In 1792, he authored a tract in response to a royal proclamation issued against seditious writings. He was among the targets, perhaps the chief target, of this royal edict. Paine's tract was printed and published in England, and its publishers were prosecuted as a result.
In this tract, Paine asked the reader to examine the notion of monarchy in the abstract, apart from “custom and usage.” He argues that familiarity lulls people into accepting that which is rationally unacceptable.
“Antiquity and precedent,” Paine writes, obscure the irrationality of the practice of granting sovereign governing power purely on the basis of inheritance. There is a linguistic element to this fallacy: merely because an individual has inherited a title such as ‘king’ or ‘lord’ does not in any way entail that this individual is more fit to govern than any other individual. Paine writes:
To say that the Government of this country is composed of King, Lords, and Commons, is the mere phraseology of custom. It is composed of men; and whoever the men be to whom the Government of any country is entrusted, they ought to be the best and wisest that can be found, and if they are not so, they are not fit for the station. A man derives no more excellence from the change of a name, or calling him King, or calling him Lord, than I should do by changing my name from Thomas to George, or from Paine to Guelph, I should not be a whit the more able to write a book, because my name were altered; neither would any man, now called a King or a Lord, have a whit the more sense than he now has, were he to call himself Thomas Paine.
It is also a politico-linguistic error, Paine continues, to label a segment of society as ‘commoners.’ He continues his argument by asking the reader to imagine that a country had to formulate its government ab initio. Given an abstract description of a hereditary monarchy, no nation would rationally and voluntarily adopt such a plan of government. Devastatingly, Paine proceeds to describe the English monarchy:
First — That some one individual should be taken from all the rest of the nation, and to whom all the rest should swear obedience, and never be permitted to sit down in his presence, and that they should give to him one million sterling a year. — That the nation should never after have power or authority to make laws but with his express consent, and that his sons and his sons’ sons, whether wise or foolish, good men or bad, fit or unfit, should have the same power, and also the same money annually paid to them for ever.
Secondly — That there should be two houses of Legislators to assist in making laws, one of which should, in the first instance, be entirely appointed by the aforesaid person, and that their sons and their sons’ sons, whether wise or foolish, good men or bad, fit or unfit, should for ever after be hereditary Legislators.
Thirdly — That the other house should be chosen in the same manner as the house, now called the House of Commons, is chosen, and should be subject to the control of the two aforesaid hereditary Powers in all things.
Paine goes on to discuss the absurdities of the monarchy, thus described, at length. While this 1792 text contains one of his most powerful arguments against monarchy, it is not his most famous or influential.
Among Paine’s many writings, two emerge as his most prominent: Common Sense and The Crisis. Both rallied support for the cause of independence at crucial moments during the revolutionary era. The former was written in 1776, and the latter was a series of articles written from 1776 to 1783. Both contained arguments against monarchy, as well as arguments on other topics.
The publication of Common Sense, according to British philosopher A.J. Ayer, “played a decisive part in persuading” the residents of North America to seek independence from England. But Ayer also opines that this, Paine’s most famous and influential argument against monarchy, is also his weakest. Paine’s writing mustered support for the cause of independence; Ayer, however, asks:
How did Paine achieve it? More by rhetoric, of which he was a master, than by force of argument. His arguments are on two levels, not always kept distinct. In part they are designed to prove the superiority in general of representative over monarchical or aristocratic forms of government. Here the thrust of the reasoning is mainly negative. The emphasis is laid rather on the evils of any form of hereditary government, especially monarchy, than on the merits of representative government, though Paine does use the argument that it will prove convenient ‘to leave the legislative part to be managed by a select number chosen from the whole body, who are supposed to have the same concerns at stake which those have who appointed them, and who will act in the same manner as teh whole body would act were they present.’ Evidently this argument applies only to a small and harmonious electorate. Paine makes a faint attempt to cope with this difficulty by proposing that as the electorate increases, constituencies should be multiplied and elections held more frequently, but already there is a narrow limit to the practicability of these reforms, unless we shift to a much greater degree of decentralization than anything Paine envisages.
Whether one favors Paine’s argumentation of 1792 or his argumentation of 1776, he not only lived during, but significantly shaped, the era in which nation-states began to reject monarchies, absolute or near-absolute, as a form of government. It can be reasonably argued that Paine’s influence could be detected around the globe for two or three centuries after he produced these texts.
While Paine’s argumentation was produced at a time when men were wresting freedom from monarchs, similar argumentation can be used to wrest liberty from non-dynastic bureaucrats, or to protect liberty from encroaching officialdom. Echoing Paine’s sentiments, but writing more than two hundred years later, Mark Levin notes that the freedom-seeking and liberty-conscious patriot, the citizen who wishes to protect his rights,
is alarmed by the ascent of a soft tyranny and its cheery acceptance by the neo-Statist. He knows that liberty once lost is rarely recovered. He knows of the decline and eventual failure of past republics. And he knows that the best prescription for addressing society’s real and perceived ailments is not to further empower an already enormous federal government beyond its constitutional limits, but to return to the founding principles. A free people living in a civil society, working in self-interested cooperation, and a government operating within the limits of its authority promote more prosperity, opportunity, and happiness for more people than an alternative.
A limited, clearly and effectively limited, government composed of freely-elected representatives, allowing for free markets and free speech, Levin continues, “is the antidote to tyranny precisely because its principles are the founding principles.”
Paine’s career reached its highpoint during the revolutionary era, 1775 to 1783. Thereafter, his influence and popularity declined, due to his misunderstood engagement with the French Revolution, and due to misunderstood attacks on religious institutions. Regarding the former, Paine was not a blind supporter of the atrocities committed by leaders of the French Revolution, and in fact attempted to persuade them into more humane measures. Regarding the latter, Paine was no atheist, but an exponent of some type of theism or deism, who criticized the human institutions and traditions of religion, not the existence of the deity they worshipped. But American readers were given superficial or inaccurate accounts of his activities, leading to a decline in his popularity.