by Brad Nelson
It is at least an implied American Duty to read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense which I fairly recently did, minus the Appendix and the “Address to the People Called Quakers” which were added in later editions. And an amazing document it is.
Reading Paine’s tract makes you realize just how literate and educated those Colonists were. I found the reading slow going in many places and as thick with rich (and hard-to-digest) concepts as anything written by Thomas Sowell. And yet Paine’s was a popular pamphlet meant for a general audience. Contrast that with any opinion pieces coming out of the mainstream media or popular dunces such as Ashton Kutcher.
Reading Paine’s Common Sense wasn’t an exercise in dusty historical anthropology wherein one may snicker at some of the more primitive ways of those who came before us, even while appreciating those different ways. Reading Common Sense was an attempt to catch up to where they were over two hundred years ago.
Common Sense was first published in January of 1776 when we were in the thick of the battle with England. And yet it was somewhat the leading edge of the revolution and highly influential. Many people, long accustomed to a king and to British rule, were understandably reluctant to make a change. Common Sense was an instant best seller in the Colonies and in Europe. It is not an overstatement to say that Paine’s tract galvanized support for the revolution and helped to give it a moral and intellectual underpinning that it might not have otherwise had.
We might easily forget how unique the American Revolution was in this regard. Most revolutions turn into an orgy of violence and nihilistic destruction in which it’s “out with the old, in with the new.” Little is improved or changed, just the names of the tyrants trade places. (Beware an undefined “hope and change” in this or any other age.) But the change the Americans were proposing (and, indeed, were already fighting for) was not anarchistic or a result of inflaming the passions of the people; i.e. “mob rule.” Common Sense shows America had much more in mind than mischief.
In many sections of Common Sense, Paine makes appeals to the order of things in context to the writings of the Bible. This may please or displease some, but his appeal does not start or end there. He also makes some stunning blunt critiques of the king. Yikes. This guy had little love for monarchies. And it showed:
“This is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin; whereas 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 subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power, and extending his depredations, over-awed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions. Yet his electors could have no idea of giving hereditary right to his descendants, because such a perpetual exclusion of themselves was incompatible with the free and unrestrained principles they professed to live by. Wherefore, hereditary succession in the early ages of monarchy could not take place as a matter of claim, but as something casual or complimental; but as few or no records were extant in those days, and traditionary history stuffed with fables, it was very easy, after the lapse of a few generations, to trump up some superstitious tale, conveniently timed, Mahomet like, to cram hereditary right down the throats of the vulgar.”
Paine did not like the idea of kings. He points out the absurdity, for instance, of grown men being ruled by twenty-one-year-olds as was not uncommon in the long history of monarchies. And to him, the hereditary nature of kings was a particularly deep insult to justice and the proper order of things. What gives one generation the right to burden the next with some fellow who might be a nincompoop (as many kings, or sons of kings, were). That’s something for all of us to think about as we allow the Democratic socialists (and more than a few Republicans) to ring up debt to purchase pampered accessories for us today while burdening future generations with that debt. (It’s also a reminder of the need to look outside of the Bush or Clinton dynasties for our leaders). That is a truly immoral act. Passing on the burdens of our debt is the same kind of evil as the hereditary nature of kings. More on that from Paine:
“But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession which concerns mankind. Did it ensure a race of good and wise men it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.”
The above quote could apply to Obama, Pelosi, or any politician who “look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey.” By the time one is done reading Common Sense, the bloom might well come off the idea of the divine right of kings, or of the right of any politician to acquire too much power over an individual’s life, regardless of how they try to justify their reign.
The kindred bonds with England were long established in the Colonies, as were some of the systemic problems. But the status quo has the advantage of being the devil you know as opposed to the devil you don’t. Paine does his best to break those bonds and get people to consider independence as the one and only viable solution:
“But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families; wherefore the assertion, if true, turns to her reproach; but it happens not to be true, or only partly so, and the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.”
I wonder if an appeal similar to the above would work to disentangle the entitlement-minded from the Democratic lords and kings of today’s America? Paine takes a deep stab at the supposed legitimacy of kings with this tidy bit of reasoning:
“But admitting, that we were all of English descent, what does it amount to? Nothing. Britain, being now an open enemy, extinguishes every other name and title: And to say that reconciliation is our duty, is truly farcical. The first king of England, of the present line (William the Conqueror) was a Frenchman, and half the Peers of England are descendants from the same country; wherefore, by the same method of reasoning, England ought to be governed by France.”
Ouch. I’m glad for Paine that we won the war. In order to stump for independence, Paine must overcome a still widespread opinion that reconciliation with Great Britain is still possible. In these next two paragraphs, I think Paine’s rhetoric burns brightly:
“Men of passive tempers look somewhat lightly over the offences of Britain, and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, ‘Come, come, we shall be friends again, for all this.’ But examine the passions and feelings of mankind, Bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature, and then tell me, whether you can hereafter love, honour, and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land? If you cannot do all these, then are you only deceiving yourselves, and by your delay bringing ruin upon posterity. Your future connection with Britain, whom you can neither love nor honour, will be forced and unnatural, and being formed only on the plan of present convenience, will in a little time fall into a relapse more wretched than the first. But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, Hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and still can shake hands with the murderers, then you are unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.
“This is not inflaming or exaggerating matters, but trying them by those feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which, we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life, or enjoying the felicities of it. I mean not to exhibit horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumbers, that we may pursue determinately some fixed object. It is not in the power of Britain or of Europe to conquer America, if she do not conquer herself by delay and timidity. The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected, the whole continent will partake of the misfortune; and there is no punishment which that man will not deserve, be he who, or what, or where he will, that may be the means of sacrificing a season so precious and useful.”
“…you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.” Yikes. And I thought my rhetoric could be fiery at times. But a great one-two punch he gives in those two consecutive paragraphs. Paine has a bit of “good cop / bad cop” working for him. Note that Paine in the second paragraph states (using today’s language as a metaphor) that he is not just some anarchistic community agitator trying to stir up trouble and passions for short-term political gain. He’s not ACORN. Those two above paragraphs are also among his most eloquent.
This next section can be read on its own. Try putting your mind back to the 18th century. Perhaps note how Paine’s words ring true in regards to the opposition of any tyrant in any time:
“Every quiet method for peace hath been ineffectual. Our prayers have been rejected with disdain; and only tended to convince us, that nothing flatters vanity, or confirms obstinacy in Kings more than repeated petitioning—and nothing hath contributed more than that very measure to make the Kings of Europe absolute: Witness Denmark and Sweden. Wherefore, since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake, let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to be cutting throats, under the violated unmeaning names of parent and child.
To say, they will never attempt it again is idle and visionary, we thought so at the repeal of the stamp act, yet a year or two undeceived us; as well may we suppose that nations, which have been once defeated, will never renew the quarrel.
As to government matters, it is not in the power of Britain to do this continent justice: The business of it will soon be too weighty, and intricate, to be managed with any tolerable degree of convenience, by a power, so distant from us, and so very ignorant of us; for if they cannot conquer us, they cannot govern us. To be always running three or four thousand miles with a tale or a petition, waiting four or five months for an answer, which when obtained requires five or six more to explain it in, will in a few years be looked upon as folly and childishness—There was a time when it was proper, and there is a proper time for it to cease.
Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.
I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independance; I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be so; that every thing short of that is mere patchwork, that it can afford no lasting felicity,—that it is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when, a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.”
A theme running throughout Common Sense (usually stated implicitly, but above stated explicitly) is the need for America to grow up and take its rightful place among nations. I found the above to be quite persuasive and inspiring. And you can easily enough connect the dots on how “growing up” relates to our own times where, wrapping ourselves ever tighter in the control of a central authority in Washington DC, we seem to be heading in the exact opposite direction that the Colonists were heading in 1776.
In Common Sense, Paine helps promote a vision for America that is more than just patchwork and stopgap:
“Debts we have none; and whatever we may contract on this account will serve as a glorious memento of our virtue. Can we but leave posterity with a settled form of government, an independant constitution of it’s own, the purchase at any price will be cheap. But to expend millions for the sake of getting a few vile acts repealed, and routing the present ministry only, is unworthy the charge, and is using posterity with the utmost cruelty; because it is leaving them the great work to do, and a debt upon their backs, from which, they derive no advantage. Such a thought is unworthy a man of honor, and is the true characteristic of a narrow heart and a pedling politician.”
We certainly have our share of “pedling politicians” today. Here’s an interesting bit from Paine where he is arguing against the present form of government the Colonies endure because it is so darn complex:
“I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered;”
Remind me again, How many pages comprised the bill for Obamacare? How many for this “immigration reform” bill that is being touted by rubes such as Marco Rubio? In other words “less is more.” Paine had also noted that the convoluted form of government in Britain (with both a king and a Parliament which had at least some trappings of a republic) made it harder to place responsibility for any act or policy. As our own bloated American government of today delegates its powers to czars and unelected commissions, we are in the same boat. There is much to learn from our history, and all history.
Here’s another good bit which could just as well apply to Obama or any of the intellectual ivory-tower elite pinheads (Republican or Democrat) who deem themselves above “the masses” and, much like a king, know so little about how society actually works outside of Westminster or Harvard:
“There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy; 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.”
We now have a president who thinks we have fifty-seven states. These guys in and around DC, and in and around the inbred insider political culture, are as out-of-touch as any king. No wonder they hate the Palin types. And Paine certainly anticipated Orwell and would have understood the deceitful way today’s politicians (particularly the left) abuse language:
“…and though the expressions be pleasantly arranged, yet when examined they appear idle and ambiguous; and it will always happen, that the nicest construction that words are capable of, when applied to the description of some thing which either cannot exist, or is too incomprehensible to be within the compass of description, will be words of sound only, and though they may amuse the ear, they cannot inform the mind…”
Clearly Paine had a little Thomas Sowell in him as he parsed and dismissed the feel-good BS of the intellectual types. Although Paine’s Common Sense is difficult to read in many places (which may be more of a reflection on us than on him), it’s full of tremendous insights and wisdom. He was doing his best to galvanize support for a revolution and against the very idea of a monarch ruling from several thousand miles away. A very few of his arguments are a bit flimsy and sound self-serving. But most stand up incredibly well to reason and to the evidence of then and now. Really a fine piece indeed, a model for American-style thought, and a document with which all Americans should make themselves familiar. • (1929 views)