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THOMAS PAINE

THOMAS PAINE

by William H. Benson

July 1, 1999 

     A revolt against the existing government done with the hope of a new and potentially better government defines a revolution.  The English Colonists on the Atlantic seaboard of the North American continent in the mid-18th century were the pioneers in the business of revolution.  Up to that time virtually no colony had successfully revolted against a European power, and the consequences for a failed revolution against Great Britain’s King was death.  Revolution was treason.

     But the Colonists were weary of dealing with King George III who was separated from the colonies by an ocean.  Virginia and Massachusetts especially, but also the other eleven colonies, had relished colonial self-rule for two and a half centuries with a minimum of interference from the King’s reach.  However, by 1776 King George’s rules and edicts had frustrated and even angered these proud colonial Englishmen who only incidentally happened to live in an American colony.  They believed that they knew best how to govern themselves.

      What should they do?  To revolt was criminal, and they certainly did not have sufficient power to change the King nor his policies.  War seemed imminent.  It was in the midst of this indecisive moment that the final break with England came.  In January of 1776 an Englishman, who had arrived in America only a year before, published his thoughts on what should be done.  Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense.  About 150,000 copies were sold in a few months, arousing the Colonists.

      Paine was one of those rare individuals who thought deeply about the issues and then said what he though without regard for the way things actually were.  At this time he said that the Colonists did not need a king, that they were Americans first and not Englishmen.  They should revolt.  He called George III a “royal brute” and declared, “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God than all the crowned ruffians who ever lived.”  Respect for the king had been bred into most Americans almost as strongly as respect for God, but now Paine, an eloquent propagandist, called for the abolishment of all royalty.

      He wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.  The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.  Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.  What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

      The Colonists read Paine’s words and rightfully concluded that they should revolt and construct a new American government.  Whispered in secret before, the idea of Independence was now openly discussed.  And so they did revolt, and they declared their independence from King George III eight months later.

 

       Thomas Paine’s words captured the Colonists’ minds and every American generation since then.  It was he who struck the match and ignited the fuse of a firecracker (the idea that people should rule themselves and not be ruled) that still lights up the night sky across the globe for all to see– the Fourth of July or America’s Day of Independence.