Victor Nuovo: Questioning common sense
Editor’s note: This is the 13th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was a political activist, revolutionary, and pamphleteer. English by birth, he became an American citizen and a citizen of the French Republic by choice and played a key role in their respective revolutions. He is best remembered for his revolutionary writings, Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason.
Common Sense was published in February 1776 and was an immediate best seller. It is credited with having provided direction and purpose to members of the Continental Congress as they deliberated their way towards independence. It did this by identifying the available options, namely, independence or reconciliation, and by giving cogent reasons for choosing the former instead of the latter. But Common Sense is above all a call to action, and after almost two-and-one half centuries its passion is undiminished and its message timely.
“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, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
His vision of America as “an asylum for mankind” is noble, worthy of honor, but, even more, a never-ending imperative for all Americans, nor more so than today, when it is being cruelly ignored.
Scattered occurrences of armed conflict between the American Colonies and Great Britain began in 1770 most notably with the Boston Massacre and continued intermittently culminating in general war. On July 3, 1775, following the Battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington commander-in-chief of the Colonial armies, and two days later declared that a state of war existed between the Colonies and the British government. Congress described it as a civil war not a revolution, thus acknowledging the continuing bond of the colonies with Great Britain and the British people.
When the Congress met in 1776 it considered only two options: reconciliation with Great Britain or independence. Looking back, it may seem that the choice was obvious, but it did not seem so then. One of the so-called “founding fathers,” John Dickinson of Delaware, a highly respected member of Congress, did not believe that the colonies were ready for independence. He worried that the differences between them, chief among them slavery, would continue to divide them and eventually lead to conflict and civil war between the states. He counseled negotiations leading towards greater autonomy. He absented himself from Congress rather than vote on the question of independence and, when the Declaration was adopted, he refused to sign it. He resigned his seat in Congress and enlisted in the militia as a private. One year later, in recognition of independence, he freed his slaves. Later, he played a major role in drafting the Articles of Confederation.
Paine begins Common Sense by distinguishing between human society and government. Society is spontaneous and natural, but fragile, unable to sustain itself, which necessitates the creation of government. Government, then, is a “necessary evil”; what makes society fragile and unenduring is the incapacity of individuals to maintain the purity of motives and the friendliness that originally brought them together. Paine appears to follow Rousseau who believed that all men are born innocent and become corrupt when they enter into civil society. Thus, he compares a person’s entry into society to the biblical Fall: corruption follows, and with it the necessity of mutual restraints, of laws and governments to enforce them. “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.” But the process of corruption is incremental; it accelerates and increases as states increase their domains and enlarge their governments, which stand apart from and above those they rule, so that it becomes arbitrary and harsh.
Yet the only legitimate purpose of government, large or small, is to preserve the liberty and security of its citizens, to which they have a natural right. Governments that ignore this fundamental purpose and seek some other goal, for example, glory or empire, become tyrannical; they must be resisted.
Paine acknowledges that efforts have been made to reform civil government, with modest success. He admits that the British have done more than other peoples to reform government. He offers faint praise for the English constitution, which served in its time as a successful antidote to absolutism and the tyranny of monarchs by creating a mixed government that combined the powers of king, nobles, and the people into a single system of countervailing forces. But all this soon degenerated into a medley of tyrannies, “a house divided.”
This is his argument against the English constitution: power corrupts, and even if the mixed English constitution divides the power of government into three parts, each with its constitutional right, each will endeavor to maintain its power to a certain degree unchecked, yet if neither is able to subdue the others, then the establishment of three opposing tyrannies is the inevitable outcome; any hope that government will work for the welfare of the people diminishes. Stalemate follows and chronic injustice.
When government becomes corrupt, the best option is to separate oneself from it. Independence is the only rational option; the hope for reconciliation is an illusion.
The question remains whether we should expect anything better from the present American government. To be sure, the hereditary rights of the monarch and the noble aristocracy have been abolished here. The offices of government are open to all and are filled by popular elections. But the power of government is the same, whether British or American, whether in a president or a king, and power, now as then, corrupts. We have all become daily observers of how his happens.
We assure ourselves that the separation of powers prescribed by our constitution is a reliable system of checks and balances and this assurance persuades us that the common good will be served, as though our government were a “machine that runs by itself.” Is this assurance justified? What if, instead of checks and balances, the different branches stand incorrigibly opposed, and instead of a well-functioning machine, there is gridlock caused by the attempted tyranny of one part of government over the others? What if the separation of powers has brought us only an unending cycle of action and reaction? And if this should happen, what remedy is available to us, the people?
But I have strayed from my purpose, which is historical not homiletical. The founders were not unaware of the difficult tasks facing them, chief among them, how to design a system of government that was self-regulating and immune from corruption. John Adams was well aware of this and he proposed a remedy. Stay tuned.
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