Attributes of Thomas Paine

“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

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Predicting an Age of Paine

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.

 

You might be an Anti-Federalist and not know it

If you’re an American who doesn’t know what the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were fighting about or doesn’t even know that such a fight happened, you need to immediately learn about it.

The actual debates framed in these terms began during the American Revolution. But the larger debate had been going on in the American colonies since the English Civil War, the time when a king was beheaded long before the French Revolution. The revolution as a struggle had been happening for generations prior to the official revolution. It was a fight that took its most clear form against colonial elites in conflicts such as the War of Regulation, turned into revolution against imperialism and elitism during the American Revolution, and then continued to flare up after the revolution in struggles against continued injustice and oppression as seen with Shay’s Rebellion and the slave revolts.

Right from the beginning, it divided the country into two factions that at times fought almost as ruthlessly with one another as they had done with the British soldiers. A two party system formed out of it, something many of the founders wanted to avoid and saw as a sign of failure. The debate and struggle of power would continue, the last founders living long enough to see the growing conflicts that would eventually overtake the country during the Civil War.

It was far more than a war of words, but words matter because they are powerful in shaping our minds. It is through words that we know the past which determines how we are able to envision the future. This old debate is at the heart of every conflict in US history, not even primarily a fight between the left and right. The revolution never ended. It just constantly took new forms and was fought on new battlefields. It was less violent at times, but it has never gone dormant.

The first thing to know about this is a point of confusion. The Anti-Federalists were the strongest supporters of Federalism. But they lost the war of rhetoric, partly because the (pseudo-)Federalists smashed their printing presses and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, basically making free speech illegal only years after free speech was used to win the revolution.

The Anti-Federalists (AKA the real Federalists) warned about many things that have since come to pass. Many of their predictions were proven true even in their lifetime, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Anti-Federalists were trying to prevent the problems before they happened. But the oligarchic (pseudo-)Federalists didn’t see concentrated wealth and power as a problem, as many of them wanted a ruling elite to act similarly to the British monarchy and aristocracy.

Here is the tricky part. Obviously, the Anti-Federalists lost power and that is why we have the present dysfunctional political system. It is easier to prevent problems than to solve them after they’ve been entrenched for centuries. Regaining the original Anti-Federalist vision that inspired the American Revolution and founded a new nation is much more difficult because almost all memory of it has been written out of the mainstream history books, censored from political debate, and so erased from public memory.

A good first step would be for more people to simply learn about it. There is no way for Americans to fight for freedom and liberty, justice and fairness when they lack comprehension of what those values mean within the American tradition. Those values were betrayed. The Anti-Federalists can help Americans understand why that happened and what was lost.

The voice and echo of the Anti-Federalists was heard…

When Patrick Henry declared, “Give me liberty or give me death”… When Paine advocated for a basic income in compensation for the privatization of the commons… When women voted in New Jersey right after the American Revolution… When the citizens of Vermont abolished slavery almost a hundred years before the rest of the country…

When Lincoln stated that, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital”… When FDR pushed for a Second Bill of Rights… When Eisenhower warned of the Military-Industrial Complex…

When Thoreau went to prison for not paying taxes that supported war of aggression… When Darrow fought for the separation of church and state within public education… When Debs spoke out for the working man… When MLK demanded freedom and justice for all…

When third party candidates such as Nader have challenged the two-party stranglehold… When the largest protest movement in world history formed to oppose the Iraq War, a war of aggression, before it even began… When Americans desecrate symbols of oppression and violence… When Americans demand their forces be heard as authoritarianism threatens…

And on and on. It continues.

We Anti-Federalists are still here. And we will go on reminding our fellow Americans what real Federalism is about. If you believe in a free democratic society, if you support basic human rights and civil liberties, if you oppose injustice and oppression, then you might be an Anti-Federalist and not know it.

Join the revolution! But remember, the revolution begins in the mind.

Democratic Republicanism in Early America

There was much debate and confusion around various terms, in early America.

The word ‘democracy’ wasn’t used on a regular basis at the time of the American Revolution, even as the ideal of it was very much in the air. Instead, the word ‘republic’ was used by most people back then to refer to democracy. But some of the founding fathers such as Thomas Paine avoided such confusion and made it clear beyond any doubt by speaking directly of ‘democracy’. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the first founding document and 3rd president, formed a political party with both ‘democratic’ and ‘republican’ in the name, demonstrating that no conflict was seen between the two terms.

The reason ‘democracy’ doesn’t come up in founding documents is that the word is too specific, although it gets alluded to when speaking of “the People” since democracy is literally “people power”. Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence, was particularly clever in avoiding most language that evoked meaning that was too ideologically singular and obvious (e.g., he effectively used rhetoric to avoid the divisive debates for and against belief in natural law). That is because the founding documents were meant to unite a diverse group of people with diverse opinions. Such a vague and ambiguous word as ‘republic’ could mean almost anything to anyone and so was an easy way to paper over disagreements and differing visions. If more specific language was used that made absolutely clear what they were actually talking about, it would have led to endless conflict, dooming the American experiment from the start.

Yet it was obvious from pamphlets and letters that many American founders and revolutionaries wanted democracy, in whole or part, to the degree they had any understanding of it. Some preferred a civic democracy with some basic social democratic elements and civil rights, while others (mostly Anti-Federalists) pushed for more directly democratic forms of self-governance. The first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was clearly a democratic document with self-governance greatly emphasized. Even among those who were wary of democracy and spoke out against it, they nonetheless regularly used democratic rhetoric (invoking democratic ideals, principles, and values) because democracy was a major reason why so many fought the revolution in the first place. If not for democracy, there was little justification for and relevance in starting a new country, beyond a self-serving power grab by a new ruling elite.

Without assuming that large number of those early Americans had democracy in mind, their speaking of a republic makes no sense. And that is a genuine possibility for at least some of them, as they weren’t always clear in their own minds about what they did and didn’t mean. To be technical (according to even the common understanding from the 1700s), a country either is a democratic republic or a non-democratic republic. The variety of non-democratic republics would include what today we’d call theocracy, fascism, communism, etc. It is a bit uncertain exactly what kind of republic various early Americans envisioned, but one thing is certain: There was immense overlap and conflation between democracy and republicanism in the early American mind. This was the battleground of the fight between Federalists and Anti-Federalists (or to be more accurate, between pseudo-Federalists and real Federalists).

As a label, stating something is a republic says nothing at all about what kind of government it is. All that it says is what a government isn’t, that is to say it isn’t a monarchy, although there were even those who argued for republican monarchy with an elective king which is even more confused and so the king theoretically would serve the citizenry that democratically elected him. Even some of the Federalists talked about this possibility of republic with elements of a monarchy, strange as it seems to modern Americans. This is what the Anti-Federalists worried about.

Projecting our modern ideological biases onto the past is the opposite of helpful. The earliest American democrats were, by definition, republicans. And most of the earliest American republicans were heavily influenced by democratic political philosophy, even when they denounced it while co-opting it. There was no way to avoid the democratic promise of the American Revolution and the founding documents. Without that promise, we Americans would still be British. That promise remains, yet unfulfilled. The seed of an ideal is hard to kill once planted.

Still, bright ideals cast dark shadows. And the reactionary authoritarianism of the counter-revolutionaries was a powerful force. It is an enemy we still fight. The revolution never ended.

* * *

Democracy Denied: The Untold Story
by Arthur D. Robbins
Kindle Locations 2862-2929

Fascism has been defined as “an authoritarian political ideology (generally tied to a mass movement) that considers individual and other societal interests inferior to the needs of the state, and seeks to forge a type of national unity, usually based on ethnic, religious, cultural, or racial attributes.”[ 130] If there is a significant difference between fascism thus defined and the society enunciated in Plato’s Republic,[ 131] in which the state is supreme and submission to a warrior class is the highest virtue, I fail to detect it. [132] What is noteworthy is that Plato’s Republic is probably the most widely known and widely read of political texts, certainly in the United States, and that the word “republic” has come to be associated with democracy and a wholesome and free way of life in which individual self-expression is a centerpiece.

To further appreciate the difficulty that exists in trying to attach specific meaning to the word “republic,” one need only consult the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.[ 133] There one will find a long list of republics divided by period and type. As of this writing, there are five listings by period (Antiquity, Middle Ages and Renaissance, Early Modern, 19th Century, and 20th Century and Later), encompassing 90 separate republics covered in Wikipedia. The list of republic types is broken down into eight categories (Unitary Republics, Federal Republics, Confederal Republics, Arab Republics, Islamic Republics, Democratic Republics, Socialist Republics, and People’s Republics), with a total of 226 entries. There is some overlap between the lists, but one is still left with roughly 300 republics— and roughly 300 ideas of what, exactly, constitutes a republic.

One might reasonably wonder what useful meaning the word “republic” can possibly have when applied in such diverse political contexts. The word— from “res publica,” an expression of Roman (i.e., Latin) origin— might indeed apply to the Roman Republic, but how can it have any meaning when applied to ancient Athens, which had a radically different form of government existing in roughly the same time frame, and where res publica would have no meaning whatsoever?

Let us recall what was going on in Rome in the time of the Republic. Defined as the period from the expulsion of the Etruscan kings (509 B.C.) until Julius Caesar’s elevation to dictator for life (44 B.C.),[ 134] the Roman Republic covered a span of close to five hundred years in which Rome was free of despotism. The title rex was forbidden. Anyone taking on kingly airs might be killed on sight. The state of affairs that prevailed during this period reflects the essence of the word “republic”: a condition— freedom from the tyranny of one-man rule— and not a form of government. In fact, The American Heritage College Dictionary offers the following as its first definition for republic: “A political order not headed by a monarch.”

[…] John Adams (1735– 1826), second President of the United States and one of the prime movers behind the U.S. Constitution, wrote a three-volume study of government entitled Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (published in 1787), in which he relies on the writings of Cicero as his guide in applying Roman principles to American government.[ 136] From Cicero he learned the importance of mixed governments,”[ 137] that is, governments formed from a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. According to this line of reasoning, a republic is a non-monarchy in which there are monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements. For me, this is confusing. Why, if one had just shed blood in unburdening oneself of monarchy, with a full understanding of just how pernicious such a form of government can be, would one then think it wise or desirable to voluntarily incorporate some form of monarchy into one’s new “republican” government? If the word “republic” has any meaning at all, it means freedom from monarchy.

The problem with establishing a republic in the United States was that the word had no fixed meaning to the very people who were attempting to apply it. In Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton says, “Sparta, Athens, Rome and Carthage were all republics”( F.P., No. 6, 57). Of the four mentioned, Rome is probably the only one that even partially qualifies according to Madison’s definition from Federalist No. 10 (noted earlier): “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place,” in which government is delegated “to a small number of citizens elected by the rest” (ibid, No. 10, 81-82).

Madison himself acknowledges that there is a “confounding of a republic with a democracy” and that people apply “to the former reasons drawn from the nature of the latter ”( ibid., No. 14, 100). He later points out that were one trying to define “republic” based on existing examples, one would be at a loss to determine the common elements. He then goes on to contrast the governments of Holland, Venice, Poland, and England, all allegedly republics, concluding, “These examples … are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic” and show “the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.”( ibid., No. 39, 241).

Thomas Paine offers a different viewpoint: “What is now called a republic, is not any particular form of government. It is wholly characteristical [sic] of the purport, matter, or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, res-publica, the public affairs or the public good” (Paine, 369) (italics in the original). In other words, as Paine sees it, “res-publica” describes the subject matter of government, not its form.

Given all the confusion about the most basic issues relating to the meaning of “republic,” what is one to do? Perhaps the wisest course would be to abandon the term altogether in discussions of government. Let us grant the word has important historical meaning and some rhetorical appeal. “Vive la Republique!” can certainly mean thank God we are free of the tyranny of one-man, hereditary rule. That surely is the sense the word had in early Rome, in the early days of the United States, and in some if not all of the French and Italian republics. Thus understood, “republic” refers to a condition— freedom from monarchy— not a form of government.

* * *

Roger Williams and American Democracy
US: Republic & Democracy
 (part two and three)
Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality
Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed
The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation
The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution
Wickedness of Civilization & the Role of Government
Spirit of ’76
A Truly Free People
Nature’s God and American Radicalism
What and who is America?
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
About The American Crisis No. III
Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus
Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood
Revolutionary Class War: Paine & Washington
Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost
Betrayal of Democracy by Counterrevolution
Revolutions: American and French (part two)
Failed Revolutions All Around
The Haunted Moral Imagination
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”
“…from every part of Europe.”

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence
A Vast Experiment
America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest
When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.

That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.

That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.

All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,

“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”

Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.

Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.

What and who is America?

The plutocrats have always believed they own the country. They think that by birthright or general superiority they deserve wealth and power. And they think that all the inferior Americans who risk their lives for the country and do all the hard work should simply submit.

When things go wrong, the plutocrats blame the public for getting the government they deserve. But when things go right, the plutocrats take all the credit.

Aristocrats like Washington won the American Revolution, really? Bullshit. There would have been no American Revolution, if the dirty masses hadn’t forced the issue and been fighting a class war for decades. The plutocrats only joined in because they wanted to co-opt the revolution that had become inevitable.

You want to know the real American Founders. You won’t hear much about them from mainstream historians nor did you probably learn much about them in public education. The rabble-rousers and revolutionaries were mostly poor working class folk. The lowly small farmers were protesting and fighting injustice long before the plantation owners even knew a revolution had begun.

The only way to know how change might be possible now is to understand what made it possible in the past. The people have to be their own leaders. And the ruling elite have to be forced to accept change once it is already happening and can’t be stopped.

* * *

American Power Under Challenge
By Noam Chomsky, Nation of Change

The rising opposition to the neoliberal assault highlights another crucial aspect of the standard convention: it sets aside the public, which often fails to accept the approved role of “spectators” (rather than “participants”) assigned to it in liberal democratic theory. Such disobedience has always been of concern to the dominant classes. Just keeping to American history, George Washington regarded the common people who formed the militias that he was to command as “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people [evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.”

In Violent Politics, his masterful review of insurgencies from “the American insurgency” to contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq, William Polk concludes that General Washington “was so anxious to sideline [the fighters he despised] that he came close to losing the Revolution.” Indeed, he “might have actually done so” had France not massively intervened and “saved the Revolution,” which until then had been won by guerrillas — whom we would now call “terrorists” — while Washington’s British-style army “was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.”

A common feature of successful insurgencies, Polk records, is that once popular support dissolves after victory, the leadership suppresses the “dirty and nasty people” who actually won the war with guerrilla tactics and terror, for fear that they might challenge class privilege. The elites’ contempt for “the lower class of these people” has taken various forms throughout the years. In recent times one expression of this contempt is the call for passivity and obedience (“moderation in democracy”) by liberal internationalists reacting to the dangerous democratizing effects of the popular movements of the 1960s.

A Truly Free People

“We may awake in fetters, more grievous, than the yoke we have shaken off.”
~Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Annapolis Conference

How many Americans understand or even suspect the radicalism that once inspired a people to revolt against one of the most powerful empires in the world? How many grasp how daring and vast was this experiment? How many know the names of these heroes? Besides maybe Thomas Paine, how many know about Ethan Allen and Thomas Young? I must admit that Abraham Clark is new to me.

I’ve often written about Paine. His example is inspiring and his life quite amazing. He practically came out of nowhere, setting the colonial world ablaze with his words. And he walked the talk, putting his life on the line again and again. But anyone can fight. What matters is what is fought for. Paine took revolution seriously, believing it to be more than a shifting of power from one ruling elite to another. He was not alone in this thought. Nor was he alone in understanding it was a class war. Clark, for example, shared that sentiment. They understood those who possessed the land and wealth would control the government, as that was always the principle of every despotic government, the very basis of monarchy and aristocracy.

Those like Paine, however, understood that there was a difference in the past. There had been countervailing forces that protected the commoners. For all the faults of feudalism, it enforced a social order of rights and obligations, not just the peasants to their lords but also vice versa. To be a peasant meant to belong to the land, quite literally, and no one could take it away from you, that is until that social order came undone. It wasn’t revolutionaries that destroyed the ancien regime. It was those in power, the supposed defenders of the ancien regime.

What the ruling elite possessed, in many cases, had been stolen. In dismantling feudalism, eliminating the Commons and the rights of the commoners, in creating a new class of landless peasants concentrated in the cities, they made revolution all but inevitable. This radical, anti-traditional capitalism oddly became the defining character of modern ‘conservatism’.

Joseph De Maistre, a French counter-revolutionary, noted that people only identify as conservatives after so much has already been lost. Conservatism isn’t so much conserving still existing and fully thriving traditions, but lamenting and romanticizing what once was or is imagined as having been. Conservatism is just the other side of radicalism. But, according to Corey Robin, conservatives understand full well that the ultimate blame for the destruction of the old order is the old order itself. Feudalism, as such, committed suicide. Conservatives don’t care about the old order itself or any of its traditions. Their only concern is to rebuild a rigid hierarchy, but almost any new system can be made to work for this purpose, even something as radical as capitalism that was the very cause of the destruction of the old order.

I’ve pointed out many times before that there was a strange phenomenon in post-revolutionary America. How quickly conservatives took up the rhetoric of the political left. How quickly the aristocrats and plutocrats co-opted the revolution. There were increasing restrictions in certain areas, specifically those without power began to have their rights constrained. This wasn’t just seen with poor whites or white women. “In some places, propertied women, free blacks, and Native Americans could vote, but those exceptions were just that. (Ed Crews)” True, they were exceptions, and yet for during the era leading up to the American Revolution these exceptions were becoming ever more common—to such an extent that a movement was forming, the very movement that helped give such moral force to the revolutionary zeal.

The revolution gave form to that radicalism, even as it strengthened the reactionary forces against it. In the following decades, so much was lost. “After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only a few percentage of Americans had the right to vote (the plutocratic elite of free white male landowners which added up to, as some calculate, around 6-8% of the total population who were eligible voters).” In several states, women had gained the right to vote and then in the early years of the new country they lost the vote again. But, of course, among the biggest losers were blacks, including free blacks, as they suddenly were perceived as a greater threat than ever before. What rights and freedoms they had slowly gained were eroded way as America moved closer to civil war. Black churches were shut down for fear of slave revolts and the few free blacks that had the vote lost it—as a newspaper described in 1838:

Since Jackson’s presidency, there’s been a push to give all white men the vote, even if they don’t own property.

Right now, free black men have the vote in several states. But as states revamp their constitutions to loosen voter requirements for white men, blacks are being stripped of rights they had.

Pennsylvania’s constitution of 1790 gave the vote to “every freeman of the age of twenty-one years.”

Today that was changed to say “every white freeman.”

It’s not just the radicalism that I wanted to bring attention to. What occurred to me is how this relates to the issue of the ancient world. Many revolutionaries looked back to ancient Rome and Greece. The idea of The People originated with the Greek démos.

It is hard for many of us today to take seriously this view of society and politics. We automatically see it as a fiction or an abstraction. But this is because organic communities are almost entirely dead in the modern West. The visceral sense of belonging to a people and a place, to one’s kin and neighbors, a coherent sense of community—this is foreign to us. We’ve become fully alienated, in terms of both the Marxian species-being and Cartesian anxiety.

I’ve had on my mind that human nature itself might in a sense be radical. It’s only in taking the ancient world seriously that we can begin to grasp who we are and what we might become. If we aren’t mere individuals, if we aren’t just billiard balls crashing into one another, then what are we? In our attempts to understand ourselves, what kind of world do we create? And in creating this world, how does this further shape that understanding?

To rethink human nature is a radical act because the very potential of radicalism exists within human nature. The new individualistic self took root in the Axial Age. And the psychological self took shape in the Renaissance. But it was the printing press that brought these ideas of the self down into the mess domain of public politics. Pandora’s Box was opened.

These were no longer just ideas to be pondered by the intelligentsia. Their radical potential became manifest. Yet enough of the older senses of self clung to the roots. The feudalism that had its origins in the ancient world was able to hold on into the revolutionary era, the old order still being fresh enough in public memory to be a source of inspiration for the 19th century Romantics.

The notion of The People was being reshaped by new ideas. But the very sense of being a people was nothing new. It was at the very heart of a still living tradition. It was that meeting of the old and new that led to such unpredictable results.

Christian G. Fritz, in American Sovereigns, writes (pp. 3-4):

It seems puzzling today that Americans once considered their sovereign to be the people acting collectively. Modern scholars suggest that sovereignty of the people a rhetorical flourish lacking practical application as a constitutional principle. As a crucial “fiction,” the people’s sovereignty had enormous political influence. But modern accounts of America’s constitutional history neglect the constitutional authority once imputed to such a collective sovereign and as such they fail to appreciate the earlier existence of a widely held belief in collective sovereignty that lost sway only after the Civil War.

The lost view of sovereignty assumed that a majority of the people created and therefore could revise constitutions at will, and that a given majority of one generation could not limit a later generation. America’s first constitutions, being an expression of people’s sovereignty, could not be turned against the majority of the people. Indeed, those constitutions frequently contained express provisions recognizing the broad scope of the people’s authority. Such statements encouraged an expansive view of the constitutional revision. The essence of the rule of law—that binding law exists above both the governors and the governed alike—was challenged by the idea that a sovereign people could not be bound even by a fundamental law of their own making.

Under the expansive view, adhering to procedures specifying constitutional change provided one means of determining the will of the sovereign. Nonetheless, constitutional text requiring special majorities could not prevail over the clear will of a majority to dispense with such requirements if that majority so desired. The key to legitimacy was whether constitutional change expressed the will of the collective sovereign, not adherence to specific procedures. While Americans frequently followed such procedures, for many those steps were simply useful, not indispensable. They were not the only legitimate tools available for a sovereign to articulate its will.

It is time we reclaim our own history.

We are still on that cusp of transformation. Much of the world has to varying degrees maintained organic communities. Many populations still have that communal sense of identity, as a present reality or in the not too distant past. The rural lifestyle and tight-knit small communities is within living memory for a significant number of Americans. Even the ancient traditions of subsistence farming and barter economy continued into early 20th century America. The majority of Americans left the rural areas less than a century ago.

I wouldn’t be so dismissive of that ancient view of being a people, a communal self, not the same thing as collectivist ideology. It’s lasted for millennia. And it was never limited to the Greeks, even though their surviving texts made it famous. For many people today, this is a very much real experience of social reality.

Maybe we should take more seriously what once motivated revolutionaries, the attempt to carry that ancient tradition into a changing world, an anchor in turbulent seas. And as we become increasingly disconnected from the past and alienated from our own human nature, this way of seeing the world becomes ever more radical. The term ‘radical’ etymologically comes from late Latin, meaning of or pertaining to the root. And, I might add, a revolution originally meant a return. We could use a radical revolution right about now, a return to our roots. That is an original intent that might mean something. We can only move forward by seeing the path we’ve been on.

Otherwise, we will be doomed to repeat history. A bad situation being replaced by worse still. That was the warning given by Abraham Clark and many others as well. Within that warning is a seed of hope, that maybe one day a generation will take up the task of becoming a truly free people.

“…from every part of Europe.”

By then, the king’s authority in America had been practically demolished, and his imperial interests elsewhere were being challenged. America was on its way to securing an independent destiny, basing the case for separation upon differences rather than likenesses between the two countries. Yet, the new nation revealed a natural kinship with the old world it professed to reject – not only with England, but with numerous other countries. In his Common Sense, Thomas Paine castigated the “false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous” notion that England was the parent, or mother country of America. “Europe, and not England,” he protested, “is the parent country of America.” The New World had for years, he added, offered asylum to the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty “from every part of Europe.” That observation was heartily endorsed just a few years later by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, former French soldier and sometime resident of New York, in his Letters from an American Farmer. “What then is the American, this new man?” he asked in a widely quoted passage from that book. “He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

Such observations were justified. One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants. It was in recognition of the mixed European background of so many Americans that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson later proposed that the official seal of the United States bear the national emblems of Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Holland as well as of England, thus “pointing out the countries from which these States have been peopled.” (This idea was abandoned.) The list might well have been much longer. There were Jews from Eastern Europe and from Spain and Portugal (via South America), Swedes, Walloons, Swiss, and still others. Many came, as Paine stated, in search of asylum. But they also came with an intent to preserve and refresh those aspects of life in their homelands which they best remembered and most highly valued.

In the world of 1776, Europe boasted a rich civilization, alive with dynamic ideas and with flourishing arts, with promising new concepts and methods in the sciences. The rudiments of modern industry and business administration were well founded, and social reforms were being undertaken, which Europeans took with them as they colonized and traded. They had come in contact with Eastern civilizations, above all, China, and this experience added significantly to the cosmopolitan culture of the Continent. The Pacific Ocean had been explored, and Australasia discovered; the knowledge gleaned from such expeditions was accelerating an ecological revolution of universal importance. This abundance of experience and knowledge that characterized the world of 1776 was the inheritance America shared as a birthright.

From The World in 1776
by Marshall B. Davidson
Kindle Locations 237-261

* * * *

This early diversity has been an ongoing interest of mine. I noticed this passage and was reminded again of this less known side of American history.

What particularly caught my attention was that, “One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants.” It wasn’t just that several of the colonies had non-English majorities. The non-English ethnicity was even a major part of the ancestral background of the so-called founding fathers, among others in the upper classes.

I always wonder why such amazing facts aren’t typically taught in US schools. This is the kind of thing that would make history more interesting to students. Instead, we get over-simplified and dumbed-down boring accounts of our shared past. The actual full history would be too radical for respectable public consumption.

For more details, see my previous posts:

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”

General American and the Particulars of Our Origins

Origin of American Diversity

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence

Spirit of ’76

Spirit of ’76 (sentiment)
by Wikipedia

Historian Mellen Chamberlain wrote that the spirit of ’76 was embodied by Levi Preston, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. Chamberlain asked Preston, then 91 years old, “Why did you go to the Concord Fight, the 19th of April, 1775? My histories tell me that you men took up arms against ‘intolerable oppressions.'” Preston responded:

Oppressions? I didn’t feel them. I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them. Tea tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack. Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Smith
(commenting on Shay’s Rebellion)
Paris, November 13, 1787

What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution
by Paul Douglas Newman
p. xii

While one recent historian located Shays’s Rebellion as “The American Revolution’s Final Battle” and another described the Whiskey Rebellion as the “Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution,” the Fries Rebels would have disagreed with both implications. Rather than a story consigned to paper and concluded, the Revolution to them was a perpetual narrative for successive generations to retell, an experience to be relived, and an enduring struggle to be reengaged. Their rebellion testified to the democratizing forces in politics and society unleashed by the American Revolution. To them, the Revolution was more than a War for Independence, the founding of a national republic, or the parchment documents that defined each. It was a political, economic, and social process of expanding popular sovereignty. The Revolution was a spirit to be constantly revived and a set of political principles to be frequently redefined— always in a democratic direction— to provide more local and personal control of daily life as well as increased power over broader collective policies. The Fries Rebels believed they were upholding the Revolution’s promise and founding ideals, even when they engaged in their own discriminatory, majoritarian behavior against some of their neighbors. Perhaps other Americans equally estimated that the people could directly expand their own role in local, state, and federal government, making it more democratic and less republican in the fluid days of the post-Revolutionary political settlement when parties were only beginning to form and authority seemed so weak. Even if this was not the case, the Fries Rebels appear to have thought that way, and if we listen closely enough, we can hear them tell us so.

Benjamin Rush in 1787
“Address to the People of the United States”

There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection. […]

PATRIOTS of 1774, 1775, 1778—HEROES of 1778, 1779, 1780! come forward! your country demands your services!—Philosophers and friends to mankind, com forward! your country demands your studies and speculations! Lovers of peace and order, who declined taking part in the late war, come forward! your country forgives your timidity, and demands your influence and advice! Hear her proclaiming, in sighs and groans, in her governments, in her finances, in her trade, in her manufactures, in her morals, and in her manners, “THE REVOLUTION IS NOT OVER!”

Founding Science

“The terms “science,”“technology,” and “scientist,” as we understand them today, were not in use in the Founders’ era. There was no distinction between science and technology, the latter being considered as the more practical, usually mechanical product resulting from scientific inquiry. The title “scientist” did not exist prior to 1833, when British scientist and historian William Whewell coined it. Before then, newspapers, magazines, books, and speeches either referred to a specific field of study by name, such as astronomy, or in the aggregate plural as “the sciences,” a label that encompassed a wide variety of fields including rhetoric and political science. Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1755 identified the “curious of nature” as “inquisitive, attentive, diligent, accurate, careful not to mistake, exact, nice, subtle, artful, rigorous.” Such men (and a few women) expressed their “genius” by engaging in “speculation”— making educated guesses about natural phenomena. “Natural philosophy” and “natural history,” the terms regularly used to denote science in the writings of the Founding Fathers and in the contemporary Philosophical Transactions of the London-based Royal Society, seem to us interchangeable. But natural philosophy then referred to what we might term the hard sciences, the mathematically based disciplines of physics, astronomy , chemistry, optics, and hydraulics. Natural history encompassed the soft sciences of botany, anthropology, anatomy, and , to a lesser extent, biology— what Foucault has called “the science of the characters that articulate the continuity and the tangle of nature.” 7”

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment

by Tom Shachtman
Kindle Locations 85-97