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Some Common Sense for the Election Season

Thomas Paine : Collected Writings : Common Sense / The Crisis / Rights of Man / The Age of Reason / Pamphlets, Articles, and Letters (Library of America)

Thomas Paine : Collected Writings : Common Sense / The Crisis / Rights of Man / The Age of Reason / Pamphlets, Articles, and Letters (Library of America)

Thomas Paine and Eric Foner

Some Common Sense for the Election Season

Letters, articles, and pamphlets—some previously unavailable—with a focus on Paine's American career.

Thomas Paine, the spokesman for the birth of the American nation, had a talent for cutting away distractions in an argument and making his readers receptive to previously unacceptable ideas. He, maybe more than any other person, was the catalyst that gave Colonial America the will to transform itself. From Common Sense:

...a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

225 years later few Americans have an appreciation of their own history and the darkness the Western world had wallowed in for 1,000 years after the disposition of Rome and Greece.

The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principals of all Lovers of Mankind are affected...

We also see the writings which should have been Paine's crowning achievement but instead heralded a loss of prestige and reputation. When he wrote The Age of Reason in 1794 he was attempting a rational definition of the role of the spiritual. He defined God as entirely knowable and entirely personal. This reminds me of William Blake and his fumbling to justify and place spirituality in There Is No Natural Religion and other works. Paine cursed himself when he firmly asserted the churches were extraneous and poisonous to religion and God.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish [Islamic], appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

His promotion of Deism lost with the Age of Reason itself, so to the fact that many, if not most, of the founding fathers were of a like mind. And the myth of America's birth as a Protestant nation crawls through the cracks in the history texts of America's public schools.

The book also includes The Rights of Man and many interesting letters to figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. It's not the easiest reading but it makes obvious points that sometimes seem inaccessible or impossible: 1) tyranny can be sloughed off and 2) human beings profit by ethical interaction on the state as well as the personal level. Some of the most important writing and ideas in the history of the world.

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