Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Feb 18, 2006

Thomas Paine

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 [1794]

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 [1795]

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.


Terri said...

It's refreshing to read the words of someone who has taken the time to do some critical thinking. And, not only do you "think it" you share your thoughts. I stumbled in here by clicking "next blog." I got lucky.

Jennifer Snow said...

Good! I hope you'll come back, then.

Alexander V. Marriott said...

It is important not to inflate Thomas Paine's importance, particularly as an ideological founding father of the United States of America. After he was done writing his "Crisis" pamphlets he fell into disfavor with nearly all of the founding fathers in terms of his republican ideology. Some of the funniest and most pertinent critiques of Paine flowed from John Adams and James Madison. Paine's participation in the French Revolution, particularly during the trial of Louis XVI and after his execution, ruined his reputation with most American leaders and great numbers of people. He was able to appeal to his support for the revolution when he returned to the United States upon release from French prison in order to revive his fortunes as a lecturer. Paine's zenith of influence among Americans occurred sometime before 1780, it's important to keep that context in mind when dealing with him as a source for American founding ideology.

Jennifer Snow said...

He didn't write his final American Crisis paper until after the Revolution was OVER, and he fell out of favor, according to my book, largely because of his attack on religion in The Age of Reason.

If I read someone's ideas and I see people espousing identical ideas today, I'm going to suspect a connection.

Washington had character, but he wasn't an ideologue; Jefferson supposedly was great in the ideas department, but he had MUCH less character. Paine was the attack dog, ideologically.

EdMcGon said...

"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."

When I read the above quote, it occurred to me that, even though you are describing Paine, it is a fair allegorical description of the U.S. today.

I doubt that was your intention, but I do find it ironic.

Jennifer Snow said...

Heh, actually, Ed, that was precisely my point.

Alexander V. Marriott said...

Thomas Paine's attack on religion, in the context of dechristianization in revolutionary France, came after his already largely disreputable participation in the murder of Louis XVI. It merely added to his further marginalization and made him far more unpopular with average people, whereas his activities with the French revolutionaries and his collectivism had discredited him with most founders before that. Not only that, but Paine had virtually no impact whatsoever on the direction of the country under the Articles of Confederation, the push to draft and ratify the constitution, and the subsequent implementation of the new government. Thus his importance to the shape and form of the government is virtually non-existent as opposed to his obvious importance in the early stages of the military phase of the revolution.

As for your characterization of Washington and Jeffeson in relation to Paine there are two problems. First, Paine is clearly not on the same level of importance of the other two, intellectually or in character. Second, Washington's supposed lack of intellectual curiosity is very over blown as any study of the man quickly reveals. And Jefferson was a duplicitous man in some very disappointing respects. Yet his intellectual achievements are still admirable even if their author wasn't always perfectly so. Paine's importance was in the winter 1775-76 to winter 1776-1777 range, where he penned two incredibly important pamphlets that helped markedly in encouraging those making rebellion against England (in fact support for the revolution was never greater than in the early going when Paine was at work). But as I have said, his importance in comparison to others, particularly George Washington and John Adams, should not be inflated.

Jennifer Snow said...

Firstly, I didn't say that Washington lacked intellectual curiosity, I said he wasn't an IDEOLOGUE, in that he was relatively quiet about what he thought; he acted a lot more than he PUBLISHED.

And what basis of comparison do you have to keep asserting that I'm "inflating" Paine's importance? I haven't written anything about any other founding father yet. I hardly think I credited him with anything he didn't do. I didn't, for instance, claim he had anything to do with founding the government, I said he produced a lot of writing that led to the grassroots ideological foundations of this country; so much so that you can see his precise ideas being echoed by intellectuals today; something you can't easily say for Jefferson or Washington.

Paine is especially instructive to read because you can SEE the gradual disintegration of America in what he's written. You can see how and why it all had to fall apart. Very sad.

Alexander V. Marriott said...

OK, I'm not saying that you are necessarily guilty of anything, as an Objectivist historian I'm merely cautioning, generally, against putting too much import into Thomas Paine and his writings within the context of the revolution and the founding of the united states in 1787-89. You write: "I didn't, for instance, claim he had anything to do with founding the government, I said he produced a lot of writing that led to the grassroots ideological foundations of this country." This I would dispute. Paine's writings were important in convincing people as to why they should support revolution, but they hardly laid the ideological foundations of the country as seen in the US constitution. As I suggested, those much more important in that achievement, i.e. James Madison and John Adams, had already lost patience with Paine's "radicalism."

You're correct to link Paine's "radical" ideas to modern politicians, which I have not disputed at all. However, that doesn't mean his intellectual problems were necessarily the problems of the other (much more important) founders in creating America. His contradictions and inconsistencies are not the same contradictions and inconsistencies which undermined the American government, which is perfectly logical given that he was in no way involved in that project.

Jennifer Snow said...

That makes sense.

I think it's also important to remember that the American government is not necessarily synonymous with America; Paine's errors and inconsistencies have certainly had an effect on America, although probably not so much on the government.

And, it's also important to remember that Paine wasn't a thorough-going original, either, he borrowed ideas from many other sources which were prevalent at the time, like Adam Smith.

Paine kind of reminds me of Victor Hugo in some respects.

Alexander V. Marriott said...

That's a very interesting comparison. Another interesting thing as far as historiography goes, Paine's current historical champion is the Columbia professor Eric Foner, an old left communist from a family of the same.

Jennifer Snow said...

I'm not surprised; if you think about it, Paine is kind of the spokesman for American liberalism (which supports varying amounts of socialism/communism), and conservatism is pretty much just a reaction against liberalism.

Anonymous said...

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.

I found that to be a rather whig-ish comment.