I was randomly reading from some of Thomas Paine’s writings. I picked The American Crisis because it is about that early revolutionary period. The pamphlet, The Crisis No. III, dated April 19, 1777 caught my attention.
Paine begins with the “progress of politics” and how experience brings us to where we are, how ensuing events are built on “past occurrences” which are important to recollect. He then moves in on his target of derision, shifting from generalities to specifics. The Tories are blamed for a failure of insight into present happenings for they supposedly misconstrued what came before.
Paine, expressing impatience with the pace of events, definitely stops mincing words and gets to the meat of the matter:
“The success of the cause, the union of the people, and the means of supporting and securing both, are points which cannot be too much attended to. He who doubts of the former is a desponding coward, and he who wilfully disturbs the latter is a traitor.”
After verbally abusing the cowards and traitors, he moves onto the four “principal arguments in support of independence”:
“1st, The natural right of the continent to independence.
2d, Her interest in being independent.
3d, The necessity,- and
4th, The moral advantages arising therefrom.”
The first argument is short and sweet. He basically just says it is our self-evident natural right and there need be no further defense nor possibility of debate. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it.
The second argument intrigued me moreso:
“The interest of the continent in being independent is a point as clearly right as the former. America, by her own internal industry, and unknown to all the powers of Europe, was, at the beginning of the dispute, arrived at a pitch of greatness, trade and population, beyond which it was the interest of Britain not to suffer her to pass, lest she should grow too powerful to be kept subordinate. She began to view this country with the same uneasy malicious eye, with which a covetous guardian would view his ward, whose estate he had been enriching himself by for twenty years, and saw him just arriving at manhood. And America owes no more to Britain for her present maturity, than the ward would to the guardian for being twenty-one years of age.”
This new entity, America, owes no one anything for its existence. America owes even less for its own hard-earned success and abundance. This is the argument of rebellious youth at a perceived capricious and avaricious authority. America coming into its maturity demands its independence to now make its own way in the world.
He makes it seem as if the British government and military played no role whatsoever. The claim by the monarchy and the empire is arbitrary and meaningless.
“Britain thought it worth her while to claim them, and the continent received and acknowledged the claimer. It was, in reality, of no very great importance who was her master, seeing, that from the force and ambition of the different powers of Europe, she must, till she acquired strength enough to assert her own right, acknowledge some one. As well, perhaps, Britain as another; and it might have been as well to have been under the states of Holland as any. The same hopes of engrossing and profiting by her trade, by not oppressing it too much, would have operated alike with any master, and produced to the colonies the same effects. The clamor of protection, likewise, was all a farce; because, in order to make that protection necessary, she must first, by her own quarrels, create us enemies. Hard terms indeed!”
He does at least partly make a good point. The British Empire wants the colonists to pay for defense against the enemies the British Empire has created or otherwise inevitably attracted. Portrayed in this manner, it sounds like a protection racket.
Paine’s third argument is that the colonists were in an impossible situation under British rule. This sad state of affairs would just get harder and more cumbersome. The situation demanded to be changed. The alternatives were unacceptable to any freedom-loving population. Hence, independence must be asserted for, one way or another, its fruition was a foregone conclusion.
In his fourth argument, he brings up the injustice of militaristic imperialism and the endless European wars that followed from it. The colonists, by being part of the British Empire, became complicit in this injustice and so shared in the guilt. As Americans these centuries later, his damning criticism against Britain now cuts back against us with even greater force:
“Britain, for centuries past, has been nearly fifty years out of every hundred at war with some power or other. It certainly ought to be a conscientious as well political consideration with America, not to dip her hands in the bloody work of Europe.”
We are even more guilty. For the centuries following Paine writing this, the vast majority of years were spent in warfare along with instigating or being involved with near endless military interventions, invasions, occupations, assassinations, and coup d’etats. We have become worse than what he criticized. The United States, which Paine named, became the monster that the revolutionaries, inspired by Paine, were fighting against.
The rest of the pamphlet is largely an expounding upon the details of the revolution, congress, rivalries and conflicts. He focuses some attention on Quakers in similar terms as he righteously attacks Tories. At times, it can be dispiriting to read how much he demonizes his opponents and thus seeks to polarize (you’re with us or against us), but I guess that is how revolutions happen or they happen not at all.
I only want to bring up one more part from this pamphlet. The following is a great conclusion for this post and, as well, for my previous two posts. About reluctance in getting fully on board with independence, Paine offers a note of insight and hope:
“Error in opinion has this peculiar advantage with it, that the foremost point of the contrary ground may at any time be reached by the sudden exertion of a thought; and it frequently happens in sentimental differences, that some striking circumstance, or some forcible reason quickly conceived, will effect in an instant what neither argument nor example could produce in an age.”
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