Sunday, July 03, 2005

Got "Common Sense"?

My pal Warren says he was inspired recently (by something on this blog, in fact) to read for the first time (and in one sitting!) Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. His reaction: Whoa!

Gotta confess: I’d been calling myself a “libertarian” for almost two decades before I finally sat down, read, and was blown away by Common Sense. For the past 15 years or so, I’ve never missed an Independence Day without dipping into Paine again.

Common Sense is powerful stuff. Written in a plainspoken, remarkably modern style, it’s probably the most passionate, exhilarating, and dazzling piece of agitprop in American history: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Until the publication of Common Sense in January 1776, many American colonists may have been sold on the ideas of Locke and Sidney, but they were still “more disposed to suffer, while evils [were] sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they [were] accustomed.” (Thanks, Mr. Jefferson.) Paine’s “how-to” was sketchy at best, but he was phenomenal at building a vision for victory...and Common Sense set Americans aflame. Within seven months, American independence was an idea whose time had come.

Three years ago, in a piece for, I suggested people read Common Sense in preparation for the Fourth of July. I was quickly attacked by a reader for promoting Paine, “the father of American socialism.” Sure, I answered, Paine had, almost 20 years after Common Sense, written about old age pensions, “universal” taxation, and relief for the poor to correct abuses of the British monarchy. But in the same essay in which he made those suggestions (Rights of Man, Part II), he also wrote this stirring bit of libertarianism:

“A great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all parts of a civilized community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landowner, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid of which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their laws; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost every thing which is ascribed to government.”
So I stood my ground on Thomas Paine, and I still do. He’s one of the Good Guys (despite some muddy thinking here and there). He’s indispensable. And I urge everyone to read Common Sense, especially during this long July 4 weekend.

Hell, the abominable Theodore Roosevelt once dismissed Paine as a “filthy little atheist.” That alone should recommend the careful study of Thomas Paine.

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At 5:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been one of those folks doomed to repeat history, as I knew in general terms about Jefferson but never read beyond the Declaration and the Constitution (which in many ways is enough, but still ...) and I knew "Common Sense" was an important document but didn't know why. Now I get it, or am at least starting to glimpse "it."

Maybe in later years Paine became something less than he was when he composed "Common Sense," but if at that key moment in history he provided a spark that helped people understand the need to detach from the Empire, we owe him some slack for veering off track later. In a more trivial vein, "Howard the Duck" the movie doesn't make "Star Wars" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark" any less important.

So then, if Paine became an idiot in his dotage, it doesn't detract from the brilliance or importance of "Common Sense."

At 7:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


the reference to Paine's socialist leaning with regards to "Agrarian Justice" is simply the logical extension of Locke's Proviso...private enclosure of the commons being just so long as there is "enough and as good left for others".

so rather than being an affront to property rights of the encloser it actually is a plea to UPHOLD the property rights of those being excluded else the private enclosure becomes a legal and monetary obligation on those being excluded which leaves them worse off than if they were born into a "state of nature".

At 4:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paine most certainly was not an atheist. As he writes in "The Age of Reason, " "I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life."


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