Thomas Paine Day (or Freethinkers Day) is on June 8 – a day to celebrate the life and influential works of Thomas Paine, who died on this day in 1809.
Paine’s most famous and important works include: Common Sense, Age of Reason, and Rights of Man.
Barbara’s Bookstore Recommends:
Common Sense and Other Writings by Thomas Paine (ISBN 9780375760112)
Beautiful Country, Born Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain (ISBN 9780062688750).
White Supremacy: King of America
by Sophia Speranza
When considering Common Sense and its relationship to American democracy today, it is clear that structurally we have grown but not necessarily in the direction Paine imagined. We have eliminated our reliance on and direct connection to Great Britain; however, white supremacy and the resulting system of power and oppression that makes our democracy function today has never ceased to exist. Like those who were at first reluctant to consider the negative effects of Great Britain on America’s growth as a nation, we are sweeping these harmful systems of oppression under the rug when we are not directly affected. Paine explains: “It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow; the evil is not sufficiently brought to their door to make them feel the precariousness with which all American property is possessed” (p. 34). This statement still rings true today. Those who are not oppressed benefit from the system while others struggle to survive. Without direct recognition and consideration of these structures of power, America will not continue to grow and thrive in the way Paine intended.
Paine articulates his arguments thoroughly, often introducing concepts explicitly before exploring them further. Throughout the pamphlet, Paine outlines main points numerically in the form of lists, making complex information less intimidating to the average reader. These lists contextualize broader claims and provide background information needed to fully understand the arguments at hand. One example of this strategy is on p. 38: “But admitting that matters were now made up, what would be the event? I answer, the ruin of the continent. And that for several reasons. First”. This statement begins Paine’s examination and critique of America’s relationship to Great Britain, a meaty analysis divided into digestible chunks that foster inclusivity and reader participation. In doing so, Paine invites readers to participate in imagining a new and just version of government and community. It is disappointing to realize that the very system Paine proposed is logistically in place; however, it is being used to manipulate and control rather than unite, which is the opposite of what Paine hoped for.
Paine works to address most every possible complaint or critique of his arguments throughout the pamphlets, often by posing hypothetical questions that challenge his claims. Instead of ignoring or demonizing opposing viewpoints, Paine explores them. The simple act of engaging with oppositional viewpoints makes the reader feel included and seen, even if not completely on board with all of Paine’s ideas. For example, as Paine argues for separation from Great Britain, he says: “But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct,” (p. 29). Paine also uses questions to excite the reader and energize his arguments: “Resolution is our inherent character, and courage hath never yet forsaken us. Wherefore, what is it that we want? Why is it that we hesitate? From Britain we can expect nothing but ruin,” (p. 55). Posing questions like these encourages readers to take action and participate in creating a system of government on their terms rather than Britain’s, which is Paine’s ultimate goal. Rhetorical strategies like these make Common Sense a catalyst, or jumping off point, for real and tangible change.
Paine argues that the people that inhabit the country should have the power to contribute to government policy and representation and that each individual has natural rights worthy of consideration. This was a radical idea at the time. Paine states: “There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy…The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly…” (p. 10). This critique illustrates just how out-of-touch Britain’s leadership was at the time–in highlighting the problems with the system of power, Paine is making space for much needed change. Here, Paine exposes the irony and counterproductivity of having a leader totally distant from the realities of everyday life. Though we don’t have a king, and we vote on our leaders, those who get elected are rarely representative of the general population of America. It takes a tremendous amount of money to be seen and heard in our country, and this directly mirrors Paine’s critique of the king in that there are massive financial disparities in place that enable a small chunk of people to gain excessive amounts of power while the majority reaps no benefits. Paine speaks to this power dynamic in Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession: “Oppression is often the consequence, but seldom or never the means of riches; and though avarice will preserve a man from being necessitously poor, it generally makes him too timorous to be wealthy” (p. 14). It’s a bit frightening how directly Paine’s critiques still apply to American democracy today.
Ben Fountain’s 2018 essay collection entitled Beautiful Country Burn Again critiques the social/political disparities that led to Donald Trump’s rise in power. Many observations Fountain makes are not much different than Paine’s arguments in Common Sense. For example, Fountain states: “It must be said that many millions of Americans implicitly, and not unreasonably, regard freedom as a finite thing: to the extent that any group, tribe, cohort, has greater freedom, others must necessarily have less” (p. 4). Though we live in a democratic society and have natural rights, systemic racism and oppression prevent many from being able to access and understand the tools needed to exercise those rights. As Paine says, “…one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature” (p. 15). Fountain’s critiques differ from Paine’s in that they are an effort to expose inequalities embedded in the foundation of our society–Fountain has a pessimistic and unabashedly negative perspective on the state of American democracy, while Paine was full of hope, excitement, and optimism at the thought of establishing a fair and just system of government.