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The Gross National Debt

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I'm not the only person who has written here about Thomas Paine. I was, however, pretty surprised to see that only 8 diaries had been previously tagged with Paine's name. No matter - Paine is a great subject and the story I'm going to tell is relevant not only to politics today, but to you specifically, because you're reading this and it's posted on a blog.

This will be a multi-part diary series. I'll complete additional parts as time allows. Each diary will stand on its own, however. The ultimate goal is to illuminate - to bring home to each and every one of you the relevance of Thomas Paine to your lives especially, and to the lives of Americans generally.

This diary and the ones that will follow arise out of my reading of an excellent book - Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Follow me after the fold.

I would not call myself a student of American History.  I was an all-around good student in both high school and college, however.  For me, this meant that I did very well in a lot of things rather than doing exceptionally well in one thing.  I suppose that explains why I didn't become a doctor.  I know all the high points of American History from right before there was an America to the present day.  I can name all the big marquis names and I had heard of Thomas Paine prior to starting the book.  My impression of him was neutral - I certainly knew that he played an integral part in the American revolution, though I don't know that I could have told you how or why.  At best, I believe I would have been able to speak very generally of his most famous revolutionary work, Common Sense.  That would have been about the limit of my discourse on Thomas Paine.

You see, I really had no idea of the political climate in the decade running up to the American Revolution.  Like most schools, there was a lot of history to learn and my American History class focused on the high points.  Dissatisfaction with England.  Uproar over taxes.  A bunch of tea dumped into Boston Harbor.  The midnight ride of Paul Revere.  War.  Washington crossing the Delaware.  Victory.  America.

Shameful, I know.  Even more frightening is the fact that I can name those events where most graduating high school seniors today cannot.  I find that now, in my 30s, and thanks to the guidance of people in real life and right here on this blog, I am becoming better acquainted with the nuance of American history.


My first eye-opener came when I finished the first part of the book on Thomas Paine.

I'm likely not educating anyone here - I am certain that there are historical experts among our ranks - but pre-revolution America was a citizenry divided.  There was the "stay the course" camp, those who did not want to break away from the English monarchy.  From the book, p. 39:

The lawyers, merchants, landowners, and planters who debated in the Continental Congress and the colonial assemblies argued spiritedly and often radically.  The classes they represented would effectively direct the American Revolution.  Yet if history had to wait solely upon their deliberations, the rebellion might never have become a war for independence.  Even if it had by the time they got around to proclaiming the United States of America, it might well have been too late. And likely it would never have become the world-history-shaping event that it did.

America's working classes - farmers, mechnics, laborers, seamen, servants, and slaves - would make the American Revolution a revolution.  They would not all realize their dreams, but they would power the struggle, materially, martially, and politically, indeed, at a most crucial moment, literally.  The Declaration of Independence, though drafted by a Virginia arisotocrat and edited by a committee of colonial gentlemen, issued from the force of Common Sense, authored by an immigrant workingman who would proudly describe himself as a "farmer of thoughts".

Over many pages the book explains how the "establishment", landowners and aristocrats, were hesitant to leave the monarchy.  As late as 1767, the colonial establishment, while enraged at the monarchy, held to the idea that its origins were "divine, natural and honorable".  With less than a decade to go before the Revolution would be realized, more people were behind demanding their rights within the colonial structure than from breaking away and starting their own representative structure.  I can't escape the modern-day parallel to the many "work within the system" diaries I have seen posted here and on other blogs.  Common Sense changed all of that.

If you haven't read it, click here for a version you can read online.  What should leap out at you and what leapt out to those in the days of its release as well as to all the historians reflecting on Paine's place in American history (for good or ill) was that it was written in a way that would appeal to all classes.  We all make use of the term "bloviating" when we refer to this Senator or that politician waxing poetic on some issue or another, without ever really saying anything.  Common Sense is the antithesis of bloviation.  He truly spoke truth to power and spoke it in such a way that it touched all elements of colonial society.  It was the first widely-dsitributed expression of "politics for the people" and it had its detractors in those who feared giving a political voice to those not already in the landowner aristocracy.

Common Sense was originally published and republished as a pamphlet and widely distributed throughout the colonies.  Those who couldn't read had it read to them.  It was a seed for change in the months before the Revolution, and one which, some historians argue, tipped the balance towards declaring outright independence.

This is not an historical retrospective.  The high level at which I have covered Thomas Paine up to his authoring of Common Sense is absurd.  There's so much more to be said by those who are expert here within this community as well as by historians with a depth of knowledge in the nine or so years I reference prior to the American Revolution.  My interest in Paine and his life as laid out in this book is in how it parallels what we, as Americans, face today.  With each of the diaries I plan to write I will give whatever minimum background is required for a basic understanding of the point or points I want to make.  This one is no different.

My Observations

Paine was a revolutionary who foresaw the promise of America - a promise that included all classes of people.  His particular gift was in being able to write in a way that spoke to the common, everyday person.  He seemed to know that Independence was what was required and that gaining that independence would necessitate a revolution.  He looked across the landscape of public sentiment as well as to the makeup of the colonies at the time in which he lived, and knew also that the revolution would be fought and won by the working classes.  He knew that it was to these people he had to appeal, and that's what he did.  He did this in the communications form common to his day - in a pamphlet.  He was a pamphleteer.

The blog is the modern-day equivalent to the pamphlet of Paine's era.  Those who write and comment and shape a community of opinion through blogging are not very different in this modern day than Thomas Paine was at the birth of our country.  The power that each of us holds - to inform, to pursuade, to agitate - is not far removed from the power Paine had in writing his seminal pamphlet.  The rumblings of dissatisfaction were present in Paine's day.  The outrage at the monarchial governance was growing.  The situation was literally a powder keg and Paine was a match.

Where is the spirit of Thomas Paine today?  I would submit that it's alive and well in the blogging community today.  Today, dissatisfaction exists in the general public.  A smaller subset is outraged.  The state of America, its politics and its citizens is a powder keg.  Which one of us will be the match?

posted by RenaRF at 1:05 PM 2 comments links to this post


Blogger DavidByron said...

You mentioned at dKos something about Paine changing his mind about a single chamber parliament. I'm curious as to why.

Basically the idea of two chambers is to put a "check" or "balance" against the forces of democracy. The basis of the US constitution is that at all time democracy must be checked and so it has proven.

The more layers you put between the electorate and the governing body the more you successfully filter out populist views in favour of the wealth or (equivalently these days) the corporations.

The US constitution has layers of representation so that the methods to power are effectively completely blocked against populist sentiment.

The result is that even in those very rare cases where populists managed to get elected they saw no benefit. For example around the time you are considering I think Rhode Island had a single chamber legislature. The democrats (ie those who favoured democracy against the US constitution's aristocracy) were at a big disadvantage because the law restricted voting rights by wealth. Nevertheless enough workers and farmers had money saved to be able to seize the legislature around 1787. They tried to pass laws favouring the middle class but were stymied by the aristocratic judges, governor and constitution as well as a past body of pro-aristocratic precedents. If there had been two legislative chambers they would have been blocked by an aristocratic senate too.

Since those days of course there have been some roadblocks removed such as voting restrictions and the change to the way Senators are elected. But to replace them we have a new set of snares and traps that any populist would have to leap over; the two party duopoloy based in law and the way that the party heirarchies have to be defeated before populists can use them as a means of election.

In this sort of way the elites always keep a step or two ahead of the game in America and easily defeat any populist sentimentsfrom achieving political power.

Furthermore by ensnaring so many populists within the political system uselessly trying to "crash the gates" elites have managed to avoid a lot of real dangers of revolution or civil disobedience. You can see how this works any day of the week over at dKos --- and of course that is why I have to write this here and not there because over there I'd be banned.

At each level the more conservative elements are seived and filtered to become the representatives of the more radical populace. Look at how much more conservative Kos is than almost all of the people at his own site. look at how much flak is directed at Maryscott.

These are the issues that are at stake if you continue to discuss the history of that period beyond the Mythological view that all America hated the British oppressive Monarchy and revolted to create a perfect democracy.

8:13 PM  
Blogger web_loafer said...

I like your blog, and yet we are so diametrically oppossed in our politics.
I am starting to realize that even those on the oppisite side of politics, are being true to themselves. I give you that caveat, and only need to know one more thing from you.......If a son or daughter of yours happened to embrace conservative views, would you hate him or her as much as you hate George Walker Bush. Do you think you are so holy and educated that you don't need a redneck hard working tax paying truck driving man like me in your world?

When you hate my President, you are hating me.

2:34 AM  

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