Monday, February 21, 2011

I finally gain a little Common Sense

After years of having it on my to do list, I finally got around to reading Thomas Paine's Common Sense (and yes, I do know how groan inducing the title is, but I could not help myself). The reason for the long delay in doing so was partly my not coming across a copy for quite a while and when I did finally locate one, I had a few other things already in line to read.

I do find it odd that, throughout the years of American history courses I have taken, this has never been required reading. From all those years the only way it was ever mentioned was as an important pamphlet that argued for the American Revolution. No parts were ever shown from it, just that mention. I find that rather sad when you consider how much of an influence it really had in helping to sway the minds of so many towards the American cause, both foreign and domestic. It is made worse after one has actually read it as it helps to lay a better understanding of the situation then I have ever gained from any history course. One cannot help but see both the events and the timing of them (for which Paine argues considerably) as inevitable. As he states, any earlier and the colonies would not have had a sufficiently strong internal support system. Had it been any later, the few military minds left over from the French-Indian War would have died leaving the country without any war time knowledge.

Now I can see some possibly being put off by what they may see as religious connotations within this pamphlet. It is true there are myriad references to the bible and God, but these are not arguments for or against such things (as Paine notes). They are, instead, relics of the time and imagery of convenience. The first being due to the fact that even for non-believers of the Western world (Paine was a deist), the bible was still seen as a historical text. Yes, many discounted the religious aspect and instead payed attention to its genealogies and accounts of empires long since lost to time (for those that actually existed that is). One must also remember that an alternative was not available so even those who doubted its full historical and religious accuracy, were left with no other real alternative to go by. So it is no real surprise that he would reference the Christian bible.

This context is taken further when combined with the imagery Paine uses. This has specifically to do with the audience he intended this pamphlet for. He used a writing style, that while elegant and rich in thought, was of a form that would be accessible to all, from the common man to the elite. He knew that essentially all those who would read it would have one form of education in common, a religious one. He also knew that such arguments would appeal to those from all walks of life. But even more so, he knew that such writing would spur in his audience even more of a passion to see his point of view. Granted, as the title states, he intended what he wrote to be common sense, but he also knew that common sense was not always as common as it should be. He also recognized that using any way one might to go about livening things up to sway those who were still undecided about the matter could only help his argument and the cause.

The copy I purchased also has an added bonus of containing his response to a piece published by certain members of the Quaker community (The ancient testimony and principles of the people called Quakers renewed, with respect to the King and Government, and touching the commotions now prevailing in these and other parts of America addressed to the people in general...apparently short titles was not this particular authors forte). In the piece Paine addresses, the Quaker authors argue that the American people should not rise to arms due to certain biblical passages that stated that those in power are allowed to be so by God and that it is the people's responsibility to obey that authority as well as a passage from Proverbs that states "When a man's way pleases the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him".

Quite obviously, Paine was not pleased with such statements and his reasoning included the fact that every single ruler throughout history has gained power by the acts of people, often at the edge of a sword. If this were true, then how can it be the Lord's will for people to follow their current leader? For if this were true (in a religious sense of course), then any attempt to remove or replace said ruler would be stopped by their god. But since this has never occurred, then, based on their own logic, such actions must be the very will of their god to begin with. He further demolishes other parts of their argument by stating that they do not wish to depose a ruler, nor do they wish to establish a new monarch but be removed from the entire process. Not to mention that what they would be doing would be an act of defense, not offense, for it was the British who were seen to have started the whole affair through their neglect of the will of the American people.

He states that he has nothing against the Quakers at all, and is sure to make a defense of them so that none would take his words as a reason to mistreat the group as a whole or for anyone to consider removing any of their civil or religious freedoms. His argument came down to that those who wrote this piece were not acting according to their own doctrine, therefor their entire argument was invalid and and insult to Quaker society as a whole. He closes his letter with two lines that I believe should be more widely known and espoused, especially in light of certain religious groups active today. The first being:

Because it tends to the decrease and reproach of all religion whatever, and is of the utmost danger to society, to make it a party in political disputes.

The second (and my personal favorite) being the final line of his letter:

...but that the example which ye have unwisely set, of mingling religion with politics, may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of America.
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