Thomas Paine, 1776-1779

The next volume I will work on, for the next week or so, is Library of America’s collection of Thomas Paine’s writings.  This collection includes his major workes (Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason) and many shorter letter and pamphlets, including the important “Agrarian Justice,” a document that seems as important as ever and has helped keep Thomas Paine alive in the hearts and minds of many radicals.  Today, I will meditate on Paine’s early revolutionary writings, Common Sense, the Forester’s Letters, and some of The American Crisis.  While sustaining the social contract tradition of the Enlightenment and applying it to his case for Revolution, Paine rejected the application of the “social contract” to future generations and sustained a vision of an egalitarian society, sustained a global perspective of revolution – suggesting a broad equality across national boundaries, and never denied the central role community and society played in individual achievement.

As every American knows, Common Sense was an early 1776 case for independence from Great Britain that was very successful in convincing thousands of Americans to support independence.  Fighting had been ongoing for eight months before Common Sense was published, but the Continental Congress had not yet taken the step toward independence.  As most historians accept, Paine helped push Americans toward revolution and independence.    These events are well-documented in PBS’s Liberty Kids series, although I will leave it to the reader to judge the value of this particular interpretation of Paine.

Paine makes several apt criticism of monarchy that went beyond a typical critique of English policies toward the colonies.  He also suggested that the social contract is constantly under negotiation.  Paine leveled one criticism of monarchy on the grounds that even if our ancestors agreed to be ruled by a monarch under some form of a social contract, we are certainly not bound by that decision.  “The right of all future generations is taken away, by the act of the first electors, in their choice not only of a king, but of a family of kings for ever, hath no parallel in or out of scripture but the doctrine of original sin, which supposes the free will of all men lost in Adam.” (17)  Of course, our problematic today is not hereditary monarchy, but rather inherited wealth and growing inequality.  As we will see in later texts, Paine has an answer for this too, in the return of inherited wealth to the Commons in every generation.   It does seem to me that many of his criticisms of hereditary monarchy can be leveled at corporate capitalism without too much strain.  You have dynasties, run by people who inherited but did not earn their wealth.  When Paine discusses the relationship between monarchs and subjects as that of parents “devouring” their young, I am reminded of the way too many corporations treat their employees or customers.  And of course, if Paine was able to convince the American people to consider independence from monarchical tyranny, is it impossible for plutocratic tyranny to be overthrown.  Anyway, I being superficial here but independence seems to suggest the needs for the commons.  For Paine, American independence was not only morally necessary but possible due to the richness of the commonly-held resources of the colonies (its forests, fields, and ports).

One final note on Common Sense: while Paine was struggling for American independence he was already exposing his intense internationalism.  For those of you who have not read Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra, I urge you to glance at it.  One argument they convincingly put forward is that the roots of the American Revolution were interracial and international, drawing from the “motley crew” of servants, sailors, slaves, and other assorted commoners.  Paine wrote: “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!  Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression.  Freedom hath been hunted round the globe.  Asia and Africa, have long expelled her. — Europe regards her as a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.  O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind!” (36) Before we can call him an chauvinist for positing America as the asylum of liberty, remember that he would soon be working to spread the revolution from that asylum.

The “Forester’s Letters” are a series of responses to the writings of “Cato” (Dr. William Smith) a loyalist.  These letters amount to a defense of the positions in Common Sense and a defense of independence, which were, like Common Sense written before the “Declaration of Independence.”

The American Crisis is Paine’s propaganda written in support of the war effort during 1776 and 1777, when victory was far from assured.  Paine wrote these pamphlets in dialog with the events on the ground, victories and defeats.  He continually reminds his readers of the impossibility of neutrality in his criticism of loyalists.  In the midst of the struggle, a lack of support is as bad as opposition.  “All we want to know in America is simply this, Who is for Independence, and who is not?  Those who are for it, will support it, and the remainder will undoubtedly see the reasonableness of their paying the charges; while those who oppose, or seek to betray it, must expect the more rigid fate of the jail and the gibbet.  There is a kind of bastard generosity, which, by being extended to all men, is as fatal to society, on one hand, as the want of true generosity is on the other.  A lax manner of administering justice, falsely termed moderation, has a tendency both to dispirit public virtue and promote the growth of public evils.” (134) Now, I will leave it to you to consider if he is justifying revolutionary violence – or even terror – at this point, but it is hard to avoid the fact that is expects his readers to take sides.  As I will discuss in the next entry, Paine made an argument against capital punishment and even argued against the execution of Louis XVI.  In our day, struggle is all around us and too many of us sit these struggles out or refuse to admit how we benefit from various oppressions.

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One response to “Thomas Paine, 1776-1779

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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