Political turmoil of the sort currently roiling our country can make citizens anxious, defensive, and dangerously partisan. But if we calm down and try to view the chaos from a historical perspective, we have the opportunity to learn from it. In the bargain, we might even refresh our appreciation of the strength of our democracy. By looking back, we may feel better about what’s ahead of us.
As part of Islanders Read the Classics, next Wednesday, Sept. 13, at 5 pm at the Chilmark library, Jack Fruchtman, a history professor and seasonal resident of Aquinnah, will reintroduce us to “Common Sense,” a document that had a remarkable impact on its time, the early stages of the Revolutionary War. Mr. Fruchtman is professor of political science and director of the program in Law and American Civilization at Towson University, where he has worked since 1978. Among the many books he has written or edited are three that focus on Thomas Paine. In 2016 he published “American Constitutional History: A Brief Introduction,” and he is currently working on a book about the conspiracy trial of Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Mr. Fruchtman is also a regular contributor to The MV Times opinion page.
Nearly a century before Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and another hundred years earlier than Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — both entrenched in our national consciousness — the words of a little-known writer resonated at least as loudly. Nine months after the shot heard round the world on April 19, 1775, in Concord, Thomas Paine produced a straightforward essay that galvanized the effort to establish a new nation on the West side of the Atlantic. In “Common Sense,” Paine articulated what many colonists sensed but hadn’t, or couldn’t, put into words of their own.
Even as King George’s tightening yoke made life for most colonists unbearable, they still thought of themselves fundamentally as Englishmen. Paine gave them the intellectual and emotional foundation for thinking of themselves as Americans. He did this in a manner that appealed to a broad cross-section of the populace, which numbered just over 2 million at the time. “Common Sense” is a short book — more like a long essay, really — very readable and not the least condescending. And his timing was excellent, whether fortuitous or intended. As many as 100,000 copies were printed, a staggering figure that would extrapolate into more than 10 million today.
The first section of “Common Sense” is devoted to the history of government in general, as Paine saw it, and specifically the flaws in the English system. This is followed by a passionate rejection of monarchies and hereditary succession. “As the exalting of 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,” Paine wrote, soon after concluding, “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
After describing in plain terms the impossible position the colonies found themselves in, Paine then argued that there was no way forward if they remained tied to Britain: “America is only a secondary object in the system of British politics. England consults the good of this country, no farther than it answers her own purpose.”
Although Paine’s plan for a new government is not fully formed, his conviction of the need for it is total. And his sincerity is never in doubt, as the following passage illustrates: “I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence; I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be so; that every thing short of that is mere patchwork, that it can afford no lasting felicity, — that it is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when, a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.” These are the words of a man who believes, not those of a huckster.
In a quieter tone, he is equally persuasive: “A government of our own is our natural right: and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance.”
If it weren’t for his reasoned argument and the reasonable tone he used to present it, the last paragraph of this section might have rung hollow. Because of what has gone before, it reads more like a crescendo than a flourish. “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 around the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. — Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
Did Paine know the power of his words, and choose them for maximum effect? Or, by recording his observations of the political situation at the time, was he simply trying to understand the turmoil around him? Whatever his motive might have been, the impact of “Common Sense” was enormous, and lasting. To learn more about that impact and Paine’s influence on American history since then, I am eagerly awaiting Jack Fruchtman’s talk in Chilmark next week.