Here is a passage from Common Sense by Thomas Paine.
This is one of my favorites because it shows how differently Paine viewed the world than how the American Revolution has been portrayed by many mainstream scholars since. It is only in recent decades that scholars have begun to take more seriously what the Founders actually wrote.
To summarize, it is about the supposed attachment between the British Empire and her colonies and the possibility or even desirability of reconciliation. Paine, of course, argues against this. It isn’t only the view that is intriguing but the data he uses in defending it. Paine wasn’t all revolutionary rhetoric. From a modern perspective, it is attractive how he tried to ground his argument in rationality and facts, the very horrid things that Burke detested (or pretended to detest).
Most interesting to me is his focus on the diversity of the colonies. What did it mean to speak of attachment to England as a mother country when colonies like New Netherlands weren’t originally English (with laws and a population that remained largely Dutch) and when colonies like Pennsylvania and New Jersey consisted only of a minority of Englishmen. This kind of thinking seems radical to many conservatives today as it did to conservatives back then. The only difference is that the conservatives back then were British Tories.
What ever returns to my thinking is how often the arguments against Britain would now apply to our federal government. The argument against both, respectively by the Revolutionaries and the Anti-Federalists, was an argument for freedom, for democratic self-governance. The American Revolution wasn’t fought for patriotic conformity and ethnocentric nationalism, for authoritarian subservience and centralized statism; but the complete opposite. The Revolution never ended and we continue to fight for those Revolutionary ideals.
I’ll add emphasis to direct the readers attention to, in my mind, the most key parts and most interesting tidbits.
* * * *
As much hath been said of the advantages of reconciliation, which,
like an agreeable dream, hath passed away and left us as we were, it
is but right, that we should examine the contrary side of the
argument, and inquire into some of the many material injuries which
these colonies sustain, and always will sustain, by being connected
with, and dependant on Great Britain. To examine that connexion and
dependance, on the principles of nature and common sense, to see what
we have to trust to, if separated, and what we are to expect, if
I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished
under her former connexion with Great Britain, that the same
connexion is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always
have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind
of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived
upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty
years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But
even this is admitting more than is true, for I answer roundly, that
America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no
European power had any thing to do with her. The commerce, by which
she hath enriched herself are the necessaries of life, and will
always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.
But she has protected us, say some. That she hath engrossed us is
true, and defended the continent at our expence as well as her own is
admitted, and she would have defended Turkey from the same motive,
viz. the sake of trade and dominion.
Alas, we have been long led away by ancient prejudices, and made
large sacrifices to superstition. We have boasted the protection of
Great Britain, without considering, that her motive was INTEREST
not ATTACHMENT; that she did not protect us from OUR ENEMIES on
OUR ACCOUNT, but from HER ENEMIES on HER OWN ACCOUNT, from
those who had no quarrel with us on any OTHER ACCOUNT, and who will
always be our enemies on the SAME ACCOUNT. Let Britain wave her
pretensions to the continent, or the continent throw off the
dependance, and we should be at peace with France and Spain were they
at war with Britain. The miseries of Hanover last war ought to warn
us against connexions.
It hath lately been asserted in parliament, that the colonies have
no relation to each other but through the parent country, I. E.
that Pennsylvania and the Jerseys, and so on for the rest, are sister
colonies by the way of England; this is certainly a very round-about
way of proving relationship, but it is the nearest and only true way
of proving enemyship, if I may so call it. France and Spain never
were, nor perhaps ever will be our enemies as AMERICANS, but as our
being the SUBJECTS OF GREAT BRITAIN.
But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame
upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages
make war upon their families; wherefore the assertion, if true, turns
to her reproach; but it happens not to be true, or only partly so,
and the phrase PARENT or MOTHER COUNTRY hath been jesuitically
adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low papistical design
of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds.
Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new
world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and
religious liberty from EVERY PART of Europe. Hither have they fled,
not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of
the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny
which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants
In this extensive quarter of the globe, we forget the narrow limits
of three hundred and sixty miles (the extent of England) and carry
our friendship on a larger scale; we claim brotherhood with every
European christian, and triumph in the generosity of the sentiment.
It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount
the force of local prejudice, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the
world. A man born in any town in England divided into parishes, will
naturally associate most with his fellow parishioners (because their
interests in many cases will be common) and distinguish him by the
name of NEIGHBOUR; if he meet him but a few miles from home, he
drops the narrow idea of a street, and salutes him by the name of
TOWNSMAN; if he travel out of the county, and meet him in any
other, he forgets the minor divisions of street and town, and calls
him COUNTRYMAN; i. e. COUNTY-MAN; but if in their foreign
excursions they should associate in France or any other part of
EUROPE, their local remembrance would be enlarged into that of
ENGLISHMEN. And by a just parity of reasoning, all Europeans
meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are
COUNTRYMEN; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared
with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which
the divisions of street, town, and county do on the smaller ones;
distinctions too limited for continental minds. Not one third of the
inhabitants, even of this province, are of English descent. Wherefore
I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England
only, as being false, selfish, narrow and ungenerous.
But admitting, that we were all of English descent, what does it
amount to? Nothing. Britain, being now an open enemy, extinguishes
every other name and title: And to say that reconciliation is our
duty, is truly farcical. The first king of England, of the present
line (William the Conqueror) was a Frenchman, and half the Peers of
England are descendants from the same country; wherefore, by the same
method of reasoning, England ought to be governed by France.
Much hath been said of the united strength of Britain and the
colonies, that in conjunction they might bid defiance to the world.
But this is mere presumption; the fate of war is uncertain, neither
do the expressions mean any thing; for this continent would never
suffer itself to be drained of inhabitants, to support the British
arms in either Asia, Africa, or Europe.
Besides, what have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our
plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the
peace and friendship of all Europe; because, it is the interest of
all Europe to have America a FREE PORT. Her trade will always be a
protection, and her barrenness of gold and silver secure her from
I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation, to shew, a
single advantage that this continent can reap, by being connected
with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge, not a single advantage is
derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and
our imported goods must be paid for buy them where we will.