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The Awesome Verbal Punching Power of Thomas Paine

Most public-school graduates have heard that Thomas Paine wrote something that convinced the colonies to declare their independence—though if they’re older than twenty-one their memory probably needs jogging. A few can even name what he wrote: Common Sense. And some can even incorrectly attribute a famous line to that pamphlet: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

With rare exceptions, most people don’t give a whit about Paine or what he wrote. But then, most people don’t care much for American history. What they don’t care about they don’t know about, as Mark Dice has ably demonstrated. Only if something is posted on social media does it count, and probably not for long. Whatever causal effects the days of 1776 might have had, they’re long buried in the great turmoil of events that followed.

But given that the country has been on fire in recent years and given the indoctrination that passes for formal education to explain it, we would be wise to take a closer look at some of the early fathers of our country, especially Thomas Paine, who Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Bernard Bailyn describes as the “bankrupt Quaker corset-maker, the sometime teacher, preacher, and grocer, and twice-dismissed excise officer who happened to catch Benjamin Franklin’s attention in England and who arrived in America only fourteen months before Common Sense was published,” and who had quit school at age twelve to work for his father.

Since the fuse was lit in Lexington in April 1775, colonists had been fighting a foreign ruler that was largely embedded in their surroundings. Their immediate rulers, including the British redcoats colonists had been ordered to board in their homes, were also their neighbors. Under George III their pleas for reconciliation had been ignored, and the prospects for peace and harmony with the “mother country” looked slim.

According to Bailyn, other notable pamphlets of the Revolution,

written by lawyers, ministers, merchants, and planters—[probed] difficult, urgent, and controversial questions and made appropriate recommendations . . . Paine’s [pamphlet] had nothing of the close logic, scholarship, and rational tone of the best of the American pamphleteers . . . he had none of the hard, quizzical, grainy quality of mind that led Madison to probe the deepest questions of republicanism.

To put it bluntly, “Paine was an ignoramus,” Bailyn writes, “both in ideas and in the practice of politics, next to Adams, Jefferson, Madison, or [James] Wilson. He could not discipline his thoughts; they were sucked off continuously from the sketchy outline he apparently had in mind when he began the pamphlet, into the boiling vortex of his emotions.”

And none of the others called for separation from England. And why would they? According to historian-economist Gary North, “The freest society on earth in 1775 was British North America, with the exception of the slave system. Anyone who was not a slave had incomparable freedom.” Why would anyone pay attention to an uneducated immigrant calling for independence?

According to John Adams, at least as many people disliked Common Sense as approved of it. One of the foremost colonial leaders, Adams later described Common Sense as “a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass.” Did Adams resent the spotlight Paine acquired? According to Harvard historian Jill LaPore, Adams thought Common Sense “offered nothing more than ‘a tolerable Summary of the Arguments which I had been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months.’”

But what to call the age of revolution? Bitterly, Adams lamented, “Call it anything but don’t call it the age of reason. Do you know why? Because it was dominated by Thomas Paine. Call it the age of Paine!”

Later in his retirement, Adams complained to Jefferson, “Joel Barlow was about to record Tom Paine as the great Author of the American Revolution! If he was; I desire that my name may be blotted out forever, from its Records.”

Paine’s Genius

What accounted for Paine’s enormous influence? Bailyn arrives at this insight:

Paine’s intellectual force lay not in his close argumentation on specific points but in his reversal of the presumptions that underlay the arguments, a reversal that forced thoughtful readers to consider not so much a point here and a conclusion there as a wholly new way of looking at the entire range of problems involved. (my emphasis)

Paine “forced people to think the unthinkable, to ponder the supposedly self-evident, and thus to take the first step in bringing about a radical change.” And what was unthinkable? That colonists’ beloved King George III was really “the royal brute of Great Britain,” the latest edition of 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.”

Further, “Britain’s supposedly protective nurturance of the colonies had only been a form of selfish economic aggrandizement; she would have nurtured Turkey from exactly the same motivations.”

And about loyalty to the mother country, Paine pointed out, “Not one third of the inhabitants even of this province [Pennsylvania] are of English descent. Wherefore I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England only, as being false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous.”

He saw republican government as the solution to the British system, wherein “people would worship not some ‘hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh’ like George III, but law itself and the national constitution, ‘for as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king.’”

Surprisingly, Paine argued that smaller populations had an advantage in war:

Large populations bred prosperity and an excessive involvement in business affairs, both of which had destroyed the military power of nations in the past. The City of London, where England’s commerce was centered, was the most cowardly community in the realm: “the rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel.” (my emphasis)

Common Sense exploded with optimism throughout, yet years after the Revolution, in a letter to newly married friend Kitty Nicholson Few in 1789, Paine came home to the reality of government:

A thousand years hence (for I must indulge in a few thoughts), perhaps in less, America may be what England now is! The innocence of her character that won the hearts of all nations in her favor may sound like a romance, and her inimitable virtue as if it had never been. The ruins of that liberty which thousands bled for, or suffered to obtain, may just furnish materials for a village tale or extort a sigh from rustic sensibility, while the fashionable of that day, enveloped in dissipation, shall deride the principle and deny the fact. . . .

But when the empire of America shall fall, the subject for contemplative sorrow will be infinitely greater than crumbling brass or marble can inspire. It will not then be said, here stood a temple of vast antiquity,—here rose a Babel of invisible height, or there a palace of sumptuous extravagance; but here, ah painful thought! the noblest work of human wisdom, the grandest scene of human glory, the fair cause of freedom rose and fell!

By now we should be smart enough to correct the errors of the past. Paine said government is a necessary evil and that man “finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.” Close, but not quite. It’s missing a critical modifier: property should be surrendered voluntarily. Every other dealing on the market is voluntary, so why should government be any different? To make it forced is to embrace a contradiction and grant government a power it would use against us.

Government’s services to the extent we want them should be market services. Otherwise, we end up where we are today.

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