Harvey J. Kaye: Tom Paine's Common Sense ... An Anniversary Progressives Should Remember

Roundup: Talking About History

[Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Hill and Wang, 2005).]

The 230th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense—the brilliant little pamphlet whose arguments literally turned the world upside down invites reflection both on the state of the nation to which it gave birth and on the state of the left to which it gave rise and whose many generations carried on the fight to realize the democratic vision rendered in its pages.  Recalling Paine’s work should serve, as well, to remind us of not only what we stand in opposition to, but also what we stand in opposition for.  And ultimately we might ask, “What would Tom Paine do?”

Born in 1737, the son of an English Quaker artisan and an Anglican mother, Paine had a career before coming to Philadelphia in 1774 that included corsetmaking, privateering, tax collecting, preaching, teaching, labor campaigning and shopkeeping, punctuated by bouts of poverty, the loss of two wives, business bankruptcy and dismissal from government service (twice!).  And yet as much as he came to despise kingly rule, aristocratic privilege and religious establishments for their oppression, exploitation and corruption, Paine did not pick up his pen to assail Crown, Constitution and Empire out of anger alone.

It was his love for America that turned Paine into a radical writer. Struck by the country’s prospects and possibilities, and moved by the spirit and determination of its people to resist British authority, Paine devoted himself to the American cause.  And through Common Sense and his later Crisis Papers , he emboldened his new compatriots to turn their rebellion into a revolutionary war, defined the new nation in a democratically expansive and progressive fashion, and articulated an American identity charged with exceptional purpose and promise.

Sincerely believing that, “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” Paine translated American anxieties and aspirations into a powerful cry for independence.  But it was never simply a matter of separating from Britain.

Paine’s own experiencereinforced by what he witnessed in America convinced him that working people, not just the highborn and propertied, had the capacity both to comprehend the world and to govern it.  And by addressing his arguments not merely to the governing elites, but all the more to those who traditionally were excluded from political debate and deliberation, he transformed the very idea of politics and the political nation.

Utterly rejecting the old political and social order and pressing for national unity, Paine called for an American constitutionempowered by the people that would create a democratic government and guarantee freedom to all, and above all else freedom of conscience and worship (which, he clearly stated, required separating church and state).  And in that spirit he projected an Independence Day filled with splendid democratic ritual:

[L]et a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the Word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING.  But lest any ill should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.

Moreover, appreciating America’s ethnic diversity, Paine foresaw the United States welcoming to its shores freedom-loving folk from all nations: 

 O! ye that love mankind!  Ye that dare oppose, not only tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!  Every spot of the world is overrun with oppression.  Freedom hath been hunted round the globe.  Asia and Africa have long expelled her.  Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.  O! receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Declaring that, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” Paine envisioned the United States serving not only as a refuge, but also as a model, and in time a champion, of freedom and republican democracy.  And possessed of tremendous confidence in his fellow citizens to be, he proclaimed that, “We have it in our power to begin the world again.”

To the chagrin of conservatives, and against their best efforts to suppress Paine’s memory, American progressivesmen and women, native-born and immigrant for two hundred years thereafter were to draw ideas, inspiration and encouragement from Paine’s life and labors as they themselves sought to extend and deepen freedom, equality and democracy.

Heartened and animated by Paine, we pressed for the rights of workers; insisted upon freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state; demanded the abolition of slavery; campaigned for the equality of women; confronted the power of property and wealth; opposed the tyrannies of fascism and communism; fought a second American Revolution for racial justice and equality; and challenged our own government’s authorities and policies, domestic and foreign.  Though we regularly suffered defeats and committed mistakes, we also achieved great victories and, more often than not, transformed the nation and the world for the better.

Evidently, struggles continue. Yet something has changed. Somewhere along the way, we lost the political courage and conviction that once motivated our efforts. Arguably, we lost touch with Paine.

Clearly our own “times that try men’s souls” differ profoundly from those Paine confronted.  Yet we, too, find ourselves subject to a regime that ignores the needs of working people, promotes aristocratic power and wealth, pursues imperial policies, makes religion a test for public office and places itself above the law. 

Far more than simply reciting Paine’s lines and acknowledging their author, the revitalization of progressive politics demands that we redeem Paine’s radical spirit.  We must reaffirm our faith in America’s great purpose and promise, recover our belief in the prospects and possibilities of democratic change and regain our confidence in our fellow citizens.  For only then, Paine would surely say, might we “have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

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