The Relevance of Thomas Paine

I have been reading Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” about which Wikipedia has this to tell us:

Thomas Paine has a claim to the title The Father of the American Revolution,which rests on his pamphlets, especially “Common Sense,” which crystallized sentiment for independence in 1776. It was published in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776 and signed anonymously “by an Englishman.” It became an immediate success, quickly spreading 100,000 copies in three months to the two million residents of the 13 colonies. In all about 500,000 copies total including unauthorized editions were sold during the course of the Revolution.

The pamphlet came into circulation in January 1776, after the Revolution had started. It was passed around, and often read aloud in taverns, contributing significantly to spreading the idea of republicanism, bolstering enthusiasm for separation from Britain, and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army. Paine provided a new and convincing argument for independence by advocating a complete break with history. Common Sense is oriented to the future in a way that compels the reader to make an immediate choice. It offers a solution for Americans disgusted with and alarmed at the threat of tyranny.

Paine was determined to get the colonies to unite and especially to write a constitution. He felt that as long as the colonies were “lawless” they were subject to usurpation by a despot who would be king. As he himself says:

A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflected on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool and deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now some [opportunist] may hereafter arise who, laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.

Now, while the minions who blindly follow today’s popular would-be-despot can hardly be described as merely “desperate and discontented,” they are certainly ready to follow the man who would be king. I would describe the minions in stronger terms than did Paine, but we get the picture. When men and women are “desperate and discontented” they are subject to the lure and promises of anyone who presents himself as the one WITH THE ANSWERS, who knows all, and who will sweep away the corruption he sees all around him and RESTORE this country to greatness — the greatness that followed upon the American Revolution, perhaps.

But, as Paine was careful to point out, the only king this country could possibly allow and remain free is the constitution, a body of laws that would make it possible for the citizens to protect their property and retain their freedom. They never looked to one man to deliver them from England and protect their property and freedoms, though they held George Washington in very high regard. He himself realized the dangers of allowing the executive in the new constitution to have too much power and he was, by all reports, a very restrained president.

The irony of the parallel I seek to draw here is that the man who would be king appears to be ignorant of the constitution (one of his first acts as president, he says, would be to jail “corrupt Hillary”) and to place himself in the place of that constitution as a law unto himself. But the truly sad thing is that his minions actually appear to believe that he can do just that and they are ready to support him and follow him wherever he leads. They desperately need to read history and take a course in civics to see how things are supposed to work in a republic defined by the balance of power.

This country is founded on the principle that no one person will have the power to determine the course of the country. The constitution is law and it rules in place of a king. The coming election will see this principle sorely tested and my hope is that we are the people that the founders hoped would make this country strong enough to reject tyranny and despotism no matter what form it might take.

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24 thoughts on “The Relevance of Thomas Paine

  1. Hugh, this is perhaps the most beautiful way I have ever heard the Constitution described: If this country is going to have a king (or a monarchy passed down through generations) it is the Constitution. Thank you for this!

    Many of us have our pet favorite sections of the Constitution. Mine, of course, is the First Amendment, for others the Second, etc. (Apparently, for Trump it’s the Fifth: he invoked it more than 100 times in his first divorce deposition.) But it’s as a whole document that the Constitution truly gains its authority, its enduring wisdom, its enduring presence as the single-most important force that has and continues to shape our nation’s direction and history.

    The Constitution has helped us survive a few near-despots in the past, has helped right horrible injustices. And even when it’s been ignored or abused in the heat of a tense moment we always look back at those moments, through the lens of the Constitution, with calmer perspective and learn from those mistaken periods, become better for the learning.

    All of this is important to remember in light of Trump’s petulant refusal to answer Chris Wallace’s question about whether he’d accept the outcome of the election: this nation and its guiding document are far bigger than Trump, not the other way around.

  2. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Mr. Hugh Curtler shares many of my posts, and today I am sharing this one from him, titled ‘The Relevance of Thomas Paine.’ It is proof that good ideas never outlive their usefulness, just as the writings and ideas of Thomas Paine have survived and thrived throughout the centuries and still have relevance for us today. Thank you, Hugh, for this post and for allowing me (albeit implicitly, since I didn’t actually ask this time) to share.

  3. Dear Hugh,

    How appropriate. It is amazing that a Thomas Paine as far back as 1776 had the foresight to see possibilities in the future and that he and others took the steps to protect us from ourselves and from tyranny.

    Ciao, Gronda

    • There’s a terrific bit in the old Jerry Seinfeld episodes when Kramer was responsible for keeping an eye on Jerry’s apartment while he was gone. Jerry returned to find he had been burgled. He complained that he had just bought a super-effective lock for his door to prevent illegal entries but Kramer had left the door open. Jerry says that the lock is burglar-proof but there is one condition that must be realized: the door must be locked! This seems to me to be a similar situation: the condition that is necessary for us to learn from history is that we must actually read history. Not much of that going on!

  4. Hugh, we caught the the PBS special on Alexander Hamilton which blended the highly successful play scenes and their development by Lin Manuel-Miranda with historical sites and historian viewpoints, including those of Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography on which the play is based. References to Thomas Paine are made.

    It is worth the watch. My daughter was home from college and she can sing word for word the songs in the play. To me and others, this may be the greatest history lesson that reaches so many.

    Keith

  5. Hi Hugh,
    I teach history, so I’m interested in Paine.
    I met you at Roberta’s blog party.
    Maybe you can check out my blog if you need a blogging tip or two. That’s what I write about.
    Janice

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