Thomas Paine’s Legacy of Equality by Ray Polin

by Raymond Polin and Constance Polin

(The late Dr. Raymond Polin was Professor Emeritus of Government and Politics, St. John’s University, New York; and Mrs. Polin is a library researcher and co-author-editor of their work Representative American Political Thought)

Speech delivered at the Thomas Paine Day events in New Rochelle, NY on June 4, 2000, and reprinted from the Inaugural Edition of TPNHA’s Journal in the Fall of 2000.

Mr. Chairman, honored guests, and fellow admirers of Thomas Paine,

What we propose to do first in our brief remarks is to make some comparisons between Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, and for good measure later on throw in a snippet from George Mason, father of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. When we mention Jefferson, what first comes to mind is the Declaration of Independence, adopted on the Fourth of July 1776. We thrill to recollection of its stirring words in the way we do when we see our beautiful American flag. But we feel also a bit uneasy about one of its familiar assertions- as when we hear a false note played or sung in an otherwise fine performance - for how can we accept as a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal?” We know we are not equal in ability, strength, swiftness, possessions, or reputation. Then we comfort ourselves by thinking Jefferson must have meant we are equal in the sight of God and therefore created equal in our endowed rights, especially in our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the opportunity that are prerequisite for the “pursuit of happiness.”

But though we are usually rather satisfied with such an explanation of universal equality in the Declaration, because adherents of democracy favor what we call “equal justice”, we should not be too accepting of it. For there was another fundamental meaning of equality that was more apparent in America in 1776, but one that we have largely lost sight of.

If we think of equality in terms of alikeness, we begin to comprehend its broader import when employed by Paine, Mason, and Jefferson. And created is the word critical to our understanding of this equality or alikeness. Remember, the then widely popular King James Version of the Old Testament reads in Genesis I:27: “God created man in his own image.” But from what was man created? Some theologians interpret the Old Testament to say God created man from common clay (or dust) and woman (so called because “she was taken out of Man”) from one of Adam’s ribs. Also, since antiquity it has generally been recognized that man was regularly “created” or generated by co-activity of a human male and female gametes. Therefore, when it was said all men and women are thus generated, gestated in a woman’s womb, and born through natural parturition or Caesarian section, it was an espousal of the deistic view of “Nature’s God” and ways. And before going further, we should note that “man” as used by Paine, Mason, and Jefferson probably meant species - mankind, or humankind - not necessarily the male gender.

What was the fuss about, then? These truths about the manner of birth were indeed self-evident about all humanity. Where does inequality come in, so that inequality has to be denied, which is done by demonstrating equality? We find the answer when we distinguish between nobility and commoners - and therefore also between subjects of a superior ruler and citizens of a free state. They were viewed as different breeds. The nobles (often called aristocrats) were pretended to be “blue bloods” descended from “gods” who had originated a different lineage here on earth that set them apart from the “commoners” who were descended from common clay. Some of this is recorded in the account you may read for yourself in Genesis VI: 2-4.

George Bernard Shaw also gives us a glimpse of this long held, but now, thankfully, neglected belief when, before the start of Act I of his Caesar and Cleopatra, he has Balzanor proclaim: “Peasants, brought up to scare crows and follow the plough! Sons of smiths and tanners! And we nobles, consecrated to arms, descended from the gods!”

We should pause a moment gathered here, therefore, to honor also the memory of the martyred Richard Rumbold (1622-1685)) and the heroic words he spoke as his life was about to be cruelly ended: “I never would believe that Providence had sent a few men into the world, ready booted and spurred to ride, and millions ready saddled and bridled to be ridden.”

Now originally, the triple thrust of the grievances of the American colonists had been: against the taxation and control exercised over them by the British Parliament and government; an assertion of autonomy in domestic affairs; and an argument that the common connection with England and other parts of the Empire was through the Crown (that is, they shared the same king). When independence - separation from Great Britain (most effectively advocated by Thomas Paine in Common Sense) - became the avowed objective, the American colonial leaders and spokesmen were shrewd enough to make their new propaganda target King George III, an easier symbol to rouse hatred and armed resistance. So Paine used Common Sense to convince the American colonists that to be fully independent and free, the King and what he stood for had to be discarded. A republican form of government had to replace monarchy and nobility. But what is a republic? It is a res republica, Latin for “a people’s thing”: meaning that the people, as citizens, own the government, and so no one may possess or inherit any public office. Therefore, they cannot be subjects - that is, property - of any king or nobleman. Kings and nobles had to be swept away by declaring we are all born in like manner and are of like kind. Had Paine and Mason had their way, “persons of color” would have been included, slavery would have ended with feudal distinctions, and there would have been no Civil War; and Paine at least would also have included women as endowed with equal rights.

Thus, in Common Sense, Paine, a deeply devout, deistic-Quaker writes early on: “Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance…” And thus, in the Virginia Bill of Rights adopted in June of 1776 (and an important influence on Jefferson in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and James Madison in the drafting of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights), George Mason states: “That no man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.”

Accordingly, the concepts of equality of birth and of kind give us the fuller meaning of “created equal” and are basic elements of the constitutional, legal, and ideological key to freedom and justice in all their now familiar forms and ways so dear to Americans. Present-day hereditary rulers, whether utilized as nominal figureheads or active exercisers of governmental power, are all on borrowed time. Therefore, that you may by yourself continue our little discourse, we call to your attention a recent thoughtful publication in England by a young journalist who returned there after an assignment of some years in the United States and who cites Thomas Paine to good advantage. We recommend Jonathan Freedland’s Bring Home the Revolution: The Case for a British Republic (London: Fourth Estate, 1998). Read it and you wi1l enrich your understanding of Thomas Paine’s legacy of equality: the opening key to the freedom, justice, and pursuit of happiness we Americans cherish and memorialize here today. We thank you.