January 29 marks the anniversary of Thomas Paine’s birth in 1737. He is primarily remembered for his fiery rhetoric in support of America’s revolution, and it would be hard to overestimate his role in it. As John Adams once said, “without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
Common Sense, first published in January 1776, argued strongly for independence from England, and was the most widely read pamphlet of the American Revolution, selling almost 500,000 copies to a population of 2.5 million. The first essay of The Crisis (with the famous opening line: “These are the times that that try men’s souls”), written by Paine at the front lines with Washington’s army in 1776, was read aloud in every army camp. Its essays (from 1776-1883) were read by a larger fraction of the population than watch the Super Bowl today. And Paine did not make a penny from either, letting the proceeds go to the revolutionary cause instead.
Reading Paine’s writings reportedly persuaded George Washington of the wisdom of recanting allegiance to Britain, inspired Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence, and convinced Abraham Lincoln to work to end slavery (Paine advocated an end to slavery as early as in a March 1775 article in Pennsylvania Magazine and helped organize one of the first abolitionist societies). And as he said in The Rights of Man, he tried to establish “principles…on which government ought to be erected.” Given how far government today is from those principles, we would do well to honor his birthday by remembering that understanding.
The Role of Government
- 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.
- The trade of governing has always been monopolized by the most ignorant and the most rascally individuals of mankind.
- Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices…The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
- An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best laws.
- …governments…pervert the abundance which civilized life produces…It affords to them pretenses for power and revenue, for which there would be neither occasion nor apology, if the circle of civilization were rendered complete.
- We still feel the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping at the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised to furnish new pretenses for revenue and taxation. It watches property as its prey and permits none to escape without a tribute.
- All power exercised over a nation…must be either delegated, or assumed…All delegated power is trust, and all assumed power is usurpation.
- It has been thought a considerable advance towards establishing the principles of Freedom, to say, that government is a compact between those who govern and those that are governed: but…the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
- …government…[has] no other object than the general happiness. When, instead of this, it operates to create and increase wretchedness in any of the parts of society, it is on a wrong system, and reformation is necessary.
Opposition to Tyranny
- When I contemplate the natural dignity of man…I become irritated at the attempt to govern mankind by force and fraud, as if they were all knaves and fools…
- When the world was overrun with tyranny the least removed therefrom was a glorious rescue.
- Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe.
- We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free…
The Principle of Liberty
- The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.
- In the end we will be the victors. For though at times the flames of liberty may cease to shine, the coal can never expire.
- An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot…and it will conquer.
- He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
- The American constitutions were to liberty what a grammar is to language: they define its parts of speech and practically construct them into syntax.
- Had it not been for America, there had been no such thing as freedom left throughout the whole universe.
- It is impossible to sit down and think seriously on the affairs of America, but the original principles upon which she resisted, and the glow and ardor which they inspired, will occur…The principles deserve to remembered, and to remember them rightly is repossessing them.
Willingness to Sacrifice for Liberty
- Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered…Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.
- Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.
- It ought not to be, that because we cannot do everything, that we ought not to do what we can.
- What are [other things] to the inestimable blessings of “Liberty and Safety!” Or what are the inconveniences of a few months to the tributary bondage of ages?
- We hold the pure doctrines of universal liberty of conscience, and conceive it our duty to endeavor to secure that sacred right to others, as well as to defend it for ourselves.
- We have it in our power to begin the world over again…a race of men…are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.
- Can we but leave posterity with a settled form of government, and independent constitution of its own, the purchase at any price will be cheap.
- If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.
- I would rather die in attempting to obtain permanent freedom for a handful of people than survive a conquest which would serve only to extend the empire of despotism.
As one commentator put it, Thomas Paine was “a bold and vigorous friend of human liberty.” And he found liberty intertwined with the truth, which is why he said “Such is the irresistible nature of the truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing” and “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”
His words, which greatly inspired and undergirded our founding, stand in sharp contrast to the America we now inhabit. Verbal obeisance to freedom is still paid, frequently quoting (and mis-quoting) Paine’s words, but that is often but the boilerplate language to cover assaults on liberties.
That is why should celebrate his birthday by reminding ourselves of the principles he helped found America upon, and remembering how the actions of a few who really believed in them were able to expand liberty’s beachhead in the world. After all, today is also a time which tries men’s souls, because the war for liberty, which Paine worked so hard to incite, is a long way from being won.
See also Thomas Paine on Commerce