Good evening everyone,
One of the remarkable things about my current job is that I have easier access to 18th century life than most folks. I can walk into the print shop right off Duke of Gloucester Street and purchase print materials that were in circulation in the Revolutionary period, including copies of the Virginia Gazette, period artwork, and of course, pamphlets on political philosophy. In January of 1776, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was first printed in the colonies. It quickly became and still remains one of the most influential and controversial political works ever printed. Thomas Paine was one of the most famous Enlightenment-era political philosophers, and his works added a British voice to the growing Patriot movement as the Revolution got underway. Obviously his works continue to be the source of debate and continue to shape the modern political climate…a true testament to the perceptive nature of his writing. Paine tapped into problems that continue to plague our country, and individuals on both the left and right routinely cite his works to justify their positions in the 21st century.
Of course, I can not in good conscience write as an authority on Thomas Paine or an authority on Common Sense, but I challenge anyone to read Common Sense and not find political parallels between 1776 and 2014. It is part of my job after all to expose guests to the fact that the Founding Fathers were dealing with issues that have not gone away. The characters may have changed, but the story is the same. Paine sat at the center of political philosophy in an era of radical ideas and put forth a truly inspiring document that I believe will always remain a topic of political discussion.
Common Sense can be separated into four parts dealing with the design of government and the English Constitution, monarchy and hereditary succession, the present state of American affairs, and America’s present ability/potential. Even in his introduction, he writes out a wonderful piece of modern political strategy…
“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 defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
If you say something loud enough for long enough, people will begin to believe you…
In his first section, Paine lays out a model for the rise of government that would be often repeated by the likes of James Madison…
“But as nothing but Heaven is impregnable to vice, it will unavoidably happen that in proportion as they surmount the first difficulties of emigration, which bound them together in a common cause, they will begin to relax in their duty and attachment to each other: and this remissness will point out the necessity of establishing some form of government to supply the defect of moral virtue…Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.”(3-5)
Since men are not angels and society can not sustain itself after it expands beyond a certain point, government at some level is a necessary evil.
Most of the middle portion of Common Sense deals with the fact that there is a king in Great Britain (George III), a fact that Paine does not find pleasing at all. After he refers to monarchy as the “Popery of Government,” he states that the current structure of the British government is confusing at best…
“The nearer any government approaches to a Republic the less business there is for a King. It is somewhat difficult to find a proper name for the government of England.” (28)
On the one hand you have the King and members of the House of Lords. All of those positions are filled in most cases by hereditary descent. On the other hand you have the House of Commons. Those positions are filled by elections. Is it a Republic? Is it a Monarchy? Is it a Constitutional Monarchy? Many people used many different names to describe the British government and the relationship between the King and the Parliament. After all, as Paine says…
“For the fate of Charles the first, hath only made Kings more subtle—not more just.” (11)
When he turns his attention the the present state of America, he makes some interesting statements and some bold predictions…some are spot on and some are unfortunately not…
“For this Continent would never suffer itself to be drained of inhabitants, to support the British arms in either Asia, Africa, or Europe.” (37)
“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.” (39)
Anyone check the debt clock recently???
“But the most powerful of all arguments is, that nothing but independence i.e. a continental form of government, can keep the peace of the continent and preserve it inviolate from civil wars.” (51)
Wrong, though we did only have the one Civil War, but it was pretty bad.
“Ship-building is America’s greatest pride, and in which, she will in time excel the whole world.” (65)
“The more men have to lose, the less willing are they to venture. The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a Spaniel.” (71)
There’s a good one for the other 99% crowd.
People from Glenn Beck to Christopher Hitchens have made Paine a focus of their careers, and just in these few snippets from Common Sense you can see how both modern Democrats and Republicans can draw from that document to support their positions. Of course Paine did not have a crystal ball to gaze into the political climate in 2014, but issues like the budget, economic policy, foreign affairs, the military, and education were as relevant in 1776 as they are today. I truly believe that a study of 18th century politics would allow many to gain a different perspective on the nature of American politics today. Hopefully many individuals who come see me at Colonial Williamsburg will leave with an understanding of the similarities between Thomas Paine’s world in 1776 and their world in 2014.
P.S. I must state that the above post represents my own personal opinion and does not in any way reflect the opinion of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation or its affiliates.