Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thomas Paine and the Radical Foundations of American Democracy

Our Founder, Thomas Paine
Oil painting by Auguste Millière (1880)
Conservatives are professional eliminationists. And if they can't eliminate something then they revise it, warp it and co-opt it to suit their own purposes.  If the right-wing can twist the message of Jesus so thoroughly that you might believe that Jesus was a moneylender, poor old Thomas Paine doesn't stand a chance. But why should we care about Thomas Paine? Wasn't he just another rich, white Founding Father spouting platitude of "Liberty" all the while profiting from the backs of enslaved Africans?  That's certainly what Glenn Beck would have us believe.  So who was Thomas Paine and why do we Progressives have a much stronger claim to his legacy than the Tea Party?

Most of us have heard of Paine's Common Sense.  A pamphlet that Paine distributed before the Revolutionary War. It has been credited by many as the impetus for the American Revolution. But Paine wrote much more than just Common Sense.

Before exploring more about Paine's other works, let's take a few minutes to talk about revolution and the meanings of words.

Words Have Actual Meanings
Please allow me a short aside, here, to digress briefly on language.

One of the toughest concepts challenging contemporary conservatives  today is getting their acknowledgement that words and ideas have specific meanings.  They are not infinitely mutable.  Too many conservatives like to play Orwellian games with language.  They seem to revel in the redefinition of words or the reassignment of meaning to words and ideas that have well established definitions.

One of my favorite conservative word corruptions, because the word gets slung about like yesterday's canned hash, is fascism.  Fascism has a very specific meaning in the context of a political discussion. Fascism is an authoritarian, nationalist political ideology characterized by a totalitarian one-party state with tight integration between the capitalist sector and the government.  Because of it's drive towards national identity (as opposed to an international identity) it is characterized as an ideology of the right.  No matter how many books Jonah Goldberg writes, there will never be such a thing as Liberal Fascism.  Intolerance? Perhaps. Fascism? Not so much.

Returning now to our discussion, let's look at the words that apply to Thomas Paine and his generation.

On Revolution and Radicals
Three words come to mind when thinking about the late 18th century in America.  Coincidentally, they're applicable to us today.  First, the word conservative, then revolution and finally, radical.
1. Conservatism (Latin: conservare, "to preserve") is a political and social philosophy that promotes the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society. Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others oppose modernism and seek a return to the way things were. (emphasis added)
2. A revolution (from the Latin revolutio, "a turn around") is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time. Its use to refer to political change dates from the scientific revolution occasioned by Copernicus' famous De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Aristotle described two types of political revolution:
  1. Complete change from one constitution to another [the type associated with the American Revolution, ed.]
  2. Modification of an existing constitution [the English civil war, for instance, ed.]
3. The term political radicalism (or simply, in political science, radicalism) denotes political principles focused on altering social structures through revolutionary means and changing value systems in fundamental ways. Derived from the Latin radix (root), the denotation of radical has changed since its eighteenth-century coinage to comprehend the entire political spectrum — yet retains the “change at the root” connotation fundamental to revolutionary societal change. Historically, radicalism has referred exclusively to the "radical left," under the single category of far-left politics, rarely incorporating far-right politics...
The word conservative is diametrically opposite revolution or radical.  Conservatives seek to preserve the status quo while revolutionaries and radicals seek to overturn it.  Revolutions are, by their very nature, radical.  Conservatives hate radicals because radicals seek to destroy that what conservatives seek to preserve.  Conservatives don't have revolutions. Conservatives react to revolutions.  This is why conservatives are often described as reactionary. They "react" to the actions of radicals and revolutionaries who are seeking to overturn the existing order.

Thomas Paine was most definitely not a conservative.  Paine was a radical and a revolutionary.  His later writings marked him as a dangerous radical, even to his fellow revolutionaries. Thomas Paine was not, QED, a conservative.

A Bit of Our History
What made the founders revolutionary?  Thomas Paine helps us understand these questions and, through this process, we will see that he was, indeed, "a missionary of world revolution."

Most of the Founders were landed gentlemen who were revolting against unfair treatment by the British, but Paine was up to something different.  He wasn't seeking greater property rights, he was more interested in overturning the oppressive European monarchic system.

Sure, the Colonists threw some tea into Boston harbor, but probably not for the reasons you might think.  I'll let Thom Hartmann explain.
The Boston Tea Party was not, as you might have heard, a revolt against the oppressive British Government, but rather a revolt against the British East India Company, the largest trans-national corporation of the day.  Our current Tea Party Patriots aren't "revolting" against their corporate masters as the Colonial Tea Party activists did, instead, they are enthralled to their corporate masters.  They are reacting to change, to the fact that a black man lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

How how did conservatives come to absorb Paine into their worldview?  It actually started with Reagan (as so much in modern conservative movement does).  He quoted Pain in his inaugural address.
Conservatives seem to adore Paine, but have they really embraced him? Hardly. Basso, Beck, Gingrich, and Palin do no more than their hero Reagan did. Instead of trying to bury Paine’s life and labors, they now are trying to appropriate and render a version of them that they can use to counter his persistent radical-democratic memory and legacy, a task made all the more urgent by the 2008 elections. Conservatives have changed their tune about Paine, but their ambitions remain what they have always been—to constrain or control, and ultimately discharge, the democratic impulse that Paine inscribed in American life in 1776, an impulse that, contrary to the best efforts of powerful and propertied conservatives and reactionaries, has propelled generations of progressive movements and campaigns to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy. (Palin's Unlikely Hero, Harvey J. Kaye)
Conservatives would like to lay claim to the whole breadth of Revolutionary heroes as somehow representative of their pantheon of staid, tired old ideas when, in fact, many were just the opposite.  Sure, Adams was a closet aristocrat. He found Paine thoroughly reprehensible.  The feeling was mutual.

Here's John Adams on Thomas Paine's famous 1776 pamphlet "Common Sense": "What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass." Then comes Paine on Adams: "John was not born for immortality." 
Paine and Adams may have been alone among the founders for having literary styles adequate to their mutual disregard. "The spissitude [sic!] of the black liquor which is spread in such quantities by this writer," Adams wrote of Paine, "prevents its daubing." Paine: "Some people talk of impeaching John Adams, but I am for softer measures. I would keep him to make fun of." 
They went on and on.
Paine was no aristocrat.  Like Jefferson, Paine was an anti-Federalist.  But Paine believed in a comprehensive welfare system for the poor, infirmed and underprivileged.

Paine's Real Agenda
In Agrarian Justice, published in 1795, Paine outlines an 18th century vision of a just society.  He sets out his course to explain the origins of agricultural property in the origins of agriculture itself.  People took control of the land to cultivate it.  But this left people disenfranchised.  Because of this disenfranchisement, Paine advocates for public assistance to help people.  Paine wrote,
Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before. 
In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for. But it is that kind of right which, being neglected at first, could not be brought forward afterwards till heaven had opened the way by a revolution in the system of government. Let us then do honour to revolutions by justice, and give currency to their principles by blessings.
Having thus in a few words, opened the merits of the case, I shall now proceed to the plan I have to propose, which is, 
To create a National Fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property. 
Paine is advocating for a program very much like Social Security which wouldn't be implemented until 1935, some 140 years after the publication of Agrarian Justice.  Paine further elaborates on the necessity for additional government assistance for these dispossessed.
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. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together.
But it is impossible to enjoy affluence with the felicity it is capable of being enjoyed, whilst so much misery is mingled in the scene. The sight of the misery, and the unpleasant sensations it suggests, which, though they may be suffocated cannot be extinguished, are a greater drawback upon the felicity of affluence than the proposed 10 per cent, upon property is worth. He that would not give the one to get rid of the other has no charity, even for himself.
There are, in every country, some magnificent charities established by individuals. It is, however, but little that any individual can do, when the whole extent of the misery to be relieved is considered. He may satisfy his conscience, but not his heart. He may give all that he has, and that all will relieve but little. It is only by organizing civilization upon such principles as to act like a system of pullies, that the whole weight of misery can be removed.
Agrarian Justice was written twenty years after the American Revolution.  Thomas Paine was calling for a second revolution, a social revolution that would establish a more just society.   Paine passed away in Greenwich Village, New York on June 8th, 1809 and no church would have his body.  His obituary in the New York Citizen read
He had lived long, did some good and much harm.
Paine was ostracized for his beliefs and died a pauper, even his bones lost to history. But his writing lived on.

One Friend Left
Towards the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine's oldest friend, came to agree with Paine about the rights of man and even some of the remedies he advocated.  In Jefferson's final letter, dated June 24th, 1826, just days before his death, Jefferson wrote (LETTER CXCIII.—TO MR. WEIGHTMAN),
The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
Thomas Jefferson passed away on July 4th, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of his Declaration of Independence.

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