April 22, 2003

"Common Sense" For Today

Last night, acting on a tip from an old friend of mine, I was reading a short story by Jack London on one of those Online Books sites. It was there that I stumbled on Common Sense by Thomas Paine, and I got hooked into reading it, having been utterly chilled by London's To Build a Fire. I have read a little bit about Thomas Paine within the last year, although if I had ever read Common Sense before it was in high school which, for the record, was a while ago.

Before my Common Sense refresher session, a little bio info. A native of Thetford, England, the son of a Quaker shoemaker, Paine lived simply, even meagerly in England. He tried his hand at a variety of occupations including English teacher, Methodist preacher, tax collector, and tobacconist, none with any real longevity or success. His first wife died in childbirth, and his second marriage ended after three years, owing in part to his bankruptcy.

He was in his mid-thirties when he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin in London, and it was Franklin who apparently convinced him to go to Philadelphia, where he landed a job in a bookstore and began editing and writing. The pamphlet Common Sense was published a mere 14 months after Paine arrived in the American colonies.

It sure didn't take him long to get a feel for what this America thing was all about. Common Sense is at once an eloquent call for America's independence, a diatribe against monarchical rule, a set of ideas for the organization of a "start-up" government, and another diatribe against Quaker pacifism and self-righteousness.

But Paine seems to be at his best on the idea of America as a force against tyranny and injustice, and I was struck by the number of times that I was able to relate his words to today's America, to the events of the past couple of years, and to the events of 9/11 and those in Iraq in particular. Consider his vision of America's mission, his advice on setting up a new government, the primacy of the rule of law, the dangers of rule by hereditary succession.....but I'm ahead of myself.

Do these words, written in 1775, not also reflect something of America today?

The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested.

We fight neither for revenge nor conquest; neither from pride nor passion; we are not insulting the world with our fleets and armies, nor ravaging the globe for plunder. Beneath the shade of our own vines are we attacked; in our own houses, and on our own lands, is the violence committed against us.

Substitute "dictators" for Paine's "kings" and you have a justification for the fact and the means of Iraq's liberation...

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her--Europe regards her like a stranger...... O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Kings are not taken away by miracles, neither are changes in governments brought about by any other means than such as are common and human; and such as we are now using.

It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to repel the force of all the world.

Paine observed that as men conducted business, and looked after their own financial well-being, they cared less about freedom, and the struggle and sacrifice that preserving it necessitates. I've always felt that fear played a part in opposition to war, but pure selfishness does too.

Commerce diminishes the spirit, both of patriotism and military defence. With the increase of commerce, England hath lost its spirit. The city of London, notwithstanding its numbers, submits to continued insults with the patience of a coward. 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.

An early American conservative to be sure, Paine had seen government corruption in practice, but wrote of the necessity of government as a check on human nature:

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness...

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries By A Government, which we might expect in a country Without Government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer

Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. freedom and security.

Hey, someone who understands that the job of government begins and ends with preserving freedom and providing security for the people. What, no Midnight Basketball?

As we set about to assist Iraq in forming a government "from scratch", Paine's words from a similar project in 1775 seem apt:

The present time, likewise, is that peculiar time, which never happens to a nation but once, viz. the time of forming itself into a government. Most nations have let slip the opportunity, and by that means have been compelled to receive laws from their conquerors, instead of making laws for themselves. First, they had a king, and then a form of government; whereas, the articles or charter of government, should be formed first, and men delegated to execute them afterward but from the errors of other nations, let us learn wisdom, and lay hold of the present opportunity --to begin government at the right end.

We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months

And having begun government at "the right end", who should be king?

let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony, be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.

And who knew Thomas Paine had originated the K.I.S.S. principle?

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered; and the easier repaired when disordered.

Paine saves some of his best vitriol for "Kings", and the immorality of hereditary succession, referring to George III as "The Royal Brute of Britain", and coming out of the gate with this slam:

One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.

Secondly, as no man at first could possess any other public honours than were bestowed upon him, so the givers of those honours could have no power to give away the right of posterity. And though they might say, "We chooses you for our head," they could not, without manifest injustice to their children, say, "that your children and your children's children shall reign over ours for ever." Because such an unwise, unjust, unnatural compact might (perhaps) in the next succession put them under the government of a rogue or a fool.

Ring any bells, Uday? Bashar?

Better yet, this suggestion that the king/tyrant may have simply been the "principal ruffian" in the first place, surely evokes Saddam:

This is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honourable origin; whereas it is more than probable, that could we take off the dark covering of antiquities, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or preeminence in subtlety obtained the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power, and extending his depredations, overawed the quiet and defenseless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions.

When such leaders surround themselves with "Yes men"?.....

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 importance; 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 throughout the dominions.

When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember, that virtue is not hereditary.

And finally, the following quote, written by Paine as an argument in favor of taking positive action (for independence from England) in the face of doubt and opposition and fear by many others, reminds me that history will sort out who was right.

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.
Posted by dan at April 22, 2003 1:19 AM