The better part of American nature and vision of government is expressed by Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense and later series The American Crisis probably had as much to do with the success of the American Revolution as the work of any other person, military notwithstanding.
After the war, in the desire to build a new government, Paine was rejected by the leaders of the new country. His individualism was grounded in communitarianism and he could not abide slavery, an affront to both individuals and communities. And he trusted government less than he trusted people.
In The Rights of Man, Paine wrote:
If we look back to the riots and tumults which at various times have happened in England, we shall find that they did not proceed from the want of a government, but that government was itself the generating cause; instead of consolidating society it divided it; it deprived it of its natural cohesion, and engendered discontents and disorders which otherwise would not have existed.
The writers of the United States Constitution understood this, to some degree, but they did not want it spoken so boldly. And their reticient, if we exclude their acceptantance of slavery and if we take the Constitution down to our time, may be its biggest continuing flaw: it tries to constrain the powers within the government against each other by balance within but it does too little to restrain the power of government as it grows incrementally each year; it does too little to conquer the divisions that the unscrupulous in government can use for their own, and not the country’s, advantage.
The government can claim that it is restoring order in order to do almost anything. Yet, one of the points Paine makes is that real order comes from humans, not from their governments:
Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.
This is akin to how most people today see libertarianism yet it is not. The individual does not have primacy; the interactions between individuals do. Today, as governments fail in response to the pandemic, real action is taking place at human levels, people acting for their own good and that of others, for the most part, and letting the governments, whose “responsibility” fails, stay out of the way.
Today, as governments also fail to protect their people, attacking them instead and then blaming the people for rising up in angry response, people are finally, finally rising up. They are asking the police, “Who started this, if not you? Whose actions are keeping the violence going?” The police and their leaders may respond that they are only acting to maintain order—but whose? And why do they need to maintain order?
There’s only one answer to that: Because they have defiled it. This is a problem of governance, not of the people, not of the crowds, not even of the few looters.
Paine, were he alive today, might ask: Are we to be satisfied with asking the very people who have created the current unrest to resolve it? What will that do? In another month or two, or week or day, the heavy hand of those with the power will strike again, for its wearer doesn’t see itself as our protector but our controller. Its actions have proven that.
Paine, in his most famous America Crisis article, soon follows his “THESE are the times that try men’s souls” with more important but generally forgotten lines:
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 encroachments on freedom have been growing these last three years—building, yes, upon attempts to continue to eradicate the freedom of at least part of the American population since the time of the writing of the Constitution—with tyranny raising its head is a way we’ve never before seen in this country.
It’s up to us to change that. Not our governments. Us.
All of us.