Thursday, January 28, 2010


Thomas Paine Common Sense (Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1776)
Craig Nelson Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Viking, 2006)

One of the most important documents of American history and perhaps the most influential work in swaying the American public to declare independence, Common Sense hardly needs my commentary added to the numerous far more learned commentaries I am sure exist. What struck me upon my first adult reading of the pamphlet was just how “uncommon,” in some regards, Paine’s work is, and, at times, how nonsensical it is, a few examples of which I will mention.

Paine definitely convinces with his highly Protestant-based arguments against monarchies in general and against the English in particular. Given the complex role government plays and its current self-aggrandizement, however, it will surprise new readers perhaps that, against the natural good of society, Paine sees government as a necessary evil, as a force needed only when society has grown large and diverse enough that it can no longer control aberrant behavior, and, accordingly, needs laws to rule man’s nature. “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.” Tell that to Washington!

Paine then proposes a congress of annually changing individuals. But, from a seemingly contradictory position, argues for a large number of representatives in order to better reflect the diversity of viewpoints. Lest he seem to be arguing from a Libertarian viewpoint, however, by work’s end he has conjured up a rather active and complex government, one raising money through commercial land and accruing a national debt, which, he posits, is not only necessary for the fight against England, but an actual good in that it helps to bond its people together.

His positions against British rule of the colonies, indeed, make a great deal of common sense. But, in the end, his arguments seem to center upon two tenants: 1.) that America will ultimately divorce itself from England anyway, and 2.) that it is now the best time to do so. Not only does he see it as the perfect time in terms of size of population and resources, but also the best time to act before civil unrest forces other kinds of government upon the people or—without a sufficient navy—American cities will be attacked by rebel pirates invading seaports. Why have we no Philadelphia pirate stories? The pirate invasion of Newport? It appears that from the very beginning the settlement of our country had to do with embattlement against lawless and violent forces: the concerns with the pirates of the 18th century would become problems with the renegade gunfighters and the Western Indian tribes of the 19th century.

One of Paine’s most unusual “commonsensical” observations against English rule is that it is “unnatural” for such a small island to rule such a large land mass. Alas, history—not all of which Paine could be cognizant of—has shown us many such examples, including Britain’s rule of India, Portugal’s of Brazil, Spain of a great many of its conquests, and tiny Belgium’s rule of the Congo. Of course, he might have recalled tiny Rome’s rule of most of the then known world. Yes, it is unnatural.

Finally, in a later edition, Paine takes on the protests of a Quaker group against his pamphlet by arguing that, since the Quakers believe it is wrong to interfere with any government’s course, it is “un-Quaker-like” to argue against his positions. Putting aside the illogic of the Quaker position, Paine seems to use Quaker theology as a means to quiet any Quaker disagreement. Return to your shells, ye turtles! He might rather have perceived the immense effect of his statements to have engaged such a generally silent gathering. In a sense, with the Quaker involvement in political discussion, one might have recognized his battle had already been won.

Rome, Giardino del Lago, Villa Borghese, October 17, 2003

I have no idea what led me to reread Paine’s important text (I must have read Common Sense in high school, but I have no memory of it). Perhaps I had just revisited a movie I have seen dozens of times, Born Yesterday, wherein William Holden as journalist Paul Verrall educates the “junk” king’s moll, “Billie” Dawn, played Judy Holliday, by encouraging her to read, among other writers, Thomas Paine. I do recall that I was considering reprinting it in my Green Integer series (and perhaps someday will do so). In any event, as these annuals have long-ago evidenced, there are few unrelated events in my world. In 2006 a splendid new biography of Paine was published, and I leapt at the chance of knowing more about this American hero.

After reading Nelson’s elucidating and well-written biography, I realized that, despite my belief of 2003 that many “learned” writings already existed, if Nelson is to be given credence, many of the biographies and evaluations of Paine have been lacking in their understanding of this multifaceted hero, and some have been outright fabrications of his life.

Nelson’s book begins with the strange disinterment of Paine’s body (unburying and reburying the dead seems to be a minor theme running through the pages of My Year 2003) from a Westchester, New York rural cemetery by former enemy William Cobbett, who attempted to return the corpse to Paine’s native England in order to place it in a proper memorial. He failed to raise money for such a monument, and Nelson’s book ends with the realization that Paine’s body parts, inherited by Cobbett’s family and passed on to others, had completely disappeared, scattered as it were throughout England. It is a fit ending to the adventures of this great American patriot, born Thomas Pain [sic], who, after attempting to awaken the sentiments of freedom-loving Britishers, escaped impending imprisonment by traveling to the British American colonies, and soon after—as a close friend and ally to figures such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others—literally ignited the American Revolution through his best-selling Common Sense. The American Paine attempted to join the battle as a soldier in Washington’s unit, but was told to return to Philadelphia where he could better serve the cause through his writings.

Nelson’s portraits of not only Paine but numerous other American patriots who, after the Revolution, felt that all they stood for had failed, are particularly touching, as one realizes that the perspectives of one’s own lifetime are always limited. But in Paine’s case, the despair was not based only upon changes of reputation, but on his inability—despite being one of the best-selling authors of all time—to survive; he received little remuneration or compensation from the American government for his great role in its founding, and was forced to give up the only government position as a governmental clerk because of his literary attacks on special ambassador Silas Deane, whom Paine felt had brokered treaties that also included commercial gains for himself. Although Deane was asked to present Congress with his financial records, and he was replaced by John Adams, he was ultimately found not guilty, after his death, and his heirs were paid a significant amount for recompense. Later, however, it was revealed that Deane had been working as a British informant for most of the Revolution. For Paine, however, it meant from the start of the “affair” that he must fend financially for himself, and within a few years he returned to England, raising so much anti-royalist sentiment in that country that he was forced to flee to France.

Paine, now a hero in France, equally helped in the French Revolution, becoming a member of the National Convention and joining the French legislation—until various factions made it such a violent affair that his own life was in danger. Without the help of the American representatives Adams and Gouverneur Morris, now his sworn enemies, and receiving only silence from his former friend Washington, Paine had no choice but to remain in harm’s way. Eventually imprisoned, his life was (as Nelson describes it) almost accidentally spared, but his health was ruined, his spirit sapped. Upon his return to the US he had little monies and great responsibilities in his caring from Mme. Bonneville and her three sons, in whose home he had stayed during his last years in France. And despite his continued publications—mostly in support of the Jeffersonians and attacks on the Federalists—he had a difficult time surviving. Certainly, his reputation had been nearly destroyed in America, in part because of his anti-religious affirmations—beliefs, in fact, shared by most of the Revolutionary patriots— in The Age of Reason.

Beyond the painful story of Paine, his contributions, and his ultimate downfall in the US and France (his reputation had already been destroyed in the British press and public opinion), Nelson reminds us of the conservatism of Hamilton, Marshall, Jay, Madison, the Morrises, and Washington as opposed to those I perceive as more enlightened men such as Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin. Indeed, politics in the early days of our nation often seem to have been as corrupt, petty, and insular as they are today.

While clearly oversensitive and often vain—in Nelson’s portraiture of him—Paine comes alive as an impassioned speaker for reasoned governments in opposition to those who would delimit human rights. Not having previously realized that Paine’s father had been a Quaker and that Paine had been reared with Quaker values, I can now more clearly understand his outrage for the Quaker attacks on Common Sense. Yet my closing comments of 2003 seem even more relevant after reading Nelson’s brilliant biography: despite any feelings of failure or necessary defense of his positions, Paine had already won the battle for the hearts of all freedom-loving people of the world.

Los Angeles, December 21, 2006

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