Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Common Sense," Thomas Paine, and the Bible

by Tom Van Dyke

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Thomas Paine's "Common Sense", the most influential pamphlet of its day, is how much Bible is in it!  Not so much "Enlightenment" as you'd expect. Tom Paine was one of the few actual deists of the Founding era, and when he later revealed how much he disdained the Bible, America turned its back on him.

Without further ado-doo, ladies and gentlemen, let's look at Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" pamphlet--full text here---it's surprisingly short:

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; yet the provision which the [British] constitution makes [empowering Parliament---TVD] supposes such a power to exist.

Not an argument that John Calvin would have liked, but Paine's clearly addressing in the negative the Divine Right of Kings and Romans 13 ["Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers"]. No argument for the Revolution could be made without addressing this great Biblical theological problem.

In the early ages of the world, according to the scripture chronology there were no kings; the consequence of which was, there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion...Antiquity favours the same remark; for the quiet and rural lives of the first Patriarchs have a snappy something in them, which vanishes when we come to the history of Jewish royalty.

Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom...

As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by Kings...

Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them. The history of that transaction is worth attending to.

Before Paine attends to that, he makes a Biblical argument for a republic, the sort of thing you only hear from hardcore "Christian Nation" fundamentalists, but Paine doesn't miss a trick:

Near three thousand years passed away, from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of Republic, administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts.

Then Paine goes on [at great length] to explain that in the Book of Judges, how Gideon refuses the Israelites' offer of their crown after his great military victory [Judges 8, King James Version], replying [all CAPS are Paine's]:

"I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you. THE LORD SHALL RULE OVER YOU." Words need not be more explicit: Gideon doth not decline the honour, but denieth their right to give it; neither doth he compliment them with invented declarations of his thanks, but in the positive style of a prophet charges them with disaffection to their proper Sovereign, the King of Heaven.

and of the First Book of Samuel

"But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, give us a King to judge us; and Samuel prayed unto the Lord, and the Lord said unto Samuel, hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee, for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, THAT I SHOULD NOT REIGN OVER THEM."

As well as a VERY long account from 1 Samuel 8 of how the king will take their sons for war and their daughters for servitude, and take a tenth of everything and

"...your fields and your vineyards, and your olive yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shell have chosen, AND THE LORD WILL NOT HEAR YOU IN THAT DAY."

All in all, a convincing argument against monarchy, not only Biblical but reality, a reality that's just dawned on the colonists...

Now we all know that Paine starts to show his anti-Biblical cards in 1794 with the first part of his The Age of Reason, and believes the Bible no more than Aesop's fables. But in 1776, he's not nearly done dealing from the bottom of the deck yet to get Christian America nodding in agreement at his "Common Sense":

If the first king of any country was by election, that likewise establishes a precedent for the next; for to say, that the right of all future generations is taken away, by the act of the first electors, in their choice not only of a king but of a family of kings for ever, hath no parallel in or out of scripture but the doctrine of original sin, which supposes the free will of all men lost in Adam; and from such comparison, and it will admit of no other, hereditary succession can derive no glory. for as in Adam all sinned, and as in the first electors all men obeyed; as in the one all mankind were subjected to Satan, and in the other to sovereignty; as our innocence was lost in the first, and our authority in the last; and as both disable us from re-assuming some former state and privilege, it unanswerably follows that original sin and hereditary succession are parallels. Dishonourable rank! inglorious connection! yet the most subtle sophist cannot produce a juster simile.

Original sin! A doctrine doubted by even the early "unitarians" of the age, a doctrine Ben Franklin felt comfortable enough denying publicly. Surely, Paine would never subscribe to such nonsense! [Or did he?]

No matter, the Founding era did, at least to the degree that they distrusted man's reason as the final arbiter of all truth.

And Paine's citation of the Biblical Adam here is no small thing: it stands directly as a refutation of PATRIARCHA OR THE NATURAL POWER OF KINGS By THE LEARNED SIR ROBERT FILMER, BART. [1680][sic], the best known defense of the British monarchy before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which traced King James' [yes, that King James] authority back to Adam himself!

What Paine writes of here isn't abstract theologico-political abstract stuff for an elite few---to his audience, the American colonists, the disputes are well known, and what Paine writes is clearly common sense!

As to usurpation, no man will be so hardy as to defend it; and that William the Conqueror was an usurper is a fact not to be contradicted. The plain truth is, that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into.

OK, this is a cheap argument by Paine going back to 1066, but his audience is already on his side. But the illegitimacy of government by a usurper goes all the way back to Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s! And N.B.---"usurp" is used TWICE in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Surely no coincidence: the illegitimacy of usurpation had 500 years to imbed itself into Christian thought and the Western mind, contra Romans 13. It was in the theologico-political air they breathed.

For us to understand what Jefferson called the "American mind"---what he claimed he was only setting down on paper in drafting the Declaration---we need to be familiar with the air they breathed. Probably a disappointing fraction of Americans today could even define "usurp," but the American Mind knew well what it meant in 1776, or Jefferson wouldn't have used it twice in the same paragraph, and neither would Paine have gone there.

The first king of England, of the present line (William the Conqueror) was a Frenchman, and half the peers of England are descendants from the same country; wherefore, by the same method of reasoning, England ought to be governed by France.

That's a pretty funny reductio ad absurdum, and definitely kicks Filmer's Patriarcha to the curb. Couldn't resist giving Paine his props as a comedian here.

Well, this next one is Paine's greatest whopper, since no way he believes a word of it. [Does he?] But it does tell us a lot about his audience, which is our primary historical concern:

Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other, was never the design of Heaven. The time likewise at which the Continent was discovered, adds weight to the argument, and the manner in which it was peopled, encreases the force of it. The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America: As if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.

I mean, did you get that one? The Almighty is establishing America as a refuge not merely for religious freedom blahblahblah, but as a sanctuary for Protestantism! "Natural proof," at that!

Paine could push buttons, man. He'd have a talk show these days. What network, aw, I'll leave that aside.

Almost done here on Mr. Paine's Common Sense---if you've read this far, and I've written this far, let's do the entire thing. Paine's next appeal to the Divine is pretty straightforward:

But where says some is the King of America? I'll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not 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 as monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING.

Again, the CAPS are Paine's. He's getting a little imprecise here, either tired or wasted or just trying to finish up. God is King of America, if "reigns above" means what it appears to mean. But THE LAW IS KING, too. And even if the colonists never actually read it, surely they'd heard the title of Samuel Rutherford's 1644 Calvinist tract, Lex, Rex and pretty much got the gist of it from the title. Not only isn't the King the law, but Rutherford's already on to the minimization of the leviathan of government.

Paine's appropriation of THE LAW IS KING likely carried to its audience more than just its rhetorical face value, it brought echoes upon echoes with it: Britain's Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution, the better part of a century of political strife; the Calvinist theology that powered not only the Scottish Covenenters but the Presbyterians in America whom King George blamed for the revolution itself; the refutation of the Divine Right of Kings, as well as Rutherford's own thoughts on minimalist government itself.

"Lex, Rex" was a powerful term, and well-known; that's probably why Paine put its English translation of it in CAPS, confident his readers knew what he was talking about and its echoes too.

Hey, it's not as though ALL of Paine's arguments are theological. He abandons that tack at the 2/3 mark of "Common Sense," having established the righteousness of the cause, through reason and Bible. He closes with a generic call for liberty, and cites the rest of the world's [Africa and Asia's] rejection of Europe as oppressors and all-around nogoodniks.

In the last third, as a practical matter, Paine argues how and why the American revolution can succeed---and he was wrong about building an American navy, but right that the French would only help us if we split off from Britain and not reconcile with them, thereby weakening them. [And indeed it was the French navy, not an American one, that swung the showdown at Yorktown.]

Paine's "Common Sense" was a pamphlet, not a book, and can be read pretty quickly. The colonists did. And once you tune your ears to their ears, theologically and politically, it's even easier to hear. Everybody agreed, it was just common sense.


jimmiraybob said...

But the illegitimacy of government by a usurper goes all the way back to Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s!

I know that you like to start all of history with Aquinas but the concept that you describe goes back considerably further. Perhaps a review of Solon and Athenian Democracy is in order (ca. 5th century BCE). And, of course, Aristotelian politics (ca. 4th century BCE) (his Politics being translated in the west and into the Latin ca. 1260 CE, or AD if you like, by William of Moerbake. Just in time for Aquinas and other western Scholars and interested parties (and 18th c. American colonial political theorists/writers) to start incorporation the rule of (just) law into their own syntheses.

The incorporation of Biblical concerns into the Common Sense occurs after the rebellion is well under way - If you consider Washington leading a continental army against the British (who were trying to put down the rebellion) part of the rebellion. It was written to pursued a significant constituency that the ongoing rebellion was just in their eyes. Some no doubt found it persuasive on the theological merits and others, of the loyalists, did not. Clearly, the part of the "American Mind" that Paine was appealing to was not even of a single mind. Nor, I believe, are they now.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I know that you like to start all of history with Aquinas

Yes, because its an excellent place to start--Christian thought incorporating Aristotle and Cicero, "Christianizing" the classics for use in the Western World again.

Also John of Salisbury, c. 1160,Policraticus. King Henry II was very bad boy, killing the archbishop Thomas a Becket and all.

But it is the Calvinists, the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, who put the boots on the ground leading rebellions against the king in both England [1642] and of course America in 1776. Credit where due.

The incorporation of Biblical concerns into the Common Sense occurs after the rebellion is well under way

"Common Sense" was published in January 1776. There had been shots fired in New England by that point, but independence had not yet been declared, the revolution was not yet underway.

But thank you for your comments, which as always are helpful in their own way.

jimmiraybob said...

My comment RE Paine was in agreement with "...dealing from the bottom of the deck yet to get Christian America nodding in agreement at his "Common Sense.'"

As to timing,

Lexington and Concord April 1775,

Siege of Boston begins April 1775,

Washington leads Cont. Army June 1775,


Battle of Bunker & Breed's Hill June 1775.

These are considered major engagements of the Revolution. There are, of course, many more additional smaller forms of rebellion including colonial violence against British property and officials including governors.

The rebellion was on before the official announcement in July of 1776.

I highly recommend American Insurgents, American Patriots (2010) by T. H. Breen

jimmiraybob said...

Starting history with Aquinas is a great starting place if your considering Church tradition. However, when considering the founding it fails the real world test.

While Aquinas, Scholasticism and the Church did have an influence in Medieval education, not all universities were created and built the same. There were vast differences from city to city and regionally, such as northern and southern and Scottish, Irish and British universities. The University of Padua, for instance had a much more secular structure and largely resisted church influence.

Many early universities were merely students banding together to hire teachers for specific purposes such as law and medicine and to have professional training for trade and commercial purposes.

Aquinas' appropriation of classical political theory, including Aristotle and Cicero, gave classical works no special sanctification except in some academic circles and later church tradition. Classical works were translated, taught and synthetized as unfiltered manuscripts (although the quality and completeness of early translations was often poor) although largely absorbed through the filter of Christian faith to varying degrees.

The synthesis of classical writers such as Aristotle was also largely done in elite, non academic, secular circles in the salons of the aristocracy and at the courts of kings and princes of varying church affiliation and piety.

By the time we get to the colonies and then the founding there is a much better and more complete catalogue of classical writing unfiltered by the Church (Catholic or Protestant) and studied on it's own merits by the free thinkers of Europe and America. Read the writings of the founders and framers. Study the contents of their libraries. They loved them some Cicero, and Solon, and Cato and Aristotle (not so much loved by Jefferson) and classical ideas.

The idea that after Aquinas that all study of classical Greek and Roman writers somehow went through Aquinas is......well, interesting, but just doesn't stand up.

The only linearity is the common thread of the classical works themselves, igniting each successive generation.

But yes, officially within the Catholic Church tradition, classical thought flows through Aquinas.

On another note, the Medieval Germanic peoples, often derisively described as "the barbarians", brought their own traditions of elected leadership and disposition of that leadership if it proved ineffective or too ambitious (tyrannical you might say).

The idea that peoples should seek relief from unjust and burdensome leadership and government is as old as the hills. The ideas and language that defines these politics and constitutional republicanism and rule by law over rule by the corrupt individual (or limited hegemon) and oppression of the greater part of the polis is at least as old as the ancient Greek city states.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Catholic" equaled "Christian" until the Reformation, of course. Aquinas is a pre-Reformation figure [c. `1250 CE].

The "secular" university as such didn't really exist, although Padua is a favorite for the "secularism" myth. Indeed, U of Pennsylvania was the first non-affiliated university in the US [c. 1740], although I believe the Presbyterians managed to take it over anyway.

But the topic here is "Common Sense," and as we see, such was the religiosity of the Founding Era that many or most men needed to feel revolution would be OK with God, hence the biblical nature of Paine's pamphlet.

The end of liberty must be justified; it's quite true that the means need not have Biblical origin [as some religious types argue]. Locke's First Treatise is likewise argued quite religiously; the Second is far more about the mechanics of liberty and is "secular," if you will.

jimmiraybob said...

The "secular" university as such didn't really exist, although Padua is a favorite for the "secularism" myth.

I wasn't trying to bolster any myths. I was making a reference to the fact that the University of Padua was more influenced by secular, or perhaps profane is the right term, subjects than theological studies. It was a leading center of (Christian) Humanism - a more liberal teaching movement than Scholasticism. It boasts of having had both Capernicus and Galileo as faculty. All references that I've ever found stress it historical independence, including from the church. However, I'll clarify that this doesn't mean that it or that students and faculty was outside the influence of Christianity (and some or most quite devout). But academically, they were free to maintain intellectual autonomy from strict Catholic dogma and would not have necessarily been under any special sway to Aquinas (University of Paris) when he'd written his Summa (some 30-50 years after the founding of U of P.).

The point being that the study of classical Greek and Roman writers and the synthesis of Medieval and classical ideas across Europe (and later the British American colonies) was mostly independent of Aquinas. But that wasn't necessarily true within authority and tradition of the Church following his Canonization in the early 14th century. On a side note, his work until then was controversial even in the Church and his own University and he was condemned by the Bishop of Paris twice in the 1270s.

JMS said...

TVD - "Sincerely wishing, that as men and christians, ye may always fully and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right; and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others; but that the example which ye have unwisely set, of mingling religion with politics, may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of AMERICA."

Tom Van Dyke said...

JMS: Context, por favor. He's excoriating the Quakers in their slavish devotion to Romans 13, that man should not question the kings that God hath put over him.

Elsewhere--in the main body, not the appendix---Paine also suggests that God himself started America as a safe haven for Protestantism, something even a "Christian America" type would have hesitation in proclaiming.


To JRB: I would not claim that Thomas Aquinas [d. 1274] would write the First Amendment. [Or John Calvin.] What he represents is the beginning of a 500-year process. John Locke and the Enlightenment didn't drop in from Mars one day in the 1600s.

For most if not all in those 500 years, "Christian" and Western thought were synonymous, and the Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment

which was the one that flavored the American mind, was more Christian than not.

[Locke as well, at least as the Founders understood him.]

All this explains why the products of our modern secular whitewash of our theologico-political heritage look blankly at phrases like "nature and nature's God," having never heard of the "natural law" of Cicero, Aquinas, Blackstone, Hamilton, and of course, the Declaration itself.

Tom Van Dyke said...

BTW---Aristotle had been lost to the Western World until about Aquinas' time. The Islamic World had him, however. Via the great Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd [d. 1204]

and the Jewish physician/theologian/philosopher

[d. 1198] who lived in Moorish Spain

the Western world/Christendom recovered Aristotle.

the significance of Aristotle was just not in his philosophy itself [the Galileo controversy of the 1500s was in its overturn of the Aristotelian geocentric universe], but in its core idea, its overarching idea, that the universe [and God himself] makes sense, that it and He are reasonable, and are not "magical" and capricious---that the laws of nature work one way one day and another way the next, depending on which side of God's bed He got up on this morning.

Just as the Islamic world is rejecting Aristotelianism [al-Gazzali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers Ibn Rushd/Averroes writes the last gasp of the Golden Age of Islam, The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

The West---Christendom---takes the baton, the unity of reason and revelation. At the same time, the monk

picks up science texts from the Muslim world on optics, etc., and ushers in the "scientific method" in the West.

From this point on--the Age of Aquinas, and of Bacon, but also of Aristotle and a reasonable God and a reasonable universe reforming Christendom's worldview---the Muslim world declines; the West is never headed for the next 1000 years in becoming the dominant civilization on earth.

So this is what I've been getting at, JRB, naught else. aquinas not just for being Aquinas, but for standing at the crossroads between religion and reason, the crossroads of the Abrahamic religions and classical Greek and Roman philosophy, between paganism and faith, between a universe run by a Divine tyrant and one that is bound by the laws of nature---laws that even the Divine binds Himself with.

This is what begins in the age of Aquinas and takes 500 years to become the Founding, a natural law, an Invisible Hand behind it.

The American scheme, that liberty is good, that liberty is best, that man is best when he is free, that society is best when men are free, that we all benefit from liberty, our neighbor's, not just our own---this is the Founding.

Why, it's the natural law.