Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. His books include The British Marxist Historians, The Powers of the Past and, most recently, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. A regular contributor to Comment is Free, Harvey is currently writing a book on the Four Freedoms. Here he discusses Thomas Paine's Common Sense.
Harvey J. Kaye on Common Sense by Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine has been my hero for as long as I can remember and above all else I feel the greatest affection for his Common Sense. In that revolutionary pamphlet of January 1776, Paine emboldened his new compatriots to turn their colonial rebellion into a revolutionary war, defined the new nation in a democratically expansive and progressive fashion, and articulated an American identity charged with exceptional purpose and promise.
Having written at length on Paine, I tried to stay away from him for this little essay. I looked at the shelf along my side of the bed for another book that has meant as much to me and for so long. I reached first for E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, the grand work of history that produced a generation and more of Anglo-American scholarship from 'the bottom up' on the experiences and struggles of labouring people: 'I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.' I really do miss Edward.
I then grabbed T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the tale of Arthur and the Roundtable that in its own fantastic way poses crucial questions about justice and peace. It was the book that excited me most during my college years - and I often send the following quote to my best students: '"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails... You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds... Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn."' And to be honest, it is the only work of fiction that I continue to go back to for late night inspiration or encouragement.
Nevertheless, I knew I had to write of Paine and Common Sense, for Paine has always been my favourite historical figure and his Common Sense my favourite text. In fact, I could not have been more than 10 years old when I first discovered Paine at my grandparents' apartment in Brooklyn, NY. A trial lawyer, and an avid reader of biography, history, and essays, my grandfather, whom I admired tremendously, kept a personal collection of books on shelves in the back corner of the dining room and whenever the adults made it plain that the kids should leave the living room - that is, my grandparents would start speaking Yiddish - I would inevitably head to that little 'library'. I doubt if I then understood much that I read but, given the number of titles by Paine, I knew he had to be important and good.
Paine became mine, and when my grandmother passed away and my grandfather moved to a smaller flat, he gave me a few of his books by Paine. In high school, I read Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, both of which challenged my thinking. But Common Sense and his wartime pieces, The Crisis Papers, thrilled me. Even then I may not have comprehended everything Paine wrote, but I found his passion and reasoning inspiring. Americans - their energies, their attitudes, and their possibilities - turned Paine into a radical and through Common Sense he turned Americans into revolutionaries: 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' Generations later, Paine propelled my radical-democratic thinking.
Paine enabled Americans to see that they had no need for Monarchy and Empire - that they could govern themselves: 'In America THE LAW IS KING... A government of our own is our natural right.' Moreover, he led them to see that they were struggling not for the rights of free-born Britons, but for human rights - that their cause transcended their own needs and interests: 'The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.' And he endowed Americans with democratic sensibilities and aspirations that - as much as the powerful, propertied, and pious have persistently sought to suppress, constrain, or channel them - have reasserted themselves in every generation. For all of the exploitation and oppression, for all of the tragedy and irony, the finest and most critical story of America is the story of Americans redeeming Paine's memory and legacy and extending and deepening freedom, equality, and democracy: 'The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.'