Thomas Paine: Champion of Civic Republicans or Closet Power Monger?

            Although he may never have known it, it is apparent that Thomas Paine embodied the characteristics of a Civic Republican, at least when he wrote Common Sense. It’s easy for us to see now; but even today, civic republicanism vs. classic liberalism is not as black and white as it may seem, not to mention at the time of the American Revolution. Paine was certainly not thinking about that when he wrote these pamphlets which still enthuse people today. To be sure, Paine embodies most of the tenets of civic republicanism: He believed in the community as a political unit, participatory democracy, and the common good over individuality. However after careful examination, it becomes evident that Paine may have had some ambitions that were less community-based and more grandiose, or self-centered. While he certainly was a civic republican in his public life, the greatness that Paine may have strived for is the kind that comes from the mind of a classic liberal.

            Is it possible that Thomas Paine used the ideals of civic republicanism as a means to an end? Yes. Thomas Paine was of the upper class (for a while, anyway). He was an intellectual who mingled with other intellectuals. He was regarded as a leader at the time of the Revolution, and was obviously a white male. What people continue to love about Paine is that he encouraged throngs of people to be catalysts for change. But how many of these people were people that Paine would have associated with? As we all learned the other day, Thomas Paine had some tendencies that appeared xenophobic. It’s probable that this was not on purpose – the people he surrounded himself with at the time believed in the power of the white land-owning male, and the degradation of poor people, women, minorities, and non-Christians. Paine knew that unity was key, that the word “we” was extremely important at such a tumultuous time.

This is the part where I play devil’s advocate. What connected Paine with his followers was his problem with Great Britain. But while his followers dreamed of a government that would be better to the masses, he knew that the only way to cure a government he didn’t like was to become his own governor. If the enemy of your enemy is your friend, was Paine sucking up to the people so that he could become an important political figure of the North American continent? Were the colonists his friends or his pawns? I’m not saying that classic liberals were bad people – I’m just saying that Paine may have been a dishonest man and a classic liberal at the same time.

Paine was already implicitly and explicitly exclusionary when he suggested that citizens switch from obedience to an overthrow-the-government type mindset. He used soaring rhetoric to gain followers, as if to say, “Forget everything you care about and come join this cause.” But did Paine want anything to do with the likes of poor people? Did he have visions of the impending grandeur that would follow after he had allowed the masses of commoners to do his dirty work for him? Today, Paine’s suggested ratio of representatives to citizens seems almost outrageously democratic. But there were enough elites (at the time of Paine) to do all of the jobs. In his argument against ratification of the Constitution of 1787, Anti-federalist Melacton Smith warned of the government “falling into the hands of the few and the great.” (pg. 51) Thomas Paine never went that far in terms of his vision for a new government, because he knew that his position in society enabled him to be one of the few and the great.

A manipulative snob who aimed to take advantage of people using his skill of persuasion?

Today, politicians are horrible at covering up the fact that their number one ambition is personal advancement. “Putting America first” comes off, at least to me, as hogwash. Maybe I’m more disenchanted than everybody else. I can’t help but wonder if this was the same case with the founding fathers. Today, people pray at the altars of the likes of Thomas Paine. I hate to take away from that, but wouldn’t it be good to know if Paine was a manipulative snob who aimed to take advantage of people using his skill of persuasion? It’s obvious that he will never go down into history as one; however, for those of us who are skeptical, ignorance is pure bliss.

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6 Responses to Thomas Paine: Champion of Civic Republicans or Closet Power Monger?

  1. Courtney says:

    I have to disagree with your speculation of Paine. Although I understand your arguments, I read Paine from a totally different prospective and never became skeptical that he was a “manipulative snob.” I believe that Paine definitely leans toward the side of civic republicanism. As you stated, “He believed in the community as a political unit, participatory democracy, and the common good over individuality.” Paine wrote with so much passion, perseverance, and determination to try and influence the American people to revolt against Great Britain, in hopes of gaining independence for all of America. I believe he did this with the intention of doing what was good for every American, not just himself.

    Had Paine held a more prominent role in the creation of the Constitution and founding of our nation, I believe he would have sided with the Anti-Federalists. As we read, the Anti-Feds believed in a high number of representatives who have the “same views” as the people, and they repeatedly stressed the common good. They also feared corruption among a few, and thus resented the power of the elites. But as we know, the largest impact Paine had was during the American Revolution when he published his famous pamphlet, not during the writing of the Constitution. We can therefore only speculate as to where Paine would have stood in these events.

  2. flitvak says:

    Although there are strong labels incorporated in your critique of Thomas Paine as a political thinker, you make several valid points. First of all, the word xenophobic is inapplicable in the context of “Common Sense” because this word describes those who exhibit hatred towards people from another country and the groups that Paine explicitly and implicitly excluded were groups that existed and originated within the United States. I beg to differ that he was a “manipulative snob.” He intended, like you said, to be “a catalyst for change,” and to use civic republicanism “as a means to an end.” I do not believe that he strove to incite rebellion to win power because if this were the case Paine would have been an authority figure after the revolution.
    I agree that his intentions to create a government based on representation to achieve a more democratic country could be perceived as counterproductive. This is exactly what John Stuart Mill, author of “On Liberty,” wrote when he said, “like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries.” (pg. 8 ) Essentially, Mills refutes the ideas of representation and how political figures are delegates or servants. He argues that with a broad representation of the people, minorities are excluded and the purpose of liberty is defeated. “The likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion.” (pg. 10-11) This is a powerful majority to which he is referring whose opinions supersede those of the under serviced minority.
    Furthermore, Alexis de Tocqueville, author of “Democracy in America” which predates Mills “On Liberty,” writes, “under the absolute sway of one man the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul: but the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose proudly superior. Such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved.” Mills mimics Tocqueville’s idea of “tyranny of the majority” in which people are free but are beholden to the opinions of the majority.
    Last semester I took a course taught by Professor Hanes Walton Jr. who taught us that the most prevalent reason behind striving to become a prominent political figure is ambition. You argue that although Thomas Paine supported these civic republican ideals, he contradicted himself because he was acting as an individual and that his individualist intentions were for personal benefit. Therefore this is reflected in the current representative body. I think this is an interesting post and your thoughts reflect exactly what Mills and Tocqueville warn us against.

  3. beneikey says:

    I really like this. I do think he was trying to stress civic republicanism, but he was doing it in a classically liberal way. Paine wasn’t about to compromise the way he thought about the crown for anything but freedom and independence. That determination that his way was true and that compromise just wasn’t an option is a classical liberal train of thought. He is also very community orientated, but he knew that it would require the individual action of him creating this pamphlet to get the “community” riled up. This really shows to me how CR and CL are somewhat integrative.

  4. jakmel says:

    I strongly agree with above comment. Although throughout our discussion of Paine we have hailed him as a staunch civic republican, throughout his discussion of Americans coming together to rebel against the British empire, there is a lot of classic liberal sentiment. Its very apparent that Paine embraces the civic republican ideas of community to achieve the ultimate goal of independence. However, also very apparent is his understanding of the importance of individual rights. This is evident when he talks about how the Tories should want to join up with the American and defect their loyalty to Britain, because there rights will be severely be infringed upon by the majority if they were to end up on the losing side.

    All in all, I believe Paine is much more of a classic liberal than he seems on the surface. Contrary to an above comment I believe Paine would have for sure been siding with the Federalist in the constitutional debate. It seems to me his civic republican ideas were used in this “Common Sense” as means of achieving an immediate goal. However, his classic liberal ideas of protecting individual rights seep into the pamphlet, and is also evident is his other works, for example his strong criticism of slavery.

  5. bjacobs25 says:

    I’ve got to agree with your interpretation of Paine as a Classic Liberal. Selfishness and politics goes hand in hand, though probably more so today than during the Revolution. As you say, “Putting America First” and similar “rah rah” movements are not what they appear to be on the surface. All politicians today portray some shred of classic liberalism: how we distinguish between them is the degree to which they are individualistic. Sad as it may be the truly selfless, citizen-loving politician seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur.

    Where I think you go wrong here is the assertion that Paine had some kind of secret motive to become an important political figure. I think Paine himself knew that this was not feasible. He was a native Englishman with virtually no government experience. I think that he felt the best way to become an important figure in the American political movement was via his pen. If he felt otherwise, why didn’t he pursue a political career after America gained their independence? Paine was thought of quite highly at the time, you’ve got to figure if he really wanted a position in government that he would have pursued it.

  6. bradenburgess says:

    I think this is an interesting take on Paine. I agree with the post insofar as it seems that Paine used primary tenants of Civic Republicanism to further a specific agenda: the breaking apart from Great Britain. Also, I agree that Paine has particular attributes that would lead us to classify him as a Liberal. I would argue that Paine’s relentless repudiation of the overreaching power of the British Empire was his most characteristically Liberal position. He clearly was obsessed with a limited government.

    Was Paine primarily motivated by personal ambition when he wrote “Common Sense”? I do not think so. It is true that he was involved in the affairs of the new government. However, history does not remember him as the typical, power-hungry politician. And I don’t think we should either. From his extensive writing and knowledge of his relatively humble life, we cannot conclude that he was motivated by an unbridled ambition. What we can say was that he was undeniably brilliant. We shouldn’t remember Paine for his ambition, but rather for his genius.

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