A meditation on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, in three moves
I. Paine’s critiques of the British monarchy
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was a great literary whirlwind in 1776. Some suggest on a per capita basis it remains the best seller among all American literary works. The pamphlet galvanized the revolutionary uprising in the American colonies against the British monarchy. And it provided a popular, sustained and humiliating blow against the institution of monarchy itself.
Paine thought the British monarchy a “mere absurdity,” “exceedingly ridiculous” and violating all plain “common sense.”
Himself neither a Jew nor a Christian, he was nonetheless adept at employing the tale of the rise of monarchy in the Old Testament. He correctly notes that the office of king arose not out of some sense of a “divine right,” as the British monarchy would often claim. Instead, asking for a king was itself an act of rebellion against the governance of God.
Prior to the monarchy in Israel, the Old Testament describes ad hoc forms of governance among the Hebrew people. They had occasional judges, who would sometimes serve also as military leaders and at other times also as prophets. But the people grew weary of such governance. So they came to the judge and prophet Samuel, and asked for a king that they might “be like other nations.”
Samuel grieved and complained, fussed and lamented before God. And Samuel continued to argue with the people. Samuel “set before them their ingratitude,” continues Paine, “but all would not avail; and seeing them fully bent on their folly, he cried out, ‘I will call unto the Lord … that ye may perceive and see that your wickedness is great which ye have done in the sight of the Lord, IN ASKING YOU A KING. So Samuel called unto the Lord, and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day, and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel. And all the people said unto Samuel, Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God that we die not, for WE HAVE ADDED UNTO OUR SINS THIS EVIL, TO ASK A KING.’”
But Samuel received a divine response: it is not you, Samuel, whom the people have rejected; it is me, said the voice of God, whom they have rejected. Let them have what they want; and having made their bed, they will have to sleep in it.
The granting of a monarchy was a “curse in reserve,” says Paine. You want a king? Well, all right. But it’s a hell of a bad choice. Have at it. But just know this: the king will conscript your sons, take your land, tax your income, and impose levies on you property.
Such conscription, taxation, and indulgence made manifest in the privilege of the monarchy results in rulers who lack the very qualifications needed to govern well. To govern well requires vast experience with the lives of real people, their concerns and struggles and hardships. But monarchy yields indulgent isolation, and an ignorance of the plight of laborers and mothers and children. The king lacks capacity to tend with empathy to the pains and pleasures of common men with common sense. Hardened by luxury and pleasure, the monarch can hear neither the songs nor the cries of the men and women and children in the streets, in the fields, in the prisons, or in the churches.
Paine doesn’t say it quite like that; but that’s what he’s getting at.
And then he asks:
If monarchy is bad, then how much more so is hereditary monarchy? Why should anyone be given power to rule over a people just because of the accident of having been born into the family business of monarchy? This is the epitome of foolishness for Paine. This is a sure recipe for dolts and dullards, the malicious and the indolent sitting upon thrones, to the demise of all common goods.
“But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession which concerns mankind.” “It opens a door to the FOOLISH, the WICKED, and the IMPROPER,” and consequently it has in it
the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent. Selected from the rest of mankind, their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed in the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.
Besides the problems with monarchy itself, and besides the problems with hereditary monarchy, Paine also notes that there is one plausible defense of monarchy: “that it preserves a nation from civil wars; and were this true, it would be weighty.” But, Paine insists, “it is the most bare-faced falsity ever imposed upon mankind. The whole history of England disowns the fact.” Since William the Conqueror’s oppressive conquest in 1066, and up until the time of Thomas Paine, England had known “thirty kings and two minors,” “in which time there has been (including the revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen Rebellions. Wherefore instead of making for peace, it makes against it,” insists Paine.
“In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. 'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.”
Next week, in part II, comes a thought experiment: What if Paine were writing today? What might it look like to make these same critiques today: not of “monarchy,” but of “the swamp,” or “American democracy today,” or “American socialism today,” or “global capitalism today”?
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