THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA
By HARVEY J. KAYE
HILL AND WANG Copyright © 2005 Harvey J. Kaye
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8090-9344-8
Chapter One A FREEBORN BRITON
On January 10, 1776, Common Sense, an unsigned forty-seven-page pamphlet, appeared in Philadelphia and redefined what the American colonists were fighting for. A conflict over taxes, parliamentary authority, and the place of the colonies in the British Empire became a war for independence, a struggle to create a democratic republic, and the fundamental act in the making of an American nation-state and a new age of human history.
Looking back, the American Revolution seems to have been inevitable. In the wake of Britain's triumph in the Seven Years' War (1756-63)-known in America as the French and Indian Wars-the British government had sought to secure its empire and more firmly assert dominion over its American colonies. Parliament enacted a string of revenue-raising laws and regulations, including the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Quartering Act, Declaratory Act, and Townshend Acts. But Americans, rejecting Parliament's right to legislate for them, resisted. They decried tyranny, demonstrated in the streets, and organized boycotts and movements such as the nonimportation associations and Sons of Liberty. Their defiance made each ensuing British initiative essentially unworkable. Yet repeatedly, after repealing its latest law ortax, Parliament imposed a new one, instigating fresh protests. Confrontations occasionally turned violent, as in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Resistance escalated. Bostonians staged their Tea Party in December 1773. And Britain reacted with the Coercive or Intolerable Acts. A Continental Congress convened in September 1774, and in April 1775 armed conflict broke out at Lexington and Concord. By the time a Second Continental Congress established an American army under George Washington, resistance had become rebellion, rebellion became revolution, and in July 1776 the thirteen colonies became the United States of America.
Yet neither the Americans who would remain loyal to Britain, nor those who would lead the patriot cause, had initially envisioned revolution. Even as Americans defied the British government's authority, they voiced fealty to the Crown, appreciation for Britain's constitution, attachment to the empire, and pride in being British. They protested-and felt empowered if not compelled to protest-because they were Britons, possessed, they believed, of the rights of freeborn Britons.
The imperial political climate soon changed, yet Americans' sense of identity did not. The Boston jurist James Otis insisted, "Every British subject born on the continent of America ... is entitled to all the natural, essential, inherent and inseparable rights of our fellow subjects in Great Britain." Thus, he averred, Americans could not be "taxed without their own consent." Willing to challenge the legitimacy of the government's actions, Otis would still conclude: "We love, esteem, and reverence our mother country, and adore our King." Not one American in a hundred, he claimed, "does not think himself under the best national civil institution in the world." Similarly, Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey, who would later sign the Declaration of Independence, avowed, "Are we not one nation and one people? We in America are in all respects Englishmen, notwithstanding that the Atlantic rolls in waves between us and the throne to which we all owe our allegiance."
Even the Boston radical Joseph Warren, who would die just a few months later at Bunker Hill, maintained that "an independence on Great Britain is not our aim. No, our wish is, that Britain and the Colonies may like oak and ivy, grow and increase in strength together." As late as November 1775 Thomas Jefferson wrote that "there is not in the British Empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do." And George Washington continued to toast George III at dinners with his officers.
Common Sense changed all that. Proffering a vision of free people governing themselves, it rhetorically turned the world upside down, making the discourse of the day before sound irrelevant. Almost six months were to pass before Congress would act in favor of separation, yet Americans no longer argued about the colonial relationship, the authority of Parliament, and their rights as British subjects. Rather, they debated a break with Britain, the formation of new governments, and what it meant to be an American.
Common Sense shocked people and drove many of them to reaffirm their British ties. Yet it inspired many more to declare for independence. In a letter to the Pennsylvania Evening Post, a Connecticut reader communicated his gratitude to the unidentified pamphleteer, writing, "Your production may justly be compared to a land-flood that sweeps all before it. We were blind, but on reading these enlightening words the scales have fallen from our eyes." A Marylander wrote, "If you know the author of Common Sense tell him he has done wonders," and a New Yorker declared, "This animated piece dispels, with irresistible energy, the prejudice of the mind against the doctrine of independence, and pours in upon it such an inundation of light and truth, as will produce an instantaneous and marvellous change in the temper-in the views and feelings of an American." Representing New Hampshire in the Continental Congress, Josiah Bartlett noted that Common Sense was "greedily bought up and read by all ranks of people." And George Washington informed his secretary Colonel Joseph Reed that it was "working a powerful change there in the minds of men."
Noting that "I can hardly refrain from adoring him. He deserves a statue of Gold," a Rhode Islander impatiently inquired, "Who is the author of Common Sense?" And having earlier confessed to her husband John that she was "charmed by the Sentiments of Common Sense," Abigail Adams similarly asked, "Who is the writer ...?"
Though only a very few actually knew the name of the author, many imagined they did. General Horatio Gates wrote his comrade General Charles Lee: "Common Sense-it is an excellent performance-I think our friend Franklin has been principally concern'd in the Composition." Others nominated the likes of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams. In spite of how the pamphlet differed fundamentally in content, language, and tone from all hitherto published pieces, almost everyone assumed a leading figure of the American political elite had written it, presumably a radical member of Congress. But they assumed wrongly.
The man who wrote Common Sense was Thomas Paine, an unknown, recently arrived thirty-nine-year-old English immigrant of working-class background. Anything but elite, Paine's life and career before coming to America had included corsetmaking, privateering, tax collecting, preaching, teaching, labor campaigning, and shopkeeping, punctuated by bouts of poverty, the loss of two wives, political defeat, business bankruptcy, and dismissal from government service (twice).
Had they known all that, Americans might have responded differently. But perhaps only an Englishman such as Paine could have disabused Americans of their lingering affections for Britain. Perhaps only an immigrant could have convinced them of their own grand possibilities. And perhaps only an artisan could have propelled them to take radical-democratic action. In turn, perhaps only America and its people could have made Paine a revolutionary and caused him to write, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
Paine was born January 29, 1737, in Thetford, England, to Joseph Pain and his wife, the former Frances Cocke. Joseph was eleven years younger than Frances. But more significant were their class and religious differences. Joseph was a corsetmaker and a Quaker. Frances, the daughter of a prominent local lawyer, was an Anglican. And early on young Thomas Paine would become sensitive to inequality and the possibility of reversals.
The England in which Paine grew up seemed orderly and stable compared with the England of the past. In the 1640s a civil war between the Crown and Parliament had culminated in the beheading of the king, the abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the Church of England, and the establishment of a Puritan-dominated republic or "Commonwealth." A wider revolution also threatened when popular political and religious movements took seriously the parliamentarians' oratory about the "rights of freeborn Englishmen" and called for a more egalitarian and democratic Albion. Levellers demanded political equality and manhood suffrage. Diggers called for sharing the land and set about collectively occupying parcels of it. Ranters denied sin and hell and spoke of liberation and free love. And Baptists and Quakers challenged traditional Christian hierarchy and authority. The radicals were suppressed and the republic itself collapsed, but their struggles and dreams still made the propertied nervous and the common folk troublesome.
While kingship, lords, and church were restored in 1660, in 1688 the Glorious Revolution refashioned the Crown as a constitutional monarchy and initiated the ascendance of the Whig oligarchy, a ruling class of landed aristocrats and London financial interests. Governing in the name of preserving Englishmen's "ancient liberties," the Whigs promoted the interests of property and Anglican Protestantism while limiting royal and churchly absolutism. The Tory opposition venerated the monarchy and the church, yet it was no less eager to protect property and those who owned it. And in any case Whigs and Tories alike viewed the spoils of offices and titles-status, income, and influence-as ultimately more important than principles. In 1714 the originally German Hanoverians replaced the originally Scottish Stuarts on the throne, but the Whig regime persisted.
Orderly and stable, England was not static. Its rulers undertook or oversaw new kinds of revolution-the forging of a nation-state, the building of an overseas empire, the development of capitalism and industry-and transformed the country into the world's foremost military, and commercial power. They would not go unchallenged, but in almost every instance they would prevail. With Wales already incorporated and Ireland conquered, they tied Scotland to England by the 1707 Act of Union, creating "one united kingdom of Great Britain." Thereafter they enlarged the empire, especially in North America and the Caribbean. And the British people expected they would extend it still further.
Hanoverian England differed from the absolute monarchies and seigneurial lands of contemporary Europe. The English toasted their own uniqueness and boasted not just of their military and commercial prowess but also of their "liberties," by which along with "security of property"-they had in mind:
Freedom from absolutism ... freedom from arbitrary arrest, trial by jury, equality before the law, the freedom of home from arbitrary entrance and search, some limited liberty of thought, of speech and of conscience, the vicarious participation in liberty ... afforded by the right of parliamentary, opposition and by elections and election tumults ... as well as freedom to travel, trade, and sell one's own labour.
Furthermore, although only Anglican men of property had full civil and political rights-most significantly, voting, holding public office, and attending university-the Toleration Act of 1689 accorded freedom of worship to Protestant Dissenters.
Meanwhile, inequalities intensified. The Whigs continued to control Parliament, the Lords by inheritance and the Commons by patronage. Many towns had no representation, and men without property, or at least an annual income of £40, were excluded from the franchise. At best only one out of every live Englishmen could vote.
Capitalism advanced. Aristocrats and gentry enclosed fields previously available for common uses, dispossessed smallholders, and carried on the "primitive accumulation of capital" that financed Britain's Industrial Revolution. Merchants and shop owners abandoned customary methods of regulating commerce and labor. And political economy superseded the traditional moral economy, subjecting people to the vagaries of the market and creating a growing class of poor, propertyless workers.
A new political revolution never threatened, but English working people believed they had a right to express their grievances and regularly did so through swift communal actions directed against property and its symbols, giving them the reputation of an "ungovernable people." Still, England's governors managed their power and authority resolutely. When necessary they resorted to force. More often they secured their rule through other means. Nationalism and Protestantism played significant roles, but "the law" served as the foremost vehicle for controlling the common folk. "Liberty" and "property" became England's watchwords, and the most potent fiction was that all freeborn English were equal before the law. While the law set limits to the ambitions and predations of the powerful, it was crafted to instill respect for authority and the sanctity of property in those who possessed neither. Failing respect, fear would suffice. The number of offenses punishable by death-which included the most minor of crimes, such as petty theft-increased from 50 to 250 in the course of the eighteenth century. Neither age nor sex disqualified one from hanging.
Situated seventy-five miles northeast of London, Thetford was a market town of two thousand people. Dominated by the wealthy Duke of Grafton and his family, the local economy remained agricultural, yet it included a diverse community of artisans, to which Paine's father belonged. Beneath the artisans the laboring poor struggled to make a living and, further down the social scale, a swelling number of paupers struggled to survive.
Blatant displays of the nation's inequalities, criminal court sessions were held in Thetford every March, during which time the town's population ballooned and routine life gave way to a bizarre carnival of theatricals, amusements, trials, verdicts, and executions. Most of those sentenced to hang had been convicted of stealing and, overwhelmingly, were of the lower classes. Gallows Hill itself could be seen from the Paine home, and its grisly images must have made a lasting impression on the young Thomas.
Paine's own family made him skeptical of authority, both political and religious. Joseph's brethren in the Society of Friends had ostracized him for marrying Frances Cocke in a Church of England ceremony. But he never ceased to consider himself a Quaker, and he imbued his son with Quaker ideas and values. A "tolerated" religious minority the Quakers were still looked upon with suspicion and had yet to achieve civil and political equality. They rejected the formalization of religion and priestly authority refused to pay tithes, practiced pacifism, and called upon men and women to discover the "divine spark" with which God had endowed them. Seeing one another as brothers and sisters, they also felt responsible for one another's welfare and took care of the poorer members of their communities themselves. Though never truly a Quaker (for he was no pacifist), the mature Thomas would often identify himself as one and-impressed by their lives-he would oppose hierarchies, support freedom of worship and separation of church and state, and advocate public ways of addressing poverty.
While Paine's father instilled Quaker values, his mother raised him in the church, making sure he learned the Bible and Anglican catechism. Yet years later Paine would claim that even as he memorized lengthy passages of scripture, he began to have serious doubts about Christianity. He wrote that a sermon on "redemption by the death of the Son of God" had "revolted" him: "it was making God Almighty act like a passionate man who killed His son when he could not revenge Himself in any other way, and as I was sure a man would be hanged who did such a thing, I could not see for what purpose they preached such sermons." And convinced that God was "too good" to "do such an action," Paine came to believe that "any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child cannot be a true system."
With financial assistance from an aunt, Paine's parents enrolled him in Thetford Grammar School. He most liked science and poetry, both of which became lifetime avocations. In particular, he relished the works of Shakespeare and the seventeenth-century writers John Milton and John Bunyan (which no doubt nourished his later political and religious radicalism). Though the school offered Latin, his father forbade him from learning it, for as a Quaker Joseph believed that Latin, the official language of states and churches, functioned to obscure the exercise of authority from the people. And the ban probably served Paine well, for it later helped to keep him from fancifying his prose and alienating working people.
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