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Authority in Paine’s Common Sense and Crisis Papers
Studies in the Humanities Vol. 18, Issue 2. (1991): p124-134. Rpt. in
Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 248. Detroit, MI: Gale. From Literature Resource Center.
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[(essay date 1991) In the following essay, Davidson and Scheick trace in Common Sense and other early works the antagonism to organized religion that is more usually identified with Paine’s later work. They argue that Paine’s use of scriptural justification for a republican government in his early writings undercuts his later arguments against divine rights of organized religions or monarchies.]

Thomas Paine’s time might be aptly described not only as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment or the Neoclassical Age or the Age of Contradiction (Howard), but also as the Age of Representation (Scheick). It was a time when people believed, as a southern contemporary of Paine typically phrased it, that “man is a Sociable animal” seeking happiness through human interaction, or civil covenants (Hamilton 1: 144); so it was also a time when public appearance, externality, was emphasized, a time of diplomacy managed by negotiating social voices representing a position or an image and revealing a speaker’s personal interior only indirectly. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, an amalgamation of such negotiating voices, is a good case in point; and present-day scholars readily contend over the personae, the rhetorical strategies, the management and accuracy of detail, and even the actual beliefs of Franklin in this ambiguous work (e.g. Breitwieser, Seavey, Warner, Patterson 3-33). Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography, usually of much less interest to these same critics, is nonetheless another case in point; only the outer lineament of an impersonal self is autobiographically presented to the world by Jefferson in a portrait of an author knowable solely through a public history paradoxically written by the unseen private self he does not reveal (Cox 33-54).

The expressed religious principles and beliefs of such a “represented” person often have this same formidable and distant character. And so they do in Paine’s writings, which evidence little if any religious feeling (if “feeling” it can be called). His expressions of religious idea and conviction are of the same form and mode as are his political convictions. In Paine’s opinion, the aim of established religion is virtually identical with that of monarchical politics: the representation of authority.

The reason for this association is made clear in Paine’s The Age of Reason. Paine was primarily interested in society and politics, the workings of human thought and action in the world as it was in his time and as it might be in the future. But religion was a most significant and pervasive authority in that world of society and politics. In his desire to further the movement of humanity toward a secular millennium (see Fruchtman), Paine sought to locate all the impediments to human advancement toward a better world, and eventually he focussed on established religion as a fundamental culprit, as the primary prop behind kings. To the end of exposing the pseudo-authority of established religion as a mainstay of monarchies and, consequently, of the social and political malaise of his time, Paine devoted his best energies late in his life, especially in The Age of Reason.

However, even before his later explicit discussion of the alliance between religion and politics, Paine readily intersected these two axes of authority in such early works as Common Sense and the Crisis papers. This intersection of religious and political concerns in effect also became the site of a peculiar struggle to authorize his own voice. This problem of Paine’s authority, simultaneously constructed and de-constructed in relation to the connection between religion and politics, is the conundrum at the center of our investigation. By subtly relying on scripture and claiming to represent his audience as it ought to be, Paine negotiates the authorization of his own voice in a manner that replicates the monarchical strategies that he exposes as fraudulent. In this way, Paine unwittingly subverts his own authority and his argument for a new “democratic” community.

Scripture and Monarchies

In Common Sense Paine’s most considerable use of the Bible occurs in a passage arguing against concepts of kingship and monarchy. He quotes nearly the whole of chapters 8 through 12 of I Samuel, the scriptural condemnation of the Jews’ “idolatrous” demand for a king and the reluctant submission of the prophet Samuel to their desire (1: 11-12). This direct, accurate quotation makes the point that the Old Testament Israelites went against the will of God and thereafter suffered the oppression of kingship, which in turn led to the division of the kingdom into two, to the subsequent fall of Jerusalem, and to the Captivity in Babylon. The message for Paine’s American audience was doubtless clear, perhaps especially to those who still carried in their minds a sense of America’s New Israelite destiny or of the jeremiads warning of the possible failure of this mission.1 Paine implies that to fulfill its destiny the New World must not repeat the historical pattern of the Old Testament Israelites.

The biblical analogies and examples he uses in Common Sense appear to flow with ease from a mind accustomed to thinking in scriptural terms.2 The American colonists, Paine typically notes, were “separating [them]selves from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah,” whereas in contrast, in submitting to an autocratic government the English people “have shaven [their] own head” in the same manner that “Samson … told the secret … and wantonly thrown away the locks” (1: 83, 148). The English oppressors have been driven, “like Pharaoh, to unpitied miseries” (1: 161).

This convenient, even ready manner of association occurs as well in Paine’s routine references to the colonists as benefitting from “the gracious hand of Heaven.” Because King George III is “a Herod of uncommon malice,” Paine comments, it is “the will of God [that] has parted” the colonists from the King. “America [is] of too much value in the scale of Providence to be cast like a pearl before swine,” Paine writes in echo of scripture, for “the country was the gift of heaven, and God alone is their Lord and Sovereign” (1: 118-20). Paine’s quotations and references in these and other instances recall a standard, conventional reliance on scripture in his time for the evidence necessary to illustrate an argument.

But much more is involved in such moments as these in Common Sense and the Crisis papers than merely the rhetorical management of biblical allusions designed to elicit certain emotions in an audience long exposed to a tradition of such usage. Also important within this tradition is the emphatic association of religious discourse and political agenda, not only from the Puritans onward in the New World, but in England as well; for Paine was sure from the outset of the Revolution that “religious and political principles” are joined together in mutual support each other (1: 77).3 In Common Sense he does not pause over this connection; dedicated to calling for a declaration of independence, he has little time in this work to probe such matters. Paine, however, would forcefully return to this matter nearly twenty years later, when in The Age of Reason he would observe how this very connection, when perverted, vexes the advancement of humanity: “It has been the scheme of the Christian Church, and of all the other invented systems of religion, to hold man in ignorance of the Creator, as it is of Governments to hold man in ignorance of his rights. The systems of the one are as false as those of the other, and are calculated for mutual support” (1: 601). Then, too, Paine would refute the supremacy of scripture itself specifically because it had been used to legitimate kingship and monarchies.

In Common Sense Paine anticipates his eventual position when he observes that “in the early ages of the world, according to the scripture chronology”—this phrase “scripture chronology” would become prominent later (1: 524-25)—“there were no kings; the consequence of which was, there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion” (1: 9). To be sure, the reproach of kings here and in The Forester’s Letters (1776) is meant, as are Jefferson’s anathemas of King George III in the Declaration of Independence, to have a contemporary edge and bearing. Nonetheless, Paine’s point (expressed in Miltonic terms) is that monarchy recapitulates (as it were) Satan’s subversion of the harmony of creation: “the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise”; “if the history of the creation and the history of kings be compared together the result will be this—that God hath made a world, and kings have robbed him of it” (1: 4-5; 2: 79). To eliminate monarchy would be to restore an Edenic feature of God’s original world.

A crucial moment in this pattern of association occurs, as we noted, when Paine resorts to the authority of the Old Testament, specifically to the long quotation from I Samuel, to deny human authority to any “form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven” (1: 10): “That the Almighty hath … here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false” (1: 12). Paine knows that his audience credits the authority of the Bible without question; for that audience, as his rhetorical manner indicates, scriptural analogy speaks for itself. But Paine’s dance around this issue of authority is more subtle than is immediately apparent. It is in fact as subtle as has been, in his opinion, the claims of kings to power. Subtle is the telling word in Paine’s observation that in presenting “the will of the king” under the guise or “formidable shape of an act of parliament” we can see that “the fate of Charles the First hath only made kings more subtle—not more just” (1: 9). For Paine, we can surmise, any claim to authority is based on subtlety.

The Issue of Authority

But in 1776, Paine was apparently willing to leave unquestioned the subtleties of scriptural claims to authority, and that latent concern is readily elided for the urgent purposes of his political mission in Common Sense. He was not, however, unaware of the problem of the legitimation of his own voice in this pamphlet, a problem he had to negotiate as subtly as he says kings do their own imperious voice. If monarchs, in Paine’s opinion, effect their will through the guise of the Parliamentary representatives of the people, so too, one must observe, does an author like Paine, who adopts a persona who is anonymous, a mere representative of the “universal” evident in “the cause of America,” which is after all “the cause of all mankind” (1: 3). The P. S. to the introduction of the anonymously published February, 1776, edition of Common Sense says directly, “Who the author of this production is, is wholly unnecessary to the public, as the object for attention is the doctrine itself, not the man” (1: 4).

The seemingly incidental, even offhand placement of this comment itself comprises a sleight of hand. Such positioning relegates the comment to the margin of the reader’s attention. Yet what it says is disingenuous. It masks the persona’s self-attribution of an exemplary, superior degree of rationality that can pierce through the mystification of monarchical politics and established religion. For if the anonymous persona is truly representative of the “we,” “us,” and “our” with whom he is so fond of identifying,4 either he would be as mystified as the rest of us concerning the self-evident universal cause of America or what he has to say, to argue, to assert would already be as self-evident to us as it is to him as merely an indistinguishable and interchangeable member of that community.

But he is not one with that community. In Common Sense he readily admits “the inability of moral virtue to govern the world”: “were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other law-giver” (1: 6, 5). So until such time as this millennial ideal comes into existence, the persona of Common Sense must play the governing part. To do so, he merely asserts his position in the same manner as kings, in his opinion, assume the posture of doing the will of the people by “representing” the people as they ought to be. However, given the absence of the reality, the millennial ideal, represented by Paine’s persona, there is nothing empirical, documentable, or phenomenally-grounded available to credit him; his license is based on an absence, nothing at all, and so he must resort to self-assertion, mere language, fortified by the presumably self-evident and unquestionable divine verity of scripture, which (paradoxically) nonetheless “expressly disapproves of government by kings” (1:10). In this way the persona of Common Sense deposes monarchs and at the same time, in his own performance of voice, achieves his identity negatively (disassociation) and positively (association): negatively, by defining himself through opposition so that he is enabled and “embodied” by what he opposes; positively, by confiscating the subtle manner of asserted sovereignty attributed to kings, whom he accuses of “jesuitically” managing language (1: 19).

Paine’s mimicry of the arrogation of authority he attributes to kings not only is suggested in assertions reminiscent of magisterial proclamations and buttressed by biblical analogies that speak for themselves without question; it also includes a subtle appropriation of “regal authority” founded on “the seal of divine authority” (1: 27, 15). For even though the anonymous author does allude throughout Common Sense to “the natural rights of all mankind,” to “the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling,” to “the influence of reason and principle,” to “the universal order of things,” to (in short) “common sense,” none of these asserted claims to an empirical, demonstrable, phenomenally-grounded basis for action is ever explored, and each simply gives way in the discourse proper to a mere reliance upon divine scriptural authority. Whether or not this deflection suggests Paine’s deliberate accommodation of audience, the effect of his procedure in any event is one of arrogation of the very divine authorization for kingship that he renounces from the start on presumably self-evident ground.

Representing the New Community

Authorially identified simply as “Common Sense,” Paine declares in the thirteenth and final Crisis paper (19 April 1776): “it was the cause of America that made me an author. The force with which it struck my mind … made it impossible for me, feeling as I did, to be silent” (1: 235). There is truth in Paine’s statement; for his previous authorship in England shows no special talent for writing. Nevertheless, in this statement, the displacement of personal motive to representative cause is of greater significance. In seeming to abdicate individual authority, the author subtly reigns, just as as he does in Common Sense. His alleged representative self in effect represents his individual voice; he merely disguises this doctrinaire voice by claiming that it emanates from the parliamentary-like power of his community:

So far as my endeavors could go, they have all been directed to conciliate the affections, unite the interests, and draw and keep the mind of the country together. … I have avoided all places of profit or office … kept myself at a distance from all parties … and even disregarded all private and inferior concerns: and when we take into view the great work which we have gone through … we ought to feel, the just importance of it.(1: 234-35)

The tension created by contradiction in this passage is worth noting. The slippage from “I” to “we” almost mutes any sense of personal motive, but finally a discrepancy becomes evident in the light of authorial claims of mere representation. For if the speaker is truly personally disinterested (avoiding and disregarding “at a distance”), if the speaker is nearly a disembodied hagiographic voice of the community of “we,” how is it that, unlike that community, he was so much “at a distance” that he was exempt from the problem “we” had, the problem of unreconciled affections, disunited interests, and disordered mind? Does not his exemption from this discord, his distant position, his (as it were) Parnassian vision elevate him above “us”? Does he here not present himself with a kinglike supremacy, at once the bestower of social order and the expression of the will of the people, were they capable of realizing it?

Paine’s slippage from “I” to “we” may be meant as a form of subtle association, an attempt to merge individual voice and communal identity. But within the same passage this slippage also curiously reasserts the gap between “I” and “we”; for the intimated magisterial prerogative of an exemplary persona, who relies on the self-evident verity of scriptural analogy as if it were “the seal of divine authority” for his imperious pronouncements, seeks to impose order over social chaos. Read this way, the coalescence of “I” and “we” in this passage ironically to some degree recovers the sense of the royal “we” used by monarchs.

This paradoxical abdication and reclamation of kingly authority occurs in the next paragraph, the penultimate one of this Crisis paper: “Independence always appeared to me practicable and probable, provided the sentiment of the country could be formed and held to the object” (1: 235). Again the author conveys a sense of distance from the community; he sees, as if from a prospect or inspired by an Inward Light,5 more than is seen by the community, the sentiment of which needs to “be formed.” The author evasively deletes the agent to this passive voice construction. To be formed by whom? The answer lies in the antecedent, virtually parallel construction in the same sentence: it “appeared to me” and it “could be formed” by me.

Throughout both Common Sense and the Crisis papers Paine’s voice claims to be at once passive and active, disinterested and interested, present and distant, average and special. An anonymously-communal representative “we” as well as a divinely-envisioned regal “I” who echoes the regal use of “we,” this persona concludes with an equally double-voiced claim, problematically suspended between the personal and the communal, about the merits of its narration: “I have likewise added something to the reputation of literature, by freely and disinterestedly employing it in the great cause of mankind, and showing that there may be genius without prostitution” (1: 235).6

Paine’s denial of any craft or art is itself a very artful and crafty enterprise, one designed to suggest that the “genius” of the author is not only a passive representation of the community as a whole but also an active representation of the new man with a new style, both prophesying a new community that would become a model for the rest of the world. Although Paine says of kings that “how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into” (1: 9), the issue of his own representation of the new American type is elided. He wrote Common Sense and the Crisis papers as someone confessing his lack of experience, as someone only empowered by the enterprise itself; but at the same time he presents himself, through the performance of his oracular language alone, as someone professing his singular destiny to be a biblically-authorized spokesman for nearly everything that the American cause declared in the way of rights and freedoms of its people, especially as defined against a background of the tyranny of kings, including those “sullen-tempered Pharaoh[s] of England” (1: 25).

Finally, however, such a maneuver amounts only to a form of subtle self-authorization, asserted through a tradition of apparently biblically sanctioned language, similar to the contrived self-empowerment of the very monarchs Paine exposed and deposed. By relying on scriptural authority and thereby mimicking the subtlety of monarchic self-authorization in his own performance, Paine inadvertently damages his own argument. If his exposure of the corrupt alliance between established religion and monarchical politics is valid, then his “democratic” appropriation of their authority contaminates and subverts his claims for the “new man.” For when Paine rehabilitates the very same patterns of the past he ostensibly rejects, the “new man” he calls for and in some sense typifies, fails to show “that there may be genius without prostitution.”

Paine’s problematical location of authority in a repudiation of the past that simultaneously resorts to traditional scriptural authority and rearticulates traditional monarchical strategies of authorization, one could speculate, might have been reinforced (not caused) by his lack of skill in citing legal, philosophical, and political spokesmen out of the past. The Bible notwithstanding, the secular commentators he did cite were those of recent and contemporary document and reasoning; his support for the Revolution was never derived from the noble statements on human rights, the powers of kings and government, or the rules of adjusting difference between people. His guides were in every case the statements in immediate thought and discussion, and they could not protect him from the sort of pitfall we have described.

At the end of the Revolutionary War Paine was most adept in managing a style and rhetoric suitable to public contention and particularly serviceable in treating a contemporary issue in all its immediate situation. When he engaged in a debate with the Abbé Reynal concerning the rights of people to revolt, he relied on events such as Washington’s defeat of the British at Trenton and on recently published tracts that he brought to bear on the subject at hand. But Paine’s apparent reliance on the empirical, the demonstrable, the phenomenally-grounded is only chimerical and always yields in the discourse proper of Common Sense and the Crisis papers to an explicit reliance upon divine scriptural authority or to an implicit reliance upon replicated monarchical strategies of subtle self-authorization. This always formed and always de-formed coalescence of the local and the universal, of the self and the community, constitutes Paine’s method, as he well stated himself: “my principle is universal. My attachment is to all the world, and not to any particular part, and what I advance is right, no matter where or who it comes from” (1: 146).

“What I advance is right, no matter where or who it comes from,” whether that be some external source such as situated in scripture or some internal source such as situated in the self where inspiration is like an experience of the Inward Light. Paradoxically, whenever Paine claims through dogmatic assertion, through the mere performance of oracular language, the compliance of his particular beliefs with universal principles, he instinctively seeks a hermetically circular self-empowerment as his ground for warrant, “no matter where or who it comes from.” Such autonomy, however, remains elusive, a mere fantasy, as is suggested by Paine’s subtle confiscation of the strategies of his magisterial opponent.7


1. That Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary rhetoric sometimes successfully integrated religious and political discourse has been explored by Bercovitch and Weber, among others.

2. Paine certainly knew the Bible during his boyhood in a pious Quaker household (1: 496). His exposure to the Bible was doubtless augmented during his early manhood when he taught English for some months in 1766, in an academy maintained by Daniel Noble (1729-1783), a Baptist minister. Unpopular in this post and not recommended by Noble as a suitable candidate for ordination, Paine (if traditional accounts are reliable in this matter) engaged in itinerant preaching during 1766 and 1767. According to Francis Oldys, Paine’s first and not always accurate biographer, Paine “determined to persevere in his purpose, without regular orders. And so he preached in Moorfields, and in other popular places in England, as he was urged by his necessities, or directed by his spirit. The text, which so emphatically inculcates, meddle not with them that are given to change, we may easily suppose, he superficially explained, or seldom enforced (7; see also Payne 267; and Conway 1: 20). While an itinerant preacher, Paine was apparently actively thinking over various religious beliefs. A certain Reverend Jacob Duché, a Swedenborgian sympathizer and in 1776 a chaplain to the American Congress, wrote to Paine on a subject of evidently mutual interest. “I never could understand the doctrine of the Trinity,” Duché wrote to Paine on 18 December 1767, “& had an irreconcilable aversion to the Systematical Notion of atonement & satisfaction. A wrathful God whose anger could only be appeased by the blood of His own Son pour’d out in behalf of Sinners allways appear’d to me next to blasphemous” (Hurst 11). Later in The Age of Reason Paine would echo this observation and specifically decry the pathology of a divine patriarchal father who requires the death of his son.

3. It must be admitted that in a letter later appended to the third edition of Common Sense Paine berates the Quakers for “unwisely … mingling religion with politics” (2: 60). This is indeed a contradictory moment, out of phase with his own procedure in the pamphlet. What Paine apparently means here is that the Quakers have mingled a particular unwise component of their religious belief with politics.

4. On the possible influence of classical rhetorical theory on Paine’s use of a selfless persona, see Wilson 26-27.

5. We allude to Paine’s Quaker background. Though his adherence to his early Quaker training seems to have been brief, it not only made the Bible familiar to him but also may have provided him with an unacknowledged authorization to speak about the Bible, especially later in life when he needed to find some such enablement for assailing scripture itself in The Age of Reason. The Quaker doctrine of the Inward Light, “the true Light, which lighteth every man” (John 1: 9), may have imparted a special sense of the individual that, however unexamined, possibly continued to empower, even legitimatize, Paine’s later proto-Emersonian voice, particularly when speaking authoritatively against the authority of established religion. This issue is more complex than the possible influence of the doctrine of the Inward Light on Paine’s writings, but it is important to acknowledge the very likely role of this Quaker doctrine as one hidden wellspring of Paine’s voice. Several studies explore various features of Quaker influence upon Paine, including Falk’s.

6. Relatedly, see Hinz’s discussion of the logical fallacies contained within Paine’s demogogic appeal to reason; and Martin’s discussion of Paine’s negative logic, which strips away the old to create a blank slate for the new.

7. The argument we have presented is drawn from the first chapter of our study in progress on Paine, scripture, and authority.

Works Cited

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1978.

Breitwieser, Mitchell Robert. Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin: The Price of Representative Personality. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Conway, Moncure Daniel. The Life of Thomas Paine. New York: G. P. Putnam Sons, 1908. 2 vols.

Cox, James M. Recovering Literature’s Lost Ground: Essays in American Autobiography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.

Falk, Robert P. “Thomas Paine: Deist or Quaker?” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 62 (1938): 52-63.

Fruchtman, Jr. Jack. “The Revolutionary Millennialism of Thomas Paine”. Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture. 13 (1984): 65-77.

Hamilton, Dr. Alexander. The History of the Ancient and Honorable Tuesday Club. Robert Micklus ed. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990. 2 vols.

Hinz, Evelyn J. “The ‘Reasonable’ Style of Tom Paine”. Queen’s Quarterly. 79 (1972): 231-242.

Howard, Leon. “The Late Eighteenth Century: An Age of Contradictions”. Transitions in American Literary History. Harry Haden Clark, ed. Durham: U of North Carolina P, 1953. 51-89.

Hurst, Désirèe. Hidden Riches: Traditional Symbolism from the Renaissance to Blake. London: Eyre & Spottiswood, 1964.

Martin, Terence. “The Negative Structures of American Literature”. American Literature. 57 (1985): 1-22.

Oldys, Francis [George Chalmers]. The Life of Thomas Pain, the Author of the Seditious Writings Entitled the Rights of Man. London, 1793.

Paine, Thomas. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. Philip S. Foner, ed. New York: Citadel P, 1945. 2 vols.

Patterson, Mark R. Authority, Autonomy, and Representation in American Literature, 1776-1865. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988.

Payne, Ernest A. “Tom Paine: Preacher”. Times Literary Supplement. No. 2365 (31 May 1947): 267.

Scheick, William J. “Benjamin Franklin and Lord Bute: Legendary Eighteenth-Century Representations”. Library Chronicle. 20, iii (1990): 64-73.

Seavey, Ormond. Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The “Autobiography” and the Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988.

Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.

Weber, Donald. Rhetoric and History in Revolutionary New England. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Wilson, Jerome D. and William E. Ricketson. Thomas Paine: Updated Edition. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Davidson, Edward H., and William J. Scheick. "Authority in Paine’s Common Sense and Crisis Papers." Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 248, Gale, 2011. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 24 June 2019. Originally published in Studies in the Humanities, vol. 18, no. 2, 1991, pp. 124-134.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420109428