“Just then Tom Paine, himself/Came running from across the field”

By Ben Ledbetter, Architect (Thomas Paine’s death mask) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“This will be an election of… common sense,” said Donald Trump recently.

Common sense? The greatest American writer of common sense (though Ben Franklin might believe he should take that crown) was Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense was a major call to resistance against British rule in the American colonies.

Did he write anything in that pamphlet that might be applicable to this election? Let’s look and see….

Paine wanted to make sure Americans understood the difference between government and culture and that the two should be kept apart. He wrote:

SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Do Trump and his followers understand this difference? Though they talk about “freedom,” they want to do away with many, including freedom to choose, freedom from want, freedom to love whomever we choose, freedom to be healthy. What are they promoting, I ask, outside of their own restrictive beliefs?

By conflating government and society, as Trump does, society is perverted into an oppressive instrument of the negative, as the rise of the alt-right shows.

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

Vigilantes could never arise under a just government, for they are nothing more than instruments of injustice. Trump and his supporters want more power in their hands, be they private or public, to enforce what they believe are societal norms but that are simply the dictates of a white minority.

Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. Freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and reason will say, ’tis right.

“Freedom and security.” In a nation, that needs to be for all, not just for the few who support the ruler. That’s common sense.

We have a leader, in Trump, who hasn’t the sense to look to individual virtues in choosing the members of his government but who populates it with family and toadies. As Paine wrote:

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.

Trump is setting us up for a new monarchy by the way he places his family. This not only belies common sense but also efficiency.

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 our power, than to trust such an interesting event to 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 discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.

Masaniello was a 17th-century Italian revolutionary who led a mob of unprincipled destroyers—what Trump has recently been accusing the Democrats of being but that better fits his own supporters. In fact, it might be said that Trump’s own rise is based on “popular disquietudes”—that he is who Paine was warning us about.

This, in the current climate, needs no commentary:

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. — Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Just so, Paine’s statement on religion and government, something Trump’s supporters could learn from:

As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith. Let a man throw aside that narrowness of soul, that selfishness of principle, which the niggards of all professions are so unwilling to part with, and he will be at once delivered of his fears on that head. Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe that it is the will of the Almighty that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us.

What about voter suppression, gerrymandering and the Electoral College (which gives greater weight to rural voters than to urban ones)? Paine said this:

I have heretofore likewise mentioned the necessity of a large and equal representation; and there is no political matter which more deserves our attention. A small number of electors, or a small number of representatives, are equally dangerous. But if the number of the representatives be not only small, but unequal, the danger is increased.

There was a lot of common sense in Paine’s writing. It’s a pity Trump has never read any.


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