“To Begin the World Over Again”: Common Sense and the English Radical Tradition

by Anthony DiLorenzo

Mary Wollestonecraft

Mary Wollestonecraft, an acquaintance
of Thomas Paine, authored the
Vindication of the Rights of Man
in support of republicanism. She later
advocated for women's rights in the
Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Every spot of the old world is over-run with oppression,” proclaimed Thomas Paine on the eve of the American Revolution. “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. — Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.” Paine’s incendiary pamphlet Common Sense (1776) prophesied that hereditary monarchs throughout the world would be swept away by the rising tide of historical progress. While Common Sense is best known as a catalyst of popular support for American independence, the radical ideas it contained had trans-Atlantic sources and impact. Forcefully denouncing British tyranny, Paine drew on a well-established radical tradition that dated back to the seventeenth-century English Revolution. In his subsequent pamphlet The Rights of Man (1792), drafted with a British audience in mind, he looked forward to seeing “the New World regenerate the Old….” He hoped that establishing a republican government in America would serve as a model for Europe, shaking the foundations of power across the Atlantic. Paine was closely connected with a transatlantic network of radical democrats that included Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Cooper, and Mary Wollstonecraft. These figures, among others, would act as political missionaries, spreading the republican ideas contained in Common Sense throughout Great Britain and beyond. J. Almon’s London edition, published in 1776, spearheaded this effort.

Paine’s task in Common Sense was a daunting one, to undermine support for the venerated “English Constitution,” the delicate balance of power established by a common-law tradition, which was thought by many to be the best safeguard of liberty ever conceived. The first protests of British policies during the Stamp Act Crisis of the 1760s were often framed within a discourse of the "rights of Englishmen." To challenge such entrenched political custom, Paine encouraged the reader to divest “himself of prejudice... and suffer his reason and his feelings” to determine the righteous path of the nation. Throughout the tract he fused an Enlightenment narrative of rational progress with the dissenting-Protestant notion of inward spiritual awakening. “The Almighty hath implanted in us these inextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes,” he observed. “They are the guardians of his image in our hearts.” Like the antinomians and Enlightenment radicals of the mid-seventeenth-century English Revolution, Paine appealed to the reader's conscience to undermine worldly authority derived from custom. Well known as a free-thinker and an opponent of religious dogma, Paine’s engagement with religious categories and idioms in Common Sense may come as a surprise to some. Unearthing the radical traditions that influenced his thought, however, reveals that religious and political ideas were often closely entwined.

John Lilburne

John Lilburne

During the English Revolution, sectarian radicals like the “Levellers” expressed a disdain for many English political customs. Popular republicans and Christian radicals, they advocated for a democratic system of representation and religious toleration. Paine followed the lead of Leveller leaders like John Lilburne, who pointed to the "Norman yoke" as the beginning of bondage in England and castigated those who would blindly follow common law. "The laws of this nation are unworthy a free people," Lilburne noted, and dismissed even the celebrated Magna Carta as "being but a beggarly thing, containing many marks of intolerable bondage...." The irreverence that typified the Leveller movement resurfaced within the radical wing of the American Revolution. Much to the consternation of moderates, incessant challenges to traditional authority from radical-Enlightenment figures and religious non-conformists served to destabalize all hierarchical institutions.

In his assault on the English Constitution, Paine focused especially on delegitimizing the King and monarchy in general. His primary rhetorical strategy in doing so was to contrast the monarch’s claims to authority with those of God. Divine authority, the sovereignty of God, reigned supreme. The claim that monarchs had usurped divine authority was commonly found in the revolutionary literature of mid-seventeenth-century England. Paine evoked this language when he recalled the story of Gideon refusing the title of king, declaring “I will not rule over you…THE LORD SHALL RULE OVER YOU.” He argued that Gideon did “not decline the honor but denieth their right to give it” and noted that their “proper sovereign” was the “King of Heaven.” For Paine, political authority remained with the people themselves, subject only to the sovereignty of God. In this vein, Paine asked, “But where say some is the King of America? I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth make havock on mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain.” The acceptance of kings by the Jews was a sinful act, in his view, one that betrayed divine authority.

Monarchy itself was depicted in Common Sense as an outgrowth of sin and as a moral defect that must be cast off. Paine extended the metaphor to hereditary rule in general: “For as in Adam all sinned, and as in the first electors all men obeyed; as in the one all mankind were subjected to Satan, and in the other to Sovereignty... original sin and hereditary succession are parallels.” Just as the sinner must be regenerated to be saved, Paine sought a political awakening, whereby those subjected to tyranny would be sanctified by republican liberty. For Puritans, regeneration meant a commitment to the moral law, but for antinomians who emphasized conscience over scripture, it meant liberation to follow the dictates of one's heart. Such an idiom resonated in the secular as well as the sacred sphere. For adherents to the radical Enlightenment, a faith in individual reason over custom animated their rejection of the past in favor of a commitment to future progress. In opposition to the gradualism of Enlightenment moderates — who emphasized the continued importance of hierarchy, harmony, and order — these radicals embraced a secular millennialism, which celebrated a new age of reason and rejected the corrupted institutions of the past. Fundamentally important to such a world view was a sincere belief in the natural goodness of human beings.  

Millenialist ideas had surfaced during the seventeenth-century English Revolution and suffused the political writings of the period. Some dissenters viewed the contest as one between the powers of light and darkness — nothing less than the commencement of Armageddon — a war between God and the Antichrist. To succeed in such a conflict required the purging of corruption and sin, ushering in an era of peace and liberty. Sectarians like the Ranters and Fifth Monarchists were highly animated by such apocalyptic visions. The Levellers, too, were influenced by the millennial expectations so predominant among ordinary people in England at the time. Even elite theorists such as John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and James Harrington exhibited millennial themes in their works. After the Restoration, English republicans lamented a return to political slavery. Algernon Sidney recalled the Biblical tale of exodus, proclaiming that “We could never be contented till we returned again into Egypt, the house of our bondage. God had delivered us from slavery and showed that he would be our king....”[1] John Locke, on the other hand, greeted the Restoration positively and in his First Tract on Government (1660) lambasted those who suggested “we are returning to Egypt.” This narrative of a republican exodus persisted in radical circles on both sides of the Atlantic.

Influenced by this millennialist tradition, Paine framed independence in cosmological terms. He attempted to strip the monarch of his majesty, comparing him to “a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling into dust!” “Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens,” he declared, “from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.” He drew on the popular disdain for Catholicism that had been enflamed during the Wars of Religion and, more recently, during the Seven Years’ War with France. He wrote that, “monarchy in every instance is the Popery of government.”  This association between monarchy and the papacy served to undermine popular support for the ruling English establishment in two vital ways. First, it equated the English monarchy with the religious authority of the Catholic Pope, deemed illegitimate by many in both Britain and the British colonies. Secondly, it served to rekindle sectarian disputes between dissenters and Anglicans, where the latter were accused of drifting towards “popery.” Through his conflation of monarchy and papacy, Paine undoubtedly sought to reinforce the proto-nationalist sentiment of the recent war, only this time with the British cast as the “cruel papists.”

The London edition surprisingly included the bulk of Paine’s attack on monarchy in theory, but it censored most of the explicit attacks on King George III. Omissions included Paine’s description of the King as “the sullen-tempered Pharoah of England” who had “shown himself such an inveterate enemy to liberty, and discovered such a thirst for arbitrary power” that he could not be trusted. Nevertheless, British readers would have seen their country described as a “barbarous and hellish power” that sought to oppress and subjugate the colonists. The overall thrust of Paine’s critique of British institutions remained largely intact.

English radicals, especially dissenters like Price and Priestley, likely found Paine’s criticism of monarchy and the excesses of empire familiar. Common Sense optimistically expressed the notion that human beings had it in their power “to begin the world again” and “to begin government at the right end.” He referred here not just to Americans but to everyone. Common Sense was an argument for a global revolution, whereby citizens of the world would claim their rightful status as political equals. By this he meant to reverse the order of sovereignty through which governmental authority was grounded. “First, they had a king, and then a form of government;” he lamented, “whereas, the articles or charter of government, should be formed first, and men delegated to execute them afterward….” This reasoning undermined the foundational authority of the English Constitution altogether and formulated a concept of constitutional authority based on popular sovereignty. The government does not form a constitution, rather the people constitute a government. Some may find it surprising that such radical ideas were published in London, at the center of the metropole, but they were merely circulating back to their place of origin. Thomas Paine’s radicalism was firmly rooted in English soil. Democratic ideas forged in the crucibles of two revolutions would spread next to France with “Paineites” on both sides of the Atlantic celebrating the triumphant march of republicanism and hoping for the world to truly begin anew.

[1]    Algernon Sidney, Court Maxims, ed., Hans W. Blom (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 1996), 197.