Year XXXIX, 1997, Number 2, Page 101

 

 

THOMAS PAINE
 
 
Only with the Convention of Philadelphia, in 1787, did the institutional consolidation of the Union become the priority political objective of the American Revolution. At the convention of Annapolis, one year before the Convention of Philadelphia, one of the fathers of American federalism, Madison, still despaired of a Convention ever being called to reform the Confederation, and hoped to be able to achieve at least a commercial Reform. And only three months before the conclusion of the Convention of Philadelphia, another father of the American Revolution, Washington, wrote to Hamilton that there was no hope of the latter having a favourable outcome. During and after Philadelphia, Hamilton was the only figure of note to clearly grasp the revolutionary meaning of what was happening, and even today, outside the federalist movements, the federalist aspect of the American Revolution is rarely taken into consideration. It is therefore no wonder if those who, like Thomas Paine (1737-1809), did not take part in that final part of the Revolution, considering that the federalist battle was exhausted with the victory of the War of Independence in 1783. For them, the new Constitution was simply a mechanical and unavoidable step which wisdom would sooner or later have imposed on the former colonies.
Paine, who, as we shall see, took an active part in the first phase of the federalist battle, is known above all for his commitment to civil rights. However, the experience and the contribution of Thomas Paine represent an example of how deeply rooted federalist aspirations already were in America during the War of Independence, and are an interesting testimony of how widespread the consciousness was among Americans of the constituent task which they had undertaken.
Paine, imbued with the ideals of the Enlightenment, and a forerunner of the permanent revolution, was not always able to temper revolutionary tension with a lucid analysis of reality. At crucial moments in American and European history, this made it hard for him to reconcile his total devotion to the battle to affirm the universal values of humanity, with a patient and continuous political commitment, concentrated on the strategic objectives of the moment. Often he came across the contradiction between actions and values, and denounced it with rare ability and effect. But, as he himself admitted, he was no politician. He considered himself, and was, a revolutionary author on loan to politics. Certainly during the War of Independence he was one of the most effective prophets of the federalist cause, with an instinctive understanding of its possible outcomes, shared by few of his fellow-combatants at that time.
An English citizen by birth, and American and French citizen by revolutionary merit, he was able to write in his will with good reason “to have lived an honest and useful life to mankind”.[1]
 
***
 
Abandoning England on the advice of Franklin, having long since left the English country district in which he was born and having discovered the numerous possibilities of action and study offered by a big city like London, Paine reached Boston in the autumn of 1774, and in Philadelphia, only a little over a year later, published Common Sense (1776), the political document of the Revolution, which showed Americans and Europeans the true nature of the struggle for American independence. Common Sense was one of the greatest publishing successes of the era: in the first year of its publication around 150,000 copies were sold. Independence and Constitution were the key words in the success of this book, words which, before the publication of Common Sense, had only timidly circulated in America. The author of this pamphlet remained anonymous for a long time, so that initially, as Jefferson admitted, it was believed that Common Sense was the work of Franklin. For years Paine continued to sign himself and was known to the American and European public as Common Sense, or, more concisely, C.S.
With this work Paine had not only embraced the cause of independence, but also that of federalism, drafting a plan to achieve a federal constitution, in which he maintained that America needed a new form of continental government, a republican system with two federated levels of power. “Our present condition”, he wrote, “is legislation without law; wisdom without a plan; constitution without a name; and, what is strangely astonishing, perfect independence contending for dependence”.[2]
Paine was writing at a period when the time was not yet ripe to determine the federalist content of the new American Constitution. But the excerpt from Common Sense published below shows his consciousness of the need to involve the people in the constituent process and to propose a constituent plan. In fact, according to Paine, a government is legitimate only if it is based on a constitution. It is not by chance that he defines countries with and without a constitution, as countries with a legitimate government and countries with “a temporary form of government”[3] (including among these Great Britain, for which he by now nursed a deep contempt).
His fame and his ability as a polemist were sufficient to justify the secret charge entrusted to him in 1782, when he was already secretary of the Committee for Foreign Affairs of the Congress, by General Washington, by the Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris and by Secretary of State Livingstone to “inform the People and rousing them into Action”. They sought in fact “the aid of an able pen to urge the Legislatures of the States to grant sufficient taxes”.[4] The objective was that of convincing public opinion in the colonies that it was necessary to provide the Union with a new institutional structure, having a federal level of government with independent powers of taxation. But all this could not be reached without the reinforcement of the powers of the Congress, and hence without a new Constitution supported by the people. Paine’s task was “to prepare the minds of the people for such restraints and such taxes and imposts, as are absolutely necessary for their own welfare”.[5] Paine was aware that between the drawing up of the Articles of Confederation in 1777 and their coming into force in 1781, many Americans had reached the conclusion that a profound constitutional reform was necessary. It was in fact increasingly obvious that the Articles of Confederation were simply a slightly more advanced stage than the Articles of Association of 1774. In essays and letters published in the American newspapers of the time, Paine took up the themes dealt with in Common Sense, and agreed with and supported the views Hamilton was contemporaneously publishing in The Continentalist.
One of the weak links of the Union at that time was constituted by the firm opposition of Rhode Island to the request of Congress to impose a tax on all goods imported into America. This measure required the unanimous agreement of all States, and Rhode Island’s contrary vote to this provision had provoked a serious crisis in the confederation. Paine explained to Morris his plan of interventions in the press after he had already published his first letter: “the second letter will be on the convenience and equality of the Tax... My third Number will be particularly calculated to enforce the necessity of a stronger union, for at present we hang so loosely together that we are in danger of hanging one another... All these embarrassments are ascribable to the loose and almost disjointed Condition of the Union. The states severally, not knowing what each other will do, are unwilling to do any thing themselves”.[6] Paine then expressed to Morris the conviction that by now the only way to overcome the obstacle of the individual States’ veto in the legislative assembly was to propose a system of government in which the executive was to exercise “the right of War and peace, all foreign Affairs, the direction of the Army and Navy when we have one”,[7] and the legislative branch, including between three and five delegates per state, should occupy itself with laws of continental concern regarding commerce, the postal system and duties. But on the very day after Congress’s decision, on Hamilton’s proposal, to send a commission to Rhode Island to persuade its Assembly to think again, and while Paine, on appointment by Morris, was about to fire off a new press campaign against the enemies of the Union, all was frustrated by Virginia’s vote against the continental tax. This event did not have time to exert a negative influence on the outcome of the war against the English, which had now reached a conclusion, but rang a very serious alarm bell for the future of the Union.
 
***
 
The end of the War of Independence marks for Paine, as we have already mentioned, the reaching of an intermediate objective, which would almost automatically lead to a further reinforcement of the Union, as he explains in The Last Crisis (1783). But for the restless Paine, the revolution could not stop at the American continent. In his letter to the Abbé Raynal (1782), Paine clarified how the American Revolution was to be considered as a springboard to affirm the universal values of peace, universal citizenship and freedom in the rest of the world, starting with Europe. Taking his cue from the Abbé Raynal’s essay Révolution d’Amérique (1781), Paine had prepared a propagandistic essay in response, which he discussed with Morris, in which he contested the opinion, held by many Europeans, that the events in America were simply the result of an exaggerated accentuation of a fiscal dispute between the mother country and its colonies. Paine rejected the Abbé Raynal’s conservative and limiting definition of the term revolution: a cyclical process which, as in the motion of the planets, would return to its starting point. For Paine, in contrast, the American events were revolutionary in that they had demolished a preconceived way of thinking of the government of human affairs, irreversibly changing a power structure and the political behaviour linked to it.
Paine was so convinced of the need to export the American Revolution that he did not hesitate to return in 1787 to Europe, to Paris, where he experienced the French Revolution too as a protagonist, becoming one of its principal champions and publicists. This decision marginalized him from the American scene. Rights of Man (1791-2), the most famous defence of the French Revolution, even excelled Common Sense in popularity. Having become a member of the French National Convention, in 1793 he fought against the death penalty voted for Louis XVI. His motion on Reasons for Wishing to Preserve the Life of Louis Capet was not passed, and was severely and publicly attacked by Marat during the subsequent debate in the Convention. In further connection to this episode, he was suspected of treason and imprisoned during the Terror, just as he was about to publish The Age of Reason. Repudiated by Great Britain, by now considered a French citizen by the Congress of the United States, and a traitor by the French Government, Paine lost all right to citizenship. Reflecting bitterly on this state of affairs in an exchange of letters with the then American ambassador to Paris, James Monroe, he wrote “why the people of one nation should not, by their representatives, exercise the right of conferring the honour of citizenship upon individuals eminent in another nation, without affecting their rights of citizenship, is a problem yet to be solved”.[8] And Monroe answered: “by being with us through the revolution, you are of our country, as absolutely as if you had been born there, and you are no more of England, than every native of America is”.[9] This indirect certification of American citizenship finally obtained his release from prison after almost a year of imprisonment in which he had, among other things, risked being sent to his death along with Danton.
The day after Bonaparte’s coup d’état, in 1799, Paine decided to leave Paris to return to America, where he lived the last years of his life in constant polemic with the majority of his old companions of the federalist struggle. He was by now obsessed by the fear that the budding American political life, which was organising itself around the competition between the republican party and the federalist party, would degenerate into the excesses of the French Revolution, in which “the principles of it were good, they were copied from America, and the men who conducted it were honest. But the fury of faction soon extinguished the one and sent the other to the scaffold”.[10]
But America did not follow the destiny of France, precisely because, apart from benefiting from its distance from the European power struggles, it was able to enjoy to the full, and for many years to come, that very rule of law championed by Common Sense.
 
***
 
COMMON SENSE*
 
If there is any true cause of fear respecting independence, it is because no plan is yet laid down. Men do not see their way out — Wherefore, as an opening into that business, I offer the following hints; at the same time modestly affirming, that I have no other opinion of them myself, than that they may be the means of giving rise to something better. Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matters.
Let the assemblies be annual with a President only. The representation more equal. Their business wholly domestic, and subject to the authority of a Continental Congress.
Let each colony be divided into six, eight, or ten, convenient districts, each district to send a proper number of delegates to Congress, so that each colony send at least thirty. The whole number in Congress will be least 390. Each Congress to sit and to choose a president by the following method. When the delegates are met, let a colony be taken from the whole thirteen colonies by lot, after which, let the whole Congress choose (by ballot) a president from out of the delegates of that province. In the next Congress, let a colony be taken by lot from twelve only, omitting that colony from which the president was taken in the former Congress, and so proceeding on till the whole thirteen shall have had their proper rotation. And in order that nothing may pass into a law but what is satisfactorily just, not less than three fifth of the Congress to be called majority...
But as there is a peculiar delicacy, from whom, or in what manner, this business must first arise, and as it seems most agreeable and consistent that it should come from some intermediate body between the governed and the governors, that is, between the Congress and the people, let a CONTINENTAL CONFERENCE be held, in the following manner, and for the following purpose. A committee of twenty-six members of Congress, viz. two for each colony. Two members from each House of Assembly, or Provincial Convention; and five representatives of the people at large, to be chosen in the capital city or town of each province, for, and in behalf of the whole province, by as many qualified voters as shall think proper to attend from all parts of the province for that purpose; or, if more convenient, the representatives may be chosen in two or three of the most populous parts thereof. In this conference, thus assembled, will be united, the two grand principles of business, knowledge and power. The members of Congress, Assemblies, or Conventions, by having had experience in national concerns, will be able and useful counsellors, and the whole, being empowered by the people, will have truly legal authority.
The conferring members being met, let their business be to frame a CONTINENTAL CHARTER, or Charter of the United Colonies; (answering to what is called the Magna Charta of England) fixing the number and manner of choosing members of Congress, members of Assembly, with their date of sitting, and drawing the line of business and jurisdiction between them: (Always remembering, that our strength is continental, not provincial:) Securing freedom and property to all men, and above all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; with such other matter as is necessary for a charter to contain. Immediately after which, the said Conference to dissolve, and the bodies which shall be chosen comfortable to the said charter, to be the legislators and governors of this continent for the time being...
Should any body of men be hereafter delegated for this or some similar purpose, I offer them the following extracts from that wise observer on governments Dragonetti. “The science” says he “of the politician consists in fixing the true point of happiness and freedom. Those men would deserve the gratitude of ages, who should discover a mode of government that contained the greatest sum of individual happiness, with the least national expense. Dragonetti on virtue and rewards”.
But where says some is the King of America? I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which 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.
A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now, some Massanello [a] may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge. Should the government of America return again into the hands of Britain, the tottering situation of things, will be a temptation for some desperate adventurer to try his fortune; and in such a case, what relief can Britain give? Ere she could hear the news, the fatal business might be done; and ourselves suffering like the wretched Britons under the oppression of the Conqueror. Ye that oppose independence now, ye know not what ye do; ye are opening a door to eternal tyranny, by keeping vacant the seat of government. There are thousands, and tens of thousands, who would think it glorious to expel from the continent, that barbarous and hellish power, which hath stirred up the Indians and Negroes to destroy us, the cruelty hath a double guilt, it is dealing brutally by us, and treacherously by them.
To talk of friendship with those in whom our reason forbids us to have faith, and our affections wounded through a thousand pores instruct us to detest, is madness and folly. Every day wears out the little remains of kindred between us and them, and can there be any reason to hope, that as the relationship expires, the affection will increase, or that we shall agree better, when we have ten times more and greater concerns to quarrel over than ever?
Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord now is broken, the people of England are presenting addresses against us. There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did. As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain. The Almighty hath implanted in us these unextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes.
They are the guardians of his image in our hearts. They distinguish us from the herd of common animals. The social compact would dissolve, and justice be extirpated from the earth, or have only a casual existence were we callous to the touches of affection. The robber, and the murderer, would often escape unpunished, did not the injuries which our tempers sustain, provoke us into justice.
O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa, have long expelled her. — Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.
  
 
THE LAST CRISIS
 
The debt which America has contracted, compared with the cause she has gained, and the advantages to flow from it, ought scarcely to be mentioned. She has it in her choice to do, and to live, as happily, as she pleases. The world is in her hands. She has now no foreign power to monopolize her commerce, perplex her legislation, or control her prosperity. The struggle is over, which must one day have happened and, perhaps, never could have happened at a better time... [b]
But that which must more forcibly strike a thoughtful penetrating mind, and which includes and renders easy all inferior concerns, is the UNION OF THE STATES. On this, our great national character depends. It is this which must give us importance abroad and security at home. It is through this only that we are, or can be nationally known in the world. It is the flag of the united states which renders our ships and commerce safe on the seas, or in a foreign port. Our Mediterranean passes must be obtained under the same stile. All our treaties, whether of alliance, peace, or commerce, are formed under the sovereignty of the united states, and Europe knows us by no other name or title.
The division of the empire into states is for our own convenience, but abroad this distinction ceases. The affairs of each state are local. They can go no farther than to itself. And were the whole worth of even the richest of them expended in revenue, it would not be sufficient to support sovereignty against a foreign attack. In short, we have no other national sovereignty than as united states. It would even be fatal for us if we had — too expensive to be maintained, and impossible to be supported. Individuals or individual states may call themselves what they please; but the world, and especially the world of enemies, is not to be held in awe by the whistling of a name. Sovereignty must have power to protect all the parts that compose and constitute it: and as UNITED STATES we are equal to the importance of the title, but otherwise we are not. Our union well and wisely regulated and cemented, is the cheapest way of being great — the easiest way of being powerful, and the happiest invention in government which the circumstances of America can admit of. — Because it collects from each state, that, which, by being inadequate, can be of no use to it, and forms an aggregate that serves for all.
The states of Holland are an unfortunate instance of the effects of individual sovereignty. Their disjointed condition exposes them to numerous intrigues, losses, calamities and enemies; and the almost impossibility of bringing their measures to a decision, and that decision into execution, is to them, and would be to us, a source of endless misfortune.
It is with confederate states as with individuals in society; something must be yelded up to make the whole secure. In this view of things we gain by what we give, and draw an annual interest greater than the capita. — I ever feel myself hurt when I hear the union, the great palladium of our liberty and safety, the least irreverently spoken of. It is the most sacred thing in the constitution of America, and that which every man should be the most proud and tender of. Our citizenship in the united states is our national character. Our citizenship in any particular state is only our local distinction. By the latter we are known at home, by the former to the world. Our great title is, AMERICANS; our inferior one varies with the place.
So far as my endeavours could go, they have all been directed to conciliate the affections, unite the interests, and draw and keep the mind of the country together; and the better to assist in this foundation work of the revolution, I have avoided all places of profit or office, either in the state I live in, or in the united states; kept myself at a distance from all parties and party connections, and even disregarded all private and inferior concerns: and when we take into view the great work we have gone through, and feel, as we ought to feel, the just importance of it, we shall then see, that the little wranglings and indecent contentions of personal party, are as dishonorable to our characters, as they are injurious to our repose.
It was the cause of America that made me an author. The force with which it struck my mind, and the dangerous condition the country appeared to me in, by courting an impossible and unnatural reconciliation with those who were determined to reduce her, instead of striking out into the only line that could cement and save her, A DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, made it impossible for me, feeling as I did, to be silent...
But as the scenes of war are closed, and every man preparing for home and happier times, I therefore take my leave of the subject. I have most sincerely followed it from beginning to end, and through all its turns and windings: and whatever country I may hereafter be in, I shall always feel an honest pride at the part I have taken and acted, and a gratitude to Nature and Providence for putting it in my power to be of some use to mankind.
 
  
LETTERTO THE ABBE RAYNAL
 
It is yet too soon to write the history of the revolution; and whoever attempts it precipitately, will unavoidably mistake characters and circumstances, and involve himself in error and difficulty. Things like men are seldom understood rightly at first sight. But the Abbé is wrong even in the foundation of his work; that is, he has misconceived and misstated the causes which produced the rupture between England and her then colonies, and which led on, step by step, unstudied and uncontrived on the part of America, to a revolution, which has engaged the attention, and affected the interest of Europe.
To prove this, I shall bring forward a passage, which, though placed towards the latter part of the Abbé’s work, is more intimately connected with the beginning; and in which, speaking of the original cause of the dispute, he declares himself in the following manner:
“None”, says he, “of those energetic causes, which have produced so many revolutions upon the globe, existed in North-America. Neither religion nor laws had there been outraged. The blood of martyrs or patriots had not there streamed from scaffolds. Morals had not there been insulted. Manners, customs, habits, no object dear to nations, had there been the sport of ridicule. Arbitrary power had not there torn any inhabitant from the arms of his family and his friends, to drag him to a dreary dungeon. Public order had not been there inverted, the principles of administration had not been changed there; and the maxims of government had there always remained the same. The whole question was reduced to the knowing whether the mother country had, or had not a right to lay, directly or indirectly, a slight tax upon the colonies”.
[...]
The whole question with America, in the opening of the dispute, was, Shall we be bound in all cases whatsoever by the British Parliament, or shall we not? For submission to the tea or tax act, implied an acknowledgement of the declaratory act, or, in other words, of the universal supremacy of Parliament, which, as they never intended to do, it was necessary they should oppose it, in its first stage of execution.
[...]
It is an observation I have already made in some former publication, that the circle of civilization is yet incomplete. A mutuality of wants have formed the individuals of each country into a kind of national society; and here the progress of civilization has stopt. For it is easy to see, that nations with regard to each other (notwithstanding the ideal civil law, which every one explains as its suits him), are like individuals in a state of nature. They are regulated by no fixt principle, governed by no compulsive law, and each does independently what it pleases, or what it can.
Were it possible we could have known the world when in a state of barbarism, we might have concluded, that it never could be brought into the order we now see it. The untamed mind was then as hard, if not harder to work upon in its individual state, than the national mind is in its present one. Yet we have seen the accomplishment of the one, why then should we doubt that of the other?
There is a greater fitness in mankind to extend and complete the civilization of nations with each other at this day, than there was to begin it with the unconnected individuals at first; in the same manner that it is somewhat easier to put together the materials of a machine after they are formed, than it was to form them from original matter. The present condition of the world differing so exceedingly from what it formerly was, has given a new call to the mind of man, more than what he appears to be sensible of. The wants of the individual, which first produced the idea of society, are now augmented into the wants of the nation, and he is obliged to seek from another country what before he sought from the next person.
Letters, the tongue of the world, have in some measure brought all mankind acquainted, and, by an extension of their uses, are every day promoting some new friendship. Through them distant nations become capable of conversation, and losing by degrees the awkwardness of strangers, and the moroseness of suspicion, they learn to know and understand each other. Science, the partizan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. Her influence on the mind, like the sun on the chilled earth, has long been preparing it for higher cultivation and further improvement. The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosopher of another: he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him.
This was not the condition of the barbarism world. Then the wants of man were few, and the objects within his reach. While he could acquire these, he lived in a state of individual independence, the consequence of which was, there was as many nations as persons, each contending with the other, to secure something which he had, or to obtain something which he had not. The world had then no business to follow, no studies to exercise the mind. Their time was divided between sloth and fatigue. Hunting and war were their chief occupations; sleep and food their principal enjoyments.
Now it is otherwise. A change in the mode of life has made it necessary to be busy; and man finds a thousands things to do now which before he did not. Instead of placing his ideas of greatness in the rude achievements of the savage, he studies arts, science, agriculture, and commerce, the refinements of the gentleman, the principles of society, and the knowledge of the philosopher.
There are many things which in themselves are morally neither good nor bad, but they are productive of consequences, which are strongly marked with one or other of these characters. Thus commerce, though in itself a moral nullity, has had a considerable influence in tempering the human mind. It was the want of objects in the ancient world, which occasioned in them such a rude and perpetual turn for war. Their time hung on their hands without the means of employment. The indolence they lived in afforded leisure for mischief, and being all idle at once, and equal in their circumstances, they were easily provoked or induced to action.
But the introduction of commerce furnished the world with objects, which in their extent, reach every man, and give him something to think about and something to do; by these his attention is mechanically drawn from the pursuits which a state of indolence and an unemployed mind occasioned, and he trades with the same countries, which former ages, tempted by their productions, and too indolent to purchase them, would have gone to war with.
Thus, as I have already observed, the condition of the world being materially changed by the influence of science and commerce, it is put into a fitness not only to admit of, but to desire an extension of civilization. The principal and almost only remaining enemy it now has to encounter, is prejudice; for it is evidently the interest of mankind to agree and make the best of life. The world has undergone its divisions of empire, the several boundaries of which are known and settled. The idea of conquering countries, like the Greeks and Romans, does not now exist; and experience has explored the notion of going to war for the sake of profit. In short, the objects for war are exceedingly diminished, and there is now left scarcely any thing to quarrel about, but what arises from that demon of society, prejudice, and the consequent fullness and untractableness of the temper.
There is something exceedingly curious in the constitution and operation of prejudice. It has the singular ability of accommodating itself to all the possible varieties of the human mind. Some passions and vices are but thinly scattered among mankind, and find only here and there a fitness of reception. But prejudice, like the spider, makes every where its home. It has neither taste nor choice of place, and all that it requires is room. There is scarcely a situation, except fire or water, in which a spider will not live. So, let the mind be as naked as the walls of an empty and forsaken tenement, gloomy as a dungeon, or ornamented with the richest abilities of thinking; let it be hot, cold, dark, or light, lonely or inhabited, still prejudice, if undisturbed, will fill it with cobwebs, and live, like the spider, where there seems nothing to live on. If the one prepares her food by poisoning it to her palate and her use, the other does the same; and as several of our passions are strongly characterised by the animal world, prejudice may be denominated the spider of the mind.
Perhaps no two events ever united so intimately and forcibly to combat and expel prejudice, as the Revolution of America, and the Alliance with France. Their effects are felt, and their influence already extends as well to the old world as the new. Our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution, more extraordinary than the political revolution of the country. We see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used. We can look back on our own prejudices, as if they had been the prejudices of other people. We now see and know they were prejudices and nothing else; and relieved from their shackles, enjoy a freedom of mind we felt not before. It was not all the argument, however powerful, nor all the reasoning, however elegant, that could have produced this change, so necessary to the extension of the mind and the cordiality of the world, without the two circumstances of the Revolution and the Alliance.
Had America dropt quietly from Britain, no material change in sentiment had taken place. The same notions, prejudices, and conceits, would have governed in both countries, as governed them before; and, still the slaves of error and education, they would have travelled on in the beaten tract of vulgar and habitual thinking. But brought about by the means it has been, both with regard to ourselves, to France, and to England, every corner of the mind is swept of its cobwebs, poison, and dust, and made fit for the reception of generous happiness.
 
(Prefaced and edited by Franco Spoltore)


[1] John Keane, Thomas Paine. A political Life, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995, p. 533.
[2] Thomas Paine, Common Sense, in Eric Foner (ed.), Paine, Collected Writings, NY, The Library of America, 1995, p. 50.
[3] Mark Philp, Paine, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 34.
[4] John Keane, op. cit., p.2l8.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., p. 236.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., p. 418.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., p. 468.
* The excerpts from Common Sense and The Last Crisis are taken from Paine, Collected Writings, ed. Eric Foner, NY, The Library of America, 1995, pp. 32 to 36 and pp. 350 to 353. The passages from the letter to the Abbé Raynal have been taken from the edition published in London by Ridgeway in 1792.
a Thomas Anello, otherwise Massanello, a fisherman of Naples, who after spiriting up his countrymen in the public market place, against the oppression of the Spaniards, to whom the place was subject, prompted them to revolt, and in the space of a day became king.
b That the revolution began at the exact period of time best fitted to the purpose, is sufficiently proved by the event. — But the great hinge on which the whole machine turned is the UNION OF THE STATES: and this union was naturally produced by the inability of anyone state to support itself against a foreign enemy without the assistance of the rest.
Had the states severally been less able than they were when the war began, their united strength would not have been equal to the undertaking, and they must, in all human probability, have failed And on the other hand, had they severally been more able, they might not have seen, or, what is more, might not have felt, the necessity of uniting; and either by attempting to stand alone, or in small confederacies, would have been separately conquered.
Now, as we cannot see a time (and many years must pass away before it can arrive) when the strength of anyone state, or of several united, can be equal to the whole of the present united states, and as we have seen the extreme difficulty of collectively prosecuting the war to a successful issue, and preserving our national importance in the world, therefore, from the experience we have had, and the knowledge we have gained, we must, unless we make a waste of wisdom, be strongly impressed with the advantage, as well as the necessity, of strengthening that happy union which has been our salvation and without which we should have been ruined people.
While I was writing this note, I cast my eye on the pamphlet COMMON SENSE, from which I shall make an extract, as it applies exactly to the case. It is as follows.
“I have never met with a man, either in England or America, who hath not confessed his opinion that a separation between the countries would take place one time or other.
As all men allow the measure, and differ only in their opinion of the time, let us, in order to remove mistakes, take a general survey of things, and endeavour, if possible, to find out the VERY TIME. But we need not go far, the enquiry ceases at once, for, THE TIME HATH FOUND US. The general concurrence, the glorious union of all things prove the fact.
It is not in numbers, but in a union, that our great strength lies. The continent is just arrived at the pitch of strength, in which no single colony is able to support itself, and the whole, when united, can accomplish the matter; and either more or less than this, might be fatal in its effects.”

 

 

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