Thomas Paine (1736 – 1809) wrote Common Sense in 1776, and today we desperately need to reconnect with some commonsense principles. As we celebrate our independence, let’s look again at Paine to see what unites us today. Sadly, our divisions are deep. Perhaps as deep as they were in Paine’s day. To broad-brush, one wing of America thinks abortion is evil, guns are good, and so is the free market. On the other wing: pro-choice is good, guns are evil, and so is capitalism. This oversimplifies, but it also strikes a chord. What did Paine write that was so sensible and worth remembering?

Plainly Paine denounced Kings and tyrants in Common Sense: “That the King is not to be trusted without being looked after, or in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy.” That sounds obvious, until you realize how many arrogant dictators today still want to be kings. Power has gone into their head and squeezed out all the common sense. From Belorussia to North Vietnam, count how many autocrats still, in their minds, wear the robes and trappings of kings. Thomas Paine warned: “For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others forever.” In North Korea, however, among other places, we have seen exactly this. Democracy is not an idea everywhere realized. It still needs to be fought for by word and action. That is as true today as it was in Paine’s.  

Paine wisely decreed: “In America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.” What a wonderful statement.  It’s as common sense and true today as it was then. The law must be king because no one is exempt from being responsible. Yet one cannot conduct a lawful society when tyrants are in charge, or when fidelity to a core set of beliefs has gone rotten, like a sour apple. If law is to remain King, it must have a vigorous belief system keeping it alive and preventing the rot.

Paine’s religious beliefs were controversial, even in his day. Despite the strong legacy of the First Great Awakening during Paine’s life, he still decried the belief in revelation. He wrote in The Age of Reason: “It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.” This got him in some hot water because everyone wants their Bible to be true. Critically reflecting, however, we cannot both assume and expect all people to believe that the Bible (or a particular interpretation of it) is the inerrant word of God. If we do expect that, we have no freedom of religion, no freedom of belief in America, nor in any other country. The vitality of a religious belief system must be preserved from those who espouse it below, not from sanctimonious decrees or by government. This seems like a sensible and agreeable interpretation of Paine on religion.

Paine did believe in religion but saw it in nature: “The word of God is the Creation we behold; and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaks universally to man.” In today’s world there are many who do not see this wonder in nature, nor feel the redeeming value of the Christian message. In a world full of violence, autocracy, and cruelty, however, it seems the most self-evident truth. We need a belief that espouses both love and freedom because of the perpetual threats to both. One need not win a metaphysical argument with an atheist over the Christian religion, only a practical and moral argument. An atheist who warns us about Crusades or the errors of religious extremism should be reminded about the more recent errors of Stalin and Mao. Had either of those two tyrants heeded Paine’s Common Sense, there might not have been a Cold War to begin with, nor its legacy today. Would there indeed be, reversing the entire historical trajectory of Soviet Russia, a Vladimir Putin? An ex-KGB officer, seeking to revive that empire, and making war on Ukraine?

Realism is the professed admission of the trenchant political difficulties of our world. It is the affirmation of the sinful self, the rebel in our mind which does not align with the angel of our hearts. James Madison recognized this easily, that if men were angels, no government would be necessary. But there is realism also in the spirit of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the slave abolitionist, who understood the vigilant need to keep power and government aligned with right and principle. Douglass wrote about the struggle for justice, that it “may be a more moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” Douglass further disclosed on religion: “I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man; which makes its followers do unto others as they themselves would be done by. If you demand liberty to yourself, it says, grant it to your neighbors. If you claim a right to think for yourself, it says, allow your neighbors the same right.”   

We might recognize this love in a variety of religions, or their interpretations, but minimally the wisdom of Paine and Douglass trump that of Stalin and Mao.  From Paine, to Jefferson, to Douglass, we have both a professed ideal, which is loving and just, and a canny realism about approaching it. This is certainly something to be celebrated on the anniversary of our independence. Paine, Jefferson, and Douglass all reminded us that to be American is to love freedom and justice, and deeply respect the beliefs, principles, and actions needed to preserve both. If infallibility is not to be found in common consensus or a text, it is to be found in the unceasing obligation to protect and preserve what is right, true, free, and just.