New England, and why not the same now? Ship
building is America's greatest pride and in which, she will in time excel the
whole world. The great empires of the east are mostly inland, and consequently
excluded from the possibility of rivaling her. Africa is in a state of
barbarism; and no power in Europe hath either such an extent of coast, or such
an internal supply of materials. Where nature hath given the one, she has
withheld the other; to America only hath she been liberal of both. The vast
empire of Kupsia is almost shut out from the sea; wherefore, her boundless
forests, her tar, iron, and cordage are only articles of commerce.
ln point of safety, ought we to be without a fleet? We are not
the little people now, which we were sixty years ago; at that time we might have
trusted our property in the streets, or fields rather, and slept securely
without locks or bolts to our doors and windows. The case now is altered, and
our methods of defense, ought to improve with our increase of property. A
pirate twelve months ago, might have come up the Delaware, and
laid the city of Philadelphia under instant contribution for what sum he
pleased, and the same might have happened to other places. Nay, any daring
fellow in a brig of 14 or 16 guns might have robbed the whole continent, and
carried off half a million of money. These are circumstances which demand our
attention and point out the necessity of naval protection.
Some perhaps will say, that after we have made it up with Britain
that she will protect us. Can we be so unwise as to mean that she shall keep a
navy in our harbors for that purpose? Common sense
will tell us, that the power which hath endeavored to subdue us, is of all
others, the most improper to defend us. Conquest may be effected under the
pretence of friendship; and ourselves, after a long and brave resistance, be at
last cheated into slavery. And if her ships are not to be admitted into our
harbors, I would ask, how is she to protect us? A navy three or four thousand
miles off can be of little use, and of sudden emergencies, none at all.
Wherefore if we must ' hereafter protect ourselves, why not do it for ourselves?
Why do it for another?
The English list of ships of war, is long and formidable, but not
a tenth part of them are at any one time fit for service, numbers of them not in
being: yet their names are pompously continued in the list if only a plank is
left of the ship: and not a fifth part of such as are fit for service, can be
spared on any
'one station at one time. The East and West Indies, Mediterranean, Africa, and
other parts over which Britain extends her claim, make large demands upon her
navy. From a mixture of prejudice and inattention, we have contracted a false
notion respecting the navy of England, and have talked as if we should have the
whole of it to encounter at once, and for that reason, supposed, that we must
have one as large, which not being instantly practicable, hath been made use of
by a set of disguised lories to discourage our beginning thereon. Nothing can be
farther from truth than this, for if America had only a twentieth part of the
naval force of Britain, she would be by far an over match for her; because we
neither have, nor claim any foreign dominion, our whole force would be employed
on our own coast, where we should, in the long run, have two to one the
advantage of those who had three or four thousand miles to sail over, before
they could attack us, and the same distance to return in order to refit and
recruit. And although Britain by her fleet hath a check over our trade to
Europe, we have as large a one over her trade to the West Indies, which by
laying in the neighborhood of the Continent lies entirely at its mercy.
Some method might be fallen on to keep up a naval force in time
of peace, if we should not judge it necessary to support a constant navy. If
premiums were to be given to merchants to build and employ in their service,
ships mounted with 20, 30, 40, or 50 guns (the premiums to be in proportion to
the loss of bulk to the merchant) fifty or sixty of those ships, with a few
guard ships on constant duty would keep up a sufficient navy, and that without
burdening ourselves with the evil so loudly complained of in England, of
suffering their fleets in time of peace to lie rotting in the docks. To unite
the sinews of commerce and defense is sound policy; for when our strength and
our riches, play into each other's hand we need fear no external enemy.
In almost every article of defense we abound. Hemp flourishes
even to rankness, so that we need not want cordage. Our iron is superior to that
of other countries. Our small arms equal to any in the world. Cannon we can cast
at pleasure. Salt-petre and gun powder we are every day producing. Our knowledge
is hourly improving. Resolution, is our inherent character, and courage hath
never yet forsaken us. Wherefore, what is it that we want? Why is it that we
hesitate? From Britain we can expect nothing but ruin. If she is once admitted
to the government of America again, this Continent will not be worth living in.
Jealousies will be always arising; insurrections will be constantly happening;
and who will go forth to quell them? Who will venture his life to reduce hisown countrymen
to a foreign obedience? The difference between Pennsylvania and Connecticut,
respecting some unlocated lands, shews the insignificance of a British
government, and fully proves, that nothing but Continental authority can
regulate Continental matters.
Another reason why the present time is preferable to all others,
is, that the fewer our numbers are, the more land there is yet unoccupied, which
instead of being lavished by the king on his worthless dependants, may be
hereafter applied, not only to the discharge of the present debt, but to the
constant support of government. No nation under Heaven hath such an advantage as
The infant state of the Colonies, as it is called, so far from
being against is an argument in favor of independence. We are sufficiently
numerous, and were we more so we might be less united. It is a matter worthy of
observation, that the more a country is peopled, the smaller their armies are.
In military numbers the ancients far exceeded the moderns; and the reason is
evident, for trade being the consequence of population, men become too much
absorbed thereby to attend to anything else. Commerce diminishes the spirit both
of Patriotism and military defense. And history sufficiently informs us that the
bravest achievements were always accomplished in the nonage of a nation. With
the increase of commerce England hath lost its spirit. The more men have to
lose, the less willing they are to venture. The rich are in general slaves to
fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel.
Youth is the seed time of good habits as well in nations as in
individuals. It might be difficult, if not impossible to form the Continent into
one Government half a century hence. The vast variety of interests occasioned by
an increase of trade and population would create confusion. Colony would be
against Colony. Each being able would scorn each other’s assistance; and while
the proud and foolish gloried in their little distinctions, the wise would
lament that the union had not been formed before. Wherefore, the present time is
the true time for establishing it. The intimacy which is contracted in infancy,
and the friendship which is formed in misfortune, are of all others, the most
lasting and unalterable. Our present union is marked with both these characters:
we are young, and we have been distressed; but our concord hath withstood our
troubles, and fixes a memorable Era for posterity to glory in.
The present time likewise, is that peculiar time, which never
happens to a nation but once, viz. the time of forming itself into a government.
Most nations have let slip the opportunity, and
by that means have been compelled to receive laws from their conquerors, instead
of making laws for themselves. First they had a king, and then a form of
government; whereas the articles or charter of government should be formed
first, and men delegated to execute them afterward: but from the errors of other
nations, let us learn wisdom, and lay hold of the present opportunity
To begin Government at the right end.
When William the Conqueror subdued England, he gave them law at
the point of the sword; and until we consent that the seat of government in
America be legally and authoritatively filled, we shall be in danger of having
it filled by some fortunate ruffian, who may treat us in the same manner, and
then, where will be our freedom? Where our property?
As to religion, I hold it to be the
indispensable duty of government, to protect all conscientious professors
thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith:
let a man throw aside that narrowness of soul, that selfishness of principle,
which the niggards of all professions are so unwilling to part with, and he will
be delivered of his fears on that head. Suspicion is the companion of mean souls
and the bane of all good society. For myself I fully and consciously believe,
that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be a diversity of
religious opinions among us. It affords a larger field for our Christian
kindness; were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would
want matter for probation: and on this liberal principle I look on the various
denominations among us, to be like children of the same family differing only in
what is called their Christian names.
In page twenty I threw out a few thoughts on the propriety of a
continental charter, (for I only presume to offer hints, not plans) and in this
place I take the liberty of re-mentioning the subject, by observing, that a
charter is to be understood as a bond of solemn obligation, which the whole
enters into, to support the right of every separate part, whether of religion,
personal freedom, or property. A right reckoning makes long friends.
In a former page I likewise mentioned the necessity of a large
and equal representation; and there is no political matter which more deserves
our attention. A small number of electors, or a small number of representatives
are equally dangerous. But if the number of the representatives be not only
small, but unequal, the danger is increased. As an instance of this I mention
the following: when the Associators petition was before the House of Assembly of
Pennsylvania, twenty-eight members only were present. All the Bucks county
members, being eight, voted against it, and had seven of the Chester members
done the same, this whole Province had been governed by two counties only, and
this danger it is always exposed to. The unwarrantable stretch likewise, which
that House made in their last sitting, to gain an undue authority over the
Delegates of that Province, ought to warn the people at large, how they trust
power out of their own hands. A set of instructions for the Delegates were put
together, which in point of sense and business would have dishonored a school
boy, and after being approved by a few a very few without doors,
were carried into the house, and there passed in behalf of the whole Colony:
whereas did the whole Colony know, with what ill-will that house hath
entered on some necessary public measures, they would not hesitate a moment to
think them unworthy of such a trust.
Immediate necessity makes many
things convenient, which if continued would grow into oppressions. Expedience
and right are different things. When the calamities of America required a
consultation, there was no method so ready, or at that time so- proper, as to
appoint persons from the several Houses of Assembly for that purpose; and the
wisdom with which they have proceeded hath preserved this Continent from ruin.
But as it is more than probable that we shall never be without a Congressevery well wisher to good order, must own, that the mode for choosing
members of that body, deserves consideration. And I put it as a question to
those, who make a study of mankind, whether representation and election is not
too great a power for one and the same body of men to possess? When we are
planning for posterity, we ought to remember, that virtue is not hereditary.
It is from our enemies that we
often gain excellent maxims, and are frequently surprised into reason by their
mistakes. Mr. Cornwall (one of the Lords of the Treasury) treated the petition
of the New York Assembly with contempt, because that house, he said, consisted
of but twenty-six members, which trifling number, he argued, could not with
decency be put for the whole. We thank him for his involuntary honesty (Those
who would fully understand of what great consequence a large and equal
representation is to a State, should read Burgh's Political Disquisitions).
To conclude, however strange it
may appear to some, of however unwilling they may be to think so, matters not,
but many strong and striking reasons may be given to shew, that that nothing can
settle our affairs so expeditiously, as open and determined declaration for
independence. Some of which are,
is the custom of Nations, when any two are at war, for some other powers not
engaged in the quarrel, to step in as Mediators and bring about the
preliminaries of a Peace; but while America calls herself the subject of Great
Britain, no power however well disposed she may be, can offer her Mediation.
Wherefore in our present state we may quarrel on forever.
It is unreasonable to suppose, that France or Spain will give us any kind of
assistance, if we mean only, to make use of that assistance, for the purpose of
repairing the breach, and strengthening the connection between Britain and
America; because, those powers would be sufferers by the consequences.
While we profess ourselves the subjects of Britain, we must in the eyes of
foreign nations be considered as Rebels. The precedent is somewhat dangerous to
their peace, for men to be in arms under the name of subjects; we on the
spot can solve the paradox; but to unite resistance and subjection, requires an
idea much too refined for common understanding.
Were a manifesto to be published and dispatched to foreign Courts, setting forth
the miseries we have endured, and the peaceable methods we have ineffectually
used for redress, declaring at the same time, that not being able any longer to
live happily or safely, under the cruel disposition of the British Court, we had
been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connection with her; at the
same time, assuring all such Courts, of our peaceable disposition towards them,
and of our desire of entering into trade with them. Such a memorial would
produce more good effects to this Continent, than if a ship were freighted with
petitions to Britain.
Under our present denomination of
British subjects, we can neither be received nor heard abroad; the custom of all
Courts is against us, and will be so, until by Independence we take rank with
These proceedings may at first
appear strange and difficult, but, like all other steps which we have already
passed over, will in a little time become familiar and agreeable; and until an
Independence is declared, the Continent will feel itself like a man who
continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it
must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted
with the thoughts of its necessity.
F I N I S
Common Sense, By Thomas Paine, January 10, 1776, Edited by Stanley L. Klos
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