I didn’t post yesterday because I was not quite ready for the next thing I wanted to post: my interpretation of Thomas Paine. I recently purchased a book of his works entitled Common Sense and other Writings, but Common Sense made up less than a quarter of the total of the book, so I didn’t really think I could just post a book review with that title and be done with it.
My initial impression is that this man was the absolute nuclear generator of quotes; even more so than Ayn Rand, and she is eminently quotable. The reason that both were very quotable is, in my mind, that both spent their time turning a vast complexity of information into simple, memorable principles. They are different, though, in that when you quote Ayn Rand, you have to remember that you are summoning up a vast context for your quote and be careful not to oversimplify the case. Thomas Paine’s quotes generally require little or no context, and he frequently manages to oversimplify the case without the interference of any outside agency.
His writings are fascinating because they outline, in exquisite detail, the essence of the American character with all its strengths and flaws. He is adept on the attack, especially in revealing the inanity of other views, but he is not very good at defending his own ideas; his defense consists frequently of announcing that his idea is the only alternative to the ridiculous. He rejects fanatical religion for a secular lifestyle but still maintains the air of theology. He attempts to moderate freedom with progressive social programs.
I’ll discuss his writings individually and you will be able to see it for yourself.
African Slavery in America (1775)
This is the simplest and most straightforward of the articles I have, I think because it has one point: to demonstrate that slavery is vile and absurd and should be abolished. Pain excels at demonstrating this point, bringing in moral, financial, and political data to support it. This article is credited in the appendix with starting the Abolitionist movement in America, which led very rapidly to the end of slavery north of the Mason-Dixon line, and even, eventually, to the end of slavery in rest of the country.
“They show as little Reason as Conscience who put the matter by with saying—‘Men, in some cases, are lawfully made Slaves, and why may not these?’ So men, in some cases, are lawfully put to death, deprived of their goods, without their consent; may any man, therefore, be treated so, without any conviction of desert?”
Common Sense (1776)
Paine attacked the English hereditary monarchy (as he does again in later writings), and promotes the case of the Americans in wishing for separation. It’s particularly interesting to me that, apparently, everyone thought a separation would have to happen sooner or later; no one was contesting that fact. The impossibility of England ruling the increasingly populous and prosperous American colonies at a delay of six months was abundantly clear. The difficulty was that popular sentiment wanted to wait for years or decades until they were forced into the situation; the common belief was that America could not yet withstand a war with England.
Thomas Paine insisted that the perfect time was, in fact, eight months before, when the country should have rallied in support of the Massachusetts Minutemen after the battle of Lexington. The longer the delay, the worse the position of America would be to battle England. He then proceeded to explain the real situation of the English military and navy, thought to be so overwhelming, and contrasted it with the excellent condition of America, which he felt could easily support this war.
Common Sense is generally attributed with finally convincing the peaceful Americans that only war would enable them to get back to their other pursuits.
“. . . a long Habit of not thinking a Thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence [sic] of Custom. But the Tumult soon subsides. Time makes more Converts than Reason.”
“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”
“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.”
“Men do not change from enemies to friends by the alteration of a name: And in order to show that reconciliation now is a dangerous doctrine, I affirm, that it would be policy in the King at this time to repeal the acts, for the sake of reinstating himself in the government of the provinces; In order that HE MAY ACCOMPLISH BY CRAFT AND SUBTLETY, IN THE LONG RUN, WHAT HE CANNOT DO BY FORCE AND VIOLENCE IN THE SHORT ONE. Reconciliation and ruin are nearly related.”
The American Crisis Papers (1776-1783)
The Revolution going badly, Washington having been dealt defeat after defeat and forced to retreat, rescuing only a part of his supplies, Paine attempts to rally the Americans again in support of the war and largely succeeds. He continues throughout the battles that follow until a settlement is realized, when he further gives advice to the struggling new nation. Although these papers were largely propaganda, it is to Paine’s credit that they could not possibly be considered cheap propaganda.
Paine was very much in favor of the union of the states, in fact, he is credited with being the first to use the term “United States of America”. Washington created this country with the sword; Paine gave it a shape and a name with his pen.
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink 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 . . .”
“America did not, nor does not want force; but she wanted a proper application of that force. Wisdom is not the purchase of a day, and it is no wonder that we should err at the first setting off.”
“Of all the innocent passions which actuate the human mind there is none more universally prevalent than curiosity.”
[on England] “It is strange that a nation must run through such a labyrinth of trouble, and expend such a mass of wealth to gain the wisdom which an hour’s reflection might have taught.”
Rights of Man [1791-1792]
This is where Paine begins to falter. From the title, it would seem that these books should be a treatise on, well, the Rights of Man, but Paine speaks largely about the rights of nations and refutes a pamphlet (if you can use that term to refer to something that was over 400 pages long) written by Edmund Burke to condemn the French Revolution. It’s a symptom, I think, of the fact that individual rights were considered at the time to need no defense. They were self-evident. Anyone could see that.
Experience has demonstrated that this is not the case.
What Paine does, however, is somewhat interesting, and can be observed in the modern day: he equates democracy (and representative government) with individual rights. It’s really quite startling to see how many modern attitudes the man originated. He speaks a great deal about differences between governments while taking the ideology behind those governments entirely for granted, as if government produces ideology and not the other way around. He succeeds, mournfully, in constructing a great castle on a foundation of sand. A democracy may elect Hamas just as well as it might elect George Washington. A useful thing to remember.
“Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”
“Reason and Ignorance, the opposites of each other, influence the great bulk of mankind. If either of these can be rendered sufficiently extensive in a country, the machinery of Government goes easily on. Reason obeys itself; and Ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”
The Age of Reason 
This is Paine’s attack on organized religion, the Bible, revealed religion, and various other aspects of Christianity. He declares that Deism is the closest approach to faith and that the Word of God is, well, all the Creations of God, which can be understood by means of Reason and Science.
He neglects, however, to ask himself one very important question. What makes him certain that there is a God? He admits that this question is possible, but he dismisses it as irrelevant: God, like rights, is self-evident. Someone had to make all this and keep it running. Anything else is absurd.
This approach begs the question; who, then, made God? The Age of Reason is interesting to read largely because Paine makes so many truly humorous comments about the absurdity of religion, but it’s not really informative. The book was, in fact, largely responsible for the destruction of Paine’s reputation, to the extent that Theodore Roosevelt once referred to him as “that filthy little atheist”. Deism is not really a tenable position; like most middle-of-the-road approaches it succeeds in nothing but procuring universal condemnation. The attempt to combine reason with religion in America is decaying, and ugly fanaticism is rearing its head once more.
“The story of the whale swallowing Jonah, though a whale is large enough to do it, borders greatly on the marvellous [sic]; but it would have approached nearer to the idea of a miracle, if Jonah had swallowed the whale.”
Agrarian Justice 
And, here, we have the final decay of the man (and nation) who so defiantly promoted freedom: socialism. Fortunately, Paine named the foundational principle for his version of socialism, so it can be easily discredited:
“It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.
“But the earth in its natural state, as before said, is capable of supporting but a small number of inhabitants compared with what it is capable of doing in a cultivated state. And as it is impossible to separate the improvement made by cultivation from the earth itself, the lidea of landed property arose from that inseparable connection; but it is nevertheless true that it is the value of the improvement only, not the earth itself, that is individual property.”
He then continues to insist that the owners of improved land owe some sort of rent to the rest of mankind for the use of “their” property, the land itself, which they have improved.
One single fact knocks an enormous hole in this reasoning: the value of unimproved land is zero. So the recipients of this rent would be receiving value in return for something that, at the start, has no value. They are receiving something for nothing. This is justice?
I have to say that I found reading these papers to be very interesting; it gave me a very accurate view of the ideological foundations of America straight from the pen of the man who wrote them. It is both heartening and alarming, though, to know how little has changed.
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