Common Sense

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Common Sense

By Thomas Paine

Chapter 4




I have never met with a man, either in England or America, who has 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 independence.”

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, we need not go far, the inquiry ceases at once; for, the time has found us. The general concurrence, the glorious union of all things prove the fact.

It is not in 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 has, at this time, the largest body of armed and disciplined men of any power under Heaven. And, it is just arrived at that pitch of strength, in which no single colony is able to support itself. The whole, when united, can accomplish the matter. Either more or less then this might be fatal in its effects. 

Our land force is already sufficient. As to naval 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 a hundred years hence in that branch, then we are now. 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 seaport 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. 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 But to expend millions for the sake of getting a few vile acts repealed, and routing the present ministry only, is unworthy the charge, and is using posterity with the utmost cruelty. 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 does not deserve our regard if the work be but accomplished. No nation ought to be without a debt. A national debt is a 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 million sterling, for which she pays upwards of four million in 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, America could have a navy as large again. The Navy of England is not worth, at this time, more than three and a half million sterling.

The first and second editions of this pamphlet were published without the following calculations, which are now given as a proof that the above estimation of the navy is just.

The charge of building a ship of each rate, and furnishing her with masts, yards, sails and rigging, together with a proportion of eight months’ boatswain’s and carpenter’s sea-stores, as calculated by Mr. Burchett, Secretary to the navy.

For a ship of [X number guns]

£ [pounds sterling]

100 guns


















And, from hence, it is easy to sum up the value, or cost rather, of the whole British navy, which in the year 1757, when it was at its greatest glory consisted of the following ships and guns.



Cost of One

Cost of All


































Sloops, bombs, and fireships, one with another





Remains for Guns




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, Captain Death, stood the hottest engagement of any ship last war, yet had not twenty sailors on board though her complement of men was upwards 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. 

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 rivalling her. Africa is in a state of barbarism. No power in Europe has either such an extent of coast or such an internal supply of materials. 

Where nature has given the one, she has withheld the other. To America only has she been liberal of both. The vast empire of Russia is almost shut out from the sea. Wherefore, her boundless forests, tar, iron, and cordage are only articles of commerce.

In 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 or windows. The case now is altered, and our methods of defense ought to improve with our increase of property. 

A common 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 fourteen or sixteen 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, 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 has endeavored to subdue us, is of all others, the most improper to defend us. Conquest may be effected under the pretense 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 on 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 be 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 we have talked as if we should have the whole of it to encounter at once. For that reason, we supposed that we must have one as large, which not being instantly practicable, have been made use of by a set of disguised Tories 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. As 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 has 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, is 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 twenty, thirty, forty or fifty guns, fifty or sixty of those ships, with a few guardships on constant duty, would keep up a sufficient navy. That being without burdening ourselves with the evil so loudly complained of in England or of suffering their fleet 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. Saltpeter and gunpowder: we are every day producing. Our knowledge is hourly improving. 

Resolution is our inherent character, and courage has 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. Who will go forth to quell them? Who will venture his life to reduce his own countrymen to a foreign obedience? The difference between Pennsylvania and Connecticut, respecting some unlocated lands. It shows 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 dependents, may be hereafter applied not only to the discharge of the present debt but to the constant support of government. No nation under heaven has such an advantage as this.

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 non-age of a nation. 

With the increase of commerce, England has lost its spirit. The city of London, notwithstanding its numbers, submits to continued insults with the patience of a coward. The more men have to lose, the less willing are they 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 might scorn each other’s assistance. 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 has withstood our troubles and fixes a memorable area 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 occupied, 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 all government to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government has to do therewith. Let a man throw aside that narrowness of soul and that selfishness of principle, which the ungenerous of all professions are so unwilling to part with. He will be at once 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 conscientiously believe that it is the will of the Almighty that there should be 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. 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.

Earlier, I threw out a few thoughts on the propriety of a Continental Charter, 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. An obligation which the whole enters into to support the right of every separate part, whether of religion, personal freedom, or property. A firm bargain and a right reckoning make long friends.

In a former page, I likewise mentioned the necessity of a large and equal representation. 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 Associator’s 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 County members done the same, this whole province had been governed by two counties only. 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 as to 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 schoolboy. After being approved by a few, a very few without doors, they were carried into the House, and there passed in behalf of the whole colony. Whereas, if the whole colony knew with what ill-will that House has 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. The wisdom with which they have proceeded has preserved this continent from ruin. 

But, as it is more than probable that we shall never be without a Congress, every 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 but of twenty-six members, which trifling number, could not with decency be put for the whole.” We thank him for his involuntary honesty.

`To conclude: however strange it may appear to some, or however unwilling they may be to think so, matters not, but many strong and striking reasons may be given, to show, that nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined declaration for independence. 

Some of which are —

First: It 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.

Secondly: 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. This is because those powers would be sufferers by the consequences.

Thirdly: While we profess ourselves the subjects of Britain, we must, in the eye 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.

Fourthly: 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, much good would come of it. And, if it declared, 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 connections with her, it would produce good effects for us. If it, at the same time, assured 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 an independence, we take rank with other nations.

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, he knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity.



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