Home Study Course

Module 3: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

Download the audio of part 1 (mp3)
Download the audio of part 2 (mp3)

The American Revolution is all too often confused with the War for Independence. As John Adams noted in a letter of 1815 to Thomas Jefferson, “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington. The records of thirteen legislatures, the pamphlets, newspapers in all the colonies, ought to be consulted during that period to ascertain the steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the authority of Parliament over the colonies.” This lesson examines the “Revolution in the minds of the people” that Adams described, focusing on Thomas Paine’s remarkably influential pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776 and reprinted 25 times in the next year, and the Declaration of Independence that it helped to inspire.

Thomas Paine (1737–1809) wrote several books and pamphlets that greatly contributed to “delegitimizing” the claims to authority of the British state. Paine asserted that “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one” and directed the reader to the discussion of the nature of rulers in the Bible (I Samuel 8, included in the readings for this module). As to the particular claims of the British monarchy, Paine noted, “No man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable one. A French bastard, landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it.”

The Declaration of Independence is more than a mere declaration of intention to sever political ties with Britain. It is a carefully crafted argument justifying that intention. It ranks as one of the greatest and most influential political documents of all time. (One of thirty‐​two surviving copies made in 1823 directly from the original Declaration, using ink lifted from the surface of the parchment, hangs in the lobby of the Cato Institute building in Washington, D.C.) The Founders offered a careful set of arguments for armed revolution, a course that was not undertaken lightly, with full awareness of the consequences. When he signed a document that concluded, “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor,” each signatory knew that he was signing his own death warrant in the event of failure.

The material in this module reveals the way in which the American experiment in liberty and limited government arose out of the intersection of libertarian moral and political philosophy and the political conflicts of the day, for example, the intersection of support for freedom of trade and attempts by the British government to impose mercantilist policies on the Americans in the interest of the British East Indies Company. A particularly important topic discussed in this module is the glaring contradiction between the claims to liberty and self‐​government made by the revolutionaries and the existence of the degrading practice of chattel slavery in many of the states.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), in drafting the Declaration of Independence, had, as he later said, “turned to neither book nor pamphlet in writing it”; he attempted simply “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject.” This is strong evidence of the degree to which libertarian ideas, such as those articulated by John Locke in the previous century, had come to permeate popular American thinking on morality and politics. It is notable how many of phrases from Locke’s Second Treatise of Government are echoed in the Declaration of Independence.

In addition to the Declaration of Independence and excerpts from Paine’s writings, the readings include the Declarations of the Stamp Act Congress and of the First Continental Congress, setting out the grievances of the American colonists.

The most enduring legacy of the American Revolution is the attempt to establish a system of individual liberty and limited government governed by law—a system consistent with the nature of human beings as moral agents with inalienable rights. That effort has been an inspiration to lovers of liberty all around the globe.

Readings to Accompany The Audio

From The Libertarian Reader: The Bible, I Samuel 8 (pp. 5–6); Thomas Paine, “Of the Origin and Design of Government” (pp. 7–12) and “Of Society and Civilization” (pp. 211–14).

From From Magna Carta to the Constitution: Documents in the Struggle for Liberty: Declarations of the Stamp Act Congress (1765) (pp. 47–50), Declaration of the First Continental Congress (1774) (pp. 51–56), Declaration of Independence (1776) (pp. 51–62).

Some Problems to Ponder & Discuss

• To what extent were the American revolutionaries defending a tradition of liberty and constitutionalism against encroaching absolutism, and to what extent were they introducing and implementing new principles?

• Were the colonists of British America being “ungrateful” for the protection offered them by the British Empire during, for example, the French and Indian Wars? To what extent does the extension of protection of the sort offered by the British armies obligate the protected?

• What is the distinction between resistance to unjust authority and active revolution seeking to overturn unjust authority? What might justify revolution to “alter or abolish” an established authority?

• What is the role of representation in legitimating political authority?

• What is the distinction between an alienable right and an inalienable right?

• In what way(s) might a legitimate government rest upon the “consent of the governed”?

• How has popular political thinking changed since the time of Paine and Jefferson? In what ways has it become more libertarian, and in what ways less?

• What distinctly Lockean elements can be identified in the Declaration of Independence?

Suggested Additional Reading

Thomas Paine, Political Writings, Bruce Kuklick, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). This book brings together Paine’s most influential works: Common Sense; The Crisis, Number 1; The Rights of Man, Part I; The Rights of Man, Part II; and The Age of Reason, Part First.

The Portable Thomas Jefferson, Merrill D. Peterson, ed. (New York: Viking Press, 1977). This edition includes in its version of the Declaration of Independence the sections deleted from Jefferson’s draft, including his condemnation of the slave trade. Other important writings of Jefferson include “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” “The Kentucky Resolutions” (in which Jefferson asserted that “free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power”), and the “First Inaugural Address” (in which Jefferson asked, after listing the advantages enjoyed by the inhabitants of America, “With all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow citizens–a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities”).

Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922; New York: Random House, 1958). A distinguished historian neatly explains such matters as the philosophical antecedents to the Declaration, the principles of natural law, and the then‐​current theory of the British Empire and offers a careful examination of the rhetoric and language of the Declaration itself. This short but brilliant book is inspiring.

David N. Mayer, The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995). This book examines Jefferson’s views on the fundamental constitutional questions about the relationship of the individual to government, the states to the federal government, and more. Rather than mischaracterizing Jefferson as an “agrarian,” Mayer examines Jefferson’s thought on Jefferson’s own terms–as “Whig,” “federal,” and “republican.” He tells how, steeped in English common law doctrines, Jefferson developed a distinctly American philosophy of law. He describes Jefferson’s ideas for reforming criminal law, the immortal principles Jefferson expressed in the Declaration of Independence, his advocacy of a Bill of Rights, and his performance as president. This is an important addition to the literature on the early American republic.

For Further Study

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1967). A distinguished American historian examines in great detail the intellectual background of the American Revolution.

John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters: Essays on Liberty, edited and annotated by Ronald Hamowy (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1995). These essays popularized Locke’s ideas and were profoundly influential in both England and America. They are the inspiration for the Cato Institute. Published anonymously in the London Journal from 1720 to 1723, the 144 letters provide a compelling theoretical basis for freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Virtually half the private libraries in the American colonies contained bound volumes of Cato’s Letters.

The English Libertarian Heritage, David L. Jacobson, ed., with a new foreword by Ronald Hamowy (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1994). This is an accessible collection of the various writings that influenced the American Founders, notably the most relevant of Cato’s Letters.

Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century (New York: Praeger, 1993). The authors offer a thoughtful and careful consideration of resistance theory, with well‐​developed case studies. This book provides a useful update and application of the theories of resistance to tyranny that were commonly discussed in the eighteenth century.

| Back to Main Page | Next Module |