Monday, April 11, 2011


by James Craig Green

Part 3 - Thomas Paine

In Part Two, I described the Englishman John Locke’s revolutionary ideas on property and government, especially their influence on the American Declaration of Independence. However, such a revolutionary document was not seriously considered in the colonies until another Englishman arrived to stoke the fires of revolution.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) convinced Americans to declare their independence from England instead of continuing their status as British colonies. In his pamphlet Common Sense, he called King George III the Royal Brute of Britain as he listed multiple reasons for independence. More than anyone else, Paine turned a minor tax revolt into one of the most important and beneficial social revolutions in history. Thomas Paine was by far the most popular author of the 18th century and Common Sense was the first of his three blockbusters. The Declaration of Independence, promoted by Paine in Common Sense, contained many of Paine’s ideas, including a three-paragraph anti-slavery clause in an early draft (later deleted) remarkably similar to Paine’s 1775 essay on the subject.

Common Sense proposed the Declaration of Independence when most Americans angry at British tyranny stopped short of such a dangerous and treasonous separation. It had the highest per-person distribution rate of any book in American history. It inflamed the passions of Americans against Britain in a way that no local authors or representatives could accomplish. The pamphlet sold 500,000 copies in its first year. Paine did not make a penny from Common Sense, preferring instead to donate it to the cause of America.

Thomas Paine was an Englishman whose trip to America was financed by Benjamin Franklin. He was a drunkard, offensive in his speech, a failure at business and life in England, and had a pervasive habit of overstaying his welcome. But he was the right person at the right time to light the fire of revolution in the colonies. After the revolution, John Adams (co-author of the Declaration of Independence and second President of the United States) would say:

History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine… Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.

Despite his personal dislike for Paine, Adams paid his ultimate compliment to the man who most effectively promoted independence in early 1776.

The Declaration proposed by Paine in Common Sense contained what I call the four most important words in America. Those words, consent of the governed, were found in a phrase that spread Locke’s and Paine’s principles like wildfire throughout the Colonies:

…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it…

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, said he referred to no book or author when writing it. But, anyone who had read Locke or Paine at that time could see their influence. The Declaration of Independence did what no document has done before or since—it abolished a government without replacing it with another. Eleven years after the Declaration, in 1787, the U.S. Constitution would come along, which some influential Americans like Patrick Henry and John DeWitt thought was an instrument of tyranny and plunder, not freedom. In fact, the Bill of Rights was largely the result of this anti-federalist sentiment as explained in The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates by historian Ralph Ketcham.

Paine was the first to write the phrases Declaration of Independence and United States of America. His pamphlet Common Sense turned a tax revolt into a revolution of ideas and deeds that would shock the world.

When it came time to establish a permanent government for the United States however, another builder would have his say. James Madison was the man who convinced America not to build a democracy.

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly - Thomas Paine


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