Thomas Paine:
Architect of Cooperative Individualism

Edward J. Dodson


The role of government established -- namely, to protect the natural state of society from disruption by individual acts of license -- the task of the citizenry is to specifically identity by positive law which actions are by definition within the realm of liberty and which are not. Only when proper principles are applied to the formation of posit ive law is government in a position to carry out its assigned responsibilities. Paine's first principle is equality, by which he means that " men are all of one degree and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural rights, in the same manner as if posterity had been continued by creation instead of generation."

Paine is guided by a moral sense of right and wrong. The philosophy of cooperative individualism he espouses is based on moral law and a doctrine of human rights:

The duty of man ... is plain and simple, and consists but of two points. His duty to God, which every man must feel; and with respect to his neighbor, to do as he would be done by. ...

Mankind are not universally agreed in their determination of right and wrong; but there are certain actions which the consent of all nations and individuals hath branded with the unchangeable name of meanness. In the list of human vices we find some of such a refined constitution, they cannot be carried into practice without seducing some virtue to their assistance; but meanness hath neither alliance nor apology.

Our moral sense, reasons Paine, directs us to recognize the appropriate limits to freedom of action. That countless individuals exceed the boundaries of liberty, thereby exercising license at the expense of others, is sufficient reason why "it ought not to be left to the choice of detached individuals whether they will do justice or not." Positive law, enforced by government, is just the extent to which the civil rights guaranteed and protected fully encompass the individual's natural rights. "Every civil right has for its foundation some natural right pre-existing in the individual," Paine tells us, observing further that the power of the individual to enjoy these rights "is not, in all cases, sufficiently competent." By this he means that an imbalance in power between those who would violate the liberty of others and their intended victims directs government to prevent or punish the perpetrators in the name of justice.

Paine's doctrine of natural rights is, of course, a synthesis, although a synthesis that represents a radical departure from earlier and more conservative pronouncements of rights. His sincerity need not be doubted, although one must grant that his purpose in writing was to excite debate, to provoke action against socio-political arrangeme nts and institutions he unhesitatingly condemned:

When we survey the wretched condition of man under the monarchical and hereditary systems of government, dragged from his home by one power, or driven by another, and impoverished by taxes more than by enemies, it becomes evident that those systems are bad, and that a general revolution in the principle and construction of governments is necessary.

Reason dictates that the right to change one's form of government is among the collective rights of man in society. For, "[m]an did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured." Paine does not, on the other hand, attempt to assign a hierarchy to our natural rights; nor is his list long. He is concerned with fundamental relationships: between man and man, man and nature, and man and the State. Of man and man, he writes, "Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generation which are to follow." As the quest to survive requires that the individual have access to land (and other natural opportunities), Paine calls for "[e]quality of natural property," meaning that "[e]very individual in the world is born therein with legitimate claims on a certain kind of property, or its equivalent." More specifically, he declares:

It is wrong to say God made rich and poor; He made only male and female; and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

Then, there are the intellectual rights (i.e., "rights of the mind") attached to man as a being capable of rational thought. Of these, Paine singles out the rights to free speech and to one's spirituality.


Government is nothing more than the agency of society (i.e., " a national association") created to "[act] on the principles of society." Real power is held by the collective citizenry, who -- as the nation -- possess "the right of forming or reforming, generating and regenerating constitutions and governments," while the "operation of government is restricted to the making and the administering of laws." As the legitimate expectation of the individual in society is "to pursue his occupation, and enjoy the fruits of his labors, and the produce of his property, in peace and safety," With this in mind, Paine asserts that "a government which cannot preserve the peace is no government at all."

The challenge for the citizens of any society, it seems, is to somehow provide government with sufficient power to protect the maximum extent of freedom consistent with individual liberty, such power checked in ways that minimize the inevitable tendency toward corruption and usurpation of ever more power. In the ideal circumstance, where the spirit of cooperation is spread throughout a citizenry (i.e., "[t]he more perfect civilization is"), "the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself." However, Paine acknowledges the necessity for a measured degree of coercive power to be exercised in defense of liberty. Along with this need is also the parallel cost of paying for the services performed:

[W]ere the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.

The political economist in Paine would appreciate that the observation that aggregate production of wealth is certainly benefited by a peaceful and orderly society. Confident that the wealth produced by their labor will be neither confiscated by those in government or by others, the productivity of the individual cannot but be enhanced.

To protect against the usurpation of power and the violation of natural rights, "a nation has at all times an inherent indefeasible right to abolish any form of government it finds inconvenient, and establish such as accords with its interests, disposition, and happiness." Attached to this right is what Paine declares as the true exercise of sovereignty. Tyranny might reign, as it had for so very long in the Old World, but eventually the mass of people will no longer tolerate oppression:

[T]he strength of government does not consist in any thing within itself, but in the attachment of a nation, and the interest which the people feel in supporting it. When this is lost, government is but a child in power; and though ... it may harass individuals for a while, it but facilitates its own fall.

Rebellion, however, is not an end but only a means. The culmination of the full process of reform is the adoption of a written constitution, with which all other positive law must be consistent. When these conditions have been met (and Paine believed they had been met within and among the united states), then "every difficulty retires, and all the parts are brought into cordial unison. ...[T]he poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged. Industry is not mortified by the splendid extravagance of a court... Their taxes are few, because their government is just." As Paine experiences in France would show, however, the adoption of such a written constitution means little if the fundam ental principles upon which the words are based do not reach deep into the heart of a society.

After the reign of terror passed and his subsequent release from prison, Paine continued to cling to his view that only a written constitution blocks the path between anarchy and tyranny. In his Dissertation on First Principles of Government, Paine offered his interpretation of why events had gone so far astray from the ideals of the revolution in France:

Had a Constitution been established two years ago (as ought to have been done), the violences that have since desolated France and injured the character of the revolution, would, in my opinion, have been prevented. The nation would then have had a bond of union, and every individual would have known the line of conduct he was to follow. But, instead of this, a revolutionary government, a thing without either principle or authority, was substituted in its place; virtue or crime depended upon accident; and that which was patriotism one day, became treason the next. All these things have followed from the want of a Constitution; for it is the nature and intention of a Constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit and control the power and impulse of party...

What is all the more amazing is Paine's unshaken confidence in the constitution adopted by the united states. He found, upon his return to North America in the early years of the nineteenth century, a leadership absorbed by disagreement and diverse interests, and of the rise of opposing parties. Moreover, in the words of Moncure Conway, there was "a lingering dislike and distrust of the common people."

After having his citizenship challenged at the voting booth, he reflected on the state of the nation, writing to then Vice-President, George Clinton:

As it is a new generation that has risen up since the declaration of independence, they know nothing of what the political state of the country was at the time the pamphlet 'Common Sense' appeared; and besides this there are but few of the old standers left...

Indeed, events within the young united states had moved beyond questions of how the governments should or should not be formed. A written constitution was set in place, and people were going about the business of securing a livelihood. Another of Paine's biographers, Samuel Edwards, observes that "[t]he principles that Thomas Paine held dear were no longer argued about; they had been incorporated into the American system and were taken for granted."

To a degree, this was true. Paine was becoming increasingly concerned that even if, in fact, his principles had been incorporated into the American system they were far from secure. In a series of letters published in the Republican newspaper, the Washington Intelligencer, he struck out at Federalist rhetoric and charged them with pursuing "government as a profitable monopoly, and the people as hereditary property." A curious thing then occurred. Jefferson's election to the Presidency and the nation's accompanying resurgent democratic spirit removed whatever doubts Paine might have harbored in the power of the Constitution to positively direct the actions of individuals even under circumstances of party stress. To the French he had written "[t]he American Constitutions were to liberty, what a grammar is to language: they define its parts of speech, and practically construct them into syntax." Again, the collective wisdom of the nation had come through to purge from power those who were determined to violate the spirit of the Constitution.

Citizen involvement, so vital to Paine's thesis, is encouraged by provisions in the state and federal constitutions that allow for amendment when circumstances and the nation's support warranted. Principle, not expediency, had to serve as the nation's guide when considering any such amendment. Of these principles, one that stands out as fundamental to the formation of just government is that of the origin of power:

A constitution is not a thing in name only, but in fact. It has not an ideal, but a real existence; and wherever it cannot be produced in a visible form, there is none. A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government, and a government is only the creature of a constitution. The constitution of a country is not the act of its government, but of the people constituting a government.

The laws which are enacted by governments, control men only as individuals, but the nation, through its constitution, controls the whole government, and has a natural ability so to do. The final controlling power, therefore, and the original constituting power, are one and the same power.

In the struggle to secure and protect the rights of individuals as members of society, Paine argues this might not be achieved even with a written constitution but certainly cannot be achieved without one. He goes further. Only a representative form of government, with "a large and equal representation" provided, prevents the corruption of governm ent in the service of vested interest. While the result of this type of representative government is the enactment of positive law consistent with moral principles, the justification for representative government is found in principles discovered by scientific method:

The representative system takes society and civilization for its basis; nature, reason, and experience for its guide ... [and] is calculated to produce the wisest laws, by collecting wisdom where it can be found.

While championing the cause of representative government, Paine is quick to acknowledge mankind's lack of experience with its peculiarities. He reminds the nation that the "[s]imple democracy ... of the ancients" degenerated under numerous internal and external pressures and urges patience on the part of generations who must struggle to perfect the new system of representative democracy, constructed (he is confident) on sound principles but largely untested by the complexities attached to a pluralistic society:

The case is, that mankind (from the long tyranny of assumed power) have had so few opportunities of making the necessary trials on modes and principles of government, in order to discover the best, that government is but not beginning to be known, and experience is yet wanting to determine many particulars.

More than anything else, education is necessary to bring about the perfection in government toward which Paine sees Americans heading. By this he means far more than the formal schooling all citizens should have access to. The value of this type of education is, he writes, "like a small capital, to put [a person] in the way of beginning learning for himself afterwards." Mastering the arts of reading and writing, of language and its use, is not learning in the sense felt most important by Paine; rather, learning consists "in the knowledge of things to which language gives names." One's moral sense and rason and powers of observation combine in the acquisition of knowledge. Paine's own intellect drew him to conclusions that shook the foundations of conventional wisdom and vested interest. Although he defended the rights of individuals to practice their own customs without interference, his position was not a defense of what today is thought of as cultural relativism. Neither tradition, nor even unanimous consent, could bring license into the realm of liberty. A nation might foolishly sanction license falsely under the guise of liberty, but this to Paine was an aberration in need of correction:

The error of those who reason by precedents drawn from antiquity, respecting the rights of man, is that they do not go far enough into antiquity. They do not go the whole way. They stop in some of the intermediate stages of an hundred or a thousand years, and produce what was then done as a rule for the present day. This is no authority at all.

If we travel still further into antiquity, we shall find a directly contrary opinion and practise prevailing; and, if antiquity is to be the authority, a thousand such authorities may be produced, successively contradicting each other; but if we proceed on, we shall at last come out right; we shall come to the time when man came from the hand of his Maker. What was he then? Man. Man was his high and only title, and a higher cannot be given him.

We have now arrived at the origin of man, and at the origin of his rights. As to the manner in which the world has been governed from that day to this, it is no further any concern of ours than to make a proper use of the errors or the improvements which the history of it presents. Those who lived a hundred or a thousand years ago, were th en moderns as we are now. They had their ancients, and those ancients had others, and we also shall be ancients in our turn.


In practicing his science while espousing a socio-political philosophy, Paine made sure to distinguish between the use of natural law and natural rights as descriptive terms. His distinctions were nonetheless more subtle than what is warranted by the confusion then (and now) prevalent with respect to their usage. Contained within his definition of the " immutable laws of nature" were not merely the laws governing the physical universe but "the great laws of society" as well. His reasoning is based, at least in part, on his acceptance of the ultimate creator; if only man will learn to live in harmony with natural law, the result will be (as God designed) peaceful co-existence in an atmosphere of plenty:

All the great laws of society are laws of nature. Those of trade and commerce, whether with respect to the intercourse of individuals, or of nations, are laws of mutual and reciprocal interest.

Paine is certainly correct that we possess a considerable and instinctive desire to be cooperative with one another in the production and exchange of goods and services. He adds that we do so because cooperation is in our self-interest. Yet, he is too willing to attribute conflict almost wholly to factors separate from man's character and free will. "Man is not the enemy of man," he writes, "but through the medium of a false system of government." Remove the institutional impediments to moral duty and moral action will naturally follow. Remove monarchy and aristocracy and state religion -- each, agents of tyranny -- and replace them with institutions based on principles of natural law and cooperation will flourish:

[G]overnment in a well constituted republic ... requires no belief from man beyond what his reason can give. He sees the rationale of the whole system, its origin and its operation; and as it is best supported when best understood, the human faculties act with boldness, and acquire, under this form of government, a gigantic manliness.

Once representative democracy has been perfected, Paine has an unending faith in its citizens -- functioning as the nation -- to decide wisely and justly on all matters of importance. His bench marks for judging where a society is on the path to perfection are concrete and useful:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, "My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness": -- when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.

Thus, a government free of corruption and operating in the true interests of the nation is also in conformity with natural law by virtue of the protection provided for the natural rights of all its citizens. This satisfies Paine the moral philosopher; as scientist, he is more cautious and proposes a system of checks and balances to forestall any temptations individuals might have to usurp power from the nation for themselves. One such safeguard is to require that all laws have scheduled dates of expiration. Even more deeply felt than his adherence to set principles is Paine's belief in the ultimate wisdom of the nation. He is willing to risk the possibility of temporary departures in posit ive law from moral law -- and thereby jeopardize the protection of natural rights -- in order to protect what he feels is the greatest of those rights:

That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age, may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living, or the dead?

Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.

Only by affirmative and decisive action on the part of the nation will expiring laws become renewed. Laws that do not live up in their administration to their promise will, therefore, be cast aside. Of this, Paine is quite confident. "It is always the interest of a far greater number of people in a nation to have things right," he declares , "than to let them remain wrong; and when public matters are open to debate, and the public judgment free, it will not decide wrong, unless it decides too hastily."

Beyond his absolute faith in representative democracy, he withdraws from offering a detailed plan for departments or attaching limits on the responsibilities the nation might legitimately expect government to perform. This, I believe, is what he meant in writing: "I am not contending for nor against any form of government, nor for nor against any party...;" remaining consistent with his trust in the collective wisdom of all citizens, he continues, "[t]hat which a whole nation chooses to do, it has a right to do." He is far more concerned that the nation's laws protect natural rights and foster cooperation. Only by means of representative government can this be achieved.

The Earth As Our Common Birthright

Irretrievably tied to Paine's hatred of monarchy and aristocracy is the usurpation of what moral law tells him is the right all man have to equally access what nature has provided. He is strongly communitarian (rather than libertarian) in his views on individual claims to property rights in nature and influenced far more by Rousseau than by Locke or Smith:

There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.

The dominant characteristic of civilization, tracing our history as far back into antiquity as is possible, is the use of institutional power to deny to those who labor on the land the fruits of their labor. Paine's main attacks against this form of privilege are directed against the Aristocracy and the Church:

It is difficult to discover what is meant by the landed interest, if it does not mean a combination of aristocratical land-holders, opposing their own pecuniary interest to that of the farmer, and every branch of trade, commerce, and manufacture.

The aristocracy are not the farmers who work the land, and raise the produce, but are the mere consumers of the rent; and when compared with the active world, are the drones, a seraglio of males, who neither collect the honey nor form the hive, but exist only for lazy enjoyment. ...

When land is held on tithe, it is in the condition of an estate held between two parties; the one receiving one-tenth, and the other nine-tenths of the produce: and, consequently, on principles of equity, if the estate can be improved, and made to produce by that improvement double or treble what it did before, or in any other ratio, the expense of such improvement ought to be borne in like proportion between the parties who are to share the produce.

But this is not the case in tithes; the farmer bears the whole expense, and the tithe-holder takes a tenth of the improvement, in addition to the original tenth, and by this means gets the value of two-tenths instead of one. That is another case that calls for a constitution.

With respect to titleholdings granted to individuals, Paine declares these to be a form of unnatural property or economic license. Justice demands, therefore, that as compensation for this privilege, "[e]very proprietor ... of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent ... for the land which he holds." The absence of such provis ions in the laws of civilizations ancient and modern allowed the powerful to monopolize lands with the best natural fertility or locations for commerce. Paine makes the connection between the dismantling of communitarian control generally practiced by tribal societies with the transition to private titleholdings accompanying permanent settlement and horticulture. The ability to confiscate as rent portions of what those who labor produce is the power inherent in titleholdings. As population increases and the demand for land grows, the power of the titleholder over the propertyless grows and grows:

Nothing could be more unjust than agrarian law in a country improved by cultivation; for though every man, as an inhabitant of the earth, is a joint proprietor of it in its natural state, it does not follow that he is a joint proprietor of cultivated earth. The additional value made by cultivation, after the system was admitted, became the property of those who did it, or who inherited it from them, or who pur chased it. It had originally no owner.

[T]he land monopoly that began with [cultivation] has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.

Poverty is the one common denominator to all nations, caused by "preventing [the] principles [of civilization]" from freely operating. Corrupt government unmercifully takes from the poor, protecting the privileges of the rich, so that "the poor in all countries are become an hereditary race, and it is next to impossible for them to get out of that state of themselves." North America, to repeat an earlier observation, might provide a safety value to relieve the pressures on the Old World's privileged institutions, but for how long? The ascent of man depends upon socio-political arrangements and institutions that promote equality of opportunity. To this end, criminal licenses must be prevented and economic licenses must yield just compensation to the nation:

It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for. The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together. Though I care as little about riches as any man, I am a friend to riches because they are capable of good. ...

Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance: the distinctions of rich and poor may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh ill-sounding names of oppression and avarice. Oppression is often the consequence, but seldom or never the means of riches; and tho' avarice will preserve a man from being necessitously poor, it generally makes him too timorous to be wealthy.

In the Rights Of Man, Paine summarizes what reason tells him are the fundamental premises of a just society:

First, That every civil right grows out of a natural right; or, in other words, is a natural right exchanged.

Secondly,That civil power, properly considered as such, is made up of the aggregate ofthat class of thenaturalrights of man, which becomes defective in the individual in point of power, and answers not his purpose, but when collected to a focus, becomes competent to the purpose of every one.

Thirdly, That the power produced from the aggregate of natural rights, imperfect in power in the individual, cannot be applied to invade the natural rights which are retained in the individual, and in which the power toexecute isas perfectas the right itself.

In Liberating the Early American Dream, Alfred F. Anderson, codirector of the Tom Paine Institute, hints at the window of opportunity missed when Paine diverted his attentions from the philosophical and political to the practical, which took him back to the European theatre at a time crucial to establishing a foundation of cooperative individualism in North America:

How different the history of the world might have been ... if Tom Paine had remained to see the American revolution through its nonviolent phase as he so faithfully had through its violent one.

One can only speculate what influence Paine might have had as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Would, for example, the great landowners consent to payment of a ground-rent to the national government in acknowledgement of the privilege attached to their titleholdings? Dr. John Witherspoon had made just such a suggestion during the debate over the Articles of Confederation, observing that "the value of lands and houses was the best estimate of the wealth of a nation." Article 8, as subsequently adopted, read as follows:

All charges of war, and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defence or general warfare, and allowed by the United States in Congress assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several States, in proportion to the value of all land within each State, granted to or surveyed for any pers on, as such land, and the buildings and improvements thereon, shall be estimated, according to such mode as the United States in Congress assembled shall, from time to time, direct and appoint.

This same revenue scheme was put forward in 1781 by Pelatiah Webster, who simultaneously called for a convention to draft a new constitution. Charles Pinckney would, at the convention, declare that "[t]he land interest ... is the governing power of America." The society which Paine hoped would lead mankind into a new era of liberty and prosperity was, as noted by Alexander Hamilton, still suffering from the legacy of institutionalized privilege that the framers could not bring themselves to end:

The difference of property is already great among us. Commerce and industry will still increase the disparity. Your government must meet this state of things, or combinations will, in process of time, undermine your system.

In the end, the written constitution Paine so wanted failed to protect for future generations their birthright of equal access to nature. Pelatiah Webster had also proposed a plan for the orderly sale of public lands that would have required settlement and improvement within two years, or title would revert to the government. Instead, the promise of great profits from land speculation subverted the efforts of those whose motives were guided by principle. Paine's philosophy of cooperative individualism was destined to languish during a century-long era of unbridled individualism. Monopoly license and widespread corruption of public institutions would nurture a small elite class of industrial-landlords destined to control much of the land, the commerce and the finance of the United States following the War Between the States. In the process, the degree of liberty protected by representative government and the Constitution suffered dearly. The window of opportunity created by the successful colonial struggle for independence from Britain had closed.