Whatever Happened to Common Sense?
The time was 1775, the rebellion was increasing in intensity. Blood had been shed at Lexington and Concord, and Falmouth had been bombarded by ships of the Royal Navy. The rebellion had begun, but the War for Independence had not.
The Continental Congress issued their declaration of causes, as well as extending peace overtures to King George with the "Olive Branch Petition", George Washington, now the commander-in-chief, preceded his evening meals with a toast to the king.
In November of 1775 Congress passed a resolution affirming loyalty to the British Crown and Thomas Jefferson himself wrote in favor of reconciliation.
As Scott Liell writes in 46 Pages, "What the vast majority of colonists wanted was not liberty from but liberty within the British Empire. The political vision which animated their words and their actions was actually quite a conservative one."
In short order, all of the above changed, prompted in large part by a 46-page pamphlet by a virtually unknown British citizen newly relocated to Philadelphia -- Thomas Paine. This pamphlet, more than any other factor, changed the political dynamics of the day from seeking a redress of grievances to seeking independence.
The focus of Common Sense, justification for independence from England, was a subject that broke new ground even among most members of Congress.
The popular position of Congress was one of conservatism -- maintaining the status quo with a desire to shift power from remote London to local control in Philadelphia. Most members of Congress were under directives from home areas to specifically not consider full independence.
One of the tactics used by Paine, in his advocacy of full independence, was to focus on a single target -- King George III. Indeed Paine's list of grievances against the king was later used as a model by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
This tactic was hugely successful, as seemingly overnight independence was openly discussed. The king now became the enemy, the individual colonies reconsidered their goals, and the rebellion became the War of Independence.
With this approach, Paine may have instigated, at least in the colonies, a tactic repeated this past election, demonization of the opposition -- focusing on the person, creating a readily identifiable target, and allowing the target to take precedence in the minds of many, versus the issues of the day.
But Paine did not ignore the issues, as Common Sense elaborated on many subjects which became the principles upon which our nation was founded, including individual liberty as well as freedom from a tyrannical government.
There is no arguing that by the measures of the day Paine was a radical. This is evident from his later works:
"The mere Independence of America, were it to have been followed by a system of government modeled after the corrupt system of English government, would not have interested me with the unabated ardor that it did. It was to bring forward and establish the representative system of government...that was the leading principle with me in writing."
This form of a Republican system of government, as opposed to either a monarchial form or true democracy, differentiated Common Sense from other political expressions of the time.
In Common Sense Paine asserts his disdain for corrupt governments:
"Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil."
Paine also touches on the importance of free trade (capitalism?) on the emerging nation as he argues in favor of separation from England which would then open up trade to England's enemies:
"Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because, it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port."
An additional point made, one which rings true today, is the responsibility of the government towards sustainability:
"we can have no joy, knowing that this government is not sufficiently lasting to ensure anything which we may bequeath to posterity: And by a plain method of argument, as we are running the next generation into debt, we ought to do the work of it, otherwise we use them meanly and pitifully."
Certainly that sentiment is at odds with policies of today's government leaders. The irresponsibility of the Bush administration now pales in comparison to that of Obama.
Paine was first and foremost opposed to tyranny be it from a malevolent king or a corrupt parliament, this opposition was instrumental in the formation of a government created upon the idea of independence. Unfortunately, the government of today has devolved to the point where independence from has been replaced by dependence upon.
Today we protest against many of the same injustices Paine complained about in Common Sense. What was once a tyranny by the king has become a tyranny of the majority foisted upon an unwilling minority. Voices of opposition are now ignored as politicians scheme in various ways to ensure their re-election.
We have come full circle. Our rights are imperiled, our commonwealth under threat. Our list of grievances is clear. We await a new Thomas Paine.