The timeless wisdom of Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’
PERHAPS the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; 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 of custom. But tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.
—Thomas Paine, introduction to Common Sense
It would behoove us all to review the text of Thomas Paine’s 48-page pamphlet, which he published anonymously (fearing reprisal) in February 1776. Paine’s wisdom applies as well today as it did back then, not because of his argument against the monarchy, but as a reminder that the self-government we championed then—and are losing now—carries responsibilities.
Paine donated the profits from the astounding 500,000 copies sold (when the US population was only 2.5 million) to Washington’s army. Looking at his ideas reminds us that it was influential for a profound reason. Let it be so again, as part of the guidance we need to follow out of the current morass.
Paine was British by birth and had no formal higher education, having dropped out of school at age 13. Therefore, he wrote simply, using accessible and resonant words. From the opening paragraphs:
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. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Paine aptly describes how a government must be formed, to have an orderly society
…because as the elected might by that means return and mix again with the general body of the electors in a few months, their fidelity to the public will be secured by the prudent reflection of not making a rod for themselves. And as this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this (not on the unmeaning name of king) depends the strength of government, and the happiness of the governed.
Clearly, we’ve grown away from that simplicity. A small populace governed by elected representatives people has become 340 million people governed by a nameless bureaucracy, plus a few elected officials who rarely aspire to represent most of their constituents. That part of Paine’s writing devoted to arguing against the concept of hereditary, kingly rule resonates now that we have what was then unimaginable: an ingrained, bureaucratic inflexibility of rule.
Image: Thomas Paine (cropped) by Auguste Millière. Public domain.
Do we have a president in the sense our Founders conceived? On the face of it, the president today can, by fiat, change any rule. The executive order that put a halt to the Keystone pipeline, and started our descent into energy helplessness is an example. He (or, in Biden’s case, his minions) can direct a corrupt bureaucracy to trample on the rights of the people he so inadroitly governs—a stark example is Biden’s continued imprisonment, without trial, in horrific conditions, of people who walked into the Capitol building nearly two years ago.
Paine’s writing reminds us that
Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by important; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any thoughout the dominions.
While that last was again written as an argument against the throne, it holds true now, perfectly describing Biden. Paine further asks this question:
Is the power who is jealous of our prosperity, a proper power to govern us?
Such a simple question. It is demonstrably true that those now in power work against our prosperity. We see this in our wealth’s diminution through predictable inflation caused by blatantly bad fiscal and social policy. We, and our government, forget that, as Paine quotes Dragonetti, on Virtue and Rewards,
The science of the politician consists in fixing the true point of happiness and freedom. Those men would deserve the gratitude of ages, who should discover a mode of government that contained the greatest sum of individual happiness, with the least national expense. (Emphasis mine.)
Paine further says that
The more men have to lose, the less willing they are to venture. The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel.
It is time, I think, to stop trembling and watching our freedom slip away. In much of the country, this election matters more than any before it, and we must consider it a start toward reversing America’s downward spiral. Keeping the feet of those whom we elect to the fire is step two. Complacency is no longer an option.