Thomas Paine: The First Progressive American

thomas.paine

We all know who Thomas Paine is. What you may not know, or have even thought of yet, is why he is the greatest progressive of his time and the first major American progressive. He was not afraid of the Christian establishment, his ideas aren’t the most popular, he believed that American independence affects more than just America, he believed that there are clear, separate concepts of society and government, he believed that all people are equal, he had also believed that an American navy could be raised up and rival that of the British navy, and one of his finest accomplishments was laying down the foundation of the Constitution of the United States, complete with congressional districts and an elected president along with the stressed idea of total freedom of religion and personal property.

Thomas Paine criticized the monarchy relentlessly because he hated the idea of inheritance of ruling, and believes that an elected government is an effective government. Paine also took aim at the Quakers, heavily criticizing them, stating that religious views should not be mixed up with American politics. I believe that even still today, this is pretty radical for about half of Americans. One of the political parties today uses their religious views to influence how they vote in Congress, and appeal to the large population of Christian Americans. You can look at conservative political figures, such as Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, who use their religion to help guide them with the decisions they must make in the Senate today. cruz.rubioOne political theorist who lived two hundred years ago had stepped up against the influence of religion in politics. It seems to me that if a candidate just twenty or twenty-five years ago had said just that, they mostly like would not have been supported or elected and ostracized at the thought of not having politics being influenced by religion.

Paine did not care at all if his ideas were popular at the time or not because he knew that once Americans had listened to what he had to say, he knew that they would accept that American independence from the British was clearly the only way that America could go. He saw through the lies of the so-called checks and balances of the British Empire, and knew that only an elected government consisting of both a Congress and a president would be the way for a true system of checks and balances. Paine said that it’s also very important for people not to confuse Society and Government, stating that Society is only when a community comes together to support one another and accomplish something, whereas the Government only exists because people do bad things.

Oxford’s dictionary states that a progressive is (section 2.1) favoring or promoting change or innovation, and I believe that Thomas Paine certainly fits that description of the first major progressive in America. He wanted change and promoted that change in his pamphlets and helped move ordinary citizens to action and helped change America in the process. Thank you for reading my blog post!

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6 Responses to Thomas Paine: The First Progressive American

  1. sbain2016 says:

    Tony,
    I like your post overall, and do think that Payne was progressive for his time. I would like to expand on your idea that one party uses religion to guide their decisions in congress. I agree that in many ways it seems like they use religion to guide them, but I think it is more a matter of using religion to advance political ideology. Ted Cruz’s decision making based of “what would Jesus do” is almost comical. In my personal experience with the Bible, I have never heard Jesus promoting the right to possess assault rifles, nor did he care much for unregulated commerce and status quos. Certainly I think he would find contention with conservative statements of hate against certain races of people. It seems to me that the ideology was woven in with certain aspects of Christianity, and in areas where it is beneficial to them, politicians push these aspects of Christian identity forward to achieve political gains. This Christian identity will be thrown out in front in full force during the upcoming weeks in South Carolina. I know from personal experience that this area has ideology and politics so heavily intertwined that the pastor’s spew ideology and political discussions between church members are common at church dinners and social functions. It is also not uncommon to see political party members at these functions. Could this be a new religion of evangelical conservatism?

  2. alxtower says:

    You make some great arguments showing how progressive Thomas Paine was, especially for his time. The argument against ruling through inheritance was a fear of both the anti-federalists and the federalists and played a key role in the creation of our three branch government. However, there are still political dynasties in the United States. The Bush, Clinton, and Kennedy family have been involved in every level of government. While we shouldn’t discourage political participation, we should be weary of elected officials being elected based on their popularity instead of their politics. It’s also interesting that Paine was willing to speak so passionately against religion in the government. While I don’t it’s necessarily a bad thing for politicians to be religious, when they begin to make laws pushing their religious views on others, it becomes very much like the monarchy that early Americans left England to escape. Great post!

  3. Tony, I couldn’t agree with you more, and thank you writing about Paine. He is one of my heroes and an often overlooked historic figure. I think you are correct in stating he is America’s first progressive, and I would add, our first and most important revolutionary author (not only playing an instrumental role in our revolution, but in the revolution in France, and was supportive of the revolutionary struggle across the world).
    Also, it is actually because of his “pamphlet wars” with Edmund Burke during the French revolution that we get our first conception of the “political right” and the “political left” (Paine occupying the left). He also authored perhaps four of the most important essays for the “political left”(Common Sense, Age of Reason, and Agrarian Justice and the Rights of Men). In the last two he would actually go on to outline what would become known as welfare state, arguing for a guaranteed wage, minimum wage, unemployment and old age insurance, land reform, etc. He was also the founder of America’s anti-slavery society, and was a fierce abolitionist, and was also critical of capital punishment. And who could forget his unparalleled contribution to one of our nation’s most respectable attributes- that of secularism and the separation of church from state.

    Here is a video of a very thought provoking and informative forum on Paine’s importance to the American left , which includes panelists Chris Hedges and Cornel West https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlvM8xlfGPg

    Also check out the working of Christopher Hicthens on Thomas Paine here

  4. nshah210 says:

    I really like that you brought up the checks and balances aspect of Paine’s stance on the government. It is so crazy to think that he was thinking so far ahead into the future and trying to create a sort of government that would be fair and equal. He mentions how their needs to be senators and representatives so the constituent’s voices are heard and that they can elect someone that will understand the plight of their community and help them out which, honestly, I wouldn’t have thought of that in that time frame! He understands that the government is evil, but it’s a necessary evil because without it, a nation can’t function. Really like the post and agree how progressive Paine was from the readings.

  5. trose91 says:

    Tony,

    I enjoyed your post about Paine. In my POS 210 course, we slightly went over Paine but not too much. When hearing others talk about the works of Paine I have often found myself slightly confused. However your post open was very informative and taught me a lot him and his impact on the American government. I recently watched a video about Paine which provides a brief explanation of his purpose of Common Sense. I believe that you would enjoy this video. I will attach it below. Thanks so much for taking the time to share.

    -Very Respectfully,
    Taundra Rose

  6. nicmccaleb says:

    I really like Paine’s perspective on government: He broke it down to the most basic level and wanted to remove anything that was not left up to the people. This included things like his perspective on monarchs and on the religiously fueled quakers. He understood that only a government elected for the people, by the people would be successful. While it is noted by another commenter that officials such as “Bush, Clinton, and Kennedy family” have previous lineage in the government, their position was elected by the people and therefor is still akin to Paine’s ideas.

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