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Saturday, September 6, 2008
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"...Kaye shows how Paine was a powerful influence not only at a national level, but also on the states. He writes about how Thomas Paine helped promote an early draft of the Pennsylvania constitution, wherein "they provided for a one-house legislature, annual elections, voting an office-holding rights for all taxpaying men, and term limits. (The drafters even entertained setting limits to the accumulation of property!)"
Later in the book, Kaye notes:
Observing that Monarchy and aristocracy entail "excess and inequality of taxation" and threw the "great mass of the community ... into poverty and discontent," Paine added the question of class to the brief. "When, in countries that are called civilized, we see age going to the work-house and youth the gallows, something," Paine declared, "must be wrong in the system of government." And he bluntly asked, "Why is that scarcely any are executed but the poor?"
[ ... ]
It is positively refreshing to read history from somebody who understands the time and the era. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson's most recent biographer describes him as a hypocrite and implies he was an utopianist fool, and John Adams' biographer reinvents our second president - who tried his best to destroy American democracy with the Alien and Sedition Acts - as a modern and noble pseudo-Republican.
But Kaye lays it all bare. Noting that Jefferson well understood the importance of Paine's contribution to Jefferson's anti-Federalist "Republican" movement (now known as The Democratic Party), Kaye notes:
In the spring of 1791 Jefferson had hailed the first part of Rights of Man. Then serving as secretary of state, he saw in it an antidote to the rise of antirepublican sentiments expressed in writings like Discourses on Davila, a series of newspaper essays penned anonymously by Vice President John Adams warning against the dangers of democratic politics and praising aristocratic governments.
From here, Kaye carries us through the whole arc of the 1800s, up to and through the Wilson administration, Eugene Debs, through the Great Depression, the presidency of FDR, through WWII, and into the Vietnam conflict. At each step along the way, he finds the inspiration of Thomas Paine in the forward progress of Americans who believe in the deepest and most profound principles of democracy and liberty.
For example, from the Vietnam era:
SDS members of the early 1960s proudly conceived of themselves as renewing America's revolutionary heritage, with Paine standing at the heart of it. [Todd] Gitlin [SDS President] would recount of a November 1965 antiwar rally: "Carl Oglesby [then president of SDS] stole the show ... by treating the war as the product of an imperial history ... But Oglesby, the son of an Akron Rubber worker, also self-consciously invoked 'our dead revolutionaries' Jefferson and Paine against Lyndon Johnson and [national security adviser] McGeorge Bundy. He romantically sumoned up a once-democratic America against the 'colossus of ... our American corporate system.'"
Even many years later, SDS veterans would have recourse to Paine when recollecting their early activist days and what they were about. In his own memoir, Tom Hayden would write, "The goal of the sixties was, in a sense, the completion of the vision of the early revolutionaries and the abolitionists, for Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass wanted even more than the Bill of Rights or Emancipation Proclamation. True Democrats, they wanted the fulfillment of the American promise."
Bringing us to the present moment, Kaye points out that modern conservatives are undertaking a massive and well-funded effort to re-write history, characterizing anti-democratic men from the Revolutionary Era as Adams and Hamilton as true champions of democracy, and trying to recast the firebrand revolutionary and liberal Thomas Paine as a conservative. As noted early in the book, they even are stealing lines from Paine, such as Reagan's quoting a Paine line from Common Sense that: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
But Kaye won't let them get away with it:
For all their citations of Paine and his lines, conservatives do not - and truly cannot - embrace him and his arguments. Bolstered by capital, firmly in command of the Republican Party, and politically ascendant for a generation, they have initiated and instituted policies and programs that fundamentally contradict Paine's own vision and commitments. They have subordinated the Republic - the res publica, the commonwealth, the public good - to the marketplace and private advantage. They have furthered the interests of corporations and the rich over those of working people, their families, unions, and communities and overseen a concentration of wealth and power that, recalling the Gilded Age, has corrupted and enervated American democratic life and politics. And they have carried on culture wars that have divided the nation and undermined the wall separating church and state. Moreover, they have pursued domestic and foreign policies that have made the nation both less free and less secure politically, economically, environmentally, and militarily. Even as they have spoken of advancing freedom and empowering citizens, they have sought to discharge or at least constrain America's democratic impulse and aspiration. In fact, while poaching lines from Paine, they and their favorite intellectuals have disclosed their real ambitions and affections by once again declaring the "end of history" and promoting the lives of Founders like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who in decided contrast to Paine scorned democracy and feared "the people."...."
~ From: Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye ~
"...This "Glorious Revolution" of 1689 was a peaceful, bloodless coup d'etat. For the first time in history the rights of an entire people were enshrined into a Constitution and a Bill of Rights-a framework of laws that define how a king may govern and how a government must relate to its citizens.
Over the course of this century, then, England made the first-time-in-the-history-of-the-world transition from an absolute monarchy based on the claim of the divine right of kings to a constitutional monarchy based on the twin ideals of the rule of law and the consent of the governed. It was a breathtakingly noble ascent to political maturity, the willingness of a people to govern themselves by laws rather than submit as cattle to the autocratic dictates of a single man.
It should come as no surprise that the two leading theorists of modern government emerged from this epochal conflict. Thomas Hobbes was appalled at the disorder of the country and wrote Leviathan, claiming that the highest duty of the King was to protect the security of the citizens. Hobbes, a firm believer in the divine right of kings, is the philosopher on whom George Bush relies to legitimize his peremptory actions.
John Locke, on the other hand, theorized that a government was made legitimate, not by divine right, but rather by the "consent of the governed". Locke believed that people had "natural rights" that could not be taken away and that among these were "life, liberty, and private property." Pointedly, it was Locke and not Hobbes who Thomas Jefferson was channeling (however imperfectly) when he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The colonists, of course, were Englishmen. The American Revolutionary War occurred because a new King, George III, refused to honor these ideals, denying the protections of English law to his own citizens, the colonists. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, Americans had "suffered a long train of abuses and usurpations.designed to reduce them under absolute Despotism.
In the Declaration, Jefferson listed 27 specific offenses including, among others, the facts that the King had:
. Dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly.
. Obstructed the Administration of Justice
. Quartered large bodies of armed troops among us
. Imposed taxes without our consent
. Deprived us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury
So grave were these violations, and so intransigent was the King in remedying them, that the colonists had no recourse but to go to war.
There is no room for interpretation here: the Revolutionary War was fought and the Constitution was written to free the colonists from the abuse of "absolute Despotism." The manner of securing such freedom was the system of separation of powers embodied in the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government and the checks and balances attendant on each of their roles.
Given this history, it is startling, even brazen, that some try to claim a "unitary executive" that cannot be challenged by Congress, at least in times of war. Challenging the executive in time of war is precisely the way that America was born. Madison himself could not have been more lucid on this point.
In 1795, he wrote, "Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. In war, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people." A more prescient description of the allure of war - at least for the executive - could hardly be written.
The supreme irony - if not hypocrisy - of the theory of the "unitary executive" is that it is espoused by the very same people who purport that the Judiciary should be bound by an equally phantasmical theory of "original intent." Under this theory the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution according to the intent of its authors, an intent only these latter-day "originalists" claim to be able to accurately divine.
But the Executive, on the other hand, should be freed entirely from such original intent, liberated to pursue a starkly post-modern vision of a virulently anti-democratic authoritarianism that would have been wholly repugnant to the very same founders. Either Madison and the founders were schizophrenic or the current "theorists" are duplicitous. They can't have it both ways..."
~ From: Should the President be King? Reflections from the Deep Origins of America by Robert Freeman ~
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