Monday, May 4, 2015

Tom Paine, "Common Sense," and the Bible

by Tom Van Dyke

Our American Creation blog entirely changed my viewpoint about religion and the Founding. I thought they were all deists or something, because that's how I was educated.

Reading Thomas Paine's Common Sense now, I'm simply amazed at how much religion is in it, and how much our discussions at American Creation have opened my ears to what he was actually saying, beginning to understand the language of the Founders as they heard it themselves. Thanks to all here gathered.

Most of those who fought the American Revolution couldn't do it in all good conscience without God's permission. The infidel Paine gave them that Biblical permission, clever fellow that he was, even though he didn't believe a word of it. Without further ado-doo, ladies and gentlemen, excerpts from Thomas Paine's Common Sense with commentary, the short and full text available here:

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 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 could agree, it was just common sense.

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