Thomas Paine and the Declaration of Independence
being also a critique of Maier’s American Scripture.
by Gary Berton
former President of TPNHA
Van Buren Denslow, in his book on the great thinkers of western civilization, said of Thomas Paine: “If a set of opinions could be entitled to a place among political philosophers by reasons of millions having come to believe in and praise them, then indeed Paine would stand, more than any other, as the founder of the American school of political philosophy, as he certainly is the founder of the creed of American democracy”.1 This creed was formulated in Common Sense, that great declaration of independence - independence not only from a foreign power, but integral to that, from the hereditary transmission of political power. To accomplish this independence, Paine laid out the system of democratic republicanism for an oppressed world.
Viciously attacked from the first printing by the entrenched economic and political powers, both in London and in the American colonies, Common Sense still emerged as the great political manifesto of the 18th century. It marked the beginning of the era of democratic revolutions, providing its rationale and philosophy, and opening up to the masses of the disenfranchised people the world of political participation. In fact, it was Paine who later introduced democracy (literally) as a positive term and concept to the modern era.2 This era continues today.
And so do these same attacks. These attacks first came from the landed and wealthy American aristocracy who saw in Common Sense a democratic threat to their power. These aristocrats (and their admirers like John Adams) created an American myth of the founding, a myth that put the most conservative wing at the center of importance and marginalized and distorted the contributions of the true radicals. “The history of American radicalism has long been buried or blurred by a liberal-conservative consensus”.3 This conservative view of history is responsible more than anything else for the 200 years of attack and slander on Thomas Paine.
While Common Sense’s essential role of turning the country towards independence is acknowledged in the prevailing catechism of the Federalist interpretation of history its political philosophy is ignored or ridiculed. I call this catechism “Federalist” because the opposition to Paine and his philosophy was centered in the Federalist camp and the Federalist leaders are given the primary role in the founding of the country by this liberal-conservative consensus. This skewed version of history is best seen in the denial of the role Common Sense played in the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Pauline Maier in her book American Scriptures4, goes to great lengths to marginalize Common Sense and attack its significance. Maier, who greatly admires John Adams, accepts without question his every utterance, and she also adopts his prejudices. Like Adams, she appears to be obsessed with Paine and can’t understand how “History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine”.5
Common Sense has been marginalized and attacked for its unswerving insistence on real democracy as essential to the founding of this country. As Richard Rosenfeld says:
“Tom Paine urges freedom from Britain to secure American democracy, to achieve freedom and equality for every citizen. Freedom from Britain (independence), freedom of trade or property (free enterprise), the freedom of English subjects (”ordered liberty”), and the freedom of democracy (equality) are different “freedoms,” and Common Sense urges democratic freedom as the basis for an American Revolution.”6
This democratic basis of the American Revolution is what made Federalist John Adams choke on Common Sense, and consequently makes Maier choke as well. But even using Maier’s facts, an objective mind cannot fail to see how Common Sense gave birth to the Declaration of Independence.
There are two approaches which will demonstrate this fact - one historical, one analytical.
Historically, before Common Sense no one dared speak of independence publicly. As Paine noted at the time in Crisis III, “Independence was a doctrine scarce and rare, even towards the conclusion of the year 1775…” It was merely whispered in parlor rooms, and more often denounced as traitorous. Common Sense had the effect of producing an “almost unrivaled political somersault”7 in transforming the attitudes in America. As Washington said, it was “working a powerful change …in the minds of many men”8, not only for independence from Britain, but independence from monarchy. Gordon Wood points out a sudden and almost complete revolution in thinking towards republicanism taking place in the attitudes of the Americans in the spring of 1776.9
As Hazelton10 and Burnett11 have shown, most of the old leaders who were in the Congress during the war rewrote their own history after the fact to fit with the myths that had been created. They scurried to lay claim on the heritage of the Declaration. Some of their memoirs contain boasts exclaiming how they supported independence before Common Sense appeared, but a quick read of what they were saying at the time refutes that. No one but Paine had the courage to stand up and proclaim it, and then to defend it in a tour de force of prose. One after another “founding father” took an opposite view of independence until Common Sense appeared.
Despite John Adams’ protestations to the contrary, he never stood up and defended the necessity for independence before the appearance of Common Sense. His claim that independence was repeatedly discussed in Congress before Common Sense is his attempt to minimize Paine’s role. His dismissal of Common Sense in his memoirs as trite would be just sad if it weren’t for Pauline Maier’s use of this quote to “prove” that Common Sense should be marginalized.12 She even concludes from this lone quote that Congress “was already moving apace toward Independence”.13 Her attempts to establish Adams as the focus of all activity and wisdom requires that Paine be pushed aside, and therefore she must lay doubt on the political somersault Common Sense caused.
Maier’s own facts contradict her conclusion: “But throughout 1775 every Congressional petition, address or declaration…sought a settlement of their differences with the Mother Country not Independence”.14 And, “Even the most radical members of Congress professed a strong preference for remaining in the empire”.15 And she observes that even by June of l776, the delegates “lagged behind” the people in regards to independence.16 Maier’s conclusion that therefore Congress was already moving apace towards independence is contradicted by facts she herself supplies.
And Adams himself testifies to the importance of Common Sense in a letter in April, 1776: “…Common Sense , like a ray of revelation, has come in seasonably to clear our doubts, and to fix our choice”.17 Adams’ objection to Common Sense was not its call for independence, but rather its democratic foundation. Adams complains of Paine: “His plan is so democratical”.18 Adams knew full well the impact of Common Sense on the rapid shift towards independence, and expressed it repeatedly. His hatred for Paine, who he called the “disastrous meteor”19 of democracy, clouded his account of the period. It would seem that Maier falls under the same prejudice.
Others of the time support Adams’ opinion of the importance of Common Sense in producing an about-face in the attitude toward independence. From a Bostonian on the impact of Common Sense, “Independence a year ago could not have been publickly mentioned with impunity. Nothing else is now talked of, and I know not what can be done by Great Britain to prevent it”.20 In Maryland a letter to a newspaper said, “If you know the author of Common Sense tell him he has done wonders and worked miracles, made Tories Whigs and washed blackmoors white. He has made a great number of converts here”.21 And in South Carolina, after denouncing Gadsden for introducing a call for independence in February, having been one of the few to read Common Sense by then, the Assembly turned an about face and issued its Declaration in April after Common Sense had been circulated there.22 A similar account took place in the New York Assembly.23
Perhaps the best summation of the role Common Sense played is given by an Englishman, Sir George Trevelyan, in the 19th century:
“It would be difficult to name any human composition which has had an effect at once so instant, so extended and so lasting…It was pirated, parodied and imitated, and translated into the language of every country where the new republic had well-wishers…According to contemporary newspapers Common Sense turned thousands to independence who before could not endure the thought. It worked nothing short of miracles and turned Tories into Whigs.”24
Despite Maier’s animosity towards Paine, and repeated attempts to minimize his role, she cannot hide certain historical facts. For example, she shows how in the spring of 1776, from April to July, some 90 Declarations of Independence were spontaneously produced by towns, counties, cities and states. Her conclusion is that this is proof that the minds of the people were moving towards independence. She fails to state the obvious and fails to link the appearance of Common Sense as the cause of this effect. Certainly Paine was not writing in a vacuum, and he drew on the sentiments and potential among the people. But Maier’s ignoring Common Sense as a prime factor demonstrates prejudice overcoming sound professional judgment.
Even a cursory look at the content of these Declarations shows the underlying influence of Paine’s work. The first recurring theme in them is condemning the King. From Maryland: “..the King of Great Britain has violated his compact with this people, and that they owe no allegiance to him”.25 “America may become a free and independent state” is another typical theme.26 In Massachusetts they condemned an unfeeling king, and Virginia even uses “Tis time to part”.27 Does Maier say these are isolated cases, and that a few might have used some language from Common Sense? No, just the opposite: “the contents of the various state and local resolutions on Independence are virtually identical”.28 And: “What they said was, however, everywhere remarkably alike”.29 What force of words existed in early 1776 to create such a phenomenon? To anyone but Maier the answer is plain - Common Sense.
Here is where Maier makes her second error. Given all the weight of the evidence, how could she marginalize Common Sense? Like this: referring to all these Declarations she says, “The case was tightly argued and essentially convincing. It was not, however, the argument of Thomas Paine”.30 She says Paine attacked monarchy, but the Declarations did not, therefore Paine’s influence was marginal. According to Maier, Paine merely provoked debate, and thereafter the argument for separation turned on what the Mother country did.31 But what had Britain done between January and April to cause the fury of Declarations? She has no answer. And whatever occurrences of British tyranny existed would be magnified in the wake of Common Sense. These tyrannies had been going on for 12 years, why would they become suddenly so horrific? Weren’t the oppressive acts of the previous years more egregious? Only the radical call to revolution in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense could turn these disputes into a cry for Independence.
The obvious explanation for not condemning the monarchial system in the Declarations is that they were not the proper forum. Even Paine, in his outline of the Declaration in Common Sense, leaves no room for an attack on monarchy. That is the political philosophy behind writing the Declaration, but not its content. It was the fuel, not the fire; the cause not the effect. But the several attacks on the King in these 90 Declarations, attacks which never existed to any scale before Common Sense, demonstrate Paine’s influence. The separation would produce an independent sovereignty, and it was a separation with Britain AND their system that pervades every Declaration.
The conservative wing of the Americans who supported separation but feared democracy have always made the case (even back then) to leave the door open for a new monarchy. Adams, Maier’s hero, was the leader in this agitation, as shown when he wrote: “What do you mean …by Republican systems? . . . You seem determined not to allow a limited monarchy to be a republican system, which it certainly is, and the best that has ever been tried. . .”32 Separating Common Sense into a useful Independence pamphlet and a “disastrous meteor”, “so democratical”, was Adams’ way of diminishing Paine’s importance, and keeping monarchy alive. Unlike Adams, Paine stood for a democratic republic, and the two sides have still not reconciled, nor should they.
Now let us examine the analytical criteria for determining the role Common Sense played in the creation of the Declaration of Independence. To do that we need to see that all of Common Sense, when read cover to cover, leads up to the conclusion of declaring Independence. In fact Paine emphasized the importance of this in his Crisis 13:
“The cause of America made me an author. The force with which it struck my mind, and the dangerous condition the country appeared to me in, by courting an impossible and an unnatural reconciliation with those who were determined to reduce her, instead of striking out into the only line that could cement and save her, A DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, made it impossible for me, feeling as I did, to be silent…”33
Paine concludes Common Sense with “nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined declaration for independence”34 followed by four reasons. The first three formed the basis for much of the content of the arguments in favor of declarations of independence throughout America: no state could intervene as mediator, no assistance could be made, and foreign nations view us as only rebels without a declaration of independence. The fourth point reads:
“Were a manifesto to be published, and despatched to foreign courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured, and the peaceful methods which we have ineffectually used for redress; declaring at the same time, that not being able any longer to live happily or safely under the cruel disposition of the British court, we had been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections with her; at the same time, assuring all such Courts of our peaceable disposition towards them, and of our desire of entering into trade with them; such a memorial would produce more good effects to this continent, than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain.”35
If we now look at the Declaration of Independence we see essentially six sections, being: introduction, the foundation for a bill of rights, a list of charges against the King(the bulk of the document), peaceful methods of redress, the necessity of separation, and the benefits of an independent state. Paine’s paragraph above outlines the last four sections of the Declaration of Independence. And it does so in the same order, using the same terminology. Quite a coincidence for a publication which only sparked a debate and did not share the arguments of the Declarations! This should lead any honest scholar of the Declaration to at least mention this paragraph, even if only to discredit it. Maier spends hundreds of pages documenting all the links to the Declaration, but has no room for this one. It is because this is the smoking gun, the part of Common Sense that obviously greatly influenced the author of the Declaration of Independence, directly or indirectly.
To be thorough let’s compare the Declaration text to the above paragraph from Common Sense. “The miseries we have endured” is plain enough: the end of the second paragraph of the Declaration says “The history of his present majesty, is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which no one fact stands single or solitary to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest…”, followed by the long list of grievances endured.
“The peaceful methods which we have ineffectually used for redress” is reflected in the Declaration in the third to last paragraph(immediately after the end of the grievance list): “In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress, in the most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered by repeated injuries.”
“We have been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections with her” from the above quote from Common Sense is mirrored in the Declaration in the second to last paragraph: after a recounting of the “common” ties to be renounced forever it says “The road to happiness and to glory is open to us too; we will climb it, apart from them, and acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our eternal separation.”
And lastly, the phrase “assuring all such Courts of our peaceable disposition towards them, … would produce more good effects to this continent, than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain” is reflected in the last paragraph of the declaration, “…as free and independent states they shall hereafter have power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce,…” etc.
But there is more. In Maier’s analysis of Jefferson’s Declaration, she omits these last three sections for discussion. Why? If you read her book, you would think the Declaration consisted of the introduction, the bill of rights and the list of grievances alone.
There is even more content correspondence between the Declaration and Common Sense. The political philosophy of Thomas Paine reflected in Common Sense is evident throughout the central themes of the Declaration. “All men are created equal”, for example, is not unique to Paine in this era. But its application to the principles of government identical to both Common Sense and the Declaration are unique to this time. To point out that these principles appear in some other Declarations in the spring of 1776 simply reinforces the link. “Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could not be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance.. .” from Common Sense is one of the most profound and revolutionary principles of Paine, one which seeped into the subconscious of the American people. When the Declaration says, “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”, it echoes Common Sense’s thesis on the design and end of government.
Even smaller concepts like “he is now exciting those very people
Upon examination, therefore, it becomes evident that the concepts and language of Common Sense pervade not only the 90 Declarations written in the spring of I776, and not only the dialogue in newspapers, journals, assemblies and taverns of the period, but also the national Declaration of Independence itself.
Far more than a treatise that stirred debate, more than the best selling piece of literature of the era, and more than a rallying cry for independence - Common Sense laid the groundwork for the official founding document of this country. All the principles of democratic republicanism and a government of laws based on a popular constitution are found in the unofficial founding document - Common Sense. It ushered in the epoch of democracy for the world, skillfully presented in sound and convincing arguments, and opened up a struggle to secure its aims that continues to this day. It was the manifesto of the American school of political philosophy, and the founding document of American democracy from which subsequent documents, from the Declaration of Independence, to the Gettysburg Address, to the Civil Rights laws of the 1960’s have their roots.
Van Buren Denslow, Modern Thinkers, Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1880, pg. 167.
R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution, Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1959, pg 19.
Alfred Young, ed., The American Revolution, DeKalb, IL: N. Illinois U. Press, 1984, pg x. By “radical”, I take the meaning in the sense of internal radicalism - all those without power who were interested in ‘who shall rule it home’.
Pauline Maier, American Scripture, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1997.
John Adams quote in John H. Hazelton, The Declaration of Independence: Its History, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1906,
Richard Rosenfeld, American Aurora, New York: St. Martins Press, 1997, pg 268-269.
Nicholas Murray Butler. speech at the l50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence banquet of the American Society in London, 7/5/26.
Quoted from Winthrop D. Jordan’s article, “Familial Politics” in Sept. 1973 Journal of American History, pg295.
Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, New York: WW Norton & Co, 1969, pg 92-93.
John H. Hazelton, The Declaration of Independence: Its History, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1906.
Edmund C. Burnett, The Continental Congress, New York: Macmillan,
Maier, op. cit., pg. 33. In a petty fit to once again try and bury Paine, Adams in his Autobiography says independence “had been urged in Congress a hundred times” prior to Common Sense. No corroborating evidence has ever been developed to support this claim, and frankly all evidence suggests just the opposite, but Ms. Maier continues using it as “scripture”.
Maier, pg 33.
Maier, pg 18.
ibid, pg 21.
Maier, pg 58.
Hazelton, pg 50.
Adams in Thoughts on Govemment, quoted from Richard Rosenfeld, American Aurora, New York: St. Martin’s press, 1997, pg 278.
Adams quoted in Rosenfeld, pg 270.
In John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York: Little Brown,1995, pg 113.
W.E. Woodward, Tom Paine: America’s Godfather, New York: EP Dutton, 1945, pg 80.
See Beard, Basic History of the United States, New York: New Home Library, 1944, pg 106; and Woodward, pgs 80-81.
Moncure Conway, The Life of Thomas Paine, New York: GP Putnam & Sons, 1893, Vol I, pg 62.
Quoted from Woodward, Pg 80.
Maier, pg 83.
Maier, pg 91.
Maier, pg 74.
Maier, pg 49.
Maier, pg 90.
Maier, pg 91.
Moncure Conway, ed, Writings of Thomas Paine, New York: AMS Press, 1967,Vol. I pg 376.
Conway, Vol I, pg 110.
Conway, Vol I, pg 11 l.