(Approach shamelessly heisted from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature).
Common Sense dares Americans to take the next step. In thought and action. It was written during a time of rebellion. Lexington. Concord. The military occupation of Boston. Colonists, not yet Americans, wonder what they should do. They resent the invasion. They resent the taxes and rough treatment by the British government that preceded it. Yet they don’t know what form their opposition should take. Even though they are Swedes, Irishmen, Germans, Dutch, Frenchman they feel a connection to Great Britain. It represents the world they or their parents or their grandparents left. They read its books and treasure its crafts. In the French-Indian War a decade earlier Britain was the older brother and her redcoats fought side by side with the colonists in their homespun. Yet Britain is now treating the colonies like a resource, something to be used, to be exploited. The redcoats now point their muskets at those they fought beside, brothers no more. The colonists cannot decide what to do though. Reconciliation? Capitulation? Or…something else?
Thomas Paine has no doubt as to what that something is. Paine is not the first person to see the possibilities of his New World, specifically the 13 colonies on the Atlantic seaboard. He is not the first person to imagine an independent country there. Nor is he the first person to wish for an end to the bewitchment and privileges of the old order with its kings and lords. What he is, is the first man to say that there is no other option, no other option for the brave. Thomas Paine didn’t invent the idea of a new America but he makes us feel it. What he does is tell his fellow Americans, all American for the first time, that the idea of America is no longer an abstraction but something that has to be realized. Immediately. That there will never be a better chance than the one before them.
Common Sense has an edge. Paine wants to sever ties, to chop through knots of temporization and doubt. The method of argument that Paine uses comes out of the skepticism of Voltaire and Montaigne. In his hands it is acid. It burns through the moldy notions of the divine inheritance of kings. It corrodes the supports that still connect the old and the new. Custom is his enemy as much as the British. Custom and the constriction of free thought (Paine talks a lot about commerce but his most important commerce is a commerce of the mind). Paine says: we are not like them, the citizens of Europe, not anymore; this place has changed us. They don’t understand us so how can they rule us? His weapon was made by the Enlightenment but it is not Enlightenment skepticism alone. Paine believes that men are born good. For Paine men have been deformed by custom, by habit, by the crowded nations of Europe and their ideas of heredity, by history. What he opposed were, in the words of his friend William Blake, ‘The mind forg’d manacles.’ There was a hell for Paine, but we had created it. America was the place where we could escape it. He doesn’t talk about America as country but as a continent. A continent big enough for difference.
These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated
- The Crisis (1775)
Paine, the son of a corset-maker, can write. This is prose that draws on Shakespeare and the Bible, with a directness that comes with a new American vernacular. He is writing in a language that any person of soon to be countrymen could understand. Even people who weren’t literate – and many weren’t in 1776 – could appreciate Paine’s sweep and dramatic oppositions. Common Sense could be read to indentured servants in a storehouse. A man could stand up on a beer cask in a tavern and sway the hearts of rough workers. All the binaries are there in his ferocious attack: old/new, monarchy/republic, crowded/open, despair/hope. These are the terms that would come to define the promise of United States.
Common Sense is propaganda. High level propaganda but propaganda still. Paine doesn’t dwell on the issues that would threaten his new country: slavery, Indian wars, states rights, growth. He hints at them but it is his belief that the revolution, now, will give the only chance of overcoming them. It was left to others, writing for different audiences, to explore the threat of America to itself. Blake, like Paine working-class, the son of a stocking maker, confronts the horrors of slavery in Visions of the Daughters of Albion. St. Jean de Crevecoeur does the same in his ninth letter.
In later life, Paine referred to himself as ‘a missionary of world revolution.’ Forced out of America he returned to England, where he was hounded out of the country by government agents. In France, he became a deputy after the revolution, only to nearly lose his head in the Terror (the American Embassy did not try to save him: he wasn’t an American citizen!). Finally he was allowed to return to the new country he had helped to make. Like Blake, his brother in temperament and idealism, Paine died obscure and alone. That’s what happens to permanent revolutionaries, ones who are lucky enough to die in bed, anyway. Only six people followed his hearse, including two freedman and a Quaker. The cause for his ostracism lay for the most part is his deist beliefs. To Paine, God was a distant abstraction, at best (in this he was most unlike Blake, for whom God was a reality that burned in us all).
American exceptionalism has been debased many times in the last 220 years. After the Iraq War it’s hard not to see America as so many millions in the world see her: as an oppressor, a colonizer, a country that sees the world as something to be used. In 2010 it is difficult to understand just how astonishing the revolution was. Just how important the American contribution was to world history. Paine helps to see again the possibility in America. Common Sense, 235 years old, can still make America new. A country that still accepts immigrants by the millions. That offers, in its internal logic, if not in its reality, the possibility of justice.