Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On the Anniversary of Common Sense

Yesterday was the anniversary of Thomas Paine's critical pamphlet, Common Sense. It appeared in the winter of 1776, when the political identity of these American colonies was still a matter of hot debate. Would we remain British or establish an independent nation?

Ironically, it was a pamphlet signed "by an Englishman" that persuaded the colonies to free themselves from British rule. Its arguments spread like wildfire, a master work of populist rabble rousing. It went through 25 editions in a year, an enormously profitable book; yet those profits were donated by its author to George Washington's army. Paine not only persuaded a people to fight for independence, he helped fund the struggle.

Many of those who now attempt to claim Thomas Paine as an ideological ally have never read him. For instance, I have read some people who position themselves on the libertarian right who think Paine is one of them because of his lusty cry of "freedom!" yet do not seem familiar with his argument that society is necessary and that a need for government, in some measure, inevitably arises for the maintenance of a healthy society. The Reaganauts were fond of quoting Paine's line about the best government "governing the least," but Paine was not arguing that "government is the problem," he was arguing for a balance of power between government and society. It is right there in Common Sense.

How many self-styled libertarians and "small-government" (read: anti-regulatory) conservatives read far enough in Common Sense to understand Paine's critique of tyranny? He not only denounced the tyranny of kings, but that of aristocracy. He spoke of them much as those in the Occupy movement speak of "the 1%," a peerage of inherited wealth and power, co-opting government so that it rules in their interests, while taxing the commons of its labor and revenue. In other words, an elite exploiting the common people. While he spent much more of the book critiquing monarchy, he also laid a foundation for a class critique.

Indeed, Common Sense addressed itself to commoners rather than the political leadership of the colonies at the time, and its indomitable popularity ignited popular pressure for independence.

Although the history of the United States is morally complex and some of it painful to reflect upon, the anniversary of Common Sense is a good occasion to reflect on the present state of tyranny, and the true nature of political power in the United States. Who rules, and for whose benefit?

In the 21st century, there are many people imitating Paine's plain talk about liberty, yet if you listen to them, they are actually cheerleaders for aristocrats. Here's a suggestion: read Paine.

And if you are already an admirer, and would like to help disseminate his ideas and his history, for a pittance you can join Thomas Paine Friends, a non-profit historical organization dedicated to Thomas Paine. (I am a board member.)

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