America has become careless with its democracy. So careless, it seems, that it is allowing the return of the very institution that it had to remove in the course of its birth as a free nation: an absolute monarchy.
We have a man in the White House with all the inclinations of an unhinged monarch who on a daily basis acts as though he is above the law. And, as though in a medieval court, he is surrounded by a conniving bunch of supplicants and robber barons.
It is a good time, therefore, to remember that the principles of American democracy were crafted as a response to the outrages of kingly powers, in the person of George III. One of the authors of those principles described the threat that had to be faced:
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; ‘tis dearness only that gives everything its value.”
What would that writer say now, as so many of America’s political leaders are abjectly failing to defend democracy in the face of a new tyrant? We esteem too lightly.
Those words first appeared in print on December 23, 1776.
They were written by a man fighting the English in George Washington’s army, himself an Englishman who had arrived in America only two years earlier. He used language of such rousing power that his pamphlets were instant tinder to the revolution.
In January 1776, in a pamphlet with the bland title of Common Sense, he had trenchantly made the case for independence: “Under our present denomination of British subjects, we can neither be received nor heard abroad; the custom of all Courts is against us, and will be so, until by an independence we take rank with other nations.”
Reading this, Washington, declared: “A few more of such flaming arguments will not leave numbers at a loss to decide on the propriety of separation.”
What marked out this newcomer to the land was his ability, perhaps even more than the colonists themselves, to sense and articulate with passion the bigger and unique idea that lay beyond their revolt, the discovery of the principles of liberty: “All the Revolutions till then,” he pointed out, “had been worked within the small sphere of a Court, and never on the great floor of a Nation.”
The pamphleteer’s name was Thomas Paine. The pamphlet published in December was part of a series called The Crisis Papers. It began with a sentence that would resonate through the ages:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Judged by that standard, writing an anonymous op-ed piece in the New York Times is the equivalent of being a “sunshine patriot” rather than standing up to be counted.
Hawk-nosed and powerfully framed Paine was a son of the county of Norfolk, a flat and thinly-populated tip of eastern England exposed to the cutting winds of the North Sea. He was born in 1737, in the town of Thetford, to Quaker parents.
Paine respected the Quakers but thought them too austere—“if the taste of a Quaker had been consulted at the Creation not a flower would have blossomed its gaieties nor a bird been permitted to sing.”
As a boy Paine saw the stark inequities of eighteenth century England. Thetford was surrounded great aristocratic estates while in the towns men, women and children were publicly hanged for petty offences often provoked by hunger.
His life—and America’s future—was changed when, at the age of 37, he met Benjamin Franklin in London. Franklin saw and was impressed by the fire inside Paine and urged him to go to America, and gave him a letter of introduction to a nephew in Philadelphia.
He arrived in November, 1774, and within six months was writing for Pennsylvania Magazine where his polemics more than doubled the circulation within a few issues.
One of his first targets was slavery. In October 1775 he called for “an act of continental legislation which shall put a stop to the importation of Negroes for sale, soften the hard fate of those already here, and in time procure their freedom.”
This was a more explicit commitment than the colonists were ready to accept. In spite of Paine wanting an anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson excluded it: Georgia and South Carolina specifically objected to it, as did Northern interests that traded in slaves.
The colonists were far more heeding of Paine’s uncompromising insistence on dispensing with monarchy. Subjection to a king, he said, could never give them the liberty that made life worth living.
“Such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing” he wrote. “…to be a king requires only the animal figure of man—a sort of breathing automaton. This sort of superstition may last a few years or more, but it cannot long resist the awakened reason and interest of man.”
The Crisis Papers are partly an account of a foot soldier following Washington and partly a rousing exhortation to the troops to persist when it looked like the war was lost. The retreat from Newark to the Delaware was borne, he said, “with a manly and martial spirit” while he urged that “America will never be happy till she gets clear of foreign domination.”
The war won, Paine seemed suddenly to miss the action. As long as he felt like an underdog he was the most fluent of theorists. Once peace made it possible to put theory into practice he was not much interested. He left America for Europe in April 1787. A few months after he sailed, the Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia and others were left to resolve the most tendentious issues of the young republic.
Paramount among those issues was just exactly what should be the powers of a secular head of state in a new world where kings would be forever banished? Paine, more an idealist than a pragmatic politician, had never bothered to offer an answer.
In fact, Paine, who was as much an architect of American democracy as any of the Founding Fathers, never became in any sense an American, in the same way that Karl Marx never became a career communist.
Having planted his ideas in the American bloodstream Paine attempted a similar transfusion in revolutionary France. But the French revolutionaries were not like the American gentry, willing to be curbed by his temperate and reasoned ideology. Fatally, he crossed Robespierre, the tyrant of that revolution, and was jailed and sentenced to death.
He was saved only by the arrival of James Monroe as the American Ambassador to France (and later America’s fifth president). Monroe secured Paine’s release in November 1794. At the age of 57 he was suddenly old, stooped and white haired. But he still had a parting shot left in him: The Age of Reason, his last book.
It was full of intemperate atheism. “My own mind is my own church,” he declared, and continued: “The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries, that have afflicted the human race, have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion.”
Those who gazed upon this physically broken man, who had so narrowly escaped the guillotine during what was called The Terror, saw hypocrisy—they argued he surely must admit that the cruelties and miseries of that moment in history were the work of revolutionary zealots, not clerics.
However, one Frenchman did adopt some of Paine’s beliefs. Napoleon admired Paine’s previous book, The Rights of Man. He visited Paine as he was convalescing, asking for advice on how to defeat England. Paine told him to forget about it, and make peace. Napoleon was enraged and complained “the English are all alike, they are all rascals.”
Nevertheless, when Napoleon invaded Egypt he distributed copies of The Rights of Man to the defeated Egyptian leaders as a guide to his own version of democracy. They might have taken root, had Napoleon not been driven from Egypt—by the English.
The Rights of Man also had a message for Paine’s old comrades in America (and for us now) about the danger of an over-mighty presidency “Another reform in the American Constitutions is the exploding of all oaths of personality. The oath of allegiance to America is to the nation only. The putting of any individual as a figure for a Nation is improper. “
And, given the proliferation of grifters introduced to Washington by Donald Trump, Paine had something sharp to say about the purpose of public service: “As extraordinary power ought not to be lodged in the hands of any individual, so ought there to be no appropriations of public money to any person, beyond what his services in a state may be worth.”
In 1802 Paine returned to America and was greeted warmly by President Jefferson. They had more than politics in common. Like Jefferson, Paine was something of a polymath, interested in the sciences, and practical enough to have designed an early iron bridge that was built in England.
But The Age of Reason had made Paine radioactive in Washington. Anti-Jeffersonian journalists called him “the loathsome Thomas Paine, a drunken atheist.”
Jefferson, who remembered and honored the power that Paine’s words had provided to inspire the Declaration of Independence, stood by him but there was no more fire left in the old volcano, and—as his detractors implied—he had turned to the bottle.
Paine retired to a 277-acre farm in New Rochelle, New York that had been given to him decades earlier by the state and he died there on June 8, 1809.
That was not the end of his mortal remains. William Cobbett, an English radical pamphleteer in the mold of Paine, sailed to America and retrieved the bones, shipping them back to England with the idea of a suitably honored new burial and memorial. Somehow the casket containing the bones was lost after being brought ashore in Liverpool. They were never found.
Paine, whether he would have approved it or not, had the last laugh. He had become a kind of secular saint, physically nowhere but spiritually everywhere, and still today in pursuit of us to make sure that we listen: These are, again, the times that try men’s souls.