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Paine’s Counsel for a New Time that Tries Men’s Souls

by Harvey J. Kaye on Nov 3, 2005

Harvey J. Kaye

Eager to reconnect with the Spirit of 1776, Americans have turned biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton — along with histories of our War for Independence such as David McCullough’s “1776” — into huge bestsellers. We celebrate the Founders’ audacity and commitment, marvel at their battlefield heroics, literary talents and political wisdom and heatedly debate their collective and respective flaws and contradictions.

However, as the failure of local, state, and federal governments to respond promptly to the disasters in Louisiana and Mississippi all too tragically revealed, we have ignored the most important point of the story: that the American Revolution, for all its failings and sins of omission, was fought to create a political and social order radically different from those of the monarchical and aristocratic states of the Old World.

Even as we have been enthusiastically reading about the Founders, we have been foolishly turning away from their greatest legacy: the idea that government should be dedicated to the pursuit of the public good — not the good of selected families. For a generation now, while cutting taxes for the rich and welfare provisions for the neediest, we have allowed our material inequalities to intensify, our social and cultural divisions to widen, our industrial and commercial foundations to weaken, our national and local infrastructures to decay and our capacities to prepare for and respond to threats to our national security and freedom to decline.

When Americans declared their independence from Britain, they firmly believed they were not acting simply for themselves. They imagined that they were acting in behalf of future generations and humanity at large. Turning a rebellion into a revolution, Thomas Paine wrote in “Common Sense”: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Emphasizing this point as Americans debated independence in 1776, he averred, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”

Paine proclaimed that Americans possessed exceptional purpose and promise. Americans had the opportunity, responsibility and duty to transform their thirteen separate colonies into a great nation by constituting a new kind of government, a democratic republic dedicated to advancing the res-publica, the “public good.” The new nation, Paine envisioned, would serve as a model to the world, an “asylum for mankind” and, in the fullness of time, an ally in the global struggle for freedom. As our founding documents set forth, America would be a nation based on the proposition that “all men are created equal,” a country in which “We the People . . . form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare.”

The crisis of our time did not begin with the controversial presidential election of 2000 — hardly! But it did take a dramatic change for the worse when the President George W. Bush undertook a costly invasion of Iraq — doing so not only based on false or mistaken pretenses, but also without having properly planned for the expected occupation. Compounding the problems, the Administration denied requests for funds to properly protect our shores against both terrorists and floodwaters.

When in the darkest days of the Revolution Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he was neither lamenting nor complaining about the dangers he and his compatriots in Washington’s army faced. He was issuing a call to action. And in that spirit — as well as to honor the Founders, those who died on 9-11, and in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and on the Gulf Coast — let us, as we undertake the labors of recovery and reconstruction, make this the time that we redeem the most profound meaning of the American Revolution.

Let us reaffirm the nation’s extraordinary purpose and promise. Let us renew our commitment to cultivating the public good and extending and deepening freedom, equality, and democracy. Indeed, let us be guided not simply by an urgent sense of crisis, but also by Thomas Paine’s belief that “the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.”

Harvey J. Kaye, a writer for the History News Service, is a professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America" (2005).