common sense

Review :

Given what I've read of him in the introduction of this edition of his writings and elsewhere, Thomas Paine was every bit as important to the American Revolution as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson (and as it turns out, fascinatingly enough, an important figure in the French Revolution.) The forward by Jack Fruchtman Jr. claimed Paine was no philosopher, but rather a journalist, and the introduction by Sidney Hook that he was no deep thinker. Interestingly enough, I found Paine's writings shelved not in the philosophy section of the bookstore, but the history section. What Paine was plainly, if not a philosopher, was a rabble rouser who could still inspire venom over a century later. (Theodore Roosevelt called Paine "that dirty little atheist.")

Paine's pamphlet Common Sense published in July of 1776 helped spark the American Revolution. Reading Common Sense what stood out to me (and to a lesser extent the other writings) was, despite Paine's reputation as an atheist, how often he cited The Bible in his arguments. So often I've seen the secular left versus the religious right claim the American Founding Fathers as their own. If Paine and other first-hand sources of the Founding Age are any indication, the truth is more complicated, and they're neither atheists nor fundamentalists--but more people who took the existence of God and the soul for granted, while, given the religious pluralism of the colonies, making Reason (with a decidedly capital "R") the lingua franca between them--but there's certainly plenty of references to God and Providence in the works of Paine. The other thing that's striking in Common Sense--a note also resounded in Rights of Man--is the heady optimism, of the belief in the chance for fundamental and radical change: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." These works are also a surprisingly lively read. Even now, the words strike sparks on the page. Paine is often a gifted wordsmith.

That's possibly never better demonstrated than in his series of articles The American Crisis, which were read to Washington's troops during the darkest hours of the war. The first of the series has this famous opening: "These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

And Rights of Man If you want to understand the underpinnings of traditional Anglo-American conservatism, many have told me to read Edmund Burke, who many contemporary conservatives still cite as a forerunner. But if you want to understand the wellsprings of both libertarianism and liberalism right at the root, you couldn't get off to a better start than to read Paine's Rights of Man, which was a response to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. In Rights of Man Paine vigorously defended the French Revolution as well as free-thinking and democracy against tradition and aristocratic privilege. In showing the absurdity of monarchy and aristocracy Paine succeeded brilliantly. His arguments are not all that well structured however. He rambled and was often repetitive in his points. (OK, I get it, William the Conqueror was a thug.) And at times Paine's words can ring hollow because of how history has overtaken this 1791 tract. So when he passionately defended the French Revolution as civilized, I immediately thought of "the Reign of Terror" ahead of France and that Paine himself was imprisoned and came close to being guillotined. When he stated his belief that within seven years no monarchy would survive in the "enlightened" nations of Europe... Well, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom are all still monarchies today and are hardly unenlightened by any stretch. (Even if practically speaking all are republics in all but name.) And Paine had a touching faith that republics would never go to war against each other.

It makes me more curious about Burke. The quotes Paine chose to represent Burke's arguments do make him sound ridiculous. Yet I know many thinkers on the right respect Burke's arguments even today as a defense of slow organic change in political institutions over radical revolution. (And given the later events of the French Revolution, I suspect he might have been more prescient than Paine.) On the other hand, I certainly was fascinated to read Paine's account of both the American and French Revolutions and how intertwined they were from someone so personally involved. So above all, the reason to read Paine's works are that they are above all history first hand, the best possible source to get a sense of the spirit of an age and of two revolutions.


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