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The Most Uncommon Pamphlet of the Revolution
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
What of the true origins of the present-day monarchs, so exalted by myth and supposedly sanctified by antiquity? In all probability, Paine wrote, the founder of any of the modern royal lines was “nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or preeminence of subtility obtained him the title of chief among the plunderers; and who, by increasing in power and extending his depredations, overawed the quiet and defenseless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions.” The English monarchs? “No man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conquerer is a very honorable one. A French bastard, landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.” Why should one even bother to explain the folly of hereditary right? It is said to provide continuity and hence to preserve a nation from civil wars. That, Paine said, is “the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind.” English history alone disproves it. There had been, Paine confidently declared, “no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions” since the Conquest. The fact is that everywhere hereditary monarchy has “laid … the world in blood and ashes.” “In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain!” People who are fools enough to believe the claptrap about monarchy, Paine wrote, should be allowed to do so without interference: “let them promiscuously worship the Ass and the Lion, and welcome.”
But it is in the third section, “Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs,” that Paine’s language becomes most effective and vivid. The emotional level is extremely high throughout these pages and the lyric passages even then must have seemed prophetic:
The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. … ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time by the proceedings now. Now is the seedtime of continental union, faith, and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.
The arguments in this section, proving the necessity for American independence and the colonies’ capacity to achieve it, are elaborately worked out, and they respond to all the objections to independence that Paine had heard. But through all of these pages of argumentation, the prophetic, lyric note of the opening paragraphs continues to be heard, and a sense of urgency keeps the tension high. “Everything that is right or reasonable,” Paine writes, “pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘ TIS TIME TO PART .” Now is the time to act, he insists: “The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected the whole continent will partake of the misfortune.” The possibility of a peaceful conclusion to the controversy had vanished, “wherefore, since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to be cutting throats under the violated unmeaning names of parent and child.” Not to act now would not eliminate the need for action, he wrote, but only postpone it to the next generation, which would clearly see that “a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.” To talk of reconciliation “with those in whom our reason forbids us to have faith, and our affections, wounded through a thousand pores, instruct us to detest, is madness and folly.” The earlier harmony was irrecoverable: “Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. … As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress as the continent forgive the murders of Britain.” And the section ends with Paine’s greatest peroration:
O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare to oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.
In the pamphlet literature of the American Revolution there is nothing comparable to this passage for sheer emotional intensity and lyric appeal. Its vividness must have leapt out of the pages to readers used to greyer, more solid prose.
But language does not explain itself. It is a reflection of deeper elements—qualities of mind, styles of thought, a writer’s personal culture. There is something unique in the intellectual idiom of the pamphlet.