Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Common Sense and Thomas Paine—setting the stage

Picture source at Wikipedia

For the Fourth of July I thought I would do something different. The obvious choice would be to look at the Declaration of Independence or its philosophical history and background, but I wanted to re-read Common Sense and look at on one of America’s most problematic founding fathers, Thomas Paine.

I plan on three posts—this post will focus mostly on events leading up to its writing and publication, setting the stage, if you will. Part of the post will follow Isaac Kramnic’s 1976 essay that serves as an introduction to the Penguin Books edition (last reprinted in 1986) while other parts track my own wanderings. I do not claim to present all sides to arguments but would like to provide a starting point for anyone not familiar with the pamphlet. The other two posts will look at the pamphlet and Paine’s troubled life after its publication.

These are very much stream of consciousness posts since I have had little free time of late, so I apologize in advance for their lengthy rambling and inability to focus on as much as I would like. Because of the scope of this post there will necessarily be sweeping generalizations. I mention a few books about this period that I have enjoyed reading…if you have any you recommend please feel free to add them in the comments. The same request goes for any major event or change you feel I have left out—even at this length I deliberately omitted a few but tried to keep the general flow intact. OK, caveats are out of the way.

On February 13, 1765, Benjamin Franklin appeared before the British House of Commons to answer questions regarding the colonists resistance to the Stamp Act. Franklin’s answers are considered to have helped persuade Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in March, but I want to focus on his answers regarding the deteriorating attitude in British America towards Great Britain:

Q. What was the temper of America towards Great Britain before the year 1763?

—A. The best in the world. They submitted willingly to the government of the crown, and paid, in all their courts, obedience to acts of parliament. Numerous as the people are in the several old provinces, they cost you nothing in forts, citadels, garrisons or armies, to keep them in subjection. They were governed by this country at the expence only of a little pen, ink, and paper. They were led by a thread. They had not only a respect, but an affection for Great Britain, for its laws, its customs and manners, and even a fondness for its fashions, that greatly increased the commerce. Natives of Britain were always treated with particular regard; to be an Old-England man was, of itself, a character of some respect, and gave a kind of rank among us.

Q. And what is their temper now?

—A. O, very much altered.

Even though the relationship was altering, how do we get from willing submission to revolution in just over a decade? Franklin may be overstating the case, although many of his contemporaries agreed with his assessment. More importantly are some of the structural changes that had been taking place over the past century.

Jack P. Greene presented a paper at the Symposium on the American Revolution (March 1971) hosted by the Institute of Early American History and Culture. The papers presented there have been gathered in Essays on the American Revolution, editors Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1973). Greene’s paper is well worth reading in whole (and can be found online here. Greene looks at two interrelated questions that are raised by Franklin’s remaks:

[F]irst, whether the relationship between Britain and the colonies actually was so satisfactory prior to 1763, and second, if the existing imperial system worked as well for Britain as Franklin contended, why the British government would ever undertake—much less persist in—measures that would in any way impair such an obviously beneficial arrangement. (33)

Greene’s essay highlights a few of the paradoxes of the American Revolution, such as the emergence of “acknowledged local political and social elites.” Complementary to this was development of the requisites for self-government, both in institutions and competency. In addition, the increase in size and wealth of the colonies meant that by the time Franklin spoke Britain was probably more reliant on the American colonies than vice versa. Greene lists other structural changes, such as the belief that the British system was superior, something frittered away during the decade between Franklin’s examination and conflict. There were also implicit operating assumptions in the parent/colony relationship that changed dramatically during this period. One of these components, which leads directly to Common Sense, is “the assumption that the imperial government would not interfere with the capacity of the colonists as individuals to maintain their personal autonomy.” (59)

The abandonment of Robert Walpole’s accommodation policy in favor of stricter controls backfired on Britain, corroding the relationship between parties. Even with all these structural changes, though, revolution was not inevitable. Many complex changes began to come into play, including the generalizations listed below (adding to the many paradoxes):

  • The effort from Britain to fight the Seven Years’ War increased the colonists’ sense of self-importance while their own successful contribution raised their self-esteem.
  • The war produced an increase in British patriotism among the colonists but also raised their expectations of an increased role in their own governance.
  • Many British rulers took an opposite approach, wishing to restore the relationship to one of colonist dependence.
  • The removal of a direct French and Spanish threat lessened an erstwhile need for reliance on Britain, while Parliament perceived the removal of enemies as an opportunity to pursue their desired colonial reforms (fostered in part by the colonists’ behavior during the war). The presence of many troops after the war was finished gave them a heavy-handed means to do so.
  • George Grenville’s term as Prime Minister managed to provoke opposition and strengthen colonist resolve against Britain (primarily with the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and changes in navigation regulation).
This confluence of events happening so close together around 1763 marks a change in the colonists’ perception of their relationship with Britain—while there wasn’t a concerted plan to destroy or cripple the colonies, changes to the balance of power between the two (stated and unstated) coupled with incompetence and domineering acts from above fed this change. Back to Greene’s point, many of these events ended up with the results they did because of many underlying transformations during the preceding century.

After demonstrations by colonists, intimidation of Crown representatives, and destruction of British government property following the acts (especially the Stamp Act), Grenville was replaced by Rockingham. While intended to pacify the colonists, the change also reinforced the idea in the colonists’ minds that militancy could have an effect. Rockingham’s belief in constitutional rights for the colonists caused enough internal dissent that he was replaced and the new cabinet pursued a hard-line against the colonists. Reaction in the colonies was loud and angry. As Kramnick put it in his introduction, “Pamphlets and petitions came rapidly from colonial presses.” (15) The most remarkable (to me) from all of this outpouring was John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies. His letters deserve their own post. While his letters lay out a high-minded argument against actions taken by Chancellor of the Exchequer Townshend, he ominously states “the English history affords frequent examples of resistance by force” (Letter III).

Tensions escalated (and I’m skipping a lot here, including the Boston Massacre), including Britain sending more troops to Boston in 1768, almost guaranteeing there would be more armed conflict. While there to protect British officials carrying out Parliamentary legislation, the troops were inflammatory proof to many of the colonists that Britain sought to impose tyranny on the colonists. Well, proof positive to some colonists, like Samuel Adams. In addition to Loyalists to the crown (and at this point I *have* to recommend Maya Jasanoff’s book Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, something I need to add to the list of deserved posts—see this link for the first chapter) there were many colonists that viewed Adams actions negatively, wishing for reconciliation. While an uneasy calm lasted from 1770 to 1773, the Boston Tea Party accelerated conflict. To be more precise, the British reaction to the Boston Tea Party (including what colonists called the Intolerable Acts) accelerated conflict. But irritation and anger are a far cry from revolution.

In addition to the two accomplishments listed at the entry for the First Continental Congress held in September/October 1774 is the important procedural (and symbolic) action of coming together as a united political body representing the interests of the colonies. From George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010, hardback):
The First Continental Congress balked at the still-radical idea of independence, and George Washington expressed the predominant mood when he declared flatly, “I am well satisfied, as I can be of my existence, that no such thing is desired by any thinking many in all North America; on the contrary, that it is the ardent wish of the warmest advocates for liberty that peace and tranquility, upon constitutional grounds, may be restored and the horrors of civil discord prevented.” The delegates clung to the pleasing fiction that a benevolent George III was geing undermined by treacherous ministers, and they implored the king as their “loving father” to rouse himself and rescue his colonial subjects. (173-4)

While Washington may have overstated the colonial attitude of not wanting independence, he probably wasn’t far off the mark, even as late as the Fall of 1774. Britain saw a deeper split developing between radicals seeking American freedoms, if not outright independence, and Parliamentary hardliners wanting to punish the intransigence of the colonists. There were many somewhere between the two camps, Edmund Burke providing some of the most eloquent pleas for conciliation. 1775 saw open armed conflict between the colonies and Britain with the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. Prime Minister Frederick North declared that this was no longer a rebellion by colonists but an open war, obliging Britain to employ every expedient to reassert control. The Second Continental Congress convened after warfare had started, but the focus was on reconciliation and redress, not independence, although the Congress took charge of the war effort out of necessity. John Adams noted at an “elegant supper” marking the opening of the meeting many representatives and their friends toasted “the union of Britain and the colonies on a constitutional foundation.” The Olive Branch Petition was drafted to help in the reconciliation process but was rejected by Britain (due in no small part to John Adams).

King George III declared before the opening of Parliament (October 26, 1775) that the colonies were in open revolt. He also made the declaration that “The rebellious war…is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire,” a charge that may have surprised many Americans, even some of those openly fighting the British.

It is in this murky atmosphere, as conflicts increased and frustrations grew, that Thomas Paine began writing Common Sense (under the working title of Plain Truth). Keep in mind that Paine had only been in the colonies for fourteen months before he wrote Common Sense. At the end of 1778 Paine looked back on the atmosphere in the colonies when he arrived in The American Crisis, Philadelphia, Nov.21, 1778:

I happened to come to America a few months before the breaking out of hostilities. I found the disposition of the people such, that they might have been led by a thread and governed by a reed. Their suspicion was quick and penetrating, but their attachment to Britain was obstinate, and it was at that time a kind of treason to speak against it. They disliked the ministry, but they esteemed the nation. Their idea of grievance operated without resentment, and their single object was reconciliation. Bad as I believed the ministry to be, I never conceived them capable of a measure so rash and wicked as the commencing of hostilities; much less did I imagine the nation would encourage it. I viewed the dispute as a kind of law-suit, in which I supposed the parties would find a way either to decide or settle it. I had no thoughts of independence or of arms. The world could not then have persuaded me that I should be either a soldier or an author. If I had any talents for either, they were buried in me, and might ever have continued so, had not the necessity of the times dragged and driven them into action. I had formed my plan of life, and conceiving myself happy, wished every body else so. But when the country, into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir. It was time for every man to stir. Those who had been long settled had something to defend; those who had just come had something to pursue; and the call and the concern was equal and universal. For in a country where all men were once adventurers, the difference of a few years in their arrival could make none in their right. [emphasis mine]

Lexington and Concord changed his view. More on the pamphlet in the next post.

Related posts on Thomas Paine and Common Sense:


Brian Joseph said...

Super post.

I am lamenting the fact that I did not get anything for the 4th of July. Paine was such a fascinating character and his writing were compelling.

I read a couple of biographies about him over the years including Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye which was very good.

Dwight said...

Definitely fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation on the biography.

I meant to mention "Common Sense: A Political History" by Sophia Rosenfeld. It's an interesting history on the evolving meaning of the term, philosophically as well as politically.