English-born American philosopher Thomas Paine’s Common Sense savaged British royalty. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Originally Published in Jacobin, 09.10.2022
The American Revolution was inspired by ruthless criticism of the British monarchy. Why stop now?
Since news broke of Elizabeth II’s death at age ninety-six, US social media has been awash with tributes, memes, and merciless dunks on the deceased queen — the latter of which have ruffled some feathers.
Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO who helped modernize empire for the age of the corporation, took offense to linguistics professor Uju Anya describing the late queen as the monarch of a “thieving raping genocidal empire.”
“This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow,” Bezos tweeted in response. Twitter appeared to agree; its moderators deleted Anya’s post.
Bezos and other American royal sycophants could use a reminder that Anya has a kindred spirit in the Founding Fathers — especially one in particular. No one savaged the English throne quite like Thomas Paine, an eighteenth-century magazine writer and editor, whose forty-seven-page pamphlet Common Sense went viral in the American colonies when it was published in January 1776.
Part of the popularity of Paine’s prose was the biting edge of his takes on the mother country, which now read like cantankerous tweets.
In Common Sense, he called England’s King George III “the Royal Brute of Great Britain,” who “hath wickedly broken through every moral and human obligation, trampled nature and conscience beneath his feet, and by a steady and constitutional spirit of insolence and cruelty procured for himself a universal hatred.”
Paine wasn’t just contemptuous of one particular British ruler but of monarchs in general.
“There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy,” he wrote. “It first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, by unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.”
Absurd, useless — even evil. Monarchy “was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.”
The inherent nobleness of royalty, Paine wrote, was bullshit. “It is more than probable, that could we take off the dark covering of antiquity and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtlety obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who, by increasing in power and extending his depredations, overawed the quiet and defenseless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions.”
To Paine, it was also no coincidence that countries without kings suffered fewer wars. “It is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion,” he remarked. Part of the confusion, he argued, is the folly of hereditary succession. “Nature disapproves it; otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”
It’s the kind of line that may have gotten Paine canceled in 2022 (“He who dares not offend cannot be honest,” he once responded to his critics), but in 1776, Common Sense was crucial to inspiring the American Revolution.
“Without the pen of the author of Common Sense,” John Adams once admitted, “the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Ryan Zickgraf is a journalist based in Atlanta.