Thomas Paine was an interesting person as i am sure you all have read. He had a lot of good ideas and a lot of radical ideas, but mostly what i will be covering is how his ideas from his pamphlet Common Sense which served as an outline of his ideas and a treasonous manifest of justification and ideals that he believed was “Common Sense”. He divides these ideas into a number of sections which i will go through one after another and draw modern context out of.
Firstly, Paine finds it to be of utmost importance to draw a clear distinction between Government and Society. He puts it in very plain terms when he says,
“Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices.”
He then goes on in some length to describe how Society forms and grows until eventually government becomes a “necessary evil”, and to this end discusses the flaws of parliament and of Monarchy. This makes perfect sense since monarchs had a long history of abusing their power that was supposedly given to them at birth by “God”. He openly questioned this authority saying that anything needing to be checked clearly could not be a gift from God, nor the gift of a wise people looking out for public interest. He also questioned the ruling aristocrats and said in short that they added nothing to society and should thus be cast off. With these social leeches gone the people could get some real work done.
The modern connection is not difficult to make here. The president of the United States derives his power from the “people” or rather the legislature gives him power, and in turn He acts accordingly. In recent years there has been endless talk of him Obama is a “Tyrant” or a Socialist etc. because he is imposing his will upon us with his healthcare plans, the bank bailouts, and most recently what he calls “executive action” as it relates to gun control.
I would argue that in Paine’s eyes Obama is not a tyrant, because the source of his power is supposedly limited to what the legislature allows him to do, or rather what they put up for him to sign into law.
Additionally, the aristocratic and privileged people that Paine vehemently disapproves of is now Actors, Athletes, and inherited fortunes. The old money the way Paine paints it add nothing to society. I would be inclined to agree with him, they get royalties from empires that they pay people to run for them, or if they choose run themselves. And entertainers, who although their advancement of culture and values may be real they certainly do not add much to the collective good.
Secondly, he expands on the flaws of Monarchy as a whole saying that the idea of a king is a blasphemous idea. In his eyes elevating someone to near godlike status is completely wrong and he uses biblical context to support it. In his time this was a very effective appeal, considering many of the people he was trying to reach were the descendants of settlers seeking Religious freedom from the English church. Most if not all identified with some sort of Christianity or Catholicism; which can largely be lumped together on core principles.
In modern terms the religious appeal is still widely accepted for 2 reasons. First it is a numbers game, if you are religious and there is a candidate who is not, you are automatically predisposed to not like them regardless of their views. However if you are atheist or agnostic (in either the narrow or broad sense) you might choose who to vote for based on their views of issues you find important,not their religious standing. So in short, claiming to be religious adds to the pool of prospective voters without losing any. Or in other words pandering to the lowest common denominator.
One of my classmates (Corin?) argued that this is ridiculous and does not leave any room for an Atheist to have a say. This brings me to my second point, anyone granted such vast power in our country must be accountable to someone or something. Typically the argument is they are accountable to the people, but this is only a marginal check. And to many, the idea that those elected to lead our entire country are held accountable to God and/or receive guidance from said god is comforting. Regardless if the soundness of this comfort it is considered valid in many peoples eyes. As noted by the number of people who believe themselves to be Christian yet do not observe the practices.
Thirdly, Paine outlined how the new Colonial governed which was suppose to be “by the people for the people” was to function. He called for all people actively engaged in “the cause” and to share all struggles with one another. He was forging a new identity apart from Britain. One were free and equal men came together for the common defense. However, not everyone was to be included in this “Democratic wish”. Anyone who he saw as either clinging to the Mother nation or not supporting the cause should be severed from the rewards that would be earned. Specifically, Quakers who were pacifists were in his eyes leeches or to paraphrase a supreme court justice ‘barnacles on the hull of civilization to be pried of and tossed out’. In his eyes they were risking nothing should they lose, yet had everything to gain should independence be won. Additionally loyalists were also considered a waste of time, because they were still clinging pointlessly to a government who had clearly rejected them. Their sentiment would only hinder the cause, and when going up against Goliath there was simply no room for doubt or hesitation of any kind. He also believed that any among them was fit to lead. So he proposed a raffle for each representative from the states to become president.
Basically Paine was painting the picture of a Greek city state where every man was active in politics. Although this is a novel idea a common critique is ending up with something like in Brave New World or 1984. In Brave New World, the entire world lives in a very collective, societal good kind of way heavily driven by science and fulfillment of pleasure. There is no marriage or family, sex is regular with anyone at any time outside of work; typically only within your class. Anyone who dissented from the established way of doing things was sent to an island to live isolated with the other dissenters, and before that were sent ot the gas chambers.
Perhaps nothing that dramatic would arise, but Paine’s vision did include what would now be a crippling amount of government that would simply fail to get anything done. Another one of my classmates was highly critical of the fact that Paine ignored women(Yessica), and to that i would respond If Paine were around today he would not care or he would possibly encourage women to join. In his day women were a given with the men. I see no reason for him to exclude women now, as long as they are dedicated to the cause.
And finally, Paine in some length denounces the British government and its actions towards the colonies. He says that Britain did not protect the colonies because they were a part of the Country and as such inherited said privileges, but rather out of self interest.Most of the colonists considered themselves loyal British subjects, and when the simple act of imposing a tax without consenting the local legislature was made the ruling class took offense. They first attempted to be Gentlemen about the matter and wrote letters, which were ignored.This to them was slap in the face, they fancied themselves influential Aristocrats, when in reality they were widely mocked by British Aristocrats as uncivilized and unimportant. So when they dissented, Britain offered an armed response. To Paine this was beyond barbaric, he said that even savages do not kill their own kin, or devour their young. He also outlines the idea that being governed by them would simply be ineffective because of communication taking so long. Also, they would be dragged into wars that they had no bid in. And perhaps My favorite appeal, that it was absurd for and island to rule a continent.
A modern equivocation would be if say Hawaii was the seat of all US government, all politicians lived there primarily and made laws from there that effected everyone. And also assume that when a law conflicted with a local belief of say Arizona regarding environmental protection and Oil drilling. Suppose they said all states have to protect x amount of land, here in Arizona protecting large areas of Desert seems pointless to many and only hinders local job creation and revenue. So Arizona dissents and becomes the new lone star state, only to face a huge armada of troops. I doubt many people would be happy with the situation. I imagine many of the colonists must have felt similarly. They thought that they were citizens, yet they were not treated as such.
Anyway that is my breakdown of Paine and how we can look at it today. I look forward to seeing your feedback and criticisms of my assessment! 🙂