Voices of Freedom
The Common Sense of Thomas Paine
“The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth”
….from Common Sense
Although I remember learning about Paine and his contribution to the American Revolution at its inception, I can honestly say I knew little of his life and work beyond the pamphlet, Common Sense. And to be quite honest, until my wife started quoting him in our frequent discussions about Founding Principles and the early history of America, I hadn’t even read much more than the introduction! Once I got a real dose of his thinking, however, I realized I wanted more. As a result, I decided he was another voice to be part of this series.
As I started reading about Paine, it became clear that it was more than being at the right place at the right time which set him apart from the chorus of voices heralding the cause of liberty and justice on the American continent in the mid 1700s. His philosophy was in sync with the leaders of the fomenting rebellion and he had a way of communicating his ideas in a manner which resonated with the ordinary laborer as well. Although a newcomer on the scene (he emigrated from England in November of 1774), he embraced the cause of the Americans as if he were one of them.
Thomas Paine was a writer of only modest reputation as a young man in England. Many have speculated as to what happened once he arrived in America. One biographer says it this way:
“…he contributed essays, poems and scientific reports (in his new career as a journalist in America), and like many a fortunate immigrant before and since, he wrote as if reborn, his words manifesting a phenomenal sense of renewal, elation, and possibility.”[i]
Far from being just another impassioned writer, however, Paine was dogged in his determination to stay on message. In this movement toward independence, it was his radical notion that the foundation or the root of the ideas which fueled the fire of revolution could not simply reflect the “corrupt models of the old world…..it was the opportunity for beginning the world anew.”[ii]
For all the thoughts and ideas of his contemporaries about the nature of his success, I find Paine’s explanation most satisfying. He attributed the effect of Common Sense[iii][iv] not to its content or style, per se, but to its audience. In his mind, the American people were the stuff of a successful revolution because of the qualities and values they had embraced and now embodied as individuals in a unique cultural milieu. In his words:
“…here the value and quality of liberty, the nature of government, and the dignity of man were known and understood and the attachment of Americans to these things produced the American revolution as almost a natural result.”[v]
When Ronald Reagan quoted Thomas Paine in his acceptance speech in July of 1980, these were the thoughts and ideas he was connecting to concerning the “power to start the world all over again.” The power is in the people of this country; it always has been and it always will be. Whenever the government and the individuals or parties in power forget this fact and stray too far, it as if we can be sure someone will rise to the occasion and lead the way back to where we started. I believe it is this phenomenon that is driving the Tea Party movement and others like it in America today.
If this is true about the American people, then Paine is an important voice to hear and to heed. I’m not calling for revolution, but I ;am calling for a return to our roots. Paine has been called a radical; I have been called radical; maybe you have, too. But when I looked up the word radical, I found something I didn’t expect. The definition has suffered from the evolution of language, but the derivation points to the word radix which is Latin for root. Essentially, a radical is one who returns to the root of the idea or problem and argues from that posture. Think of that image up against the one of a progressive looking for change for the sake of change. Hmmmm.
Paine had the courage in Common Sense to call for Americans to stop and think about the simple categories of right and wrong. He began the pamphlet with a statement on moral relativism which would be a great subject for a debate on a high school debate team. To him, society, circumstance and the mood of the moment do not determine our actions. It is truth which is the final arbiter of any debate.
As he developed his philosophy and ideas in the work which followed on the heels of Common Sense, one can see a sophistication of sorts– a reflective, thoughtful and passionate voice in the making. At the end of 1776 as the Continental Army struggled to maintain the ranks due to discouragement and impending despair, he sat in the candlelight by a campfire in Washington’s camp with pen and ink and paper stretched over a drum head to write these words:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier or the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink back from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us….that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.…it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated”[vi]
As Washington read these words to the troops on Christmas Eve 1776, the revolution was reignited. The next day, much to the surprise of the Hessian soldiers on guard in Trenton, out of the fog on the Jersey shore of the Delaware River, emerged the Continental Army. And the rest, of course, is history.
To conclude this introduction to Paine and his work, it could be said that, above all, he believed in the natural rights of man. He develops this philosophical idea in a later work entitled The Rights of Man. [vii] I find his discussion of the difference between natural or inherent rights to be resonant of the foundation of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. No government has the power to confer civil rights on its citizens, no matter how benevolent that bequest may be. Instead man has certain rights by virtue of his humanity which are conferred (if by anyone), by his Creator. Therefore, they are a possession to be protected rather than a gift or a benefit to be given or taken away.
Whether a Christian or just a Deist, he certainly had a firm faith in the Providence of a transcendent God who ordered the universe. To me, THAT is Common Sense to believe in!