He was the mouthpiece of the American Revolution, the pamphleteer supreme, the man most responsible for articulating American ideals and goals for worldly consideration. He was Thomas Paine, controversial even among his friends and allies.
Tomorrow’s 243rd anniversary of our unique entrance upon the world stage gives us a good excuse to examine Paine’s assessment of the American Experiment in his Preface to Part Two of The Rights of Man, published in 1792. He compares our influence to that postulated by Archimedes concerning levers. With a big enough lever and a place to stand, “we might raise the world.”
“The revolution of America,” Paine wrote, “presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics. So deeply rooted were all the governments of the old world, and so effectually had the tyranny and the antiquity of habit established itself over the mind, that no beginning could be made in Asia, Africa, or Europe, to reform the political condition of man. Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think.
“But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks,—and all it wants,—is the liberty of appearing. The sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness; and no sooner did the American governments display themselves to the world, than despotism felt a shock and man began to contemplate redress.
“The independence of America, considered merely as a separation from England, would have been a matter but of little importance, had it not been accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of governments. She made a stand, not for herself only, but for the world, and looked beyond the advantages herself could receive.”
Those brave, doomed students in Tiananmen Square created a Statue of Liberty. Desperate refugees fleeing terror in Central America still believe in the promise of our founders.
“As America was the only spot in the political world where the principle of universal reformation could begin,” Paine observed, “so also was it the best in the natural world. An assemblage of circumstances conspired, not only to give birth, but to add gigantic maturity to its principles….Its first settlers were emigrants from different European nations, and of diversified professions of religion, retiring from the governmental persecutions of the old world, and meeting in the new, not as enemies, but as brothers.”
Words we could stand to hear more often these days: “Not as enemies, but as brothers.”
Paine decries the all-too-familiar situation of governments organized to make those in power richer at the expense of the regular citizen. I have no doubt about where he’d stand on corporate socialism, crony capitalism, privatization or “new aristocracies.”
But, even during “the times that try men’s souls,” Paine was an optimist.
“Reason, like time, will make its own way,” he proclaimed, “and prejudice will fall in a combat with interest.”
He correctly observed, “The revolutions which formerly took place in the world had nothing in them that interested the bulk of mankind. They extended only to a change of persons and measures, but not of principles, and rose or fell among the common transactions of the moment. What we now behold may not improperly be called a “counter-revolution.” Conquest and tyranny, at some earlier period, dispossessed man of his rights, and he is now recovering them. And as the tide of all human affairs has its ebb and flow in directions contrary to each other, so also is it in this. Government founded on a moral theory, on a system of universal peace, on the indefeasible hereditary Rights of Man, is now revolving from west to east by a stronger impulse than the government of the sword revolved from east to west. It interests not particular individuals, but nations in its progress, and promises a new era to the human race.”
As the president tries to co-opt Independence Day for personal aggrandizement while denying the basic message of our great country to those seeking refuge, it is our charge to fulfill that promise.
(Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party)