Thomas Paine:
Architect of Cooperative Individualism

Edward J. Dodson


Paine: rebellious Staymaker; unkempt; who feels that he, a single Needleman, did, by his Common Sense Pamphlet, free America; -- that he can and will free all this World; perhaps even the other.[ThomasCarlyle]

Thomas Paine was, if measured by his personal character and habits, a seemingly ordinary person. Yet, he lived an extraordinary life during extraordinary times. History records his involvement in two great social and political upheavals, remarkable for someone of such limited education and accomplishment in matters practical. Arising from obscurity, without position or means, he became one of history's most consistent champions of the common man. Despite the fame he acquired and the wealth he refused, his contemporaries among the founding fathers and even the revolutionaries in France never really accepted him as one of themselves. He remained an outsider, a voice in the wilderness, whose socio-political philosophy and policy recommendations were shunned by those who measured him an intellectual inferior. Over the course of three decades, he nonetheless came to very many important insights into the human condition and the ascent of man.

Although his adult life began without direction, his arrival in North America on the eve of uprising by the colonials against British rule provided an avenue for radical expression that soon captured his full energy and attention. As editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, Paine's commentary openly attacked the British constitution as a syste m of socio-political arrangements and institutions that sanctioned and protected privilege -- generation after generation. He warned against the imposition of a state religion in the colonies; courageously, he added his voice to those who sought to end the enslavement of Africans and indigenous peoples. The publication of Common Sense in 1775 then catapulted him into the vanguard of those espousing not a return to the conditions of salutary neglect but the creation of a constitutional and representative form of democracy.

The principles advanced in Common Sense and his later writings went far beyond what all but the most enlightened of his contemporaries were willing to acknowledge as constituting the basis for creating a truly just society. Although the clamor for independence ran deep within colonial society, those with vast titleholdings and the material wealth derived therefrom also sought to preserve their positions of privilege obtained under British rule. As historian Bernard Bailyn observes, Paine's calls for a widespread franchise, for an equality of civil and natural rights and for a truly representative form of government challenged the conservative minority who had always held power in the colonies:

Common Sense had scarcely been published when it came under strong attack, not only by loyalists but by some of the most ardent patriots who feared the tendencies of Paine's constitutional ideas as much as they approved his plea for independence.

After the appearance of Common Sense, Paine's voice was no longer heard only from the wilderness, but the fullness of his convictions was shared by only a small minority among the revolutionary leadership. He excited the average colonial with his condemnation of monarchy and the promise he saw in representative government. And, as the reality of independence appeared on the horizon, he urged his countrymen to demand not just political liberty but the means of prosperity as well. Although in Common Sense he advocated open and free trade with Europe, he was at this juncture able to argue -- on principle -- the case for a very nationalistic policy with respect to continued British access to fisheries off the coast of New England:

There are but two natural sources of wealth -- the Earth and the Ocean, -- and to lose the right to either is, in our situation, to put up the other for sale.

By March of 1781, Paine was in Paris negotiating for additional funds and supplies on behalf of the Continental Congress. His mission largely accomplished, Paine returned (unceremoniously) to the Americas, arriving in the capital late in August. Ignored by the Continental Congress and essentially without employment, "there no longer seemed to be a place for him in the nation's affairs." At the urging of George Washington, the financier Robert Morris approached Paine to prepare a summary of the primary challenges facing the new nation and its government. Samuel Edwards points out that this pamphlet also challenged and angered states rights advocates by consistently putting national interests above that of the individual states and by taking the position that all land outside existing state boundaries fell under the jurisdiction of the national government.

Paine's friends also secured for him a secret position as the government's first paid propagandist. With a degree of financial security in front of him, Paine began to fulfill his new responsibilities. A pamphlet on taxation appeared in March of 1782, followed in April with a strong call for unity:

The division of the empire into states is for our own convenience, but abroad this distinction ceases. The affairs of each state are local. They can go no further than to itself. And were the whole worth of even the richest of them expended in revenue, it would not be sufficient to support sovereignty against a foreign attack. In short, we have no other national sovereignty than as United States.

In his last Crisis Paper, a brief open letter to all Americans, Paine makes very much the same point but in a way more directed to appeal to the heart than to self-interest:

[I]t is only by acting in union that the usurpations of foreign nations on the freedom of trade can be counteracted, and security extended to the commerce of America. And when we view a flag ... our national honor must unite with our interest to prevent injury to the one, or insult to the other.

Unfortunately, this strong statement on behalf of a national government alienated those in the Congress who, more than anything else, feared that very result. Although he was awarded a large estate by the New York legislature and a cash gift by Pennsylvania, he was offered no position in the new national government. At the beginning of 1786 he cam e to the defense of the Bank of North America, began work on the design of his iron bridge, and in May of 1787 he sailed for France. Thus, when the time came for consolidating the struggle for independence into the formation of a new nation, Paine was not available to be called upon. Perhaps this accounts for the rather low opinion of Paine expres sed by British historian Ernest Barker (writing in the 1940s):

[W]e must not exaggerate the importance of his Common Sense, ... or of the thirteen numbers of his American Crisis ...There were profounder minds and firmer pens, steeped in a far more durable ink, to argue the American cause.

Barker points to revolutionary leaders like James Wilson and Daniel Dulany, men who had been educated in Britain, as decidedly more important. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Otis -- though educated in the colonies -- are described as having the type of highly schooled legal minds needed to adapt the British form of government to the very unique circumstances of the land of their birth. One understands that by comparison, Paine is thought by Barker to be second rate.

What makes Thomas Paine stand out, I submit, even among these architects of constitutional government, is his recognition that principles of justice are universal and independent of time and place. Paine's contribution is, therefore, not so much tied to his role as a Founding Father but as a propagandist who developed into a socio-political philosopher, and who materially advanced the basis for dialogue within the transnational community. In this context, his most important contributions to the ascent of man remain known to and understood by only a relatively few. That was certainly true during his lifetime as is even more true today.

Among those who have challenged Paine's principles, John Adams stands out among Paine's contemporaries as his most vocal and noteworthy critic. At the root of their disagreement was the strongly-held conviction by Adams that a strong, central government provided the only sure means of securing and maintaining individual liberty. Paine, on the other hand, described national government as a potential instrument of tyranny to be kept as weak as possible. Despite these fears, however, Paine also realized that the new nation faced powerful external enemies. He therefore sided with those who argued that the national government possess adequate means with which to provide for the defense of the nation. The irony of circumstance, the paradox in which principle was put at great risk, was recognized and accepted by Paine because of his great faith in the collective wisdom of his fellow citizens.

John Adams came to believe that only a few possessed sufficient wisdom and experience to govern. Paine not only believed in the collective wisdom of the nation but reflected on the inherent goodness of individuals and their demonstrated ability to govern themselves. Adams, in an effort to counter what he viewed as a dangerous doctrine, responded to Paine's Common Sense with an open letter he published as Thoughts on Government, in which he argued the case for a strong executive and a separation of powers tied to his vision of a meritocracy:

As good government is an empire of laws, how shall your laws be made? In a large society, inhabiting an extensive country, it is impossible that the whole should assemble to make laws. The first necessary step, then, is to depute power from the many to a few of the most wise and good. ...

That it may be the interest of this assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or, in other words, equal interests among the people should have equal interests in it.

[J]udges ... should be always men of learning and experience in the laws, of exemplary morals, great patience, calmness, coolness, and attention. Their minds should not be distracted with jarring interests; they should not be dependent upon any man, or body of men. To these ends, they should hold estates for life in their offices; ...

History discloses that relations between the individual and the State moved with deliberate speed in a direction that satisfies neither Adams nor Paine. There are few instances either in history or in the world today where liberty has been secured, where the degree of democracy is appropriately representative, or where merit is the primary qualification for ascendancy to positions of public authority. What I ask the reader to consider, however, is that had Paine's policy agenda found a more receptive audience and a widespread adoption, our circumstances today might be rather different and improved. To the extent Paine can be credited with being a catalyst for social change, his influence remained at the fringe and was carried forward primarily by individuals who shared his convictions that justice demanded the full separation of Church and State. During Paine's last years, his defense of deism brought on personal attacks by Whigs and the Protestant clergy, who damned him as an atheist. After his death, groups of Jacksonian Democrats did continue to celebrate his birthday each year, and a new edition of The Age of Reason was actually published by Thomas Williams; for this act of religious subversion, Williams he was charged with blasphemy and brought to trial in Boston. Sadly, however, Paine's full contribution to the advance of socio-political philosophy was ignored and soon forgotten.

The ideas espoused by Paine were far more individualistic and grounded far too deeply in principles that threatened entrenched power to have found widespread support during his own age. His writings made direct and uncompromising attacks on the usurpations of power by both the State and institutionalized religion. The proposals he made see med, even to Adams, to promise anarchy in a world already turned upside down. The leadership elite in North America was, as described by Ferdinand Lundberg, comprised of "extreme conservatives, aristocrats and abnormally property-minded" individuals whose collective interests stood in direct opposition to the doctrine of cooperative individualism presented by Paine. Equality of opportunity was from the start subverted by circumstances where "[a] few prominent families, possessed of wealth and distinctions, monopolized offices and power in every colony" and continued to do so after independence. The frontier provided a reprieve, a safety valve, but not an institutional framework upon which a just society could be built and sustained. This relationship between the beginnings of European-American civilization and its current circumstances is succinctly captured by historian Benjamin Barber:

Open spaces,empty jobs, and unmade fortunes are theconditions that made inequality tolerable to the least advantaged in America'scompromised republic; with hope gone, the compromise is tself compromised, and inequality becomes a permanent, oppressive, intolerable burden.

Paine sufficiently grasped history to recognize that the colonials' struggle to ain freedom from British domination presented a crucial window of opportunity to apply the principles of cooperative individualism to socio-political arrangements and institutions that would, without conscious effort, soon close. In Common Sense, he challenged the colonials to make the most of their circumstance:

The present time, likewise, is that peculiar time which never happens to a nation but once, viz., the time of forming itself into a government. 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.

Early on he clamored for union of the colonies, taking advantage of the common foe before "[t]he vast variety of interests, occasioned by an increase of trade and population, would create confusion" from which "[c]olony would be against colony" and the promise of a people united by a uniform governmental system missed. As early as 1780 in his writing, Paine agitated for a constitutional convention; and, in the years immediately following formation of the union, he was convinced that a new era had dawned in which "the principle of its government, which is that of the equal Rights of Man, is making a rapid progress in the world." At the time, the progress Paine referred to was limite d to events occurring in France. Of the rest of Europe, he asked: "What are the present governments of Europe," declared Paine, "but a scene of iniquity and oppression." And, was it not evident to all that Britain had become "a market where every man has his price, and where corruption is common traffic, at the expense of a deluded people?" Thus, to Paine, the differences between the forms of government created in the sovereign united states of America and those of the Old World were differences in kind and not simply of degree. He puts this in terms of principle versus form:

Forms grow out of principles, and operate to continue the principles they grow from. It is impossible to practice a bad form on any thing but a bad principle. It cannot be ingrafted on a good one; and wherever the forms in any government are bad, it is a certain indication that the principles are bad also.

From Europe, he championed the newly-united North American states as beacon lights of principle at work. America's diversity, its pluralism, was a strength thought in all other societies as weakness. The colonials had also benefited by the long period of salutary neglect and closeness to nature. These circumstances "produced among them a state of society [in which] ... man becomes what he ought. He sees his species, not with the inhuman ideas of a natural enemy, but as kindred; and the example shows to the artificial world, that man must go back to nature for information." Paine, the socio-political philosopher, probes deeply into human behavior and the structure of group dynamics, examining the operation of nature and the principles (i.e., nature laws) that both advance and thwart mankind's instinctive quest for survival. His scientific mind pursued knowledge openly, combining observation with speculative thought. Although he rejects orthodoxy in matters religious, he sees within the order attached to the physical universe an intellect at work far greater than that of man..He is drawn to science as the methodology by which man is challenged by God to discover the path to harmonious living -- within the constraints of the physical universe, to be sure, but also with one another in society:

The Almighty lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. ...

It is the structure of the universe that has taught this knowledge to man. That structure is an ever-existing exhibition of every principle upon which every part of mathematical science is founded.

God has provided man with the ability to reason; thus, says, Paine, "[i]t is only by the exercise of reason, that man can discover God." The atheist finds the same degree of comfort in a reliance on Nature as the deist Paine attributes to God as "a first cause, the cause of all things." In either case, reason is the means by which the individual a chieves maximum advantage in combining intuitive thought with observation and experimentation:

Before anything can be reasoned upon to a conclusion, certain facts, principles, or data, to reason from, must be established, admitted, or denied.

The ascent of man is, then, directly associated with the accumulation and aggregation of knowledge and understanding. For, the discovery and acceptance of truth in matters pertaining to the physical universe cannot but further the demands for truth in matters considered socio-political.

Paine had the sense, proven unwarranted by later events, that his own era would "merit to be called the Age of Reason." He was nonetheless correct when he wrote that "such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing." Under considerable pressure from entrenched power, Paine and other s who constituted the still small community of transnationals, forged ahead with their quest for truth. As a student of human behavior and an activist deeply involved in revolutionary struggle, Paine chose to be overly optimistic and placed far too much faith in the dictum that right action would follow on the heels of discovery:

Ignorance is of a peculiar nature; once dispelled, it is impossible to re-establish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant.

The mind, in discovering truth, acts in the same manner as it acts through the eye in discovering objects; when once any object has been seen, it is impossible to put the mind back to the same condition it was in before it saw it.

Paine is making both an intellectual and a moral judgement. He presumes that mankind, although not instinctively moral, is nurtured by truth to act in morally-acceptable ways. Human behavior, then, is susceptible to incremental change directed by an acquired appreciation of "true interest, provided it be presented clearly to their understanding, and that in a manner not to create suspicion by any thing like self-design, nor offend by assuming too much." Our inclination is toward goodness, and nurturing is the common denominator directing full actualization of this quality.

Paine hoped and believed the Age of Reason had dawned. Although he held an appreciation for history, he did not trouble himself with describing in any detail the passing of previous ages. Others had already done so in great detail and with an objective eye. Existing knowledge of antiquity revealed a pattern of socio-political development a ssociated with all groups. The earliest form of hierarchical structure Paine attributed to superstition and, secondly, to the quest for power. Sure that the current age was of a different kind, he declared that mankind had reached a new stage in which the objective of government was "the common interests of society, and the common rights of man." Adding, for good measure, "The first was a government of priestcraft, the second of conquerors, and the third of reason". There is no question that throughout most of history, priestcrafts and conquerors have ruled; and, out of this unholy alliance arose the evils of aristocracy and monarchy. The combined effect was to immeasurably retard the asce nt of man. Tribal societies might -- by conquest and absorption -- evolve into nation- states or empires; but, the civilization formed in conjunction with this expansion "operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state." In the state of existence that precedes the formation of hierarchical (i.e., "corrupt") government, Paine observes, "man ... is naturally the friend of man," so that mankind's instinctive and dominant behavioral characteristic is cooperation. Competition, on the other hand, erupts into conflict as an accepted behavior nurtured by ritual, celebration and tradition. The lesson of history is clear:

There is a natural aptness in man, and more so in society, because it embraces a greater variety of abilities and resources, to accommodate itself to whatever situation it is in. The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act. A general association takes place, and common interest produces common security.

Paine understands and accepts that, once civilized, man cannot return to life as in a state of nature. Rather, he suggests that the cooperative instinct remains so strong that only the imposition of corrupt government dampens its positive influence; in the end, "man is so naturally a creature of society, that it is almost impossible to put him out of it."

If we consider what the principles are that first condense men into society, and what the motives that regulate their mutual intercourse afterwards, we shall find, by the time we arrive at what is called government, that nearly the whole of the business is performed by the natural operation of the parts upon each other.

Government is needed, for the cooperative instinct in mankind is imperfect. There is a real conflict between what individuals perceive as self-interest and their real interest, between the pursuit of immediate gratification and damage to the longer-term interests of our survival as a species. The legitimate and proper function of government is (as Locke concluded) to prevent or punish criminal licenses and to regulate economic licenses. Paine adds that "[s]ociety is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices." We should not, then, be surprised when Paine concludes that "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one."