Historical Context in Common Sense

Historical Context Examples in Common Sense:

Introduction 1

"Philadelphia, February 14, 1776..."   (Introduction)

At the time that this pamphlet was published, the Revolutionary War had lasted for only a year. Paine's writing was instrumental in encouraging colonists to support the revolution and fight for independence.

"Turkey..."   (I. Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution)

During this time Turkey was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, which utilized a form of government called "absolute monarchy." Absolute monarchy is the most strict type of monarchy and is led by a single ruler with absolute authority.

"the fate of Charles the first..."   (I. Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution)

Charles I ruled England from 1625 until his execution in 1649. Throughout his rule he struggled for power with Parliament, and this fight ultimately led to the start of the English Civil War. Following the victory of the Parliamentarians, Charles I was executed and the monarchy was abolished.

"A mere absurdity!..."   (I. Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution)

The Constitution of England is no longer a successful means of governance, Paine argues, primarily because it is utterly contradictory. The three checks he mentions are not representative of England's citizens, nor do they appropriately balance each other as they should.

"The remains of monarchical tyranny in the person of the king...."   (I. Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution)

This can be read as foreshadowing the checks and balances that became a part of the United States Constitution to ensure that neither the President, nor any single branch of the government, could become all-powerful.

"That it was noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was erected, is granted..."   (I. Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution)

His disdain for the Constitution of England is clear here, with explicit diction that demonstrates his belief that their constitution is old and outdated; it is only good in comparison to the times in which it was written.

"I offer a few remarks on the so much boasted constitution of England..."   (I. Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution)

Paine uses another persuasive tactic here in his decision to look at a real-world comparison for the sake of his argument. This is successful because he chooses the constitution of England, a document which his audience would have been familiar with and which the colonists had been living under for years.

"It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem...."   (I. Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution)

This initial, imagined stage of Paine's government is not dissimilar to the Pilgrims' reality when they first arrived in America. Think about "The Scarlet Letter" and the fact that Hester Prynne's primary punishment was public shaming.

"Popish..."   (II. Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession)

"Popish" is a somewhat derogatory adjective of, or in reference to, the Roman Catholic Church.

"scripture chronology..."   (II. Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession)

This indicates a structural shift in the text, wherein Paine goes on to describe passages of the Bible and how they serve as allusions to the present state of government affairs within the colonies. The Bible was an integral text during this period, particularly when it came to developing moral codes, which is why Paine alludes to it so heavily.

"Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation..."   (II. Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession)

It is worth noting that, given the historical context of this time, Paine likely was advocating for equality among white me; however his language is such that we can apply his assertions of equality to everyone. It is his firm belief that men are equal which fuels his strong opposition to kings, the monarchy, and that hierarchical structure.

"Dragonetti..."   (III. Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs)

Historians have concluded that this is a reference to the somewhat obscure Italian political theorist Giacinto Dragonetti, who published "Treatise on Virtues and Rewards" in 1766.

"the fatal nineteenth of April 1775..."   (III. Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs)

This is the day the massacre at Lexington took place, and it is also a moment of pivotal change for Paine. No longer could the colonies hope for reconciliation after the events of that day.

"To be always running three or four thousand miles with a tale or a petition, waiting four or five months for an answer, which when obtained requires five or six more to explain it in, will in a few years be looked upon as folly and childishness..."   (III. Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs)

The distanced method of colonial rule is no longer an effective way for a colony to exist. It took weeks, or months, for communications to travel from Britain to America, and this delay greatly diminished America's ability to grow and progress.

"that seat of wretchedness will teach us wisdom, and instruct us for ever to renounce a power in whom we can have no trust..."   (III. Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs)

Paine uses the example of Boston to demonstrate the oppressive nature of Britain's colonial rule. The British occupation of Boston was a turning point for many colonists who felt loyal to the crown, because the brutal way in which the city was taken over revealed the dark side of the colonial regime.

"we should be at peace with France and Spain were they at war with Britain..."   (III. Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs)

This serves as an early allusion to the future neutrality of the United States. Paine, like many other colonists, didn't like the idea of being drawn into wars that were not in their territory's best interests.

"Mr. Pelham..."   (III. Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs)

It is likely that the mysterious "Mr. Pelham" is a reference to Henry Pelham, who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1743-1754 and was known for remarkably stable leadership throughout his tenure.

"Mr. Burchett..."   (IV. Of the Present Ability of America, with Some Miscellaneous Reflections)

"Mr. Burchett" refers to Josiah Burchett, the Secretary of the Admiralty in England from 1694-1742. The calculations that Paine references here are likely from his book "A Complete History of the Most Remarkable Transactions at Sea," which has been used extensively by naval historians to better understand that time period.

"See Entic’s naval history, intro..."   (IV. Of the Present Ability of America, with Some Miscellaneous Reflections)

This is likely a reference to John Entick's 1757 text "A New Naval History," which details the various branches and personnel of the British Navy, as well as other maritime military service branches.

"proof that the above estimation of the navy is just..."   (IV. Of the Present Ability of America, with Some Miscellaneous Reflections)

These calculations were not a part of the initial pamphlet, but their addition adds much needed evidence to Paine's earlier claims that America could have a navy as large as England but with a fraction of their debt.

"that Britain would never suffer an American man of war to be built..."   (IV. Of the Present Ability of America, with Some Miscellaneous Reflections)

During this time period, Britain had one of the most powerful navies in the world. America's naval powers were not well formed because Britain would have seen another individual navy as a threat.