Freeman

ARTICLE

Tom Paines Revolution

APRIL 01, 1989 by J. BRIAN PHILLIPS

Mr. Phillips is a free-lance writer based in Houston, Texas.

Advocates of freedom often despair at the political inertia that must be overcome to achieve their goals. At times, it seems as if the freedom movement is progressing too slowly to reverse current political trends. In this regard, the American Revolution provides an important lesson.

Even after the Revolutionary War had begun, most Americans, including many colonial leaders, favored reconciliation with England. Most Americans still considered themselves to be loyal British subjects, and were willing to continue to do so, if only the King would correct his most grievous transgressions. In early 1776—more than eight months after the Battle of Lexington—colonists suddenly began to support the idea of American independence. This dramatic change can be largely attributed to the work of one man: Thomas Paine.

Paine was an undistinguished Englishman when he arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774 armed with several letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Aided by Franklin’s letters, Paine quickly found work as an editor and chief writer for Pennsylvania Magazine. Sharing Franklin’s interest in science, Paine wrote about the newest inventions of the day, as well as political issues, but he remained relatively obscure.

However, in January 1776 that began to change, when Paine anonymously published a pamphlet titled Common Sense. While the ideas expressed in the pamphlet weren’t new, the approach and comprehensive treatment were.

“[G]overnment,” Paine wrote, “even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”[1] The purpose of government, he held, is to insure the security of the citizenry by protecting their rights. The central issue of the war, he believed, was over what form America’s government should take. He went on to write: “I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature . . . that the more simple a thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.” (p. 68)

To those who urged reconciliation because England was the “parent country,” Paine replied, “Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon theft families.” (p. 84) Then Paine became one of the first to publicly proclaim, “The authority of Great Britain over this continent, is a form of government, which sooner or later must have an end.” (p. 87)

Loyalists reacted quickly to Common Sense, declaring the pamphlet’s author to be ignorant of modern history and thought. Some said that Negro slaves, and Quakers and other pacifists wouldn’t support the war effort. Charles Inglis argued that Paine’s conception of man’s inherent goodness was as flawed as the Hobbesian view that only force and violence could induce men to live under a government.

Much as the Loyalists despised Paine, many supporters of the Revolution held him in higher contempt. Indeed, John Adams would later call him “that insolent blasphemer of things sacred and transcendent libeler of all that is good . . . .”[2]

Wealthy colonists feared that Paine’s ideas were too democratic, that he would advocate forcible redistribution of wealth. Paine, however, never advocated such a policy, and was an ardent supporter of free trade.

Despite these criticisms, Common Sense had an unprecedented influence on the minds of the American people. Paine estimated that 150,000 copies were sold in the first year; other estimates went as high as 500,000 copies. With fewer than 3 million people in the colonies at the time, either figure is astounding. Nearly every adult read the pamphlet, and less than seven months after its publication independence was declared. Significantly, Thomas Jefferson con-suited Paine while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Paine, of course, wasn’t the only writer to exert influence on colonial Americans. However, what he accomplished provides an important lesson for modern advocates of liberty.

The parallels between Revolutionary America and modern America are striking. Most Americans today complain about high taxes, government interference in their personal affairs, welfare fraud, inflation, and other mani-festations of overextended government. Opinion polls show that most Americans favor less government, at least in theory. When questioned about specific programs and policies, however, Americans favor the continuation of the status quo.

Just as colonial Americans were willing to reconcile with a despotic King, modern Americans are willing to tolerate a despotic Congress. As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “all experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” It wasn’t greater tyranny on the part of the King that led colonial Americans to embrace freedom, but an awareness of just how terrible conditions actually were. Modern patriots can achieve similar results, but only if we remain confident that our goals are attainable.

I hasten to add that we cannot expect laissez-faire capitalism to emerge shortly after the publication of a modern version of Common Sense. Statism, and its ethical roots, are too deeply ingrained for that to occur. However, if we are more cognizant of the history of freedom, then our struggle is far more tolerable. And more significantly, the length of that struggle may be shortened.

Philosophically, the American Revolution was a product of the Enlightenment. More than any other writer of his time, Thomas Paine made the ideas of the Enlightenment—individual rights and economic freedom—accessible to the public. These ideas remain a part of the American culture, if only implicitly. The emergence of the entrepreneur as a modern hero is evidence of this, as is a greater willingness to consider private alternatives to functions traditionally performed by government.

More than 200 years ago, one man—Thomas Paine—provided the key that unlocked the door to freedom. When our cause seems hopeless, we should remember this, for the knowledge that success is possible is the fuel that will propel us to our ultimate goal: freedom in our time.


1.   Thomas Paine, Common Sense (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 65. Subsequent quotations are from the same edition, with page references given in parentheses.

2.   John Adams, The John Adams Papers (New York: Dodd. Mead & Co., 1965), p. 86.


Thomas Paine was horn in Norfolk, England, in 1737: During his lifetime, he was a sailor, teacher, exciseman, and inventor, as well as the premier propagandist for republican government in England. France, and what would become America. His pamphlets Common Sense and the series The Crisis united idealists with those interested in the economic advancement of the country, and gave great support to the morale of the common soldier in “the times that try men’s souls.” He died in 1809, almost forgotten, but eulogized by Thomas Jefferson as one who did as much as any man “to advance the original sentiments of democracy.”

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April 1989

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