Thomas Paine

THOMAS Paine played a central role in the American Revolution. As John Adams said, “without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.” Common Sense was the most widely read pamphlet of the American Revolution. And Paine’s Crisis essays were read by a larger fraction of the population than now watch the Super Bowl.

Its first essay (opening with “These are the times that that try men’s souls”) was read aloud in every army camp. Paine’s writings, which presented “principles … on which government ought to be erected,” inspired Washington to abandon his allegiance to Britain, Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln in ending slavery. But given how far government today deviates from those principles, we might best honor him by remembering them.

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.

Of more worth is one honest man to society … than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices … a punisher.

Reason obeys itself; and Ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.

Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. freedom and security. Were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver, but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by thesame prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.

Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and the greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

The trade of governing has always been monopolized by the most ignorant and the most rascally individuals of mankind. Governments … pervert the abundance which civilized life produces.… It affords to them pretenses for power and revenue, for which there would be neither occasion nor apology, if the circle of civilization were rendered complete.

Those who oppose an equality of rights never mean the exclusion should take place on themselves.

A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government; and government without a constitution is power without a right. All power exercised over a nation … must be either delegated, or assumed.… All delegated power is trust, and all assumed power is usurpation.

We still feel the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping at the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised to furnish new pretenses for revenue and taxation. It watches property as its prey and permits none to escape without a tribute.

When…[government] operates to create and increase wretchedness in any of the parts of society, it is on a wrong system, and reformation is necessary. When I contemplate the natural dignity of man, when I feel for the honor and happiness of its character, I become irritated at the attempt to govern mankind by force and fraud, as if they were all knaves and fools, and can scarcely avoid disgust at those who are thus imposed upon.

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