The Sudden Emergence of Tom Paine
by Murray N. Rothbard
article is excerpted from Conceived
in Liberty. Audiobook recordings of this four-volume history,
read by Dr. Floy Lilley, are available
for free download.
At the beginning
of 1776, New England was ready for independence. So were such leading
radicals as Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry of Virginia, Christopher
Gadsden of South Carolina, and army leaders such as George Washington
and Charles Lee. But the bulk of the colonies and the Continental
Congress were not.
One of the
main stumbling blocks to a commitment to independence was personal
loyalty to the British crown. There has always been a political
taboo of almost mystical force against attacking the head of state,
and always the convenient though emasculating custom of attributing
his sins to his evil or incompetent advisers. Such long-standing
habits impeded a rational analysis of the deeds of King George III.
Furthermore, the old and obsolete Whig ideal of virtual independence
under a figurehead king of both Britain and America could only be
shattered if the king were to be attacked personally.
this taboo, to smash the icon, and so to liberate America from its
thrall required a special type of man, a man fearless, courageous,
and radical, an intellectual with a gift for dramatic and exciting
rhetoric and unfettered by the many ties that bind a man to the
existing system. At this strategic hour America found just such
a man: Thomas Paine.
of the other eminent leaders of his day, there was nothing in the
least aristocratic in the background of Tom Paine. The son of a
poor English corset maker, he was forced to educate himself for
lack of schooling. After serving a checkered career as corset maker,
sailor, and petty bureaucrat, he finally rose to the status of a
minor English tax collector. He was soon characteristically in trouble
with the authorities. Chosen by his fellow excise collectors in
1772 to petition Parliament for higher wages, he was curtly dismissed
from the service by the authorities. Unemployed, bankrupt, the unhappy
Paine began his life again at the age of thirty-seven by emigrating
to America, armed only with a letter of introduction he had managed
to obtain from Benjamin Franklin in London.
Philadelphia toward the end of 1774, he got a job with a Philadelphia
printer and soon rose to the editorship of the printer's insignificant
Pennsylvania Magazine. He quickly proved himself an outstanding
writer and publicist and quickly made his reputation as a libertarian
by publishing a blistering attack on the institution of slavery.
In "African Slavery in America,"[i]
written shortly after his arrival and published in early March 1775,
Paine pointed out that the African natives were often peaceful and
industrious farmers brought into slavery either by European man-theft
or by outsiders inducing the African chieftains to war on each other
and to sell their prisoners into slavery. He also riddled the common
excuse that purchase and ownership of existing slaves was somehow
moral, in contrast to the wickedness of the original enslavement:
may as well join with a known band of robbers, buy their ill-got
goods, and help on the trade; ignorance is no more pleadable
in one case than the other … and as the true owner has
the right to reclaim his goods that were stolen, and sold; so
the slave, who is proper owner of his freedom, has a right to
reclaim it, however often sold.
being human, have not lost their natural right to their freedom,
and therefore, concluded Paine, "the governments … should
in justice set them free, and punish those who hold them in slavery."
this article was published, the first abolitionist society
The Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery
was established at Philadelphia. Largely Quaker, it included the
deist Paine as one of its members.
Concord moved Paine to turn his talents to the radical revolutionary
cause. In July he urged upon the Quakers the justice of taking up
arms in defense of liberty so long as disarmament is not universal.
He denounced the British government as highwaymen setting forth
to plunder American property; therefore, in self-defense, "arms
like laws discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe."
For the British, "nothing but arms or miracles can reduce them to
reason and moderation." And in October he combined his antislavery
and pro-independence views to castigate Great Britain for trafficking
in human flesh, and he looked forward to an independence that would
end the slave trade and, ultimately, all of slavery.
All this culminated
in Paine's tremendous blow for American independence. His fiery
and brilliant pamphlet Common Sense,[ii]
off the press in early January 1776, spread like wildfire throughout
the colonies. A phenomenal 120,000 copies were sold in the space
of three months. Passages were reprinted in newspapers all over
America. All this meant that nearly every literate home was familiar
with the pamphlet.
Paine had, at a single blow, become the voice of the American Revolution
and the greatest single force in propelling it to completion and
independence. Charles Lee wrote jubilantly and prophetically to
Washington that "I never saw such a masterly, irresistible performance.
It will … in concurrence with the transcendent folly and wickedness
of the ministry, give the coup de grâce to Great Britain." And Washington
himself endorsed "the sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning"
of Common Sense.
Sense called squarely and openly for American independence,
and pointed to the choice for Americans as essentially between independence
and slavery. But what was more, Paine boldly smashed the icon, directing
his most devastating fire at King George himself. For the first
time, the king, "the Royal Brute of Great Britain," was pinpointed
as the major enemy the king himself, not just his wicked
advisers (the king's advisers were attacked as being in thrall to
him). Paine had quashed the taboo, and Americans flocked to imbibe
his liberating message.
stopping at indicting George III, Paine pressed on to a comprehensive
attack on the very principle of monarchy. The ancient Jews had prospered
without kings and had suffered under them, he wrote, following the
great English tradition of Milton and Sidney; and Holland flourished
as a republic. But more important, the division between kings and
subjects is unnatural, and bears no relation to the natural distinction
between rich and poor on the market. How, indeed, had the natural
equality of men before the law become transposed into subjection
to a monarch?
find the first of them [kings] nothing better than the principal
ruffian of some restless gang; whose savage manners or pre-eminence
in subtilty obtained him the title of chief among plunderers;
and who by increasing in power and extending his depredations,
overawed the quiet and defenseless….
And now the
kings were but "crowned ruffians."
In this way,
Paine not only laid bare the roots of monarchy, but provided a brilliant
insight into the nature and origins of the State itself. He had
made a crucial advance in libertarian theory upon the social-contract
doctrine of the origin of the State. While he followed Locke in
holding that the State should be confined to the protection of man's
natural rights, he saw clearly that actual states had not originated
in this way or for this purpose. Instead, they had been born in
naked conquest and plunder.
contribution of Common Sense to libertarian thought was
Paine's sharp quasi-anarchistic distinction between "society" and
"government." Indeed, Paine opened his pamphlet with these words:
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 governed by our wickedness…. The one encourages intercourse,
the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last
in every state, is a blessing, but government, even in its best
state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable
one: for when we suffer … the same miseries by a government,
which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity
is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which
we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence;
the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers
to limning brilliantly the nature and origins of monarchy and the
State, calling boldly for independence, and attacking George III,
Paine set forth the proper foreign policy for an independent America.
Here he argued that the connection with Great Britain entailed upon
Americans burdens rather than rewards. The Americans should not
be tempted by the prospect of Anglo-American domination of the world;
on the contrary, America would vastly benefit from throwing open
its trade and ports freely to all nations.
alliance with Britain "tends directly to involve this continent
in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations
… against whom we have neither anger nor complaint." As Europe
is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection
with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer
clear of European contentions, which she can never do while "she
is made the make-weight in the scale of British politics."
adumbrated for America what was later to be called a foreign policy
of "isolationism," but which might also be called neutrality or
neutralism. Whatever it is called, it is essentially the libertarian
policy of free trade and peaceful coexistence with all nations;
it is an America that acts as a moral beacon for mankind rather
than as judge or policeman.
to all these achievements, Paine managed to outline in this brief
pamphlet the internal political program of the libertarian wing
of the American Revolution: the new democratic system naturally
created by the Revolution. This consisted of rule by democratically
elected legislatures established by proportionate representation
and responsible to checks upon them by the people. The aim of such
government was simply to protect every man's natural rights of liberty
and property: "Securing freedom and property to all men, and above
all things, the free exercise of religion…. "
He saw that
the superficially plausible lucubrations of such Tory writers as
Montesquieu and Blackstone, with their talk of mixed constitutions
and checks and balances, masked the repression and hobbling of the
democratic element by unchecked aristocracy and oligarchy. Human
reason, he implied, must be brought to bear on the myths and accretions
of government itself. The much-vaunted British constitution was
a tangle of complexities, and hence vague and devoid of a focus
of responsibility. In effect, he charged, the so-called checks and
balances have led to the aggrandizement of monarchical tyranny over
the other branches of government. Indeed, at any given time, for
government to act at all, one of the branches must predominate and
outweigh the checks and balances. This argument is reminiscent of
Edmund Burke's blast against the idea of mixed and balanced government
in his anarchistic first work,[iii]
Vindication of Natural Society.
the bulk of his magnificent pamphlet with these stirring lines:
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….
O! Receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.
clarion call for the democratic-libertarian cause as the party of
hope, the party of progress, in short, the party of a secular, rational
messianism, he eloquently hailed the impending future: "We have
it in our power to begin the world over again…. The birthday
of a new world is at hand…."
success of Common Sense emboldened the radicals to follow
with pamphlets and articles extolling the goal of independence,
excoriating King George as "a full-blooded Nero," and anticipating
the great benefits of free trade with all the world that would flow
from an independent status.
the Tories, quasi Tories, and conservatives who opposed independence
should abominate Common Sense was, of course, to be expected,
reviling it as that "artful, insidious and pernicious" work of sedition
and "phrenzy." Several Tories hastened to publish pamphlets of rebuttal,
warning of the "ruin, horror, and desolation" that would stem from
abandoning the happy and peaceful status of a colony to pursue the
romantic chimera of independence. Independence was roundly denounced
as absurdly impractical and "Utopian," a project of "ambitious innovators"
who "are attempting to hurry … into a scene of anarchy; their scheme
of independence is visionary…."
landed oligarchs such as Landon Carter and Henry Laurens considered
the Paine pamphlet as "indecent," "rascally," and "dangerous." But
the Tories and conservatives soon found that their attacks on independence
were in vain, that "there is a fascination belonging to the word
Liberty that beguiles the minds of the vulgar…. "
It is true that Paine wanted the polity to approximate as closely
as possible the libertarian "state of nature." In that sense,
as Halevy pointed out, "the principle of the natural identity
of interests, when applied to the solution of the problem of politics,
seems logically to lead to the anarchistic thesis." Elie Halevy,
Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (Boston: Beacon Press,
1955), p. 130.
You can find a text version of "African Slavery in America" here
and an audio version here.
You can find a text version of Common Sense here
and an audio version here.
See "A Note on Burke's Vindication of the Natural Society," by
Murray N. Rothbard.
N. Rothbard (19261995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State, Conceived
in Liberty, What
Has Government Done to Our Money, For
a New Liberty, The
Case Against the Fed, and many
other books and articles. He was
also the editor with Lew Rockwell of The
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