Common Sense – by Thomas Paine

Early 1800’s reprint: The Co-operative Archive


The tiny, fragile pamphlet stored in the Co-operative Archive under ‘Miscellaneous papers’ came from an early co-operative and was stored as reference material to educate members about how political affairs had caused the circumstances of trade to be as they were during the period in which most co-operatives in the UK were establishing themselves and growing their memberships, in the 1850’s and 60’s as the crisis of a civil war loomed in America. It was vital for traders in cotton towns to understand how and why the conflict had begun in the first place and looking back at the way America had established itself as a nation would be helpful.

The pamphlet was originally published in the city of Philadelphia in what was known as the ‘United Colonies’ on February 14th 1776; some months before the second Continental Congress was to meet in the city that summer  to vote and declare the independence of the new ‘United States of America’ on July 4th following the wars with Great Britain.

Then (as now) the state of Pennsylvania was pivotal in deciding the fate and future of not just it’s  own citizens; but the way global trade and relationships would operate in an increasingly connected and industrialising world.

The author was Thomas Paine from Thetford in Norfolk, whose writings on political, social and religious disruption made him famous in the late 18th Century. He claims in the introduction to the ‘advice’ that he will not show bias.. and he will:

studiously avoid everything personal among ourselves and will will undertake that compliments toward and censure of individuals make no part thereof.”

Although in the same paragraph Paine writes that the cause of America overthrowing colonial power and inequality is one which is tied to the ambitions of many communities and should be a natural progression of a modern and moral society - immediately undermining the notion of a lack of bias! It is generally assumed that co-operatives sought to be politically neutral in decision making and particularly in attracting increasing members but the idea that political thought was not at the core of the movement would have been incompatible with the reasons it became established in the 19th Century.

The central message of this article is that commerce and not conquest is the key to a good relationship between Britain and the new United States and that this could all be managed effectively with a new electoral system once the nation state was functioning properly.

“Some convenient tree will afford them (the Americans) a State-House (a parliamentary building), under the branches of which the whole colony will assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more probable that their first laws will have the title only of REGULATIONS, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem. In this first parliament every man by natural law, will have a seat.

But as the colony increases, the public concerns will increase likewise, and the distance at which the members may be separated, will render it too inconvenient for all of them to meet on every occasion as at first when their number was small, their habitations near and their public concerns few and trifling.”

The author suggests that as the union grows, the methods of communicating and particularly the method of electing be considered for those far away to have their voice and secure the strength and happiness of the people (we must note that he does not mean all the people, as women, enslaved and indigenous people are absent from the rhetoric) but that because he sees a future of American democracy as representative of the working people.

His views were considered by some of his contemporaries as dangerous radicalism. Paine was highly critical of George Washington and the man who succeeded him; John Adams, accused Paine of being ‘so democratical’ that to follow his advice would cause ‘evil works’.

At the close of the advice, other writers give their opinions that the principles laid out by Mr Paine ‘should be those of all desirous to possess that independence of thought and action, without which he must remain ‘a slave at heart’. The article was later credited with helping focus efforts into the formulation of the new Washington based government and electoral system.

Paine could hardly have been expected to guess that 244 years later, British observers would once again be watching and waiting on votes cast in states like Pennsylvania to find out who will be in control of the former colony and what that might mean for the future of modern democracy.

*The outcome of the American Presidential Election 2020 was unclear at the time of writing.