Enlightened Radicals?

Liberty demands a fight

The American Revolution incarnated Enlightenment ideas. Ideas made flesh. But why would a working stiff take up arms, risking life and livelihood, for a set of abstract ideas? Thomas Paine writes,

The independence of America would have added but little to her own happiness, and been of no benefit to the world, if her government had been formed on the corrupt models of the old world. It was the opportunity of beginning the world anew…of bringing forward a new system of government in which the rights of all men should be preserved that gave value to independence.

Thomas Paine, Letter VII, to the Citizens of the United States

Were the rebels really enlightened radicals fighting for a “new system of government”? Were they convinced their society was being corrupted by the British system? Paine made it stunningly clear in his runaway best seller Common Sense that government and society are two different things:

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state, is but a necessary evil

Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Such words warm the heart, no doubt, of the libertarians among us, if not the anarchists. Lest you think he was urging an armed revolution for anarchy, he spelled out his democratic vision:

A Revolutionary Democrat

Paine did not simply protest British policies and taxes. He completely recast the conflict. For a start, he directly connected the king to the British government’s criminal and murderous actions. Yet he made clear that the problem was not current king or government but the very structure and character of Britain’s political and social order. The British constitution was not a fount of liberty but one of corruption and tyranny.

Harvey J Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, p.43

To replace the British system, Paine then lays out a universal democratic vision of a representative system where elected officials would face frequent elections, and be forced to remain close to their constituents. Common Sense was published in January 1776, about 6 months before the colonies declared their independence, which declared that government exists only to protect our natural rights.

The question still remains. Paine’s rhetoric is all well and good, but was it enough to persuade the average working stiff take up arms? Yes it was. According to Eric Foner, by 1775, talk of liberty pervaded the colonies. He quotes a British emigrant who arrived in Maryland in 1775,”They are all liberty mad.” Throughout the colonies, even in German speaking Pennsylvania, the God given right to resist oppressive authority took aim at Britain. Militias spontaneously formed. Paine articulated these feelings: “Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe” (Common Sense). Worth fighting for? For a world that will be made anew.

The cause of America, wrote Paine, is the cause of Mankind. The Enlightenment, says Roger Scruton in his book Culture Counts, is precisely the aspiration towards universal truth, towards a God’s eye perspective on the human condition that we see in the American Revolution, the moment when the Enlightenment took power.

Some things are worth fighting for.

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