Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thomas Paine - Radical of the Revolution

LAST TIME: Roger Williams - America's First Radical

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) is the second person profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America (Cambridge 2011).

Paine, a corset staymaker’s son with a checkered past career, moved from England to the colonies in late 1774 at the relatively-advanced age of thirty-seven.  Yet he made his presence felt almost immediately in America with the January 1776 publication of Common Sense, penning the words that provided “the January heat of 1776 that balanced the July light of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence,” and lending crucial moral support to the revolutionary cause in its darkest hours. 

A key intellectual player in not one, but two, revolutions (American and French), Paine's flair for the written word was much-admired:  Ben Franklin once said, “Others can rule, many can fight, but only Paine can write for us the English tongue”; and Thomas Jefferson, who for many years sent Paine manuscripts for criticism and correction, wrote him, “You must not be too much elated … when I tell you my belief that you are the only writer in America who can write better than your obliged and obedient servant - Thomas Jefferson.”

Like the other four radicals profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time (Roger Williams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Vine Deloria Jr.), Paine believed that governmental tolerance for the autonomy of all citizens is a fundamental, mandatory feature of American democracy.  He explained the concept in the 1792 Rights of Man: “Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others.”

As for the role of society and government vis-à-vis those natural rights, Paine elaborated: “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.” “Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, not to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured.” In other words, government, which is merely a useful tool devised to protect every person’s pre-existing natural rights, simply lacks authority to curtail these rights. Government, one might say, is Liberty’s servant.

Also like the other four profiled radicals, Paine too believed that religious orthodoxy had been a significant source of intolerance throughout history.  He admired Jesus Christ the man, and the principles of tolerance, equality, humility and forgiveness he advocated. “[Jesus] was a virtuous and an amiable man,” Paine explained in the Age of Reason. “The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind.” Paine admired Christ's stubborn commitment to principle (recognizing, no doubt, some of himself in Christ’s own persecuted life experiences): “[Christ] preached also against the corruptions and avarice of the Jewish priests; and this brought upon him the hatred and vengeance of the whole order of priesthood,” Paine recalled. “The accusation which those priests brought against him was that of sedition and conspiracy against the Roman government, to which the Jews were then subject…. Jesus Christ [likely] had in contemplation the delivery of the Jewish nation from the bondage of the Romans.”

And for that, Paine explained, “this virtuous reformer and revolutionist lost his life.” One might accurately say Jesus Christ was himself a radical in his own time.

NEXT TIME: Elizabeth Cady Stanton - Gender Wars Radical