Lesson Plans Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings
Tom Paine is a master of both; and here he mixes them with enviable fluency. To make things even more complicated, he has a great sense of humour, too. To be sure, some of his arguments are decidedly bizarre: Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.
In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself. 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 increases 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. If Tom Paine did take these arguments seriously, it was silly of him. A man of impish wit, he may well have been joking, making fun of the preposterous arguments for reconciliation with Britain. I consider this the likeliest hypothesis.
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On the other hand, his deism may have got the better of him on this occasion. For the most part, though, Tom Paine is very serious indeed. He argues, to my mind admirably, that America has become too big and too complex for Britain to handle; the very distance between them is apt to make government inefficient, indeed counterproductive.
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In any case, Britain does not care about them. As all men allow the measure, and vary 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 inquiry ceases at once, for, the time hath found us. The general concurrence, the glorious union of all things prove the fact.
Just like he scornfully rejects the very idea of reconciliation, indeed he challenges its supporters to give at least one good reason why America should remain bound to Britain, Tom Paine insists in the same highly charged language that the time to act is now. He gives various reasons for that. Most of them are necessarily speculative, but history has proven him right. He speculates that, if separation from Britain is not effected now, a civil war between pro- and anti-British factions may break up.
Ironically enough, a civil war did break up nearly a century later, but for very different reasons that hardly anybody could have predicted in He is convinced that the size and population of the colonies are just right for the purpose: fifty years from now they may be too large and too diverse to be united under a single purpose, or to form a single government.
All this seems shrewd and sensible to me. Last but not least, Tom Paine is well aware of the unique historical time he is living through: The present time, likewise, is that peculiar time, which never happens to a nation but once, viz. Most nations have let slip the opportunity, and by that means have been compelled to receive laws from their conquerors, instead of making laws for themselves. First, they had a king, and then a form of government; whereas, the articles or charter of government, should be formed first, and men delegated to execute them afterwards: but from the errors of other nations, let us learn wisdom, and lay hold of the present opportunity — To begin government at the right end.
History has proven him right. The Appendix consists of two parts. He exposes logical contradictions with devastating precision. The two first pages, and the whole doth not make four we give you credit for, and expect the same civility from you, because the love and desire for peace is not confined to Quakerism, it is the natural, as well as the religious wish of all denominations of men. And on this ground, as men laboring to establish an Independant Constitution of our own, do we exceed all others in our hope, end, and aim.
Our plan is peace for ever.
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We are tired of contention with Britain, and can see no real end to it but in a final separation. I now proceed to the latter part of your testimony, and that, for which all the foregoing seems only an introduction, viz. Why do ye not leave that, which ye call God's Work, to be managed by himself? These very principles instruct you to wait with patience and humility, for the event of all public measures, and to receive that event as the divine will towards you.
Wherefore, what occasion is there for your political testimony if you fully believe what it contains: And the very publishing it proves, that either, ye do not believe what ye profess, or have not virtue enough to practise what ye believe. And pray what hath this to do in the present case?
Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings
We neither mean to set up nor to put down, neither to make nor to unmake, but to have nothing to do with them. Wherefore, your testimony in whatever light it is viewed serves only to dishonor your judgement, and for many other reasons had better been let alone than published.
If somebody is surprised that Tom Paine, coming from a Quaker family himself, should be so harsh towards these gentle and pious souls, perhaps it should be remembered that he knew very well what he was talking about. Merteuil: I thought he was one of your closest friends? Rights of Man This is an altogether different work.
It is far longer, for one thing, some pages in this edition more than thrice longer than Common Sense. Burke has not loaded the French Nation and the National Assembly. Everything which rancour, prejudice, ignorance or knowledge could suggest, is poured forth in the copious fury of near four hundred pages. In the strain and on the plan Mr. Burke was writing, he might have written on to as many thousands.
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When the tongue or the pen is let loose in a phrenzy of passion, it is the man, and not the subject, that becomes exhausted. I can consider Mr. Burke's book in scarcely any other light than a dramatic performance; and he must, I think, have considered it in the same light himself, by the poetical liberties he has taken of omitting some facts, distorting others, and making the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect. These are merely two out of at least a dozen examples. I admit I do not know how just these remarks are. I have no patience with his grandiloquence. He is fulsome, flowery and downright exhausting.
He is barely readable. Instead of clarifying arguments, his prose obscures them. When he argues, he does so in perfectly accessible way. He has a marvellous way of explaining and summing up complex matters. To take a single example, consider his incisive definition of religious intolerance: With respect to what are called denominations of religion, if every one is left to judge of its own religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is wrong; but if they are to judge of each other's religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is right; and therefore all the world is right, or all the world is wrong.
In other words, religious persecution comes from calling others misbelievers and trying to inflict your religion on them. If I might go a little further, I must say this is inevitable. All religions spring from essentially unreasonable passions. Not a few, however, have a nagging suspicion, consciously or subconsciously, that their creed may not be the truest one out there, so they try to convince themselves by inflicting their faith on others. The more they succeed, the more confident they become.
Never mind. Tom Paine gives enough background to make the whole picture quite clear.
Nor should they judge too much from a modern point of view. But the Reign of Terror commenced only in , while the second part of Rights of Man was first published in February I suppose few could have predicted such monstrosities at the time.
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Christopher Hitchens, in a fascinating essay published in the Atlantic Monthly April , has argued that the one advantage Burke had over Paine is that he predicted with remarkable accuracy the coming of Napoleon and the carnage of the Napoleonic Wars. When his arguments are not convincing, he is much more badly exposed than the writer who can hide behind his own purple verbosity. I have found only one such moment here, and this is the passage how the rights of man originated. Not so here.