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Uncommon sense - Notebook - Column
Harper's Magazine,  July, 2002  by Lewis H. Lapham

Only the history of free peoples merits our attention; that of men under despotisms is simply a collection of anecdotes.

--Sebastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort

On being asked last spring to speak briefly to the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, I assumed that it would be a simple matter of stringing together the literary equivalent of a laurel wreath and setting it upon the head of a statue. The sponsors of the program assured me that the membership didn't expect July Fourth oratory, ten or fifteen minutes at the most, nothing scholarly. Although it had been several years since I'd read The Age of Reason or Common Sense, in my own writing I've borrowed more than one of Paine's lines of argument (often unwittingly, nearly always to good effect), and I was sufficiently familiar with his biography to remember that John Adams regarded him as "that insolent Blasphemer of things sacred and transcendent, Libeler of all that is good." I also had visited, as recently as a year ago, the Historical Association's small museum in New Rochelle, New York, which preserves, among other trace elements of Paine's life and works, his inkwell and quill pen, his death mask, and several coins struck in Paine's image by British aristocrats so that they might affix them to the heels of their boots and thus grind into dust the face of the author of Rights of Man while walking to and fro on the cobblestoned streets of London. Thus supplied with a more or less reliable set of facts, I didn't think that I'd have much trouble placing the figure of Paine safely on the pedestal of the heroic American past.

Fortunately I had a month in which to correct the error. Aware that I would be talking to people apt to catch me up or out in any mistake with a quotation, an anecdote, or a date, I took the precaution of rereading several of Paine's pamphlets, and instead of finding myself in the presence of a marble portrait bust (once eloquent, now silent), I met a man still living in what he knew to be "the undisguised language of historical truth," leveling a fierce polemic against the corrupt monarchy of King George III that serves (226 years later, and with no more than a few changes of name and title) as a fair description of the complacent oligarchy currently parading around Washington in the costume of a democratic republic. Were Paine still within reach of the federal authorities, Attorney General John Ashcroft undoubtedly would prosecute him for blasphemy under a technologically enhanced version of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

To read Tom Paine is to encounter the high-minded philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rendered in language simple enough to be understood by everybody in the room. Other writers of the period, among them Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, address the rich and well-educated members of their own social class; Paine talks to ship chandlers and master mechanics, and in place of a learned treatise he substitutes the telling phrase and the memorable aphorism--"Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness"; "The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark"; "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it."

The abundance of Paine's writings flows from the spring of his optimism, and during the twenty years of his engagement in both the American and French revolutions, he counts himself a "friend of the world's happiness." No matter what question Paine takes up (the predicament of women, the practice of slavery, or the organization of governments), he approaches it with generous impulse and benevolent purpose. Distrustful of all things "monarchical or aristocratical," invariably in favor of a new beginning and a better deal, Paine speaks to his hope for the rescue of mankind in a voice that hasn't been heard in American politics for the last forty years. By comparison with the machine-made cant pushed forth by the government now in Washington, the old words bring with them the sound of water in a desert:

   When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy;
   neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are
   empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the
   taxes are not oppressive ... when these things can be said, then may that
   country boast its constitution and its government.

   Why is it that scarcely any are executed but the poor?

   I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman
   church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant
   church, or by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

   Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation
   with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What
   we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives
   everything its value.

The story of Paine's life is that of a man who paid a dear price for his liberty and character. Born a subject of the British crown, he first landed in America in the autumn of 1774, all but penniless at the age of thirty-seven, a proven failure as both a tradesman and an excise officer, on leave from two lost marriages, without any education other than the one he had gleaned from a rural grammar school. But, as the American Revolutionary general Charles Lee later noticed, "he had genius in his eyes," and he had come armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, then in England as Pennsylvania's colonial representative. The two men attended meetings of the same scientific society, and in Paine's enthusiasm and intelligence Franklin had recognized "my adopted political son."

Finding work as a journalist, a profession as new to him as were the streets of Philadelphia, Paine soon demonstrated an impassioned talent for composing political broadsides. He wrote one of the first objections to slavery ever published in the American colonies, also one of the earliest essays protesting the denial to women of the same civil rights awarded to men. Subsequent to the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, Franklin encouraged Paine to turn his attention to the dispute with Britain, and on January 10, 1776 (fourteen months after arriving in America on a ship that also brought with it a cargo of 100 indentured servants), he published Common Sense.

The pamphlet is the founding document of the American Revolution. Taking as his premise the seditious statement that "as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries, the law ought to be King," Paine forced the point of his argument well beyond the limits of protest voiced by the propertied malcontents in Massachusetts and Virginia who had been complaining of Parliament's trade and settlement restrictions. Not enough, said Paine, merely to reach the accommodation of an "ordered liberty" with the agents of the English crown. Better to separate completely from "the natural disease of monarchy," a grotesque and unjust "form of government, which so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven." It was, said Paine, "the birthday of a new world," and the time was at hand to do away with hereditary successions, class privilege, entitled aristocracy.

Received with the shock of excited recognition by readers everywhere in America, Common Sense ran through printings of 150,000 copies in six months. The pamphlet persuaded the Americans to exchange a grievance for a cause and so transformed the incoherent gestures of colonial rebellion into the settled purpose of a war for independence. In the new signs and certain proofs of a national resolve Thomas Jefferson found the courage to borrow Paine's reasoning when he came to the writing of the Declaration of July 1776.

During the course of the Revolutionary War, Paine countered the frequent news of American defeat in battle with the composition of The Crisis Papers that were passed from hand to hand around military campfires at Saratoga and Valley Forge ("These are the times that try men's souls," etc.), but the victory at Yorktown brought him little else except the prize of unemployment. An idealist unfitted to the work of dividing up the spoils, he found his services no longer required by politicians like John Jay, who thought that their newfound American estate ought to be governed by the men who owned it. The propertied gentlemen remembered that Paine was too much given to plain speaking, on too familiar terms with the lower orders of society, and therefore a man who might continue to make trouble.

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