In 1776, a text written anonymously by Thomas Paine, titled Common Sense, went viral and turned the tide of American opinion in favor of separation from Britain. It has been argued quite convincingly by scientist and political philosopher Andrew Galambos that this work by Paine was the true beginning of the American Revolution. After all, as he pointed out, revolutions themselves are not violent. In order for a revolution to occur, by definition, something must turn around. In the case of a political revolution, that “something” is the prevailing political ideology. War may or may not accompany any particular revolution, and accordingly, revolution may or may not accompany any particular war. Revolutions are necessarily intellectual.
Paine’s introduction to Common Sense begins:
PERHAPS the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.
At that time, colonists were still largely in favor of reconciliation with the British – even though they had already suffered under general warrants used to enforce the Stamp Act, taxation without representation, and the attempted seizure of rifles and ammunition at Concord that lead to the “shot heard round the world.” This is not so different from where the United States is today. Americans suffer under general warrants used in the execution of the PATRIOT Act, are taxed without representation through the insidious inflation of the money supply, and the government continues in its efforts to disarm the populace. It seems rather clear that America has come full circle.
Paine begins the main text:
SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Recognizing how “limited” the US federal government is today, it would have been grand if Paine – in this most influential work – argued against the institution of any centralized authority for the colonies. However, hindsight is 20/20, and Paine went on to say, “…government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil…” It becomes clear from later passages that Paine held the belief that without a centralized government, the colonies would flounder, whereas united under such a body, they would flourish. As we are now witnessing, central authorities, once established, erode the meaning of any supposed limitations placed upon them and tend towards tyranny as time passes.
Paine foreshadows this dilemma:
...how came the king by a power which the people are afraid to trust, and always obliged to check? Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can any power, which needs checking, be from God;
Should any single man, or body thereof, be trusted with powers that need checking? After all, admitting that they need checking necessarily is an admission that there is potential for abuse – which we now know, if potential exists, abuse will follow, even if just a trickle at a time.
Paine makes this point clear in his next statement:
But the provision [the check] is unequal to the task; the means either cannot or will not accomplish the end, and the whole affair is a Felo de se [suicide]: for as the greater weight will always carry up the less, and as all the wheels of a machine are put in motion by one, it only remains to know which power in the constitution has the most weight, for that will govern: and though the others, or a part of them, may clog, or, as the phrase is, check the rapidity of its motion, yet so long as they cannot stop it, their endeavours will be ineffectual: The first moving power will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed is supplied by time.
Governments are not unlike machines. The gear with the most power will drive the rest. What, then, is the most powerful gear in the US government? Is it the House of Representatives? Hardly, I think it is clear to most that, in reality, the House is the lowest of the bodies. Is it the Senate? No. The Senate carries more weight than the House, but it is still not the most powerful. Is it the Judiciary? How could it be? The executive appoints the Supreme Court. That leaves just one. The executive branch of government, headed by the President, is the most powerful gear in US system. Whoever controls the President “will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed is supplied by time.”
Is there a way, is there a system of government, whereby this problem will not rear its ugly head? And, even if the gears can be made of equal power, will they still not drive in the same direction – the direction of tyranny – as the people inevitably become complacent? This is a tall challenge for any advocate of limited government.
Paine goes on to argue against the hereditary succession of royalty. A notable paragraph reads:
To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and though himself might deserve some decent degree of honors of his cotemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ass for a lion.
Has the US system of government prevented hereditary succession? How many Kennedys have we had in government? How many Bushs have we had in government? How many Adams? How many Clintons? Hell, if it weren’t for Obama winning the Democratic primary of 2008, we may have had the Bushs and the Clintons in power for some twenty years! How often have the faces changed in the legislative branch of the government? The head of the executive branch is term limited. Do you think the succession would be any different if the legislative body were to be similarly limited? It may help some, but it stands to reason that the sheer amount of money involved in political competition would tend to render only a few families able to compete in the long-term. Moreover, and more damning, how often do the people that finance the candidacies of these politicians change faces? The men behind the scenes have been the same for centuries. Succession is still just as prevalent as it was in traditional monarchical systems. However, the illusion that it does not exist makes it just that much more insidious. Fore, at least when kings passed their rule along, it was known openly to the People. The US is now ruled by the succession of shadows.
In the next passage, Paine makes a crucial point:
…as no man at first could possess any other public honors than were bestowed upon him, so the givers of those honors could have no power to give away the right of posterity, and though they might say “We choose you for our head,” they could not without manifest injustice to their children say “that your children and your children’s children shall reign over ours forever.”
This problem is not unique to the hereditary succession of monarchies. I will be the first to admit that the Constitution of the United States is, thus far, the best document of its kind – even though it has failed in its intentions of limiting government. Whether it be a king or a well-intentioned system of government, why should our ancestors have the right to say, “We have established a system that is supreme, and we hereby give our posterity’s consent to be ruled over by that system forever to come. No system can ever be better. We have reached the apex, and progress in government must stop here.” In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, “The dead have no rights.” I am not responsible for my grandfather’s sins, and rightfully, I cannot be held accountable for them. Accordingly, my grandfather’s submission to a government cannot be taken for my own – no matter how noble he thought the system.
Then, Paine makes an observation that rings just as true about our more modern trend of succession:
Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent. Selected from the rest of mankind, their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.
Not much needs to be said here. How many of the politicians in office today have ever lived among the regular folk? How many of them know the plight of the common man? Very few? How, then, is this a representative government?
I will conclude here, where Paine goes on to describe the, then, “present state of American affairs” and the feasibility of defeating the British.
Please remember, in order for things to change, in order for a revolution to occur, something must turn around. Revolutions are intellectual. On that note, I will leave you with one more passage:
…the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.
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