Thomas Paine as Political Theorist by Ray Polin

by Raymond and Constance Polin

The late Dr. Polin was Professor Emeritus of Government and Politics, St. John’s University, New York, and Mrs.Polin is his co-researcher and co-author of Representative American Political Thought.

Some Observations on Thomas Paine’s Birthday Celebration, January 29, 2000 at the Memorial Building of TPNHA

Following Director Brian McCartin’s apt statement about the life and character of Thomas Paine, we preface our own remarks with the observation that Thomas Paine strongly believed that political power had to be limited. A good constitution and good laws can therefore serve to help tell us what should be the extent of a government’s powers and what a person’s rights and duties are-that is, so far as the people are reasonably able to determine and consent to.

We should also see that Paine was not just an active foe of tyranny, monarchy, and slavery. Paine was a uniquely eloquent and persuasive advocate of a democratic republic and of an informed, enlightened citizenry. Indeed, he proudly called himself Citizen Paine and would have no subjects of any monarch!

It is appropriate, therefore, that we citizens of America should gather here today to honor Paine’s memory his ideas, and his contribution on the date of his birthday on January 29, 1737. Next, it is well that we grasp what Thomas Paine’s essential historical role was. It was twofold. It was, first of all, as a visionary who gave us sharper understanding of certain fundamental truths; and secondly, it was as a catalyst who stirred countless others also to act, to carry these truths to realization “out in the real world.” He showed Americans and others paths they should follow to fulfill their legitimate aspirations and destiny.

Among the important political principles Paine clarified was the also two-fold one that individuals could not be securely free unless, to begin with, externally they were inhabitants of an independent country that made and enforced its own laws; and secondly, unless internally they also had above them no monarchy or class of nobles that could negate or interfere with such popular government (Abraham Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people, and for the people).

In short, Paine’s historical role was first to help America win independence from Great Britain, and then to set up a democratic, republican form of government: that is, one that has no monarchy or nobility. In a res publica (a thing of the people), the people are not the property of a king or nobleman: instead the government belongs to the people.

Independence of an individual or of a nation requires maturity and self reliance, not dependence and submission to parental or political authority. There comes a time, a coming of age, to cut the silver chord. Those who play it safe and fail to become self reliant, lack maturity as an individual or as a nation. They lack what Cicero, Machiavelli, Paine, and Jefferson would have called virtue (virtu) in its original sense: namely the manly, adult quality of the proud, rambunctious kind that an American frontiersman exemplified, because he could look anyone in the eye, and not shrink from a fight if offended or challenged. It comes from the Latin word for a grown male, vir, because he had developed virtue-qualities of responsibility, courage, honor, and self reliance (in contradistinction to qualities allowed an immature child, or supposedly more delicate, vulnerable, and dependent woman). Paine was consciously virtuous in this old fashioned way in word and deed.

Paine should therefore be recognized as a brave and perceptively wise political theorist and activist, because of the way he hastened historical development toward independence, freedom, equality, justice, and fraternity within democratic republican forms of government in America and elsewhere.

There is another aspect of Thomas Paine’s corpus of political writings that should also be noted here today. If political theory applies to stated principles that have frequent applicability to basic problems of government, and especially if they gain wide, continuing acceptance, then Thomas Paine is entitled to be recognized and respected as a political theorist of stature.

Not only was Paine an influential voice in his own day, but also many of his ideas continue to stand the test of time and to show their prophetic value. As he has for two centuries past, Paine remains relevant today because of his universal, global view of the human race, and its problems and how to deal with them. He emphasizes fundamental similarities and the need for warm fraternity among all mankind, not our superficial and transient differences. Paine’s message is a declamation of freedom, equality, and active justice for all of mankind that is purposed to unite it in a peaceful, caring brotherhood. Its realization would be fulfillment of his passionately held and expressed deistic-quaker impulses and convictions that may be characterized as – all at once – religious, rational, and Romantic. Where he erred was in supposing all republics to be inherently more peaceable.

As does every Romantic, Paine means to rouse the emotions; but unlike many a Romantic, he means to stir us to accept and act primarily upon rational principles and historic evidence. Paine does not represent simply a transition between politico-religious and politico-economic theory: he combines them. Also, Paine does not represent simply a transition between the Age of Reason and Romanticism: he combines them in his vision of an efficiently functioning semi-utopian society based on justice, science, and loving concern for one another that he propounds with reason and enthusiasm.