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Sun Mar 17, 2013, 02:31 PM

Thomas Paine and the American tradition

Even tho the American Revolution had already begun, Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" is considered a pivotal work of the era. It was not universally loved among the American Revolutionaries. Adams hated it because it called for the right to vote even for those who did not own property! How dare Paine extend this right to those who were not rich enough to buy it!

Loyalists hated it because they knew that, without monarchy, government would degenerate into...democracy.

Yet it was a best seller in the colonies. Pamphlets were cheap to produce and easy to disseminate. They were the revolutionary era version of a blog or a discussion board and their intent was to reach people and change their opinions.

Paine claimed that monarchies and aristocracies were ancient tyrannies and that revolutionaries should oppose these tyrannies. He used the rhetoric of religion to tell the revolutionaries they were "twice born" - once in their religious convictions and a second time in their political ones.

He opposed all European aristocratic institutions, most especially monarchies, yet he also met with the French King to gain financial support for the revolution in the states (and this support a huge factor in the French financial crisis that led to the French Revolution because aristocrats did not want to pay taxes to support their govt's actions, while they continued to receive their benefits because they were born into wealth.)

Yet he was not revolutionary enough for the leaders of one faction that held power (many did, for a time, until they were executed) and was jailed in France and came close to execution himself. He was one of the most important English-language voices in support of the French Revolution until he was imprisoned. While in England, he had written "Rights of Man" in support of France, and in opposition to liberals (classic liberals, not the current American usage) like Edmund Burke, who recoiled at the excesses of the French when they deposed their king. He faced arrest in Britain for this pamplet. The poet, William Blake, encouraged him to go to France. The anarchist William Godwin and others faced trial in Britain for publication of Paine's work.

When he was imprisoned in France, he published the first part of Age of Reason. He critiqued revealed religion (that same religion he appealed to in his "twice born" rhetoric.) He attacked organized religion and presented questions about the validity of the bible.

He was writing about ideas that had long been part of the conversation about religion among the educated British, French and American populations. But his pamphlet brought those ideas into a form that was accessible, and, as was his style, it was written without jargon. He argued that reason, rather than revelation, was the real work of god, because he, like many of the founders, was a deist who thought that god was just as subject to the working of the natural world as any other process found within it.

Deists argued that superstition was harmful and ritual and claims of miracles and the ornamentation that was part of religion was a seduction away from the use of reason and rational thought which the founders used as the basis for their claim to independence, and which the French Revolutionaries used to depose a king and the aristocrats and the religious leaders who upheld that system of spoils to the rich.

Paine claimed that original sin was the worst of the teachings of religion because such a claim was meant to hold people in psychological bondage by telling them they were not capable or worthy before they even had an opportunity to prove their ethical actions. This claim was akin to abuse - to hear from birth that you are somehow unworthy simply by the existence of your being.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

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

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.


Paine claims all have the right to their belief, yet he attacks beliefs such as divine revelation. He attacks the history of the church - both its historical validity and its actions. He attacks the very foundations of Christianity - no matter the variation.

This is part of the history of democracy and the history of religious/political thought in the U.S. and it continues today.

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Arrow 19 replies Author Time Post
Reply Thomas Paine and the American tradition (Original post)
RainDog Mar 2013 OP
midnight Mar 2013 #1
knitter4democracy Mar 2013 #2
Tierra_y_Libertad Mar 2013 #3
liberal_at_heart Mar 2013 #6
Tierra_y_Libertad Mar 2013 #19
patrice Mar 2013 #4
RainDog Mar 2013 #5
Egalitarian Thug Mar 2013 #7
RainDog Mar 2013 #8
Egalitarian Thug Mar 2013 #9
RainDog Mar 2013 #10
Egalitarian Thug Mar 2013 #12
RainDog Mar 2013 #13
Egalitarian Thug Mar 2013 #14
struggle4progress Mar 2013 #11
Le Taz Hot Mar 2013 #15
RainDog Mar 2013 #16
Le Taz Hot Mar 2013 #17
RainDog Mar 2013 #18

Response to RainDog (Original post)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 02:49 PM

1. I like the art, the incense, but I draw the line at original sin....

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 02:57 PM

2. He was talking about the Western Christian view of Original Sin.

The Eastern Orthodox Church believes that all are born good, that we end up sinning because it's easier to sin than not in a fallen Creation. What we mean by Original Sin is what Adam and Eve did in Eden, but we don't believe that it's somehow genetically passed on or anything. He's right--the Western Christian teaching is highly damaging.

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 03:02 PM

3. "Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man." Thomas Paine

 

I believe that any deity that needs to be pacified by prayers, songs, offerings, to keep it from doing damage is a piss poor excuse for a God and more resembles a protection racket than a religion.

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Response to Tierra_y_Libertad (Reply #3)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 06:09 PM

6. people don't need a God to be cruel to each other

There are plenty of people who don't believe in God who are cruel.

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Response to liberal_at_heart (Reply #6)

Mon Mar 18, 2013, 04:01 PM

19. But, doing God's Will comes in handy as a rationalization for cruelty.

 

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 04:36 PM

4. An analogy: You can go through life believing in the times-tables, receiving them from "authority",

knowing them by rote memory, using them mechanically in REACTION to the effects of power that have already transpired.

Or you can go through life identifying rationally with a phenomenon called "multiplication"; understanding and acquiring instances of the times-tables from experience; personal memories of the relevance and personal significance of numbers included in who you yourself are; using multiplication willfully PRO-ACTIVE, and, hence, creatively, by more autonomous and personally relative direction to whatever extent possible, to respond to the past, to deal with the present, and to project significance into the future, all of which are value and, hence, belief laden.

The difference between these two modes of belief is the "infidelity" of which Thomas Paine speaks.

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Response to patrice (Reply #4)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 06:05 PM

5. I take it more literally to mean he was saying freedom of thought

Freedom of thought must include the freedom to state that you do not believe in the state approved gods of whatever time anyone may exist.

This is an important concept, imo, because, throughout western recorded history, more have been persecuted for failing to follow the state religion than have been who did so.

In this nation, you cannot be elected to the highest offices of the land unless you profess a religious system.

A great portion of the electorate does not think you can be an ethical person unless you adhere to certain belief systems. The reason they think this is that they have been taught that people who don't believe a religion are akin to communists - this goes back to the red scare - but, as we see with President Obama, there are McCarthyites in droves in the Republican Party who will trot out whatever scare words they think will resonate with their voting population.

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 06:31 PM

7. The United States of America, and I think Mr. Paine would have agreed, was the crowning achievement

 

of The Enlightenment. That it has failed to live up to its potential is our own fault.

I find this quotation below to be a succinct and thorough summation of his concern in this matter of people and freedom.

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Response to Egalitarian Thug (Reply #7)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 08:21 PM

8. It was flawed from the beginning by slavery

All systems are imperfect systems.

It was a step in a better direction in human behavior toward one another - but women and African-Americans were denied their humanity by the application of the law.

What constitutes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What fundamental conditions need to exist in order for people to be able to have those rights which were claimed to be inalienable?

What is the responsibility of those elected to office to achieve those conditions?

I don't think the Enlightenment is over yet. It's a work-in-progress.

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Response to RainDog (Reply #8)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 09:38 PM

9. The Enlightenment may not be over, but it's been in hibernation here for about two centuries.

 

But we did spark the fire and it flared in other parts of the world and many of them have learned from our mistakes.

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Response to Egalitarian Thug (Reply #9)

Sun Mar 17, 2013, 11:21 PM

10. The arc has been toward extending human rights

to people other than propertied males.

sometimes it just seems like it takes too long for some to recognize the humanity of others.

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Response to RainDog (Reply #10)

Mon Mar 18, 2013, 03:29 AM

12. Yeah, that kind of misses the point though, doesn't it?

 

The whole point was that the the rights are, and the Constitution simply acknowledges what is.

As far as this arc thing goes, if there is such a thing, I mean beyond a series treatment being pitched to an executive, it is not so much an arc as a flat line representing a concerted effort to conceal what is still going on.

Women's right to vote has been reluctantly recognized most places, as has the right for people of differing races, but here in what we like to pretend is a democracy, that right is restricted to the right to vote for whom the rulers decide we can vote for. So what we're really talking about is the right to choose which face we would rather see beating us. Hardly the future envisioned by Paine, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, et al.

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Response to Egalitarian Thug (Reply #12)

Mon Mar 18, 2013, 04:19 AM

13. history is what it is

there's no timetable to make people move away from those institutions that enshrine sexism and homophobia as doctrine.

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Response to RainDog (Reply #13)

Mon Mar 18, 2013, 05:46 AM

14. Certainly not here in dumbfuckistan, where fantasy is King and all the serfs are fat & happy.

 

Thankfully, other places did pick up the torch and are moving toward the future.

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Mon Mar 18, 2013, 02:19 AM

11. Paine was a brilliant rhetorician and laugh-out-loud funny:

... 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 ...


This made him an effective political polemicist. He's still fun to read, and people should read him, not only for the insight he provides into his but also for exposure to his craft as a writer. Much of what he says is commonplace today, some might have been commonplace when he wrote it, and some commonplace to some and hotly contested by others:

... Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him ...


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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Mon Mar 18, 2013, 05:51 AM

15. Thank you for that read.

Early American history has always been a fascination and I haven't done nearly enough reading of/about Paine. Shame on me for that.

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Response to Le Taz Hot (Reply #15)

Mon Mar 18, 2013, 01:46 PM

16. He was an interesting figure

I came around to him, beyond reading his work, because of work I had done related to his British publisher, Joseph Johnson. Johnson worked in a time when people could be and were arrested for printing various political things - and he was arrested.

Johnson was the first person to publish William Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth. He also published Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote a defense of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (and Blake illustrated her first book of tales for children.) She is, basically, the first woman in the English language to publish a political tract defending radical political stances - included among those the idea that girls should receive an education that made them fit for work other than embroidery and piano playing for the family. She was excoriated. Her life is really interesting - she was a groundbreaker.

Johnson had a sort of "salon" where poets and political radicals of the day in England would meet. The guy who ended up founding the UU church, Joseph Priestly, was among the people he published - that guy did work in scientific experiments too. He's credited with the discovery of oxygen. But he was literally run out of England. A mob burned down his house for his support of religious dissent and for his support for the French Revolution.

If you like this sort of history, there's a great book, Lunar Men, written by Jenny Uglow. Her book is about Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather) and his group of scientific experimenters around the time of the American Revolution. They called themselves Lunar Men b/c they would walk to someone's house by the full moon and discuss or try experiments. Benjamin Franklin was one of their friends and he experimented with laughing gas with them all after it was discovered. Erasmus Darwin also wrote a poem that lays out the basic ideas of evolution, too. (Oh, and one of the charges against Wollstonecraft is that she supported women learning about botany and people claimed this would lead to corruption of females to study "the sex life of plants."

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Response to RainDog (Reply #16)

Mon Mar 18, 2013, 03:40 PM

17. Thanks for the referrals and references.

I'll look them up at the library. The entire subject of Early American History is so bound up in so many other cultures and movements and extends far beyond the original Founding Fathers that it's an exhaustive study. But it's been a fascinating one for me. I actually found myself sympathizing with Alexander Hamilton and was surprised at what a little shit Thomas Jefferson could be.

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Response to Le Taz Hot (Reply #17)

Mon Mar 18, 2013, 03:59 PM

18. My focus was on printing (and rhetoric)

If you're anywhere near New York City, the public library there has a huge Joseph Johnson collection. He had a "salon" (a grubby one) because the writers had to look at corrections of their work, etc... so they would be at his place anyway.

The relationships between British, French and American writers during the French Revolutionary era shows that support for revolution crossed national boundaries - and people's support changed depending upon events - Wollstonecraft was in France during the terror but she never disavowed the French Revolution. Wordsworth, on the other hand, edited his autobiographical poem about that time (one famous phrase from it, regarding witnessing the French Revolution is very famous - “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.” - and became more conservative as he got older.

In the most recent biography of Wollstonecraft, the author claims that Wollstonecraft and her American lover (whom she met while she was "reporting" on the French Revolution to her British audience) smuggle silver confiscated from the households of French aristocrats, etc. to sell to help fund the French Revolution. He didn't actually make the trip. She did. She wrote about her trip to Sweden, Denmark, etc. as a single mother (with an illegitimate child) making this trip - but, of course, didn't mention the smuggling part at the time since it would've landed her in prison.

After the French and American revolutionary era there was a huge backlash against revolutionary-era thought that led to the Victorian-era - but France kept having revolutions and counter-revolutions - and part of that backlash was against women in the revolutionary era who called for voting rights for women.

I have a hard time with the American Revolution because slavery was such a blind spot - or b/c those in power were so willing to throw slaves under the bus in order to have the number of states they thought necessary to support a new nation. And, of course, women were ignored for even longer than African-American men, as far as the right to vote goes.

But history is made up of humans with huge flaws.

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