Now that the reader of this column learned a little bit about the man and author, Thomas Paine, let’s give a little attention to the contents of the pamphlet that helped spark a nation to declare and eventually attain its independence as the free men (and women) of a free country. Common Sense (CS).
Written in the late 1800s, CS should still be essential reading for all persons in the USA who want to understand, at least from the governmental/constitutional level, who we are as a people. And, too, what we have done to effectuate our ideal of what we refer to as the Social Compact aka the “contract” between a legitimate government and the people it claims to, but in the end, must serve.
The first chapter, Of Origin and Design of Government in General. With Concise Remarks on the English Constitution begins with an essential overview of the differences and interplay between a society and its government. “Society” refers to the positives of life. The wants of people and their efforts to unite and accomplish tasks that are either easier or impossible with the aid and intervention of additional participants.
As an extension, it is fair to consider America as a nation of individuals possessing, inherently, the Rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. But we are also capable of making the decision not to “go it alone” and that the aid of those similarly-minded may be not a necessary evil, but a sane and rational decision to accept help in times of benefit and need. As further illustration and with apologies to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when society does better, it means we are all doing better (and vice-versa).
Paine calls society the positive, a patron and a blessing. It promotes co-operation, teamwork and a sense of individual and civic pride. It is the reason to go forward, succeed or fail, and to try and try again, as need, or need not, be.
On the other hand, Paine describes government as evil, albeit a necessary one for its primary function is as the restrainer of vices. It is a negative force, a punisher, for it is produced by our wickedness. As opposed to unity, it promotes distinctions, creating persons whose actions constitute the necessity of re-classification, from a good, upstanding citizen, to persons who so lacking in self-control and awareness must be stopped, separated and, if necessary, sliced and diced. Remember, back in the 1800s, long-term imprisonment wasn’t usually available as a remedy, so to “warn” potential unsuspecting persons of this stranger’s true personality and self, branding and maiming were the methods of first choice. Not quite as Biblical as an eye for an eye, or as Sharia-adjacent as the loss of a hand for a theft, but whippings were quite common for minor acts of stealing, a rather large needle through the tongue of one who repeatedly took the name of the Lord in vain and (my personal favorite) the cutting off (or cropping) of the ears while nailed (the ears, that is) to the pillory.
Branding, usually in addition to some other form of maiming, nose slitting comes to mind, was also widely practiced with the initials of the offense burnt into the skin, usually on some part of the face. “M” for manslaughter, (murder was an early felony punishable by death), “T” for thief and (again a personal favorite) “R” for rogue… smugglers they be.
In fact, smuggling was so pervasive in some colonies, particularly in Rhode Island, that the other 12 colonies would routinely refer to RI as “Rogue’s Island.” Cruel and unusual punishment indeed!
So much for chapter one, page one. Next week, page two?
Time for a Re-Phil?