Thomas Paine: The antidote to this week’s Monarch Mania

Thomas Paine; a painting by Auguste Millière (...

By Robert Mann

This week’s breathless coverage of the Royal Pregnancy by worshipful American news media – especially those who dashed to London to report the story — prompts me to wonder what Thomas Paine might have said about this spectacle.

Paine, as you may recall, wrote Common Sense, the anti-monarchial pamphlet in 1776 that helped turn American public opinion in favor of separation from Great Britain.

In our periodic swooning over the British Royal family, it seems we lose sight of our legacy as a nation that was founded, not just on specific grievances with King George III, but on the rejection of the whole idea of monarchy.  In fact, a great deal of our system’s checks and balances are based on the founder’s determination to prohibit out all vestiges of monarchy in the United States.

Recall the issues we had with the misrule of King George? “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people,” the Declaration of Independence declared. Paine’s comments were far more pungent. More about that later.

But, you might say, but the British are our cousins and, thus, the royals are part of our national heritage. For an increasing percentage of the American public, however, the British are not cousins at all.

Indeed, America is growing more and more diverse every year by virtue of 150-plus years of immigration from countries decidedly not under British rule.  In a few decades, a large majority of Americans will be men and women whose ancestors never lived in Britain nor a former British colony.

British or not, there is still the matter of our strange worship of an institution against which we rebelled. So powerful is our affection for that rebellion, we celebrate it with parades and fireworks each July 4th.

Had he not ruined his reputation by later writing The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine might be considered a first-string Founding Father, alongside Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton. His case for deism and reason kept him from entering that pantheon, but his powerful arguments in Common Sense may have been the deciding factor for many American colonists as public opinion turned toward independence in the spring of 1776.

Paine’s powerful words of protest against monarchy weren’t as lofty as the Declaration, but at the time they were far more influential.

Were Paine alive today, he would probably have his own television show.  In his place, sadly, we have network news. And among this week’s top stories has been coverage of Kate and William. It’s all fairly harmless, I suppose — a notch above the media’s fascination with the Kardashians or Lindsay Lohan. Thanks to Disney, our society’s fascination with princesses is profound and enduring.

So, we’re probably stuck with the British royal family as a major news story in the United States until the British decide to put them out to pasture.

Scan of cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet. N...

Nonetheless, I suggest that Paine on the monarchy ought to be required reading for all American schoolchildren — and for network news executives. A reading of Paine is a good antidote for anyone annoyed by this week’s unbridled American monarch mania.

Herewith, an excerpt from Common Sense:

 . . . how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind. . . .

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and tho’ himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.

Secondly, as no man at first could possess any other public honors than were bestowed upon him, so the givers of those honors could have no power to give away the right of posterity, and though they might say “We choose you for our head,” they could not without manifest injustice to their children say “that your children and your children’s children shall reign over ours forever.” Because such an unwise, unjust, unnatural compact might (perhaps) in the next succession put them under the government of a rogue or a fool. Most wise men in their private sentiments have ever treated hereditary right with contempt; yet it is one of those evils which when once established is not easily removed: many submit from fear, others from superstition, and the more powerful part shares with the king the plunder of the rest. . . .

England since the conquest hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones: yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honourable one. A French bastard landing with an armed Banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it. However it is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right; if there are any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the Ass and the Lion, and welcome. I shall neither copy their humility, nor disturb their devotion.

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3 Responses to Thomas Paine: The antidote to this week’s Monarch Mania

  1. I think that you’re reaching a bit on Thomas Paine’s role in the Revolution. You can find a more accurate explanation of his role in this article: http://www.increasinglearning.com/the-hidden-facts-of-the-founding-era-2.html where I examine what the founding fathers thought of Mr. Paine’s importance to America and conclude that.

    “The founding fathers – among whom he lived – have argued to the contrary, and who are we – who are removed from the events of that era by two centuries – to say any differently.”

    Gouverneur Morris even refused to recognize Mr. Paine as an American citizen and rescue him from a French prison. He wrote:

    “I must mention that Thomas Paine is in prison, where he amuses himself with publishing a pamphlet against Jesus Christ. I do not recollect whether I mentioned to you, that he would have been executed along with the rest of the Brissotines, if the adverse party had not viewed him with contempt. I incline to think that, if he is quiet in prison, he may have the good luck to be forgotten. Whereas, should he be brought much into notice, the long suspended axe might fall on him. I believe he thinks, that I ought to claim him as an American citizen; but, considering his birth, his naturalization in this country, and the place he filled, I doubt much the right, and I am sure that the claim would be, for the present at least, inexpedient and ineffectual.”

    [http://christian76.com/gouverneur-morris/]

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    • Robert Mann says:

      Doubt that I am overreaching on Paine’s influence. The scholarship that I consulted for my book on American wartime dissent is fairly solid that Paine had quite a bit to do with moving public opinion toward independence. The fact that Common Sense sold 150,000 copies in 36 editions (among a population of 2.5 million) is astounding. It’s likely that almost every home in the colonies had a copy or had access to a friend or neighbor’s copy. In the end, I’ll rest on John Adams (not Paine’s biggest fan) and his assessment: “I know not whether any man in the world had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Thomas Paine.”

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  2. John Adams’ statement was made in regards to Mr. Paine’s influence on the French Revolution not to his pamphlet, “Common Sense.” In my article, I provided the entire paragraph from which that quote was derived. It reads as follows:

    “I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do: and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Fury, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the burning Brand from the bottomless Pitt: or any thing but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any Man in the World has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer Satyr on the Age. For such a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf, never before in any Age of the World was suffered by the Poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a Career of Mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine. He deserves it much more, than the Courtezan who was consecrated to represent the Goddess in the Temple at Paris, and whose name, Tom has given to the Age. The real intellectual faculty has nothing to do with the Age the Strumpet or Tom.”

    The references to the French Revolution are unmistakeable.

    As for the success of Mr. Paine’s famous pamphlet, the following statement from another of our founders, Elias Boudinot, is very enlightening:

    “The great effect which this pamphlet had on the revolution, (and it was certainly great) arose from its being written at the moment when the public mind was in a great alarm, and totally at a loss how to determine.”

    Mr. Boudinot was referring to the fact that Mr. Paine’s pamphlet was published shortly after the colonies received word of the passage of the American Prohibitory Act which officially negated all of the colonial charters and established that the colonies were from thenceforth independent of British rule. It was only because the American people had already had their independence forced upon them by the order of the king that Mr. Paine’s irreverent declarations found so much acceptance. The success of his pamphlet was merely an effect of this forced change in public opinion and not the cause.

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