Hey guys! Sorry about the late update but things have been a bit busy with me and I’ve been doing some procrastination here there as well so that didn’t help. Anyways with only one chapter left the first Reflections and Responses is drawing to a close. Let’s see what Paine has to offer up in this chapter.
Chapter 3: Thoughts on the Present State of the American Affairs
A few brief notes beforehand. Although this is the longest chapter first (coming in at 22 pages while the last was 11 and the one before it was even shorter at eight) there’s actually not a whole lot to talk about. Now why that is may become clearer as we go on but I just want to make it known before I start that in all likelihood that this will be one of the shorter pieces on this book (at least in comparison to the last two).
With that out of the way let’s begin.
1. Analyzing Paine’s Arguments Against Britain
So a lot of this chapter is about Thomas Paine basically saying that independence is good and relying on Britain is bad. I’ll quote some of my more favored quotes from this part of the chapter (and it makes up the bulk of it) but I’ll try to keep it down to 3-5. I shall also do a commentary of what I like so much about each quote as we go along. Let’s begin then with this quote:
“Alas! we have been long led away by ancient prejudices, and made large sacrifices to superstition. We have boasted the protection of Great Britain, without considered, that her motive was interest not attachment; and that she did not proect us from our enemies on our account, but from her enemies on her own account, from those who have no quarrel with us on any other account, and who will always be our enemies on the same account. (pp. 23-24)
So besides the obvious fact that Paine loves saying the word “account” what else is noticeable about this quote? Well the the first thing that sticks out for is the obvious truth in this quote. It’s at once plainly obvious from what Britain put America through (most notably the French-Indian Wars) that Britain never protected America because it cared about the colonists there (after all the whole reason why they’re there to begin with is due to a religious rebellion of groups of Europeans) but because Britain’s own interests would be more benefited in the long run. And enemies of Britain now become the enemies of the colonies even if they don’t do anything themselves to Britain’s enemies. This, in the end, will cause more conflicts then needed and there’s a running theme of Britain’s “connextion” (as Paine writes it) and is probably one of his stronger arguments.
The next good quote Paine has in favor of separation actually goes back to that point,
“But the injuries and disadvantages which we sustain by that connexion, are without number; and our duty to mankind at large, as well to ourselves, instructs us to renounce the alliance; because, any submission to out dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint.” (pp. 26-27)
There’s a bit more to this quote but the point is made well enough I feel even just by this point. This goes back to the same point I made on extrapolating Paine’s earlier point. The link with Britain is proving to be a volatile and unstable one that doesn’t seem to benefit the colonies so much as it benefits Britain through taxation and extortion (or do I repeat myself?) through wars that the colonies have little to do with (besides them maybe taking place near where they live) and then forced to pay for the debt Britain accrues. Britain is not a great protector, ally and all-around it tends to take advantage of the colonies and exploiting the wealth they can produce themselves and harvesting it for their own good.
So yeah, Paine’s points here are pretty spot on and well…kind of common sense. This is really where Paine shines and if you think about it’s kind of where he has to. The whole point of this pamphlet was to emphasize the common sense nature of a departure from Britain and declare the independence of the colonies. Even just looking over these first few pages you get the sense that Paine is unequivocally an independent and supports nothing less. And it usually comes out pretty well…however…one thing is worth pointing out that baffled me. While Paine is talking about the “natural pleads of separation” and mentions the “blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’tis time to part.” he says this:
“Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America, is a strong and natural proof, that the authority of the one over the other, was never the design of heaven.” (p. 27)
…Where do I start? Where do I even begin to say how ridiculous this sounds? Now upon further reflection (and discussion with a co-worker about this specific passage) it seems clear to me that this statement is a product of its time especially. Even smart men like Paine fell victim to the idea that things like these should not be questioned and should be left to be explained by “the heavens” or “God”. And that was probably pretty common back then. Still as a deist and the guy who wrote Age of Reason it somewhat takes me aback that Paine himself would say something like this. I obviously understand why he said it but I guess the logical part of me just wants to slap Paine in the face and say something like this…
“How do the geographical spacing of the world necessarily denote just and non-just political authority of one country over another? How does that follow? What evidence do you have to back this speculation? Why would you say this? Are you just trying to appeal to the more theist inclined people here? Is that what you were doing earlier too in the last chapter?”
But yeah… *sighs* Let’s move on!
One of the other sort of best points Paine makes is what will happens if the colonies do not declare independence from Britain:
“I mean not to exhibit the horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumber, that we may pursue determinately some fixed objects. It is not in the power of Britain or of Europe to conquer America, if she does not conquer herself by delay and timidity. The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected, the whole continent will partake of the misfortune; and there is no punishment which that man will not deserve, be he who, or what, or where he will that may be the means of sacrificing a season so precious and useful.” (p. 30)
The whole: we either resist or die, is not only a powerful statement but given the quotes already presented (And other evidence throughout this chapter) it’s safe to say that a lot of what Paine is saying is in all likelihood not that big of an exaggeration if any at all.
In the end these two types of arguments boil down to a few things for Paine:
1. The present conditions are unbearable to any good friend of liberty
2. If present conditions are not halted or fought against then these conditions may become worse
And in both cases Paine provides the events of the past, massacres, laws and so on that have harmed the colonies while doing great benefit for Britain. Really it is precisely common sense that America should’ve separated and a wonderful thing that it did. Even as an anarchist I of course laud the move for separation but my problem with Paine as usual is that he doesn’t go far enough.
With that said I want to move from analyzing some of Paine’s better arguments in my opinion (which isn’t to say the rest of the arguments are terrible or something of that sort) into turning some of his other arguments into a case against government in general.
2. Re-Radicalizing some of Paine’s Arguments
Originally I thought about titling this something along the lines of: “Using Paine’s Argument Against Monarchical Governments Against the Notion of Government Itself” or something like that. As you can see however, that’s a bit of a mouthful and my real goal in this section I think is better seen through this new choice. I chose this title instead because in essence re-radicalizing Paine’s arguments is all I’m really doing and all that really needs to be emphasized. The basic point I’ve been making (and will continue to make) is that a lot of Paine’s problems with monarchical governments don’t go away once they become republics. You’ll see what I mean as we go along but basically I’m trying to turn his arguments against monarchy into an argument against republics as well. This would leave anyone who accepts Paine’s ideas in an awkward position. They must either defend tyranny of the same sort under a different name, contest that it’s not tyranny when republics do it, or try to say these aren’t “really” republics to begin with. Either way it puts them on the defensive and raises a lot of questions so it’s an endeavor worth pursuing in my opinion.
With that all said let’s get started. I want to make it clear that I’ll be using both arguments against monarchy to arguments against America not having Britain’s government controlling them because both fit the bill well enough for my case to be made. This is another reason to pick the more general title of “re-radicalizing Paine’s arguments” then specifically mentioning the arguments against monarchy and using those ones.
The arguments I’ve already quoted in relation to Britain making wars that involve the colonies actually work against the current regime in America itself. After all, what are some of the main reasons for the current US government to go to war? To protect the borders? That doesn’t seem to be going well last I checked. To protect our freedoms? Well what about the PATRIOT Act? SOPA? The Indefinite Detention Bill? The legal right for Obama to assassinate people abroad or domestic if they’re even “suspected” of terrorism? Where are our freedoms? If the US military is out there defending our freedoms and who we’re really losing our freedoms from the government that allegedly has our best interest at heart…why aren’t they here?
The point I’m trying to make is that the US government does not defend its citizens for our benefits (and if he get benefits that just keeps us better in line) but for their benefit. I know I’ve talked about this before but war is the health of the state and it bears repeating that not only is it the health of the state but a racket as well. Thus if war is a racket and the health of the state then the conclusion that one should draw (I think) is that the state is a racket producing organization. Why would you apologize for such an organization? If you take Paine’s arguments (and the classical liberal one in general) to heart about government being smaller then you obviously disagree with the current affairs. But if the state is a racket inducing machine in general then what good does a minarchistic styled government get you? I think the more radical argument (radical in that it strikes deeper at the root) is to being against the state in totality regardless of its form. It’s the substance after all that matters more than the form. And the substance of government is not one that tends to benefit the many but rather the few at the expense of the many.
It’s not as if your sense of identity needs to be kept in the nation-state or you need it to associate with others. Paine himself talks about on page 25 that people associate based on common interests in neighborhoods and towns. And of course anarchists are not against either scale because they most likely think that values such as liberty, equality and solidarity can flourish in such places. But in the case of a country where a national government is instilled and we are faced with a nation-state competition and cooperation (which are not so apart as some people may suggest, merely two sides of the same coin) are both limited and must be based around the existence of the nation-state instead of the individual’s freedoms.
The republic that Paine himself desired (which I shall examine a little later on) didn’t seem to actually get into wars for the colonies interest (though due to the more decentralized state of affairs it was obviously more closely linked) but rather benefited the people on top who were largely white, old (for their time), rich, land and slave owning men. The idea of independence allowed for a new ruling class to develop in the US and as I’ve already argued the American Revolution in general was just a sort of radical conservatism (in the sense of mostly conserving/preserving the old ways and structures) and not even a radical classical liberalism. So Paine’s ideas were impractical precisely because a government is de facto against his notions of fairness, “true equality”, liberty and more.
Moving on to page 28 Paine mentions the way that the government of Britain was a help towards, “running the next generation into debt…” which makes me wonder how he’d not only feel about the current government’s way of putting future generations into huge amounts of debt but the way that his idea of a “republic” did too. Throughout the American Revolution and long after it there was a huge debt that the Continental Congress had racked up from the wars and a lot the money to keep it going. Of course the Congress consistently couldn’t get money and so instead of just dissolving itself and letting the state’s do their own business they insisted on more power over commerce for themselves. Of course I’m sure that all of the officials were just perfect angels who had no other intentions or considerations about it.
A few more pieces I’d like to say is that on page 33 where Paine mentions that, “No man was a warmer wisher for a reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775, but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England for ever…”
But what happened once the republic was established? Well as soon as things like the Whiskey Rebellion happened Washington sent in troops to shut them down even though the people in the rebellion were rebelling for the same reason Washington had been before: namely unfair taxation. Instead of listening to the farmer’s pleas about the unfairness of what was happening with the debt, taxes and the taking away of their property they were using and occupying. Washington denied hearing their dissatisfaction until it boiled to the point of violence after which Washington promptly pushed them back with violence from his own army. Is this the sort of justice that a republic-styled government does?
The last point I want to make is that Paine says that the connection to Britain being severed means a great opportunity towards peace, stability and a lack of civil wars. But of course what happened over the course of the “republic’s” history? Peace was constantly interrupted, stability was never long-lasting and there were not only several major rebellions at the beginning but eventually the US itself would be engaged in a civil war. So again, Paine’s ideas for a republic (which were largely adopted as we’ll see soon) didn’t seem to play out well. You could blame the people, but can you really blame the individuals when similar incentive structures keep repeating similar results over and over? It’s time to start attacking the system and the concepts that keep it afloat instead of trying to just say it’s “bad apples” in an overall good system.
One of the main points I’m trying to make here is that Paine’s “radical” statements for his time should’ve been taken farther and were not lived out under the republic-styled government that eventually came to be. And seeing what that republic has largely turned into (pretty much what Britain was) it seems as if his eyes weren’t quite radical enough and just didn’t strike the root.
The issues of race, class, landless peoples, economic inequality, cultural strife, the issue of the Natives, the lack of women’s rights and voice in political systems and more are never even mentioned by Paine or if they are they’re swept aside as unimportant (as with economic inequality). So it seems the classical liberalism of Thomas Paine isn’t radical enough. Perhaps what’s better is an ideology that takes for granted some of Paine’s ideas but goes farther. For instance anarchism. I hope at least some of my main points have come across here. I recognize some are probably not as good as others but I’m not looking to make some sort of “perfect” or heavily detailed and well researched arguments in favor of myself (after all the classical liberal would still have to debate my first post) I’m just looking to make the point known that Paine’s ideas were either not implemented correctly or (what I think is more likely) could never be due to the de facto nature of government.
Finally, let’s see what political system Paine has to offer.
3. Analyzing Paine’s Political System
Paine first says that,
“…I offer the following hints; at the same time modestly affirming, that I have no other opinion of them myself, than that they may be the means of giving rise to something better. Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.” (p. 37)
So this is obviously a good caveat to put before he begins. Obviously all ideas can be improved on and Paine admits that the only opinion he has of these ideas (except implicitly that he probably likes them since he’s suggesting them) is that they can be improved upon and probably will be by wiser and more able men than he.
With that in mind let’s see his plan laid out:
“Let the assemblies be annual, with a president only. The representation more equal. Their business wholly domestic, an subject to the authority of a continental congress.” (p. 37)
“Let each colony be divided into six, eight, or ten, convenient districts, each district to send a proper number of delegates to congress, so that each colony send at least thirty. The whole number in congress will be at least three hundred and ninety.” (pp. 37-38)
Each congress to sit … and to choose a president by the following method. When the delegates are met, let a colony be taken from the whole thirteen colonies by lot, after which, let the congress choose (by ballot) a president from out of the delegates of that province. In the next congress, let a colony be taken by lot from twelve only, omitting that colony from which the president was taken in the former congress, and so proceeding on till the whole thirteenth shall have had their proper rotation. And in order that nothing may pass into a law but what is satisfactorily just, not less than three-fifths of the congress to be called a majority.” (p. 38)
But the kicker in all of this is this line,
“He that will promote discord, under a government so equal formed as this, would have joined Lucifer in his revolt.” (p. 38)
Now say what you will about the form of this government, the concepts underlying these ideas which supposedly justify them is what now particularly concerns me.
For here Paine reveals something pretty dark about this whole arrangement. He thinks that anyone who promotes discord is right up there with the devil. But what is meant by discord? Opposing this system in general? Opposing some parts of it? What if it turns out that this system is not so equally formed?
Also, Paine does not actually elaborate on what part of it makes this whole arrangement of making laws equal. So why is it equal to begin with? It’s just arbitrary numbers of people dictating things to another group of people based on so called representatives. What is so equal about this exactly? Paine goes back to his routine of not actually explaining why what he’s talking about is what he says it is. Perhaps Paine thinks this arrangement stands on its own of being just and fair but for the like of me I can’t see it.
When I read this I don’t necessarily feel like it’s a bad form of rule but that’s probably because the arrangement is ironically pretty vague. I mean I know this isn’t the main point of Common Sense and Paine said it himself that these ideas can be updates and re-organized (though wouldn’t that promote discord?) but if you look at what I’ve quoted it’s not exactly clear why these people have the right to monopolize the provision of law.
Ok, perhaps this is a good formation of law but why should it be the only one? Even if I grant Paine that this system of governance is a good one why does that mean it must be the only one? Why can there not be competing legal services or something of that nature? Paine also just seems to beg the question of where their authority comes from, which I suppose one could say, “It’s obviously the people!” but why? If “the people” (which is just a collection of individuals) have no right to impose laws on other people how can they give this non-existent right to other people?
But whether these questions can be answered or not is irrelevant. As I’ve said I’d rather address the underlying concepts of why Paine thinks such an association of people is just. So let’s skip over the talk of a Continental Congress and how it’d be formed (pp. 38-39) and onto some of the more conceptual ideas and problems Paine has (p. 40).
The first concept is the “rule of law” being king instead of a person being the king. Paine writes,
“But where, say some, is the king of America? I’ll tell you, friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the royal brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter, let it be brought forth placing on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people who right it is.” (p. 40)
This is an old sentiment that really doesn’t amount to much. In fact (and I’ve linked this before but this point also bears repeating in my opinion) the “rule of law” is a myth. That is to say, it doesn’t exist. Who makes the laws? Who makes the rules? People do. People authorize other people to make them on their own behalf (and again where they get this right to force their beliefs on others when they can’t do it by themselves is still in question) and thus it’s still a rule of people. Saying it’s a “rule of law” is just using dodge-like terminology to try to make your case for government seem like the moral agency of it is somehow doesn’t share the flaws of a rule by people. But in the end the person calling for a republic like Paine must admit that the “rule of law” just means a rule of a small group of people dictating what is and what is not the law over a much larger group. How anyone gets the right or privilege to do all of this is still a mystery to me and one I don’t think the classical-republican can answer, that goes for Paine as well.
The second conceptual underpinning this whole idea is “natural rights” which I’ve dealt a bit with before but I’ll address it a little bit more here. Here’s what Paine says,
“A government of our own is our natural right: and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in time and chance. If we omit it now, some Massanello may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and is contended, and by assuming to themselves their powers of government, finally sweep away the libertarians of the continent like a deluge.” (Ibid)
There’s a lot wrong here and a lot more that’s just flat-out question begging. Again I recognize that Paine’s main point in Common Sense isn’t to stress what the new form of government is right or wrong but that the state of affairs is wrong and should be done away with through revolution.
On the main point he’s obviously right. Paine really is giving common sense to the colonists and it’s a good thing to give them of course. But a lot of the concepts he rests his ideas on and especially his ideas of what the future should look like are I believe mistaken. So I more take issue with a lot of the side things in this book then the actual main part that is probably seen (correctly I think) as common sense. But the side issues (though they’re obviously not the main point) are important nonetheless. If Paine is going to tell the colonists what’s wrong with the present then he should probably try to take a chapter to flesh out what a sort of future based on similar common sense should be.
Instead Paine just attaches what he thinks this future will be as little sections of already existing chapters that don’t specifically have to do with these issues. Thus the concepts are highly underdeveloped and Paine often tries to have his ideas speak for themselves (which hasn’t been working for me thus far) instead of actually taking some time to explain them. This doesn’t mean he needs to start getting too intellectual for the colonists, after all, if he can talk about all of this in such a clear and concise manner (which is another big plus of this book, the writing) then why can’t he do so for the future? Obviously he seems to do this too much in this case. He downplays the importance of explaining some things that are actually pretty easily contestable (like the idea of “natural rights” itself which even by then I’m fairly sure was heavily debated from the utilitarians and others) to things that aren’t as much (like whether the colonies should declare independence from Britain or not). But what makes Paine’s cases in those cases of independence so clear and concise is precisely because he does eventually elaborate on the reasons and that a lot of these are just basic observations and not deep philosophical inquiries into the nature of the colonies and Britain. With all of that being said I do have a lot of problems with this passage.
First what is a natural right? Where does it come from? For Paine it’s God right? Well then the debate turns towards a theological one about how God can instill certain properties in all man that are universally inherent in them but constantly contradicted as human history marches forth. Does this not put a sort of damper on the people like Paine who think natural rights are so inherent to living a good life? Clearly people have found other ways of living while constantly denying these natural rights. But then this whole concept begs the question of how people would recognize a property that God put in them. How would they know God did it? Could it just be a similarity based on culture, inventive structures, rules, upbringing and so forth? I understand why (for the time he’s in) why God is the de facto answer but now and then there’s clearly many questions that can be asked about these natural rights. Establishing natural rights is primarily about justice I would think so perhaps the conversation could be switched towards a discussion of justice…but then Paine would probably start talking about God again, so we end up in the same problem.
Second, the rest of it is just completely question begging. Why would people just let someone arise from associations of voluntary cooperation and start terrorizing other people? Because there’s no government? What does a government do to de facto stop such action? Government is just an association of people monopolizing certain services that would be better provided in different institutions (such as the market place) and different ethical theories and ideas of justice, etc. then what is currently advocated. I also don’t think people just randomly stop caring about their safety and security without government. If anything, they’d care about it more and work harder towards creating the best social arrangement that doesn’t monopolize the service of defense/security. But of course creating a government will eventually de facto stop such creative individual and collective efforts. And then to add to all of that that this group will somehow consume the entire continent moves from a fairly big question-begging to a huge one. How would they get all the money through that way? Tributes? If you say that I can only think that you can’t grasp the concept that this gang of thieves and murderers is no different than a government when it starts out and continues to expand as it goes along.
Basically Paine says here that without government stability and security would be lost and thus a non-governmental society would be one that is chaotic. But of course he gives no credit to the ideas of individuals having the will of their own that is not tied to the government nor need it be.
So we finally get to the “common sense” part of Common Sense. How does it hold up? Well overall I’d say it works rather well in favor of Paine and my natural inclination of course based on history and what I now know (and what we all do of course) was that Paine was right.
But as an anarchist I can’t exactly agree with his prescriptions for a future society based on the failure of an idea of government which de facto monopolizes services that should be free to give out to people. Not only that but it perpetuates things that Paine himself never seems to recognize as social problems such as economic inequality, racial and gender based institutional oppression, stratified classes and so on. Ignoring these key ideas (though understanding considering the time Paine was living in obviously) leaves Paine obviously open to complaints from myself and other people like me who share my concerns that government creates artificial and unnecessary divides in society that lead to more strife and consequently less security and safety for the citizens.
Overall however this was probably one of the more enjoyable chapters to read and I can’t say I’m not happy I’m reading this book. It’s been an informative look at a lot of the original classical-liberal arguments in favor of government as well as some history and so on. And I am a big fan of history so on both of those fronts I’m quite pleased that I chose to read this book. The content this provides on both fronts isn’t spectacular though and if you’re looking for a good dose of either you’re probably better with actual books that deal with these topics. That only makes sense though, seeing how Paine was trying to just get some common sense into the colonists and not only does have convincing arguments but it’s not hard to see why now either. And that’s something worth commending.