Thomas Paine’s Truth-to-Power Message in 1776
At age 37, Thomas Paine carried more baggage than most travelers who had immigrated from England. Even before our nation came into being, he embodied the words of novelist Alfredo VÃ©a: “America is best seen through the eyes of an immigrant.” A trail of debts and bankruptcy nagged him, the legacy of dismissals from government appointments as a tax collector, a failed career as a stay-maker and shopkeeper, and two childless marriages that had unraveled. His first wife died tragically in labor with her first child; his second marriage dissolved into a loveless business arrangement that collapsed, as well. The couple separated, Paine sold off his possessions to avoid debtor’s prison, and then he disappeared into London, haunting the taverns, attending lectures on science and philosophy, and plotting his departure to the New World. There was a genius about Paine, who had been esteemed by fellow excise men and welcomed into the political parlors, that could not find a door of opportunity in England.
Paine had arrived at the Philadelphia docks in 1774 on a stretcher in a virtual coma, having fallen ill from typhoid on the ship from England. A letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, who had briefly met him in London, ensured his safe passage to a house of recovery. Within a short time, Paine turned his own personal reinvention in the upheaval of the colonies into a reinvention of America’s destiny, as well. After a floundering attempt to tutor children, he found work at a new magazine.
Paine, of course, did not emerge out of a vacuum of rebellion. His adopted home of Philadelphia struggled over its own power shift to an emerging radical faction. In the years after the Stamp Act of 1765, according to historian R. A. Ryerson, as various factions squabbled over tactics, a new resistance movement came of age in Philadelphia. Drawn from a broader assortment of mechanics and laborers, movement leaders felt that “neither the city’s merchants as a body, nor any established elite, nor any branch of the provincial government would go far to defend them.”
By the time the Boston Tea Party rebellion erupted over the Tea Act in 1773, this younger and bolder resistance movement in Philadelphia had organized enough support to force the tea agents to backstep onto their ships and set their humiliated sails for home. While the elder Benjamin Franklin and his supporters may have chastised the vandals in Boston, this new resistance movement celebrated it. Within months, defying moderate power brokers, Philadelphia’s far more radical movement against reconciliation had grown dramatically in numbers, claiming a more representative range of Quakers, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, and Anglicans.
As a lapsed Quaker who had dabbled among the Methodists and soon-to-be-despised Deists, the well-versed Paine stylistically turned biblical rage into an American jeremiad and dissent into conviction. He invoked Bible passages to reach a growing evangelical audience.
In the four parts of Common Sense, Paine displayed the language of effrontery to the Crown with a biting edge. “He who dares not offend cannot be honest,” he would respond to his American critics. While the colonial elite left the room, Paine willingly picked a fight.
“There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy,” he mockingly wrote, in a dramatic deconstruction of royal worship. Paine personified the resistance’s figure of shame: the Royal “brute” of England. In his place, Paine the commoner countered that “in America the law is King.”
Paine reduced Great Britain to a failed state, a dot on an imaginary atlas, and placed it aside the flourishing colonies in a geography lesson: “Small islands not capable of protecting themselves are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”
Nonetheless, that island and its forces dominated the American forces in the harsh December days in 1776, when Washington’s ragtag army had been routed in New York City, and thousands of militiamen walked away from the front lines in New Jersey. Facing mutinies, one Revolutionary colonel pleaded with Washington to “give up the cause.”
“I think the game will pretty well be up,” Washington wrote in a letter, “as from disaffection and want of spirit and fortitude, the inhabitants, instead of resistance, are offering submission and taking protection from Howe [the British general] in Jersey.”
The fickle majority of American colonists, once excited at the Declaration of Independence, had dwindled to a courageous minority in the resistance. The reasons for inaction were the same as in any resistance movement, today or in 1776: the concerns over daily bread, family safety, and a lack of grit or courage for the cause of freedom that presented too many risks. “I tremble for Philadelphia,” Washington admitted.
Whether Washington made a personal appeal to Paine to put down his gun and pick up his plume, it was clear to military advisers that without a return of American volunteers and a reanimation of the Continental Army, the American Revolution would collapse. The annals of history, of course, from Hannibal’s speech to his forces crossing the Alps, to General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s exhortation before the Normandy Invasion during World War II, recount the speeches of military leaders galvanizing their forces before a historic victory. The famously hushed Washington relied on Paine to salvage the American Revolution.
In a “passion of patriotism,” Paine would recall, having walked through enemy lines to reach his home in Philadelphia, the author of Common Sense embarked on a resistance campaign of literary warfare. On December 19, 1776, Paine published the first of sixteen American Crisis pamphlets that would revamp the spirits of the demoralized American army and convince a new wave of volunteer reinforcements to return to the battlefield. On December 23, Washington commanded his troops to gather as an official read Paine’s Crisis aloud.
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Two days later, the American forces crossed the icy Delaware River, crept through the snow-swept woods, and launched a surprise attack on the British and Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey, gaining a critical victory to stave off the British advance. The American Revolution got its groove back.
“Without the pen of the author of Common Sense,” John Adams begrudgingly admitted, “the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Rarely in history has the extraordinary power of writing galvanized such an armed resistance. Paine was a living icon in his own age, an 18th-century romantic figure as reviled and revered as Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the 1960s; Paine would go on to play a key role in the French Revolution. While he was tried in absentia for treason in Britain, his Rights of Man book on the natural rights of people over monarchy would become a global literary phenomenon and upend England’s social order.
Intentional or not, the conviction of Paine’s writing underscored the role of writers in the resistance. He was a truth-teller, contentious and bold, and adamant about holding accountable the brokers of authorized versions of history, calling out their hypocrisy, omissions, and mistruths—and the betrayal of an American credo of “we the people.”
Paine had not cornered the market on this literary tradition, of course. And his own select vision, especially in recognizing a more perfect vision of “we the people,” would be challenged in the process.
From Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Biggers.