Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thomas Paine's Common Sense, as heard by the American Colonists

by Tom Van Dyke

Our American Creation blog has 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.

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 agreed, it was just common sense.


Mark D. said...

Indeed, Common Sense is even more a testament to the strong evangelical faith of the American colonists and revolutionaries given that Paine himself was a deist and thought quite poorly of organized Christianity. But he knew his audience, and like any good advocate, he crafted his argument to appeal to his audience's pre-existing worldview. And he worked mightily to counter aspects of Christian theology that militated against the revolutionary movement, and he based such counters on the Bible and the tradition of reading it that was common in the Anglo-American world.

Jonathan Rowe said...


This is good. But here's a question about when non-believers who want to accomplish something (I won't say "with an agenda" because that's too crude) use the Bible for political ends: Might there be the possibility that the language of the Bible will be used to "slip in" something that's not authentically biblical?

By way of analogy to today's era. Is the Obama health care plan "biblical"? Could you imagine a politician (I'm sure one or more have already done so; I just haven't been paying attention) [mis?]using the Bible and biblical examples to justify the plan?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Modern day politicians also "use" language to affect the populace, so they can build a consensus.

The culture wars today are a result of factions that war over different views of 'life'...the progressive seeks to undermine all connection to tradition, while the traditional conservative stays the course with "religious liberty".

Both, "religious liberty" (the traditional view), and political liberty (the progressive view) were necessary to uphold for Revolutionary ends.

Today, we do not need revolution, because our Founders created "the most perfect union", which cannot be bettered, only maintained, respected and valued. The progressive does not do this, only the conservative/traditionalist.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Liberal religion uses political ideology to "build their cases", which is progressive political agenda. (This is when realism and idealism is caught up together, and it is deadly Marxist ideology...though the historical and real is very important to affirm.)

Conservative believers, who want to be "biblical" can be duped with using "sacred texts" for revolutionary ends....which was not what the text was in it's true context...! In fact, literalizing scripture is deadly, as well....

I think liberal democracy is maintained when both realism and idealism is held in tension....the individual (historical and real) is caught up in America's ideals (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but these ideals are left undefined, as the individual must make sense of their own life. This maintains a limited government and upholds personal accountability and individual responsibility....

Daniel said...

Seems to me that Paine is doing something a bit slippery in that last paragraph. Is he saying that God is King of America? Some of his language seems to point in that direction. But he then pivots to the Charter. If God is King and Law is King, what is the relationship of God to Law? Is he equating the two? Is the term "God" merely a poetic term for an abstract, invisible power?

This type of pivot is not unusual. Look back to the Biblical Book of Proverbs where it is used with a personification of Wisdom. Or move forward a century to Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn", and ask whether we are singing about Divine Armies or Union Armies, or are they the same thing? It is a fascinating literary and theological device.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom: I know you can point that Paine seemed to borrow ideas from "real" believing Christians like the Catholic and Presbyterian sources that anticipated the of "resisting tyranny" that the Enlightenment made famous.

But still, what does that tell us about the biblical authenticity of such arguments that a non-believer like Thomas Paine would borrow from you for propagandistic purposes?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Why should we care about "biblical authenticity" any more than we care about "correct" interpretations of the Qur'an?

We have no dog in the fight as historians. Scriptures mean whatever their believers believe they mean.

Oh, and yes, Obama frequently cites the Sermon on the Mount and "brother's keeper" in support of his policies and vision of good government. I happen to have a number of counterarguments that the Bible doesn't demand the government be as communitarian as he does [heh heh, no surprise there], but I have no problem with him arguing that. The "social Gospel" has a credible political pedigree in this country.

And who can say for sure that God or Jesus wouldn't want or require universal health care? Such judgments are beyond the historian's pay grade.

Unknown said...


I think Tom's point is the same one that I was trying to make with the interposition argument:

These theologica/political ideas were so woven into society by 500 years of history on this topic that even the people that did not believe any of it were educated in it. In other words, many of the "legal" arguments at the time were also "theological".

In the current "get back to the Constitution" era how many know that Nullification and secession were arguments based on the right of interposition by Jefferson and Madison. Maybe it was not direct from Calvin and had some deist tweeks to it but it was in the long line of this type of reasoning that went back way beyond Aquinas to Canon law and its view of Imageo Dei and love of self and neighbor out of reverance for God.

We seek to throw that out nowadays and wonder how a Sean Hannity can sit on radio and talk about rights and liberty but still support not giving someone a fair trial based on citizenship. If these right are not inalienable and thus grounded in imageo dei then it gets murky.
The dems do it too by the way so I do not get Tom upset. But I think you get my point.

We throw this line of reasoning and 500 years of history of thought out at our own peril.

Off topic but an olive branch to Jon:

If the secular and religious libertarians dropped buried the hatchet that would be one powerful group hey?

Back to history:

I think they did it back then in a big tent. The rational version of Romans 13 aligned them to do it.


Unknown said...

Oh and great job with this Tom. You are on par with George Will as one of the best writers on these topics.You have a real gift that comes out when you do posts like this. This is ground breaking stuff man. I really mean it.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Joe. I was writing in another forum [a classical philosophy one] and somebody brought up Paine's "Common Sense." I decided to give it a "close reading" armed with what all of us have been discussing here since I joined the blog 1.5 years ago, esp Calvin, Rutherford's Lex, Rex, interposition, Romans 13, Divine Right of Kings, all the religion stuff.

There's no replacement for reading the original documents for yourself, and not taking any other historian's word and authority for anything. Anti-authoritarian! That's proper history.

So, I was genuinely surprised how much the Enlightenment/deist Paine argued Bible and Christian theology. This tells us a lot about the theologico-landscape of the Founding. They just weren't gonna revolt unless they believed it was OK with God.

And once Paine started showing his Enlightenment/deist cards with 1794's John Adams, here.

Yes, Madison and Jefferson tried to lend Paine a hand while President Washington let him stew in a French prison, but after Paine returned to the US to live out his final days, only 6 people came to his funeral.

It was more like "Christian tolerance" tolerated Paine than the other way around. To say that the Founding was Enlightenment/deist is a bunch of crap, yet there are millions of Americans---perhaps even most---who believe that.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

@Tom, Wasn't Canon Law also based on Jewish Tradition? I think I remember seeing the correlation for a paper I wrote many years ago.

Then, my argument was a very Protestant and Luthren view of "liberty from law". So, yes, there could be a STRONG consensus for a "neutral" libertarian political view. That view would appeal to the religious folk by upholding personal liberty, and appeal to the "seuclarist" in regards to a limited government. That does sound "consensus building" to me! Do you think that each side would "bite"? This consensus would certainly protect individuality in regards to pro-activism, about "moral issues" (whether sacred or secular) which negatively campaigns against the "other side".

( Please keep up the comments, and the entries!)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Oops, possibly I am thinking of the sacraments.

Luther's philosophical position in regards to religion was nominal, which could underwrite a fine political philosophy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie, I think Paine is arguing here according to the theological view of law of those times:

Blackstone, but James Wilson says pretty much the same thing:

"“The doctrines . . . delivered [by an immediate and direct revelation] we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the Holy Scriptures . . . . Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.”

Now if Paine's "charter" is to "be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God," then the "charter"---the American laws--- will be compatible with scripture, and as legitimate a "ruler" as any king, "that so far as we approve as monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING."

As for libertarianism or secularism, I don't see Paine making an argument for either here.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The Puritans certainly had the view of the law as only found in "Holy Scriptures". But, the Founders would've understood the classical foundations of law Grotius....natural law via John Locke, which were not based on Scripture. I am not interested in scripture. I am interested in understanding the whole of how the Founders understood their lives..and government...and that means those who were not particularly Christian..

Tom Van Dyke said...

Do you know who Blackstone is? You need to know, google him. I'm not speaking of the Puritans at all.

What you're proposing with "secularism" and "libertarianism" is that the law would contain things in conflict with scripture. This would have been inconceivable to them---indeed Mayhew argues against honoring the executed Charles I on theological grounds.

What you're interested in, Angie, is not what the Founders were interested in, and they are our topic. You can concentrate on Paine's or Jefferson's secret thoughts if you want, but that's a sidelight, not "understanding the whole of how the Founders understood their lives..and government."

All I'm trying to do here is examine how the whole understood "Common Sense."

Unknown said...

"natural law via John Locke, which were not based on Scripture"

Inalienable rights grounded in love of self and neighbor based on both being made in the image of God has no scriptural basis? The Braytonites tried to say love of neighbor was part of other cultures but not one could point to any of them having this based on man being made in the image of God. This is uniquely Judeo-Christian.

It is the basis of all our rights in that the founders based in in God.


bpabbott said...

Re: "Inalienable rights grounded in love of self and neighbor based on both being made in the image of God has no scriptural basis? "

No scriptural foundation.

Which is quite different than saying it has no scriptural basis or that it is incompatible with all scripture.

Re: "It is the basis of all our rights in that the founders based in God"

Natural law, and the associated theology, had a proportionately greater role in the founding than did scripture in the orthodox sense.

However, to be fair a better description would be Christian Natural Law".

Tom Van Dyke said...

I've gone so far as to call it Christianized natural law, to leave open the door for the Greeks and Stoics to get their props.

What I see missing in the Founders's view of natural law is the "social contract" of Locke and especially Hobbes, whom Hamilton condemns in The Framer Refuted.

Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. But the reason he run into this absurd and impious doctrine, was, that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe.

This sure sounds like a Christianized view, not the modern, secular view---Hamilton here [and the Founder James Wilson as well as Jefferson elsewhere] that rights are not the result of an agreement with the government, as it appears Hamilton is arguing against here, "the mere contrivance of politicians," which to me shouts "social contract."

"We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of Kings." --Thomas Jefferson to John Manners, 1817

this also leads to the concept that "sovereignty," contra Hobbes, lies not with the government, but with the people [hence, "We the People!"], an idea that goes back to Aquinas and further.

Must our rights be removed from the stable foundation of nature, and placed on the precarious and fluctuating basis of human institution? Such seems to be the sentiment of Mr. Burke: and such too seems to have been the sentiment of a much higher authority than Mr. Burke -- Sir William Blackstone." ---Wilson, Of the Natural Rights of Individuals


This is rather a big deal, how Americans viewed rights per the natural law and the nature of the relationship between man and government, as contrasted to Hobbes, Blackstone and even Edmund Burke.

Yes, governments are agreed upon among men, but subject to a higher standard then mere "contract."

Anonymous said...

I came across this blog while doing some research on Common Sense and the concept of equality. In his opening sentence on Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession, Paine establishes the idea that "equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance". He then mentions the distinctions of rich and poor, but it is not clear if he considers them to be of consequence or if he is dismissing them as insignificant. Any insights are welcome.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Paine's "Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession" is from 1791, and by then time had passed him by--he was no longer influential in America, and thus this is outside the scope of this blog.