Regaining Common Sense: 275 Years Later, the Power of Tom Paine

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Although Glenn Beck, Herman Cain and the Tea Party would have us believe that Tom Paine was one of them—a man who supposedly stood for “small government”—this could not be further from the truth. On the eve of Paine’s 275th birthday, on January 29, let’s restore some common sense here: Paine was a progressive to the core. He was one of the first to decry the aristocracy and landed elites of his day—the 1%—while emphasizing the welfare of the masses. True government, as he saw it, ought to be “a delegation of power for the common benefit of society,” founded on the “RES-PUBLICA, the public affairs, or public good,” not the “cavillings of a few interested men.”

By writing in a manner that was easily accessible to the literate and illiterate alike, Paine brought politics to the 99% with Common Sense (1776) and other formative texts. He dared to urge a complete break from Britain when others were still trying to compromise with George III and his Parliament. And he was among the first to question hereditary government; acknowledge women’s rights; support the abolition of slavery and challenge disparities in pay while advocating labor organizing rights. A former corset maker, teacher and excise officer, Paine knew there was something wrong when bishops earned 1,000 times as much as hardworking parish priests—just like we know there’s something wrong when CEOs earn 1,000 times as much as their employees. And he knew there was something wrong when the young were being sent to jails and the elderly forced to continue working, just like know there is something wrong when numerous urban and rural youth continue to wind up in prison while Boomers and the elderly face prospects of deferred retirement.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, Paine was treated like many future left-wing dissidents and radicals. He was burned in effigy by rowdy mobs throughout his native England and sentenced for sedition for his criticism of monarchies and feudal privileges in Rights of Man (1791). In fact, it’s worth noting that the mobs who did so were paid by wealthy nobles and powerful members of the government, not unlike Tea Party mobs who are funded by the Koch brothers and others. As they say, plus ça change.

Yet regardless of the unpopularity of his views, especially after the publication of his controversial Age of Reason (1794-5), Paine never flinched. Unlike many of our Founding Fathers, and would-be liberals today, Paine was not preoccupied with money or the trappings of wealth. He was proud of his little house in New Rochelle, New York, with its collection of farm animals and functional pots and pans. Paine donated nearly all of his considerable earnings from Common Sense and Rights of Man to the Continental Army and British radical organizations struggling as they fought for a new nation. Not least, he enjoyed hanging out in pubs and taverns, where he conversed with ordinary working men. Paine was a man who talked the talk and walked the walk all the way to the finish line.

"Tom Paine's Nightly Pest," James Gillray, 1792.

Were he alive today, Paine might discern more than a few uneasy parallels between the conditions of 2012—corporate serfdom, disproportionate taxation, joblessness, unlawful foreclosures—and those of 1792. Personally, I think he’d stand proudly with Occupy Wall Street and the determined fight for the rights of Main Street. He’d be proud of our “winter soldiers” who’ve braved the jeers, violence and freezing temperatures to declare independence from crony capitalism and corporate corruption.

Like Paine, who wrote in 1776, “We have it in our power to begin the world again,” so OWS declares: “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” And on the eve of Paine’s date of birth, his humanity, conviction and simple eloquence inspires us again. As he put it, “When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want…then may that country boast its constitution and its government.”

Now, celebrating that courage of the past, it’s our chance to use bold common sense and enact the solutions of the future.

Frances A. Chiu earned her doctorate at Oxford University and is an assistant professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences departments at the New School. She is currently working on a study of horror and the rise of modern liberalism.

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  • Occupy Danbury

    The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act. A general association takes place, and common interest produces common security. – Thomas Paine

  • Jai

    awesome article!

  • James Cox

    I have not read ‘Common Sense’ since high school, might be time for a review!

  • James Cox

    I have not read ‘Common Sense’ since high school, it might be time for a review. I do have a copy in my study…

  • Anonymous

    Those who want to reap the benefits of this great nation must bear the fatigue of supporting it.
    ~Thomas Paine

  • Anonymous

    ” ‘Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom” ~Paine, Thomas

  • Anonymous

    The national budget must be balanced. The public debt must be reduced; the arrogance of the authorities must be moderated and controlled. Payments to foreign governments must be reduced. If the nation doesn’t want to go bankrupt, people must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance. ~Marcus Tullius Cicero, 55 BC

    Are you going to say Cicero is a liberal also?

    • Kennykaren1

      Cicero also wrote: “”Freedom is participation in power”

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the comments–some great quotations here! There’s a lot in Paine that’s simply amazing, especially when we consider how long he was writing. RIGHTS OF MAN is arguably his earliest “OWS” work: he wanted employment centers in cities that would actually provide jobs and housing right on the spot for men and women alike since he knew how difficult it was for people to find work when moving to a new city. He wanted tax credits for those sending their children to school (n.b. no public schooling then) because it is “only monarchical and aristocratical governments that support ignorance.” (Something to consider vis-a-vis the GOP’s antagonism towards education!)

    His less well-known AGRARIAN JUSTICE (1797) is even more radical. He tells us “It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for. The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust….The contrast of affluence and wretchedness meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together.” Evidently, our would-be philanthropists who argue for trickle-down and so-called “compassionate conservatism” didn’t get the message! Paine should be required reading for everyone–especially our pols, whether it’s those trying to minimize taxes on the wealthy or others cutting benefits to the most vulnerable.

  • Chacharoo

    “…it’s our chance to use bold common sense and enact the solutions of the future.” Right. And I agree Tom Paine had common sense but the man who said the following was much bolder than Paine, don’t you agree? “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

    • FAchiu

      Yes, that is indeed bold–but don’t forget Marx came after Paine and that capitalism was still waiting in the wings! Paine was arguably as radical in his own times. It’s worth remembering, btw, that he was daring enough in 1772 to petition Parliament on behalf of his fellow excise officers for a raise in salary (which in part led to his dismissal and his departure for America in 1774). He argued for the right of laborers to unionize because that was, after all, all the property they had.

      Now, there were a few contemporaries who went farther than Paine: amongst them William Godwin who saw no need for government (but ended up working for the government late in his life!) and Thomas Spence, who proposed a nationalized land plan.

  • Anonymous

    Just want to announce a new blog–History is on our side: the 99% writes back.

  • Terri Lynn Sullivan

    Paine’s early sense of common sense as depicted in this article sounds great….up to the non-common sense act of donating his money to the “Continental Army”. That is precisely where our culture losses all common sense today, thinking that war “serves nations” or that a “powerful country” is one with a “strong army”. We’ve built up our nation to be some form of High Hitler-style military dictatorship, becoming less and less a civilian led democracy, going against at least five of our founding fathers heavy warnings.

    • Anonymous

      Great observations there. Paine donated to the Continental Army for their efforts against the British.

      But for the most part, Paine was not a warmonger. In fact, one of his central arguments in Common Sense and Rights of Man is that monarchies are less stable given their proclivities for war. As he puts it in RM, “War is the faro-table of governments, and nations their dupes of the game.” After all, why would a farmer go to war against another farmer? Or the manufacturer? Etc.

      Interestingly, tho’, he did not seem to object to Napoleon’s plans to invade Britain: in fact, he desired it, believing that a world of republics would ultimately end up becoming more peaceful. Alas…

  • Robert

    Corporate America should be made accountable: