Apartheid in South Africa was a violently oppressive system, one among many in history. And whenever there is oppression, there are always those who resist and fight against it. A once less well known freedom fighter is Tim Jenkin, now more well known because of a recent movie adaptation of his 1979 escape, along with two other political prisoners, from the Pretoria prison. It’s an inspiring tale of moral victory, a rare case where the persecuted individual gains his own release on his own terms and helps defeat injustice.
Along with a compatriot, he was arrested for setting off “leaflet bombs”. They were designed not to hurt people but to disseminate illegal literature in public areas. The purpose was to spread the message of moral struggle, to let the oppressed know they were not alone and to inform the oppressors that they would not be silenced. Having set off many of these devices, he was given a 12 year sentence and the other man 8 years. It was a punishment that might not have been so much for claims of terrorism as for being judged a race traitor and an enemy of the state.
From the moment he entered prison he schemed about escape. The guy obviously is a genius. If you didn’t know his escape actually happened, you’d think a story about it was contrived in the seeming impossibility of it. With the help of other prisoners, he spent years studying the structure of the prison, the mechanism of locks, and the patterns of the guards’ behavior. He used what limited resources they had access to in order to construct tools to defeat the system. The audacity of it was inspiring alone. Even in getting through dozens of locked doors, each with different keys, they still faced a sniper on the prison walls who would shoot on sight. It demonstrates how good fortune favors the prepared and the brave.
For all the good feeling that comes from a prison escape movie, it also reminds one of how much brilliance gets wasted in this world we are born into. For years, Jenkin used his talents to struggle against Apartheid and then, after caught, to escape. Imagine, in that same time period, what he could have accomplished if he had grown up in a free society and his mind had been set toward scientific discovery, technological innovation, medical cures, or simply public service. There is nothing wrong with dedicating one’s life to political activism and defiance of moral wrong, but one suspects he didn’t dream of that profession as a child.
Think of the American Founders. They weren’t raised to be revolutionaries nor was it what they aspired to. By an accident of fate, they found themselves in a struggle for freedom and liberty. Yet by interest and talent, many of them preferred to spend their free time committed to scientific experimentation and technological invention. Even in their politics, they weren’t out to destroy the old world but were inspired to build something new. If their situation had been different, Thomas Jefferson might now be remembered for having invented a swivel chair and Thomas Paine for designing an iron bridge.
“The science of government,” wrote John Adams, “it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Paine admitted, “That there are men in all countries to whom a state of war is a mine of wealth, is a fact never to be doubted.” And such men were unwilling to assent to the independence of others. But elsewhere in The American Crisis, he stated that in the American colonies they came to the fight reluctantly, if with courageous resolve in the final measure. Peace, though it be desired, was not offered by a military empire that demanded submission or subjugation. Knowing the high cost of what defeat would entail, it was agreed that, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my children may have peace.” The ultimate aim remained peace — if not for one generation, then for the next.
Revolution was not an end to itself. Struggle was not its own reward that built character and uplifted the spirit. Overthrowing oppression was simply the work that had to be done to make possible a good society where the following generations could do something better with their time. In a world maybe not so different, instead of the slavery and indentured servitude of colonial imperialism, we of the present living generation face a banana republic and capitalist realism, lesser evilism and bullshit jobs. The human potential lost, the raw talent and capacity corrupted — the immensity of all that goes to waste.
We are kept so busy, endlessly preoccupied and stressed, that we have little time and energy left to seek something better, either for ourselves or our children and grandchildren. The few of us scheming for escape, rarely catch our breath long enough to dream about what we might do once no longer trapped in this Black Iron Prison, what might follow after. Struggle has come to define our existence and constrain our moral imagination. We need to remind ourselves of what we are hoping to accomplish, what kind of just and worthy society we wish to gift to the coming generations, what kind of peace they might have.
For you are all children of God in the Spirit. There is no Jew or Greek; There is no slave or free; There is no male and female. For you are all one in the Spirit.
Based on Galations 3:28, Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
Who rightly claims the beating heart of moral imagination, of radical vision? Who feels the throbbing pulse of it in their veins, the flow of vitality in the body politic? Who bleeds when the cut goes deep, who cries out in pain, and who hears it? Who knows this wounding, what it means, what is to be gained? Who holds to this sacrifice and accepts its cost?
Within the broad liberalism of the Enlightenment, there was the reactionary strain of proto-conservative ‘classical liberalism’, as given voice by the Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) who gets more credit than he deserves. This early on was preempted by pre-Enlightenment religious dissenters and countered by radical Enlightenment thinkers, from Roger Williams (1603-1683) in the American colonies to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) in Netherlands. We should acknowledge that Williams advocated Lockean-like land rights before Locke and did so with stronger moral force and egalitarian vision. And we should look to Spinoza, godfather of the radical Enlightenment, as a probable influence on Locke who lived in the same city when Spinoza was published, whereas Locke’s own writings only came later.
The more well known and respectable figures of the Enlightenment were being carried by the swift currents that surrounded them and preceded them, going back many centuries. The British Enlightenment didn’t come out of nowhere nor did the radical tradition of revolutionary zeal. Some consider the 17th century English Civil War, or else 14th century English Peasants’ Revolt, to be the first modern revolution based on class conflict (in the same period of disruption, there is also the 16th century German Peasants’ War led by Thomas Müntzer; see The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard). In this largely religious milieu, there arose thought that was proto-liberal, proto-progressive, proto-democratic, proto-libertarian, proto-socialist, and proto-anarchist. But if nothing else, it was often radically populist and egalitarian.
Before the Protestant Reformation, there was the extreme hereticism of another Englishman, John Wycliffe (1320s-1384), who declared all were equal before God, everyone could know God for themselves, and Scripture was accessable to all. He also thought the clergy should take a vow of poverty or maybe be entirely abolished, and he went further in his radical belief that slavery is a sin. The entirety of feudalism was up for doubt and denial. Priests, lords, and kings had no rightful claim over the people and so freedom of the people could be reclaimed. What was to be rendered unto Caesar was not much at all. Such egalitarian righteousness would inspire the Peasants’ Revolt, and it lit a radical fire within the English imagination that never again was quenched.
Following the spirit of that age, Englishman John Ball (1338-1381) as one of Wycliffe’s disciples preached a warning, “Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs not gentlemen, and we shall be equal.” This was a demand for equality, on earth as it was in heaven, in the living present as it was at the time of Creation. “At the beginning we were all created equal,” Ball stated with the confident certainty of faith. “If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ’s likeness, and they treat us like animals.” These words rang true among the commoners for it could not be denied, reading Scripture for themselves, what was found in the Word of God.
The uprising that resulted, although brief, was at times violent in seeking justice and it sent the ruling order into disarray — presaging what was to come. All of that was a more threatening challenge to the legitimacy of hierarchical authority, religious and otherwise, than either Martin Luther (1483-1546) or John Calvin (1509-1564) in the following centuries. These earlier voices of scathing critique, native to England, might be why the Protestant Reformation didn’t have the same kind of impact there as it did in continental Europe, for religious dissent wended its own path on the British isles. The religious fervor, often expressed as economic populism and politcal diatribe, kept eruptng again and again across the centuries. It was the seed out of which the English Enlightenment bloomed and it bore the fruit of revolt and revolution.
There long had been something in the British character that bristled against a ruling elite, maybe the cultural memory of British paganism among commoners in southern England, the Anglo-Saxon gut-level sense of freedom and communal identity in East Anglia, and the Scandinavian stoic but fiercely held independence found across the Midlands, not to mention the longstanding influence of cultural autonomy and at times political defiance from the Welsh, Scots-Irish, Highland Scots, and Irish. In defense against various ruling elites, from Romans to Normans and onward, a tradition of populist resistance and cultural pride had taken hold among regional populations, bulwarks against foreign incursions and centralized control. Attempts to enforce imperial or national unity and identity, loyalty and subservience was a constant struggle and never fully successful.
That particularly fed into the English Civil War (or rather wars) with the rebellious Puritans, pre-pacifist Quakers, the anti-authoritarian Levellers, and the primitive communist Diggers (among many others) who, in addition, took inspiration from the English tradition of the Commons and the rights of the commoners, a precursor to the American Revolutionaries’ invocation of the rights of Englishmen. Indeed, following coup d’etat and regicide (a fine example for the French revolutionaries to follow), many of the religious dissenters escaped to the colonies where they left a permanent imprint upon American culture and the American mind, such as the popular practice of the jeremiad (Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad & David Howard-Pitney’s African American Jeremiad).
This incited the religious protest of those like Roger Williams, upon finding in the colonies yet more authoritarian rule and churchly dogmatism. But it wasn’t only the religious dissenters who left England for the New World. Many Royalists on the other side of the English Civil War headed to Virginia and, in the case of Thomas Morton (1579–1647) with Merry Mount, caused trouble further north in New England. The Puritans, for different reasons than their treatment of Williams and Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) along with the troublesome Quakers, hated what they perceived as paganism in the uncouth behavior of Morton, a man from Merrie Old England in the Devon countryside with its paternalistic populism and rural folk tradition, along with the libertine influence of the London Inns of Court, but also a place of organizing for the dissenting Lollards following John Wycliffe.
There were many distinct varieties of English hereticism and rabblerousing, all of which clashed as part of a creative flux of free-wheeling public debate and often scandalous rebellion, giving fruit to social reform and political idealism. It’s true that John Locke was part of this mix as well. Though not necessarly an advocate of slavery, neither was he a strong critic and opponent. His patron put him in the position of writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony that upheld slavery. In that founding document of violent oligarchy, based on his belief that such social compacts were immutable and eternally binding, he wrote that “every part thereof, shall be and remains the sacred and unalterable form and rule of government, for Carolina forever.”
The oppressed slaves, indentured servants, destitute laborers, and evicted natives were seen as trapped in a permanent underclass, a caste of untouchables for impertuity, no generation henceforth having any moral claim for freedom or justice. Dissent was denied any validity and so tacit assent was assumed as an article of faith of the elite-sanctioned moral order. It was a hermetically-sealed philosophical dogmatism and ideological realism. Public debate was declared ended before it began. This was a constitutional spell as binding word magic.
“And to this I say,” declareth John Locke, arbiter of truth and reality, “that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, cloth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.”
This was not an auspicious beginning for this particular American experiment. Yet Lockean ideology is held up as an ideal and standard of political thought in the modern Anglo-American mind of the propertied self and privatized capitalism. Among many, he has been deemed and esteemed as a founding father of respectable thinking. Lockean rights impinges an absolute claim on who is welcomed into the circle of privilege and who is excluded by decree. Ths is a non-negotiable conviction and certitude, a newfound set of Holy Commandments brought down from the mountain top of the rational intellect by the enlightened aristocrat as divine prophet.
That was one element, sometimes referred to as ‘liberalism’, that was woven into American political thought and quite influential, unfortunately. Although never having traveled to, much less glimpsed, the New World, Locke boldly envisioned it as a place akin to Eden, as had many other Europeans — he wrote that, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” That meant it needed to be tamed and civilized with the Whiggish vision of patriarchal progress and imperialistic expansionism, white man’s burden and manifest destiny that was to bring forth moral order to the world through not only slavery but also genocide, conquest, and assimilation. This was the orignal liberal elitism, in all its paternalistic glory, that one hears so much about.
That authoritarian impulse remains strong within the ruling order and has informed the longstanding reactionary fear of populist uprising and democratic demand. With the imperialistic pseudo-Federalism of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, the rot of authoritarianism had tainted the seed of freedom’s promise from the moment it was planted in the fertile soil of shared hope. Counter-revolution gained power within the American Revolution, which has ever since caused a conflation of anti-democratic rule with pseudo-democratic forms and rhetoric. This is how we’ve come to the point of a banana republic being called a democracy and used as proof of the failure of democracy by those who have done everything in their power to prevent and frustrate democratic aspiration at every turn.
In our collective miseducation and historical amnesia, many Americans can’t distinguish between democratic self-governance and anti-democratic oppression — causing moral injury, a schizoid wounding of the body politic resulting in spiritual malaise and psychosis. Even when diagnosis of what afflicts us rightly points to this unhealed trauma, the scapegoating of the democratic impulse becomes a sad charade that causes impotent despair and palsied cynicism. Amidst the throes of propagandistic infection, these fevered nightmares mock us in our still juvenile aspirations. We are meant to be shamed in our crippled and fumbling steps, to be trampled down by our own heavy hearts. We are judged guilty in the sin of our perceived weakness and failure. We are deemed as unworthy and stunted children who are a danger to ourselves and to society.
To assent to such a damning accusation is to accept defeat, but this demiurgic rule of lies fades before the revelation of ananmesis, a gnostic unforgetting. From religious dissent to radical rebellion, the burning ember of revolution within the Anglo-American soul never dies out, no matter how it gets mislabeled, misunderstood, and misdirected. The ancient outrage of the commoners, of the dirty masses and landless peasants, will continue to rise up like bile at the back of our throats, sometimes causing blind rage but at other times bursting forth with the clear sight of radical imagination and inspiration, commanding us to stand up in our full stature and stride confidently forward on a path that is set before us by an ancestral instinct, an awakening knowledge of the world before us.
We’ve been here before. It is familiar to us, the primal terrain of moral imagination, the living God whose indwelling authority speaks to us, we the living generation who carry forth a living vision, the ember setting tinder to flame to light our way. This is our inheritance, our birthright, the burden we carry and the hope that lifts us up. In the words that inspired revolution, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Every moment we awaken to is pregnant with promise, something ready to be born in spirit and baptized in fire. The revelatory and revolutionary truth of the demos is all around us, for those with eyes to see. The liberation of the soul, the refutation of enslavement, the casting away of shackles — in this, we are already a free people, if only we would claim it, take hold of it and wrestle the dream down to the ground of our shared reality, in our common purpose, through our collective action.
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
* * *
The above is a very loose and indirect response to what is found below — basically, modern democracy as an expression of the ancient demos, We the People, is not so easily dismissed:
Americans are encouraged to believe that their vote on Election Day somehow miraculously guarantees that the subsequent ten thousand actions by the president, Congress, and federal agencies embody “the will of the people.” In reality, the more edicts a president issues, the less likely that his decrees will have any connection to popular preferences. It is even more doubtful that all the provisions of hefty legislative packages reflect majority support, considering the wheeling, dealing, and conniving prior to final passage. Or maybe the Holy Ghost of Democracy hovers over Capitol Hill to assure that average Americans truly want every provision on every page of bills that most representatives and senators do not even bother reading?
A bastard cousin of the “will of the people” flimflam is the notion that citizens and government are one and the same. President Franklin Roosevelt, after five years of expanding federal power as rapidly as possible, declared in 1938, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” President Johnson declared in 1964: “Government is not an enemy of the people. Government is the people themselves,” though it wasn’t “the people” whose lies sent tens of thousands of American conscripts to pointless deaths in Vietnam. President Bill Clinton declared in 1996, “The Government is just the people, acting together—just the people acting together.” But it wasn’t “the people acting together” that bombed Serbia, invaded Haiti, blockaded Iraq, or sent the tanks in at Waco.
President Barack Obama hit the theme at a 2015 Democratic fundraiser: “Our system only works when we realize that government is not some alien thing; government is not some conspiracy or plot; it’s not something to oppress you. Government is us in a democracy.” But it was not private citizens who, during Obama’s reign, issued more than half a million pages of proposed and final new regulations and notices in the Federal Register; made more than 10 million administrative rulings; tacitly took control of more than 500 million acres by designating them “national monuments”; and bombed seven foreign nations. The “government is the people” doctrine makes sense only if we assume citizens are masochists who secretly wish to have their lives blighted.
Presidents perennially echo the Declaration of Independence’s appeal to “the consent of the governed.” But political consent is gauged very differently than consent in other areas of life. The primary proof that Americans are not oppressed is that citizens cast more votes for one of the candidates who finagled his name onto the ballot. A politician can say or do almost anything to snare votes; after Election Day, citizens can do almost nothing to restrain winning politicians.
A 2017 survey by Rasmussen Reports found that only 23 percent of Americans believe that the federal government has “the consent of the governed.” Political consent is defined these days as rape was defined a generation or two ago: people consent to anything which they do not forcibly resist. Voters cannot complain about getting screwed after being enticed into a voting booth. Anyone who does not attempt to burn down city hall presumably consented to everything the mayor did. Anyone who does not jump the White House fence and try to storm into the Oval Office consents to all executive orders. Anyone who doesn’t firebomb the nearest federal office building consents to the latest edicts in the Federal Register. And if people do attack government facilities, then they are terrorists who can be justifiably killed or imprisoned forever.
In the short term, the most dangerous democratic delusion is that conducting an election makes government trustworthy again. Only 20 percent of Americans trust the government to “do the right thing” most of the time, according to a survey last month by the Pew Research Center. Americans are being encouraged to believe that merely changing the name of the occupant of the White House should restore faith in government.
The foundng debate of Federalists and Anti-Federalists is always of interest. In perusng the writings, particularly the letters, of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine, there is a recurrent theme about land, property and taxation, which opens up onto a vista of other issues. The American colonists, before and after becoming revolutionaries, lived in a world of tumultuous change. And the world of their cultural kin in Europe, if far away across an ocean, presented a vision of further changes that posed a warning and felt too near for comfort.
From the beginning of the enclosure of the Commons centuries prior, the people’s relationship to the physical world around them had been the hinge upon which everything else turned. With the creation of landless peasants, there was the first waves of mass urbanization with industrialization and colonial imperialism soon following, not to mention social turmoil from the Peasant’s Revolt to the English Civil War. There was displacement as peasant villages were razed to the ground, creating a refugee crisis and mass movement of populations. What followed was widespread homelessness, poverty, starvation, malnutrition, disease, and death. That post-feudal crisis is what so many British had escaped in heading to the colonies beginning in the 1600s.
It was the greatest period of destabilization since the earlier wave of urbanization during post-Axial imperialism more than a millennia earlier. But in many ways it was simply a continuation of the long process of urbanization that was unleashed with the agricultural revolution at the dawn of civilization. The first agricultural people, often forming large villages and then city-states, went through a precipitous period of health decline, including regular plagues and famines. Even with advanced food systems and scientific-based healthcare, modern humans have still yet to regain the height, bone development, and brain size of paleolithic humans.
In the late 19th century heading into the next, moral panic took over American society as the majority became urbanized for the first time, something that had happened centuries earlier in Europe. There was the same pattern of worsening health that the American founders had previously seen in the burgeoning European cities. This stood out so clearly because early Americans, raised on rural life and food abundance with lots of wild game, were among the healthiest and tallest people in the Western world at the time. When those early Americans visited Europe, they towered over the locals. Some Europeans also noticed the changes in their own populations, such as one French writer stating that mental illness spread with the advance of civilization.
When Thomas Jefferson envisioned his agricultural ideal of the yeoman, he wasn’t merely proffering an ideological agenda of rural romanticism. He was a well-traveled man and he had seen many populations with which to compare. He worried that, if and when America became urbanized and industrialized, the same fate would await us. This was a prediction of the sense of societal decline that indeed took over not long after his death. Even before the American Civil War, there was the rise of large industrial cities with all of the culture war issues that have obsessed Americans ever since. But what is fascinating is that this worry and unease about modernity was such a pressing concern at the very foundation of the country.
In advocating for a democratic republic as did not exist in Europe where oppression and desperation prevailed, Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris about his hopes for the new American experiment. There was the desire to learn from the mistakes of others and not repeat them. America held the promise of taking an entirely different path toward modernity and progress. He wrote that, in a letter to Madison (20 December 1787),
“After all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail. If they approve the proposed Convention in all it’s parts, I shall concur in it chearfully, in hopes that they will amend it whenever they shall find it work wrong. I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe. Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”
Jefferson may have been an aristocrat, but he was a particular kind of rich white guy. Maybe it had to do with where he lived. The Virginia aristocracy, different than the Carolina aristocracy, lived and worked among their slaves year round. Slaves were spoken of as an extension of the family and the social structure was similar to the feudal villages that were quickly disappearing elsewhere. Jefferson became infamous for his close relations with his slaves with at least one supposedly having been his lover and several his children. He could play the role of an aristocrat, but he also knew how to associate with the poor, maybe why he was one of the only wealthy elite in the colonies who maintained a long-term relationship with the crude and low-class Thomas Paine.
When in France, Jefferson would dress in disguise to mingle among the dirt poor. He would visit with them, eat their food, and even sleep in their lice-infested beds. So, when he talked of the problems of poverty, he drew upon firsthand experience. The poverty of Europe went hand in hand with extreme concentration of wealth, land, and power. There were homeless and unemployed landless peasants living near the privatized Commons that had been turned into beautiful parks and hunting grounds for the wealthy elite. These poor were denied access to land to farm and upon which to hunt and gather, even as they went hungry and malnourished. This seemed like a horrific fate to the American mind where land and natural resources represented the foundation of freedom and liberty, the subsistence and economic independence that was necessary for self-governance and republican citizenship.
The same familiarity with the dirty masses was true of Benjamin Franklin who, like Paine, did not grow up in wealth. I doubt Franklin followed Jefferson’s example, but colonial life disallowed vast gulfs of class disparity, except in certain Deep South cities like Charleston where opulent wealth helped re-create more European-style urbanization and depradation. Most of the founders, including George Washington also of Virginia, were forced to live in close proximity not only the lower classes but also Native Americans. A number of the founders wrote high praise of the Native American lifestyle.
Franklin, a man who loved the good life of urban comfort, felt compelled to admit that Native American had a more natural, healthier, and happier way of living. He observed, as did many others, that Native Americans raised among the colonists often returned to their tribes the first chance they got, but Europeans raised among Native Americans rarely wanted to return to the dreary and oppressive burdens of colonial life. Observations were often made of the admirable examples of tribal freedom from oppression and republican self-governance, some of which was a direct inspiration to designing the new American government. This fed into the imagination of what was possible and desirable, the kinds of free societies that no European could have imagined existing prior to travel to the New World.
The American colonies, at the borderland of two worlds, was a place of stark contrasts. This drove home the vast differences of culture, social order, and economic systems. The agricultural colonies, to many early American thinkers, seemed like an optimal balance of rural health and the benefits of civilization, but it was also understood as a precarious balance that likely could not last. Someone like Jefferson hoped to restrain the worst elements of modernity while holding onto the best elements of the what came before. Other founders shared this aspiration and, with early American populations having been small, this aspiration didn’t appear unrealistic. Such a vast continent, argued Jefferson, could maintain an agricultural society for centuries. The forces of modernization, however, happened much more quickly than expected.
Nonetheless, this rural way of life held on longer in the South and it fed into the regional division that eventually split the nation in civil war. Southeners weren’t only fighting about racialized slavery but also fighting against what they perceived as the wage slavery of industrialization. Their fear wasn’t only of political dependence on a distant, centralized power but also fear of economic dependence on big biz, corporate capitalists, monied interests, and foreign investors. As an early indication of this mindset, Jefferson went so far as to advise including “restriction against monopolies” (equal to “protection against standing armies”) in the Bill of Rights, as it was understood that a private corporation like the British East India Company could be as oppressive and threatening as any government (letter to James Madison, 20 December 1787). In fact, corporations were sometimes referred to as governments or like governments. The rise of corporate capitalism and industrialized urbanization was seen with great trepidation.
This fear of urbanization, industrialization, and modernization has never gone away. We Americans still think in terms of the divide between the rural and urban. And in the South, to this day, fairly large populations remain in rural areas. The Jeffersonian vision of yeoman independence and liberty still resonates for many Americans. It remains powerful both in experience and in rhetoric. Also, this isn’t mere nostalgia. The destruction of the small family farm and rural farm communities was systematically enacted through government agricultural policies and subsidization of big ag. Jefferson’s American Dream didn’t die of natural causes but was murdered, such that mass industrialization took over even farming. That happened within living memory.
The consequences of that decision of political power has made America into a greater and more oppressive empire than the British Empire that the American colonists sought to free themselves from. Europe has fully come to America. The anxiety continues to mount, as American health continues to decline over the generations, such that public health is becoming a crisis. The American founders were never opposed to modern civilization, but maybe they were wise in speaking of moderation and balance, of slow and careful change, in order to protect the ancient Anglo-Saxon memory of strong communities, proud freedom and republican virtue. A healthy, civic-minded society is hard to create but easy to destroy. The Anti-Federalists, more than any others, perceived this threat and correctly predicted what would happen if their warnings were not heeded.
They believed that the worst outcomes were not inevitable. Compromise would be necessary and no society was perfect, but their sense of promise was inspired by a glimpse of social democracy, something they did not yet have a term for. Ironically, some European countries, specifically in Scandinavia, better maintained the small-scale social order and responsive governance that many of the American founders dreamed of. Those countries have better managed the transition into modernity, have better regulated and compensated for the costs of urban industrialization, and better protected the public good from private harm. The American Dream, in one of its original forms, is nearly extinct in America. And what has replaced it does not match the once inspiring ideals of the American Revolution. Yet the promise lingers in the hearts and minds of Americans. Moral imagination remains potent, long after much of what supported it has disappeared and the memory fades.
The political right talks of constitutional originalism, often in claiming the United States is a republic, not a democracy. It’s obvious bullshit, of course. No one who knows history can take seriously most originalist arguments. As with political correctness, radical right-wingers like to project their own historical revisionism onto their opponents. This is the fake nostalgia that is a defining feature of the reactionary mind, built as it is on historical amnesia, public ignorance, and invented traditions; and made possible through underfunded (mis-)education and failed journalism.
Original intent, really? Whose original intent? This oppressive and paternalistic elitism certainly wasn’t the original intent of the Sons of Liberty, the common revolutionaries, and the Anti-Federalist leaders inspired by the Spirit of ’76; not necessarily or entirely representative of the likes of:
Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Levi Preston, St. George Tucker, Benjamin Edes, James Otis Jr., Joseph Warren, John Lamb, William Mackay, Alexander McDougall, Benjamin Rush, William Molineux, Isaac Sears, Haym Solomon, James Swan, Charles Thomson, Marinus Willett, Oliver Wolcott, Benjamin Church, Benjamin Kent, James Swan, Isaiah Thomas, Joseph Allicocke, Timothy Bigelow, John Brown, John Crane, Hercules Mulligan, Samuel Adams, Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, Joh, Mathew Phripp, Charles Wilson Peale, William Paca, Samuel Chase, Thomas Chase, Steven Cleverly, Joseph Field, George Trott, Henry Welles, John Scollay, John Rowe, William Phillips, Gabriel Johonnot, John Gill, Solomon Davis, William Cooper, Thomas Crafts, William Ellery, William Williams, Ebenezer Mackintosh, Henry Base, John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Wilson, and many others.
Also, don’t forget women who were radical and righteous, rebellious and revolutionary, or else simply vocal and opinionated, but sometimes directly involved in the revolutionary war and sometimes taking up arms on the battlefield (Margaret Cochran Corbin, Mary Ludwig Hays, Deborah Sampson/Samson, etc), while others worked as militia, scouts, spies, message carriers, and took action in other ways (Prudence Cummings Wright, Catherine Moore Barry, Patience Wright, Lydia Darragh, Sibyl Ludington, Nanye’hi/Nancy Ward, Sarah “Sally” Townsend, Anna Strong, Agent 355, etc).
And consider certain members of the Daughters of Liberty such as Sarah Bradlee Fulton, Deborah Sampson Gannett, and Elizabeth Nichols Dyar. There also was Annis Boudinot Stockton, a published poet and the only female member of the secretive American Whig Society, and the mother of Julia Stockton Rush and so mother-in-law to the radical Benjamin Rush. She held that the human soul knew no gender. Phillis Wheatley was likewise a poet at the time but, as a slave, far less privileged than the wealthy Stockton. Having written a poem about George Washington in the hope of influencing him to live up to revolutionary ideals, Wheatley had the opportunity to read it to him in person and it was also republished by Thomas Paine.
Then there is Mercy Otis Warren, brother of James Otis and husband of James Warren (both major political figures) and a visitor of George Washington’s military headquarters, who was a more full-throated radical and feminist writer, not to mention an Anti-Federalist and supporter of the French Revolution: “Her analyses of war, her concern for the Native American, and her warnings against an established military and aristocracy based on wealth” (Judith B. Markowitz, “Radical and Feminist: Mercy Otis Warren and the Historiographers”). Another feminist was Judith Sargeant Murray who believed there was no difference in the intellectual abilities of men and women, that girls should get an education equal to that given to boys. Similarly, the feminist playwright Susanna Rowson wrote on education as well, along with having written the first geography textbook, and the most popular best-selling American novel until Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published more than a half century later.
Men, women, and individuals of other groups — the point isn’t that it is known exactly what position each of these people would’ve had about every major issue, but one thing that is clear is the disagreement was loud and contentious. The fighting of the revolution, the founding of the country, and the framing of the founding documents was borne out of a clash of diverse views and motivations. Not even all rich, white males of the landed aristocracy and other colonial elites were socially conservative and anti-democratic. We should be talking about original intents, not original intent.
There was always heated debate over American values and principles going back to the colonial era, the debate having been particularly heated in the constitutional convention and having continued ever after — a large reason why the party system developed right from the beginning based on the never resolved conflict between Federalists (pseudo-Federalists) and Anti-Federalists (real Federalists), among other schisms. Opposition to unrepresentative elite rule in London (not to mention unelected elite rule in the British East India Company) was the whole motivation for the American Revolution, something that bothered the colonial elites as much as anyone else. Among the Signers of the (second) Constitution, many were signing under dissent and only with the promise of an Anti-Federalist Bill of Rights that expressed alternate and opposing original intents. The final document was a hodgepodge of clashing and conflicting original intents stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.
As for the original intent of the pseudo-Federalist framers who won the war of rhetoric and seized power through the coup of an unconstitutional constitutional convention, they exceeded and betrayed their public mandate as the unanimously-passed Articles of Confederation required a unanimity to change it, a requirement that was not met in initially passing the new constitution. Why does the original intent of only one minority faction count? What about the original intent of everyone else? Why don’t we instead heed the original intent of the actual founding documents, the far more democratic Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation? Or what about the original intent of the radical and rabblerousing tract Common Sense without which, John Adams argued, there would have been no successful revolution and hence no United States?
As for the United States Constitution, technically the second constitution, the original intent of the right-wing framers who took control of the constitutional convention was reactionary and counter-revolutionary. To that extent, present-day right-wingers are partly correct that the original intent of this narrow group of framers does conform to the authoritarian and social Darwinian aspirations of the present GOP. The fact of the matter is that the country was founded on slavery, plutocracy, violent oppression, and class war. Think about the continuing conflict of Shays’ Rebellion that led this particular elite to push for a constitutional convention.
At the time, there was no majority that agreed upon a lone original intent that was spelled out and isolated from all larger social, political, and historical context — and probably few, if any, had any expectation that there could or should be one original intent to rule them all. As such, what about the original intent behind the influences to the second constitution, such as the division of power in the Iroquois Confederacy or the anti-imperial republicanism of the Basque? And following the pre-revolutionary uprising against the British East India Company, what about the original intent of mistrust that so many founders and framers had toward the corrupting force of large corporate and banking interests, as they articulated in new laws restricting their power?
Original intent was never a specific set of claims conceived of and agreed upon by a consensus of unified leadership but a larger debate that extended and developed over time, shifting within American public debate and public opinion. If you could have asked a thousand Americans before, during, and after the American Revolution what was their original intent, they likely would have given you a thousand answers. The very idea of an original intent would have been contested, maybe dismissed and ridiculed by no small number of early Americans.
Many slaves, some having fought in the Continental Army, believed that revolution promised them the freedom espoused in the Declaration of Independence and, based on that original intent, many would continue to revolt long after the white man’s revolution ended, continuing after the last class war uprisings like the Whiskey Rebellion were put down. In the case of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, a slave in Massachusetts, she used access to legal representation to win her freedom in court. Other slaves, in taking seriously the ideals of the American Revolution, took freedom into their own hands and sought the direct path of escape. And we can’t forget how the living memory of the revolutionary era inspired many decades of slave revolts in the lead up to the American Civil War, what some call the Second American Revolution. Maybe the original intent took a while to more fully gain traction.
The promise of revolutionary rhetoric also incited feminist fervor, as Abigail Adams warned John Adams in telling him, “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Still in the revolutionary era, there was the widely read and influential feminist texts by Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). That is a text, by the way, that Annis Boudinot Stockton would read and comment upon, combining criticism and praise.
Considering all of these Americans who made possible the creation of a new country, what about the original intent of those who continued to be oppressed, victimized, and silenced? In ignoring the original intent of the majority of citizens, revolutionaries, and Anti-Federalists (true Federalists); poor white men, women, blacks, and Native Americans; et cetera; and instead in exclusively (exclusionarily) prioritizing the original intent of one authoritarian and imperialistic segment of the plutocracy, today’s Republicans and other varieties of the radical right-wing fringe should, on principle, be openly and honestly advocating for slavery, aristocracy, plutocracy, paternalism, and imperialism while fighting against the basic democratic rights of most of their own supporters and followers, not to mention seeking to end the tyranny of their corporate funders and cronies.
Upon the passing of the second constitution, blacks and most minorities couldn’t vote or run for office. Neither could women or most white men who were poor and landless. Then again, corporations — not conflated with private business ownership at the time — also were left quite powerless in the post-revolutionary period or at least severely limited in scope as being legally limited to organizations that served the public good for short periods (building a bridge, establishing a hospital, etc). This was according to the original intent of one generation having no right to impose upon later generations, which is to say each generation was assumed by many to have their own separate original intents and, in the case of Thomas Jefferson, each generation was expected to have their own new constitutions.
By the way, there is nothing more contrary and alien to constitutional original intent than corporate personhood. Some of the worst founders may have been authoritarian and despotic, but one thing few of them could’ve been accused of was being corporatists. As horrific as was slave-based capitalism, it was not corporate capitalism. Such authoritarian oppression was much more personal and paternalistic, quite unlike the cold and distant corporatocratic political order that has since come to rule our society. Corporations were never intended to be treated as persons with civil rights. Heck, in early America, many actual humans weren’t treated as having legal personhood. The definition of legal personhood had severely limited application in the bad ol’ days, and that has everything to do with why democracy has always struggled to take hold in American society.
In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the constitutional coup, Americans had less voting rights than they had under the British Empire. Only about 3% of the population were represented in this supposedly representative republic that Republicans idealize. Many democratic reforms, including abolition of slavery, ironically happened more quickly in the British Empire than in the former American colonies. It required many generations of Americans fighting for their rights in opposition to an oppressive original intent that we have managed to get to the point of having the pretense of a half-assed democracy, if in reality it’s a banana republic.
Right now, Republicans are seeking to push originalist Amy Coney Barrett into the supreme court, and yet under the original intent of the misogynistic and patriarchal framers no woman would be allowed to vote, much less allowed to be nominated to the supreme court. If Barret is an originalist, she should immediately decline her appointment, step down from power, retire from her professional career, and become a housewife. The political right is being extremely selective about which original intents they praise and which they conveniently ignore or obfuscate. That is to say the entire originalist argument is disingenuous; i.e., bullshit.
The right-wing demagogues and corporatocratic social dominators are being blatantly dishonest in their seeking to seize power and maintain the status quo of a caste system of vast disparities. If they were honest about their intentions of authoritarian elitism and police state oppression, even most conservatives and Republicans wouldn’t support them. Without lies and deception, they could never win any election, no matter how much they control and manipulate our political system and electoral process through the anti-majoritarian constitution, senate, supreme court, gerrymandering, voter purges, dark money, lobbyists, revolving door politics, regulatory capture, etc. A genuine public debate and fair political contest over the legitimacy of such elite rule would end in defeat, if it wasn’t hidden behind false rhetoric of culture wars and stale Cold War propaganda.
Most Americans would not in full understanding agree to authoritarianism that operated out in the open, but that is the whole point of the anti-majoritarian agenda. It doesn’t require majority support and, in fact, must avoid it at all costs. There is no silent majority of Americans who are authoritarian followers demanding to be further silenced by an anti-majoritarian elite. The actual silenced majority is kept ignorant, cynical, and disenfranchised in order to prevent them from realizing the power they possess through their sheer numbers, the power through which they could claim their own freedom of self-governance, the original intent that inspired the revolutionary generation.
Whose original intent? Why should we care about, much less submit to, the desires and demands of our oppressors? Quo warranto. By what right? Besides, what power do the dead have over the freedom of the living? Or rather, what legitimacy does the present generation of self-proclaimed ruling class have to speak on behalf of a past generation of self-proclaimed ruling class, in their moving corpses about like grotesque puppets? Who has the audacity to declare the original intent of those no longer around to speak for themselves? And how can such presumptions take away our right and responsibility to decide for ourselves as a people, to organize and govern as we see fit?
A constitution, as Anti-Federalists and Quakers understood, is the living agreement of a people. There is only one question we must ask ourselves and only we can answer it. What is our intent? What are the hopes that inspire us and the aspirations that drive us, the ideals that sustain us and the visions that guide us? What are we willing to fight and die for as past generations did? We aren’t limited to the intents of our predecessors, but we might learn from their example in how they refused the intents of others over them. To put it in stark terms, do we intend to be enslaved or free?
Even with their acceptance of slavery and a highly restricted franchise, many of the Framers were uneasy about the notion that some people’s votes might count more than others. When one group of delegates proposed that each state, regardless of the size of its population, should have an equal vote in Congress, James Madison denounced the plan as “confessedly unjust,” comparing it to the scheme of “vicious representation in Great Britain.” State-based apportionment, claimed Pennsylvania’s James Wilson, would only reproduce the inequality of Britain’s rotten boroughs, where a nearly depopulated Old Sarum—described at the time as sixty acres without a home—had two representatives in Parliament, while London, with 750,000 to one million residents, had four.
Madison and Wilson lost that debate; the United States Senate is the result. Within a year of the ratification of the Constitution, the 50,000 free residents of Delaware, the least populous state in the nation, had the same number of senators as the 455,000 free residents of Virginia, the most populous state. That makes for a ratio of power of nine to one. Today, according to a recent report by the Roosevelt Institute, that ratio has expanded to sixty-seven to one. Wyoming’s 583,000 residents enjoy as much power in the Senate as the nearly 40 million residents of California. (In the Electoral College, the power ratio is four to one.)
Eighteen percent of the American population—on average, whiter and older than the rest of the population—can elect a majority of the Senate. If those senators are not united in their opposition to a piece of legislation, the filibuster enables an even smaller group of them, representing 10 percent of the population, to block it. Should legislation supported by a vast majority of the American people somehow make it past these hurdles, the Supreme Court, selected by a president representing a minority of the population and approved by senators representing an even smaller minority, can overturn it.
The problem of minority rule, in other words, isn’t Trumpian or temporary; it’s bipartisan and enduring. It cannot be overcome by getting rid of the filibuster or racist gerrymanders—neither of which have any basis in the Constitution—though both of these reforms would help. It’s not an isolated embarrassment of “our democracy,” restricted to newly problematic outliers like the Electoral College and the Iowa caucuses. Minority rule is a keystone of the constitutional order—and arguably, given the constitutional provision that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate,” not eliminable, at least not without a huge social upheaval.
“The revolutionary generation’s problem was not in its conception of universal rights, as expressed in the declaration, but rather its inability to honor them.
“British writers, fellow inheritors of the Enlightenment, agreed. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” inquired England’s Samuel Johnson, a former schoolteacher and creator of A Dictionary of the English Language, the masterpiece that today still commands such encomiums as “a portrait of the language of the day in all its majesty, beauty, and marvelous confusion.” Johnson asked this question in 1775 in the context of his disapproval of American pretensions to independence, a position he spelled out piquantly in his Taxation No Tyranny, where he flummoxed American colonists by calling them selfish, ungrateful children—“these lords of themselves, these kings of Me, these demigods of independence.”14 John Lind, a British government writer equally eager to unmask American hypocrisy, put it as strongly: “It is their boast that they have taken up arms in support of these their own self-evident truths—that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If so, why were they complaining to the world “of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings [by the British], of the offer of reinstating them in that equality which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all; in those unalienable rights with which, in this very paper, God is declared to have endowed all mankind?”15”
14.Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 89-90; Samuel Johnson, Political Writings, ed. Donald J. Greene (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 454; last quote from David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 212.
15. John Lind, An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress (London, 1776), 107, quoted in Wills, Inventing America, 73.
“Both Teddy Roosevelt and union leaders like the AFL-CIO’s Samuel Gompers decried the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation. Roosevelt’s presidential opponent, William Howard Taft, criticized legislation that would have enabled the foundation as “a bill to incorporate Mr. Rockefeller.””
Neither Theodore Roosevelt nor William howard Taft were liberals, much less radical left-wingers. As right-wing imperialists born into wealth, they were part of a particular monied elite that sought to defend plutocracy with ideals of enlightened aristocracy and noblesse oblige, defend it against the New Money of those like the Robber Barons. It was a paternalism that idealized the past and sought to hold a vision of national greatness, a longing to form America as an empire in the mould of the Old World.
It was a bit of the old Tory conservatism that revered the monarchy and yet sometimes expressed a certain kind of populist disdain against propertied wealth gone out of control. Like the aristocracy of the past, they feared unregulated markets and powerful private organizations that would dominate society. This was an attitude that was common going back to the founding generation. The United States was literally founded on an intense fear of corporate power that was based on hard-won experience, what helped to incite the American Revolution.
Many of the American Founders were determined to not allow a repeat of the East India Company in the United States. So, they carefully circumscribed such potentially dangerous government-decreed corporate charters in limiting their role to a temporary service toward specific projects of public good (e.g., building a bridge). They would’ve thought it dangerous and foolish to conflate business with corporatism. But we have since then forgot this founding wisdom. So much for constitutional originalism.
It’s worse than that. We are now going a step further toward the cliff edge with taking that conflation and further conflating it with philanthropy, what some call philanthrocapitalism. Those like Bill Gates also are heavily involved in lobbying. And the crony connections are vast across the public and private sectors. They represent a powerful component of the growing deep state that overlaps with the intelligence agencies and military-industrial complex.
This is one of the ways in which capitalism will destroy itself. The success of these capitalists is leading to a corrupt power that will undermine the system that allowed some of them to work/finagle their way up into wealth. They are killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Some say this is an inevitable result of capitalism. Others disagree. In either case, it will be the result of our present capitalism, if there is not revolutionary-level reform of the system.
It won’t be an outside threat that destroys capitalism. Communism is a bogeyman. Capitalism doesn’t need enemies when it has capitalists like Gates. The rot comes from within. If you wish to put a positive spin on this, as Karl Marx did, this is simply a step in the formation of a new kind of society never before seen, a society that can’t be forced through violence but must emerge naturally in passing through this stage of capitalism like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Well, it sounds nice.
Whether or not it’s a new beginning, we are most definitely coming to an ending. But it could take a while, a slow torturous demise that could transpire over centuries like the decline of the Roman Empire following the Republican Era, although it maybe more likely to happen quite rapidly with climate change catastrophe. After that, we can see if societal rebirth will help us avoid a new dark age.
“Corporations are many lesser commonwealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a natural man.”
“No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”
“Big Philanthropy is definitionally a plutocratic voice in our democracy,” Reich told me, “an exercise of power by the wealthy that is unaccountable, non-transparent, donor-directed, perpetual, and tax-subsidized.”
This was not previously a minority position. If you look back to the origins of these massive foundations in the Gilded Age fortunes of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, their creation was massively controversial, Reich said, and for good reason.
“A hundred years ago, there was enormous skepticism that creating a philanthropic entity was either a way to cleanse your hands of the dirty way you’d made your money or, more interestingly, that it was welcome from the standpoint of democracy,” Reich told me at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “Because big philanthropy is an exercise of power, and in a democracy, any form of concentrated power deserves scrutiny, not gratitude.”
Both Teddy Roosevelt and union leaders like the AFL-CIO’s Samuel Gompers decried the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation. Roosevelt’s presidential opponent, William Howard Taft, criticized legislation that would have enabled the foundation as “a bill to incorporate Mr. Rockefeller.”
Our era has not seen similar skepticism, despite the wealth inequality that serves as the precondition for such massive foundations. Though perhaps it is returning.
Why is there so little understanding of the French Revolution? I’ve previously pointed out that, “More people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. The British government killed more people in their suppression of the 1798 Irish bid for independence. The Catholic Inquisition in just one province of Spain had a death count that far exceeded the number killed in the entire French Revolution. In criticizing revolution, such counter-revolutionaries were defending colonial empires and theocracies that were more violent and oppressive than any revolution in history. For example, the Catholic Church, that ancient bastion of traditionalism and conservative morality, ordered the death of millions over six centuries. At least, a revolution is typically a single event or short period of violence. Oppressive governments can extend such violence continuously generation after generation.” (The Haunted Moral Imagination; for specific figures, see this comment)
That isn’t meant to rationalize violent revolutions. Still, let’s be honest with ourselves. Who started the French Revolution or else co-opted the revolutionary fervor? Sure, there were the bread riots involving the restless peasants who were starving to death, but that alone would not have led to revolution. It was primarily the clerical elite and landed aristocracy who wanted to wrench power away from what they perceived as a failed and incompetent monarchy in order to increase their own power. The Jacobins, and later on Napoleon, weren’t democrats, much less socialists or even populists. Those who gained control of the French Revolution, as the Federalists did with the American Revolution, were mostly the upper classes who were aspiring to be the new ruling elite — as conspirators, leaders and beneficiaries of what were, in Marxist terms, bourgeois revolutions (different than proletarian revolutions; some Marxists argue that bourgeois revolutions are what create capitalism whereas proletarian revolutions as a following stage of development that happens within capitalism itself after it’s been established, since the latter requires a capitalist working class, the proletariat, to exist before they could revolt). Many of these bourgeois revolutionaries, from Maximilien Robespierre to George Washington, were a variety of what today we’d call right-wing reactionaries, at least going by Corey Robin’s use of that label.
This was the soon-to-be capitalist class. They were radically and violently enforcing capitalism upon a feudal society or what remained of it. We forget that this was the bloody birth of modern economic ideology, following its earlier conception in imperial colonialism and the centuries of privatization/theft of the commons. The French Revolution had everything to do with capitalism, something that would not exist in its present form if not for Napoleon having overthrown all across Europe the despotic pre-capitalist system and local idiosyncrasies of common law, having replaced it with a well-regulated civil law and a common monetary system. This created the groundwork for a certain kind of modern capitalism that has ever since defined mainland Europe. British mercantilism was even more violent, based on a variety of evils, including but not limited to genocide and slavery. Those were among the main models of modern capitalism. If you’re against violent revolution and radical ideologies, then that means you’re opposed to capitalism as we know it. There is no two ways about this. It didn’t emerge naturally and peacefully but was imposed by revolution and empire.
From the Jacobin takeover of the French Revolution to its culmination in the imperial reign of Napoleon, it was a right-wing backlash through and through. It had nothing to do with democracy as mobocracy. It was mostly controlled by wealthy men who were the elite both before and after the revolution. Thomas Paine in the French National Assembly was ignored when he suggested that they should write a democratic constitution ensuring equal rights, including voting suffrage, to all citizens. The ‘revolutionary’ elite thought egalitarianism that included the masses was ludicrous. Don’t forget that Napoleon gave the land back to the former landed aristocracy. Instead of aristocrats, they were then capitalists. Instead of imperialism justified by monarchy, it was an empire built on capitalism. And instead of a king, there was an emperor. It was the same difference. The authoritarian power of the system remained quite similar. Millions upon millions of feudal serfs and foreign populations were sacrificed on the altar of European capitalism.
The rhetoric of capitalism has often used the language of revolution and reform, but in practice those imposing capitalism were less than idealistic. This includes Napoleon in his claims of a civil society where everyone was on equal footing: “Overall, the is no consensus amongst modern historians about the legacy of French and Napoleonic reforms in Europe. The view of Grab (2003, p. 20) that “On a European level, the main significance of the Napoleonic rule lay in marking the transition from the ancien régime to the modern era,” is a common one. Yet there is disagreement about this point, with some, for example Blanning (1989), arguing that reform was already happening and the effects of Napoleon were negligible or even negative. Grab himself notes that Napoleon was “Janus faced”—undermining his reforms by his complicity to the rule of the local oligarchs. He writes: “Paradoxically, Napoleon himself sometimes undermined his own reform policies . . . In a number of states he compromised with conservative elites, allowing them to preserve their privileges as long as they recognized his supreme position” (Grab, 2003, p. 23)” (Daron Acemogluy et al, From Ancien Régime to Capitalism: The French Revolution as a Natural Experiment). Then again, this “Janus faced” tendency remains true of capitalism to this day, such as how the American empire will argue for rule of law in one case while at the same moment elsewhere aligning with local oligarchs or, if the desired local oligarchs don’t already exist, then creating them. That duplicity and complicity is the defining feature of capitalist regimes.
Whatever you think of it, you can’t deny the result of these revolutions was capitalism. Napoleon was a visionary who sought to implement a continental-wide trade system that would make Europe independent. His was a different vision of capitalism than that of the British, but it was capitalism, maybe more akin to Thomas Jefferson’s vision as opposed the corporate hegemony and mercantilism of the British East India Company: “A vision of the peasant smallholder and modest bourgeois landowner – hard-working, self-sufficient leaders of tightly knit rural communities and small towns – to whom the ethos of his legal and financial reforms appealed so much” (Michael Broers, Napoleon was a European to his core – except when it came to England). These two visions, expressed as Federalism and Anti-Federalism, would struggle for power in post-revolutionary America, but what both had in common was the assumption that capitalism inevitably would be the new social order. Feudalism was decisively ended and, though proto-socialism had challenged the establishment as early as the English Civil War, no other alternative was able to challenge the dominance of capitalist realism until much later.
Napoleon was defending the new capitalist system. Yes, it is true that Napoleon was an imperialist, even if it was merely a variant of what came before. There was no conundrum in that. Capitalism, right from the beginning, went hand in hand with this revamped imperialism. This was seen with how colonial corporatism, indentured servitude, slavery, sharecropping, prison labor, company towns, etc were the various expressions of modernized neo-feudalism in carrying over some of the old practices and incorporating them into the emergent capitalism that was taking shape during that period and following it, although eventually many of these traces of feudalism would fade (e.g., the slave plantation and the company town, like the feudal village that came before, would prove to be less profitable than the hyper-individualism that destroyed community and consumed social capital; though feudal-style capitalism still seems to work well in countries like China where workers are locked into factories).
There were other elements during that revolutionary era. But genuine left-wing voices like Thomas Paine, they were silenced and eliminated. That was the case in both major revolutions, American and French, with Paine having failed to fully promote democracy in either one. His advocacy of a free society, a free citizenry, and free markets would not prevail. For the most part, the authoritarians won. In some ways, the post-revolutionary authoritarianism was less oppressive than the feudal authoritarianism. The reason the peasants were restless under the French monarchy is because they were starving to death and food shortages became less of an issue with the modern improvements and reforms of agriculture, trade, etc (when people did starve in the post-revolutionary era as they did in Ireland under British rule, it was done intentionally to weaken and eliminate the population, an artificially-created food shortage by stealing the food and selling it on the international market). But whatever you think of one kind of authoritarianism over another, the point is that it wasn’t left-wing ideology that came to rule in the United States and France, not even when the revolutions were at their height. Both countries sought their own versions of imperialism and attempted to spread across their respective continents, although one attempt was more successful than the other in the long term.
No rational, intelligent, and educated person could blame any of this on left-wingers. Even much of the so-called “classical liberalism” that came to define the capitalist class has since then been claimed by the political right, ignoring the more complex history of early liberalism such as that of the radicalized working class (Nature’s God and American Radicalism). The rabble-rousing left-wing of that era, limited as it had been, was so fully trounced that it took generations for it to regain enough force to be a threat later on in the 19th century (e.g., feminists). Capitalism won that fight, for good or ill, and it was a particular kind of capitalism, plutocratic and increasingly corporatist, mostly that of wealthy white male landowners. Those in favor of capitalism have to accept both credit and blame for what was created through that early modern period of violent revolution and brutal oppression. And, yes, the American Revolution involved a high death count.
The French Revolution was central to the rise of modern capitalism in its relationship to modern rule of law and well-regulated markets, as is rarely acknowledged. But admittedly, it was the American Revolution that was most fully led by a capitalist class, as the colonies were the site of the emergent capitalist mentality. The earliest British colonies, after all, were originally founded as for-profit corporations. That was something that had never before existed. That brand of capitalism, from that point on, would be marked by violence. That has been true ever since, as seen with big biz alliance with Nazis, Pinochet, Saudis, etc, not to mention the CIA overthrowing democratic governments to ensure that big biz can freely exploit foreign workers and natural resources. This continues with the wars of aggression in the Middle East for purposes of controlling oil fields, pipelines, and ports.
Within capitalism, the revolutionary is simply the precursor to the counter-revolutionary. But in a sense, all of modernity has been an ongoing revolution, a radical overthrow of traditional society, a piecemeal dismantling of the ancien regime, the elimination of the commons and the commoners. That revolution maybe is finally coming to its culmination, as there isn’t much left of what came before. The so-called creative destruction of this capitalist revolution, over the ensuing centuries, has consumed itself and what remains is transnational corporatocracy and kleptocracy, a brutal authoritarianism at a scale never before seen. The seed of that violence was apparent in those first modern revolutions. That isn’t to dismiss the genuine democratic reforms that followed in some cases, if less impressive than was hoped for at the time, but the democratic reformers of the revolutionary era could not have imagined how much worse authoritarianism would get. And with fascism returning to public imagination, I doubt we’ve yet seen the worst of it.
A lesser known founding father is John Dickinson, but he should be more well known considering how important he was at the time. His politics could today be described as moderate conservatism or maybe status quo liberalism. During conflict with the British Empire, he hoped the colonial leaders would seek reconciliation. Yet even as he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, not based on principle but prudence, he didn’t stand in the way of those who supported it. And once war was under way, he served in the revolutionary armed forces. After that, he was a key figure in developing the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
Although a Federalist, he was highly suspicious of nationalism, the two being distinguished at the time. It might be noted that, if not for losing the war of rhetoric, the Anti-Federalists would be known as Federalists for they actually wanted a functioning federation. Indeed, Dickinson made arguments that are more Anti-Federalist in spirit. An example of this is his warning against a centralized government possessing both purse and sword, that is to say a powerful government that has both a standing army and the means of taxation to fund it without any need of consent of the governed. That is what the Articles protected against and the Constitution failed to do.
That warning remains unheeded to this day. And so the underlying issue remains silenced, the conflict and tension remains unresolved. The lack of political foresight and moral courage was what caused the American Revolution, the problems (e.g., division of power) arising in the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution still being problems generations later. The class war and radical ideologies from the 17th century led to the decades of political strife and public outrage prior to the official start of the American Revolution. But the British leadership hoped to continue to suppress the growing unrest, similar to how present American leadership hopes for the same and probably with the same eventual result.
What is interesting is how such things never go away and how non-radicals like Dickinson can end up giving voice to radical ideas. The idea of the purse strings being held by a free people, i.e., those taxed having the power of self-governance to determine their own taxation, is not that far off from Karl Marx speaking of workers controlling the means of production — both implying that a society is only free to the degree people are free. Considering Dickinson freed the slaves he inherited, even a reluctant revolutionary such as himself could envision the radicalism of a free people.
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On a related thought, one of the most radical documents, of course, was Thomas Jefferson’s strongly worded Declaration of Independence. It certainly was radical when it was written and, as with much else from that revolutionary era, maintains its radicalism to this day.
The Articles of Confederation, originally drafted by Dickinson, were closely adhering to the guiding vision of the Declaration. Even though Dickinson was against declaring independence until all alternatives had been exhausted, once independence had been declared he was very much about following a course of moral principle as set down by that initial revolutionary document.
Yet the Constitution, that is the second constitution after the Articles, was directly unconstitutional and downright authoritarian according to the Articles. The men of the Constitutional Convention blatantly disregarded their constitutional mandate in their having replaced the Articles without constitutional consensus and consent, that is to say it was a coup (many of the revolutionary soldiers didn’t take this coup lightly and continued the revolutionary war through such acts as Shay’s Rebellion, which was violently put down by the very Federal military that the Anti-Federalists warned about).
But worse still, the Constitution ended up being a complete betrayal of the Declaration which set out the principles that justified a revolution in the first place. As Howard Schartz put it:
“The Declaration itself, by contrast, never envisioned a Federal government at all. Ironically, then, if one wants to see the political philosophy of the United States in the Declaration of Independence, one should theoretically be against any form of federal government and not just for a particular interpretation of its limited powers.”
(Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Kindle Locations 5375-5378)
It does seem that the contradiction bothered Dickinson. But he wasn’t a contrarian by nature, much less a rabblerouser. Once it was determined a new constitution was going to be passed, he sought the best compromise he saw as possible, although on principle he still refused to show consent by being a signatory. As for Jefferson, whether or not he ever thought the Constitution was a betrayal of the Declaration, he assumed any constitution was an imperfect document and that no constitution would or should last beyond his own generation.
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Letters from a Farmer
No free people ever existed, or can ever exist, without keeping, to use a common, but strong expression, “the purse strings,” in their own hands. Where this is the case, they have a constitutional check upon the administration, which may thereby be brought into order without violence: But where such a power is not lodged in the people, oppression proceeds uncontrolled in its career, till the governed, transported into rage, seek redress in the midst of blood and confusion.
Nevertheless I acknowledge the proceedings of the convention furnish my mind with many new and strong reasons, against a complete consolidation of the states. They tend to convince me, that it cannot be carried with propriety very far—that the convention have gone much farther in one respect than they found it practicable to go in another; that is, they propose to lodge in the general government very extensive powers—powers nearly, if not altogether, complete and unlimited, over the purse and the sword. But, in its organization, they furnish the strongest proof that the proper limbs, or parts of a government, to support and execute those powers on proper principles (or in which they can be safely lodged) cannot be formed. These powers must be lodged somewhere in every society; but then they should be lodged where the strength and guardians of the people are collected. They can be wielded, or safely used, in a free country only by an able executive and judiciary, a respectable senate, and a secure, full, and equal representation of the people. I think the principles I have premised or brought into view, are well founded—I think they will not be denied by any fair reasoner. It is in connection with these, and other solid principles, we are to examine the constitution. It is not a few democratic phrases, or a few well formed features, that will prove its merits; or a few small omissions that will produce its rejection among men of sense; they will inquire what are the essential powers in a community, and what are nominal ones; where and how the essential powers shall be lodged to secure government, and to secure true liberty.
When I recollect how lately congress, conventions, legislatures, and people contended in the cause of liberty, and carefully weighed the importance of taxation, I can scarcely believe we are serious in proposing to vest the powers of laying and collecting internal taxes in a government so imperfectly organized for such purposes. Should the United States be taxed by a house of representatives of two hundred members, which would be about fifteen members for Connecticut, twenty-five for Massachusetts, etc., still the middle and lower classes of people could have no great share, in fact, in taxation. I am aware it is said, that the representation proposed by the new constitution is sufficiently numerous; it may be for many purposes; but to suppose that this branch is sufficiently numerous to guard the rights of the people in the administration of the government, in which the purse and sword are placed, seems to argue that we have forgotten what the true meaning of representation is. I am sensible also, that it is said that congress will not attempt to lay and collect internal taxes; that it is necessary for them to have the power, though it cannot probably be exercised. I admit that it is not probable that any prudent congress will attempt to lay and collect internal taxes, especially direct taxes: but this only proves that the power would be improperly lodged in congress, and that it might be abused by imprudent and designing men.
It is said, that as the federal head must make peace and war, and provide for the common defense, it ought to possess all powers necessary to that end: that powers unlimited, as to the purse and sword, to raise men and monies, and form the militia, are necessary to that end; and, therefore, the federal head ought to possess them. This reasoning is far more specious than solid: it is necessary that these powers so exist in the body politic, as to be called into exercise whenever necessary for the public safety; but it is by no means true, that the man, or congress of men, whose duty it more immediately is to provide for the common defense, ought to possess them without limitation. But clear it is, that if such men, or congress, be not in a situation to hold them without danger to liberty, he or they ought not to possess them. It has long been thought to be a well-founded position, that the purse and sword ought not to be placed in the same hands in a free government. Our wise ancestors have carefully separated them—placed the sword in the hands of their king, even under considerable limitations, and the purse in the hands of the commons alone: yet the king makes peace and war, and it is his duty to provide for the common defense of the nation. This authority at least goes thus far—that a nation, well versed in the science of government, does not conceive it to be necessary or expedient for the man entrusted with the common defense and general tranquility, to possess unlimitedly the powers in question, or even in any considerable degree.
“Paine’s The Age of Reason: I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity, as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Bonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs or the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.”
~ John Adams
The Age of Paine, out of which the modern world was born. And being reminded of this, my mind ever drifts back to the hope for a new Age of Paine. No one can doubt that Thomas Paine was ahead of his time. But it becomes ever more apparent that, all these centuries later, he is also ahead of our time. We need less John Adams, more Thomas Paine.
So, who exactly was Thomas Paine? What kind of person was he? What did he embody and express?
First of all, Paine was a working class bloke who aspired for something greater. But he didn’t start his life with grand visions. He would have been happy with a good job and a family, if life had worked out for him, if not for loss after loss. He sought family life years before self-improvement became a central focus. He sought self-improvement years before he turned to reform. And he sought reform years before revolution ever crossed his mind. It wasn’t until middle age that he found himself carried ashore to the American colonies, impoverished and near death. He was a sensitive soul in a harsh world. There was little justice to be found other than what one fought for. So, he finally decided to fight.
That is where his personality comes in. He was a kind and devoted friend, but also he could be a fierce critic and unrelenting enemy. He took betrayal as a personal attack, even if it was limited to betraying his principles. He was an ornery asshole with a bad attitude, having seen the dark side of life. In time, he would become a morally righteous troublemaker and rabble-rouser, a highly effective disturber of the peace and a serious threat to the status quo. To the targets of his sharp tongue, he was opinionated, arrogant, and haughty. He was tolerant of much but not of bullshit, no matter its source.
Paine was a social justice warrior with heavy emphasis on the latter part. He didn’t back down from fights and he was a physically capable man, not afraid to be in a literal battle. He considered a pen and sword to be equally powerful, depending on circumstances, and he took up both when necessary. If he were alive today, he would be punching Nazis and writing inspiring words for others to join him in the fight for freedom. The likes of Adams and Burke, for all their complaints, never suggested Paine was a coward or a hypocrite. He stated in no uncertain terms what he believed was worth fighting for and then, unlike Adams and Burke, he fought for it. Without the slightest doubt, he had the courage of his convictions.
Yet he was never a dogmatic ideologue. He was always focused on what would pragmatically improve the lives of average people. He didn’t allow himself to be carried away by ideological zeal — demonstrated by his offering a moderating voice for democratic principles and process even as the French Revolution took a dark turn, which landed him in prison awaiting the guillotine. Injustice from reactionaries posing as revolutionaries, to his mind, was as dangerous as injustice from monarchs, aristocrats, and plutocrats.
Most of all, Paine was a seeker and speaker of truth. He refused to be silenced, refused to back down, and refused to be kept in his place. He dared to question and doubt, even if it meant knocking over and slaughtering sacred cows. His first concern wasn’t in winning popularity contests. He had no aspiration to be like the self-styled noble aristocracy, much less a respectable leader of the ruling elite. He would befriend the powerful when they were willing to be allies and then attack the very same people when they proved themselves to be false and unworthy. His opinions didn’t sway with the wind, but his understanding did develop over time. He became ever more clear in what he saw as required to create and maintain a truly free society.
He is known for having been a writer. But he had a varied history before he became a newspaperman and a muckraking journalist which eventually led to his revolutionary pamphleteering. He held many normal jobs in the early decades of his life, a staymaker by training who was a privateer for a short period, then a tax collector, and did odd jobs. Like anyone else, he was simply trying to make his way in the world. No one is born a revolutionary. It took most of his life to become who he is now remembered for.
So what kind of person did he become? He was a populist no doubt, a man of the people, what some would unfairly dismiss as a demagogue. He was simply acting and speaking from what he personally experienced and understood about the world. That led him to develop into a freedom fighter — anti-elitist, anti-authoritarian, and anti-fundamentalist. More basically, he was a left-liberal, social democrat, economic progressive, and civil libertarian. His political commitments expressed themselves in many ways, from abolitionism to feminism, from universal suffrage to free speech rights, from fighting war profiteering to demanding a basic income.
Still, it doesn’t seem that Paine saw himself as a political being. He preferred to focus on other things, if world events had allowed him. This was explained by Edward G. Gray in Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge (pp. 3-5):
“OF THE MANY ESSAYS Thomas Paine wrote, among the least known is “The Construction of Iron Bridges.” This brief history of Paine’s architectural career, written in 1803, was of no particular interest to his political followers, nor has it been to his many subsequent biographers. The essay after all has little to do with the radical critique of hereditary monarchy or the cult of natural rights for which Paine has been so justly celebrated. But it is a window into his world. Many of the luminaries in Paine’s circle were inventors. Paine’s friend Benjamin Franklin devised bifocals, the lightning rod, the glass armonica, and countless other devices. Another friend, Thomas Jefferson, invented an improved plow and a mechanism for copying letters. Some revolutionary leaders not known for their inventions devoted time to building things. George Washington often seems to have lavished as much attention on his house at Mount Vernon as on matters of state. From this vantage, Paine seems no different.
“But Paine was different. Unlike so many of his American contemporaries, Paine had a narrow field of interests. He never showed any passion for art or philosophy. He claimed repeatedly to have learned little from books. He did have other mechanical interests. He attempted to invent a smokeless candle and later in life he contemplated a perpetual-motion machine driven by gunpowder. But neither of these consumed Paine in the way his bridge did. Indeed, far from a gentlemanly hobby, bridge architecture became a career for Paine. In his essay on iron bridges, he wrote that he had had every intention of devoting himself fully to architecture but was drawn away by events beyond his control.
“The most disruptive of these was the 1790 publication by the British politician, and former friend of Paine, Edmund Burke, of Reflections on the Revolution in France. For Paine, Burke’s fierce denunciation of the course of events across the English Channel was about much more than France and its revolution; it was an attack on the political ideals on which his adopted country had been founded and on which a just future would depend. “The publication of this work of Mr. Burke,” Paine explained, “absurd in its principles and outrageous in its manner, drew me . . . from my bridge operations, and my time became employed in defending a system then established and operating in America and which I wished to see peaceably adopted in Europe.” The refutation of Burke became “more necessary,” for the moment, than the construction of the bridge.”
The political situation couldn’t be ignored in the way it directly intruded upon the lives of individuals and impinged upon entire communities, often with real world impacts. And the scathing, cruel words of Burke hit Paine hard, for Burke was someone he had considered a friend. Even so, he remained a working class bloke in his attitude and concerns. That is why bridge-building had taken hold of his attention, as a practical endeavor in building public infrastructure in a young nation that had little public infrastructure. It wasn’t that he was an aspiring technocrat in the budding bureaucracy, as his concerns were on a human level. He was born to a father who was a skilled tradesman. As such, he was trained from a young age to think like a builder, with the concrete skills of constructing something to be used by people in their daily lives.
Still, he had a restless mind. As an endlessly curious and lifelong autodidact, his interests were wider than most. He surely read far more than he admitted to. His claims of being unlearned were more of a pose to give force to his arguments, a way of letting his principles stand on their own merit with no appeal to authority. He preferred to use concrete imagery and examples than to reference famous intellectuals and philosophical rhetoric. He didn’t value learning as a hobby, an attitude held by aristocrats. He had no desire to be a casual dilettante or Renaissance man.
He was above average in intelligence but no genius. He simply wanted to understand the world in order to make a difference. Mainly, he had talent for communicating and writing, which helped him stand out in a world that gave little respect to the working class. But what gave force to his words was his ability and willingness to imagine, dream, hope, and aspire. He was a visionary.
Sure, he was an imperfect person, as are we all. But knowing who he was, he didn’t try to be anything else. He felt driven toward something and his life was the following of that impulse, that daimonic inspiration. Such internal motivation was an anchor to his life, steadying his course amidst strong currents and troubling storms. Forced to make his own way, he had to figure it out step by step along a wandering path through the world. He was no Adams or Burke trying to position himself in the respectable social order by playing the role of paternalistic professional politician. Instead, he dedicated his entire life to the values and needs of the commoner, as inspired and envisioned by our common humanity.
Thomas Paine was born a nobody, spent his life poor, died forgotten, and departed this world with little left to his name, having given away everything he had to give. Some have maligned his life and work as a failure, judged his revolutionary dream as having gone wrong. Others would disagree and recent assessments have been more kind to him. His words remain and they still have much to offer us, reminding us of what kind of man he was and what kind of society we might yet become. May a new Age of Paine come to fulfill these promises.
“I speak an open and disinterested language, dictated by no passion but that of humanity. To me, who have not only refused offers, because I thought them improper, but have declined rewards I might with reputation have accepted, it is no wonder that meanness and imposition appear disgustful. Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good. […]
“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness: When these things can be said, then may the country boast of its constitution and its government.” ~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man
Thomas Paine was the most radical of the main founders. He was close friends with many of the other founders and they respected him. Some of them even saw him key to the success of the Revolution. Even John Adams, in criticizing Paine, acknowledged his importance — referring to the “age of Paine”. Most Americans don’t realize how radical was the American Revolution. Originally, the word ‘revolution’ just meant a cycle, as it was referred to astrology and astronomy. Civilizations rose and collapsed, in cycles. But the American Revolution didn’t just demonstrate a cycle for it created something entirely new. That is how the word ‘revolution’ gained a new meaning.
I’ve had a prediction. I don’t make too many predictions. But this one I’ve been saying maybe since the Bush administration. Here it is. If there is ever a major Hollywood movie or cable series about Thomas Paine (like the HBO series about John Adams), it will be a sign that the US is on the verge of revolutionary-scale changes.
We haven’t yet seen such a major production about Thomas Paine. But I did notice a smaller production. It is a one-actor play written and acted by Ian Ruskin, To Begin the World Over Again. It was filmed last year, recently played on PBS, and is available online. Sadly, few people probably have heard about it, much less watched it. I can only hope that it might inspire someone else to do something further with the story of Paine’s life. He wasn’t just the most radical of the founders, as he also led the most interesting life. If the life of the excruciatingly boring John Adams can be made into a successful HBO series, then an HBO series about the adventurous, rabble-rousing and wide-traveling Paine would be pure entertainment.
I watched Ruskin’s portrayal with my father. He enjoyed it, I suppose. He had a hard time understanding my prediction, why more Americans learning about the radicalism at the heart of American history would in any way inspire change or indicate change already under way, something that seems obvious to me. From a conservative perspective, Paine came off as a bit socialist to my father, which misses the context of that era of feudalism ending while colonial corporatism and plantation slavery took its place. And he thought Paine had a bit of a bad attitude, constantly complaining.
But I noted that Paine didn’t make it a practice of personally attacking others, particularly not others who didn’t first personally attack him or betray him, as he perceived having been done by George Washington in abandoning Paine for political convenience. Besides, how does one have a positive attitude about a world full of suffering? And how does one relate well to those benefiting from that suffering? It’s specifically Paine’s bad attitude that I respect to such a degree, as it was a moral righteousness fueled by compassion. I will never judge anyone for hating oppressive power with all their heart and soul. If that is a bad attitude, then I too have a bad attitude.
Washington was a man of respectability who dedicated his entire life to playing the role of enlightened aristocrat, even when that meant suppressing his own beliefs such as deism and sacrificing personal relationships such as with Paine. That is something Paine couldn’t understand for all the suffering, oppression, and injustice in the world was extremely personal for those who were its victims and for those who put their lives on the line. Paine identified with the downtrodden, as he didn’t have the privilege of an aristocrat to stand above it all. Paine knew poverty and struggle on a concrete level of life experience, in a way that was simply incomprehensible to someone like Washington who existed in a world of wealth, luxury, pleasure, and slaves serving his every need and want.
Obviously, ‘revolution’ meant very different things to these men. The Federalists like Washington simply wanted to reestablish centralized power as quickly as possible in order to put the people back in their place and once again enforce a social order ruled by an elite. There was no question that the same Americans who fought British oppression should be oppressed by Washington when they kept on demanding their rights, as happened in the violent attack on Shay’s Rebellion. The revolution was over when the elite said it was over. Washington had no intention in allowing a democracy to form. Neither did John Adams, who as president passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a pure expression of anti-democratic authoritarianism that demonstrated the true intentions of the (pseudo-)Federalists and proved right the Anti-Federalists (i.e., true Federalists advocating the democratic republicanism of decentralized Confederation). Those like Paine understood all too well the game being played and they had no interest in trading one oppressive rule for another.
Thomas Paine represents the radicalism that many Americans have forgotten, not unlike how many British had forgotten the radicalism of the English Civil War. Anything that would cause the scales of historical amnesia to fall away from the public’s eyes would be a radical act. Radicalism always begins in small ways, often by a few people standing up and speaking out. From there, no one knows what will follow. In a recent post, S.C. Hickman described Paine’s left-wing politics and asked, “Where is the Thomas Paine for our time?” Well, centuries ago, those like Paine asked similar questions. The simple truth is that no one is born a radical. There are potential revolutionaries among us at this very moment. The question is how do the rabble-rousers get noticed and get heard in a political and media system more tightly controlled than the pre-revolutionary British Empire. Radicalism is already in the air. It’s just a matter of what will follow.