Thursday, July 30, 2015

Common Sense, Part XI: Preaching to the Choir

Having provided a rather more exhaustive than intended rundown of some of the various concise and plainly logical arguments Thomas Paine deployed across all four sections of Common Sense, I’d like to turn now to another very important element of his rhetorical voice. Piety is that to which I refer, expression of which are sprinkled throughout Paine’s carefully plotted assertions. Indeed, I should say Protestant piety; Paine seemed more than willing to aim the occasional jab in the direction of the Catholic Church and its adherents. The shape said expressions took were many and varied; some as simple as a use of the word “God” rather than terms like “Providence” or “Nature,” commonly favored by followers of the intellectual Enlightenment. In other instances Paine compared his fellow American colonists to the Israelites – a chosen people best by suffering – made reference to concepts rooted in the Old Testament of the Bible like original sin, and showed a general admission to foundational Protestant beliefs like predestination, original sin, and millenarianism. These explicitly religious allusions, like his use of plain language and tendency to avoid abstractions, set Paine apart from most of his revolutionary contemporaries.

Though it would quite simply be untrue to claim that any member of the Founding Generation was a confessed or event latent atheist – they all believed in the existence of a deity in some form or another – as a group they tended not to express their faith in a particularly reverent or public fashion. In no small part because many of them were members of denominations that had suffered persecution under the Anglican Establishment in Britain, including Puritans, Quakers, and Roman Catholics, and/or were followers of the philosophical Enlightenment, they more often than not supported religious freedom, believed in a customary separation between the public sphere of government and the private sphere of faith, and generally avoided unambiguously invoking God or quoting scripture in their published or spoken rhetoric. To that end, instances abound of men like Thomas Jefferson, John Jay or Alexander Hamilton using vague terms like the aforementioned Providence when referring to, say, a circumstance or opportunity that a more conventionally religious person might describe as “God-given.”

Similarly, use of the term “nature” as a way to describe an ill-defined, non-personified creator/regulator of human existence was frequent among those who either considered themselves Deists or who were sympathetic to or influenced by Deist ideas. Jefferson, for instance, referred in the introduction of the Declaration of Independence to, “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Noteworthy here is the difference between using the term God on its own, which Jefferson avoided, and the phrase “Nature’s God,” which implies a fundamentally different relationship between the creator and its creation. A noted religious skeptic whose faith became at times a cause for criticism and suspicion among the American public, Jefferson, like many men of the Founding Generation, regarded the supreme being as a distant, theoretical construct who did not act in the world of human affairs, and whose role in the universe was limited to creation itself. Human existence, Jefferson believed, was best understood by studying history, philosophy, and logic, and by developing an appreciation for the basic physical laws of the universe (nature, if you like). Thus “Nature’s God” was not the activist deity recognized by most Christian denominations but rather a kind of engineer who, after creating the world and its inhabitants, set life in motion and allowed things to play out as they had been designed to.

Not every member of the Founding Generation, it’s worth noting, shared Jefferson’s or Benjamin Franklin’s (another noted pseudo-Deist) thoroughgoing skepticism in relation to conventional religious doctrine and practice. Though his later written work indicate a generally skeptical religious outlook, George Washington served during his career in colonial Virginia politics as vestryman and church warden in two parishes near his home. Charles Carol of Carrollton, delegate to the Continental Congress from Maryland, was a practising Roman Catholic whose faith barred him from holding office in his home colony, while John Witherspoon, delegate from New Jersey, was a Presbyterian minister and president of what would become Princeton University. What these men shared with their less-devout compatriots, however, was a generally academic, rational, and at-times philosophical outlook on matters of faith. Thomas Paine, as some of his later works would show, was most certainly of this opinion himself. Indeed, he was perhaps even more of a religious radical than Jefferson, who is known to have created an edited version of the Bible by extracting all mentions of miracles or the supernatural. As his controversial 1794 pamphlet The Age of Reason made clear, Paine regarded organized religion as hopelessly corrupt, the Bible as literature rather than revelation, and reason as the true foundation of human knowledge. As aforementioned, however, the voice Paine put forward in Common Sense displays a profoundly orthodox religious sensibility. Though seemingly at odds with his own beliefs, as well as those of the majority of his contemporaries, the pietistic tone that punctuates numerous sections of said pamphlet doubtless aligned with the deeply felt and highly personal religious character of the average colonial American.

The reason for the particularly devout nature of the colonial American population of the 1770s, excepting the more academic piety of the political and social elites, has to do with the long-term effects a series of events commonly referred to by historians as the First Great Awakening (approx. 1730-1750). An international Protestant religious revival, the Awakening began among English congregations in places like London and Bristol as a reaction to the charismatic, emotionally-charged preaching of men like George Whitefield and brothers John & Charles Wesley (between them the founders of the Methodist faith). Upon Whitefield’s arrival in the American colonies in the late 1730s he joined Massachusetts native and Puritan preacher Johnathan Edwards in delivering a series of extremely influential sermons, usually out-of-doors, in public spaces, and before large crowds, which proved extraordinarily popular and helped fundamentally reshape the American religious landscape. Edwards, educated in the Calvinist traditions of the Massachusetts Puritans, nevertheless endorsed a vision of the ideal relationship between God and the believer as very activist and immediate. Disdaining the traditional mediatory role filled by the orthodox clergy, he encouraged distrust among his audiences for self-proclaimed religious authorities and claimed that true revelation was highly personal in nature. To this revivalist foundation Whitefield added a rejection of standard Calvinist narratives of predestination (that some were simply destined for salvation from birth) and damnation, preaching that a person could save themselves by repenting their sins and wholeheartedly accepting the teachings of Christ.

Though criticized by many among the colonies’ established church hierarchies, notably resulting in a split in New England between traditionalist Old Lights and the reformist New Lights, the techniques employed by Edwards and Whitefield proved astonishingly effective at increasing church attendance and membership, and encouraged scores of spontaneous conversions. Countless preachers followed in their footsteps and helped spread the revivalist zeal of the Awakening to the backcountry regions of the Middle colonies (Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey), the Tidewater and Low Country of the South, and to a significant portion of the millions of enslaved Africans toiling on plantations in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Indeed, the first Black churches in North America were founded during the years of the Great Awakening, acting as powerful forces for social cohesion and literacy among an otherwise severely disadvantaged population. Thereafter, Americans who had participated in religious revivals and who formed the nucleus of a score of newly-established Evangelical congregations came to view their faith in much more personal, emotional terms than their forbearers. Biblical literacy was widely encouraged, helping decentralize religious knowledge, and church attendance evolved into a much more active endeavour than in generations prior. One of the results of these developments was that, by the 1770s, Americans were among the most devout populations in the Western world; their sense of religious conviction was generally very personal, emotional, and introspective, and they tended to place a great deal of value in concepts like salvation and morality.

It was these kinds of convictions that Thomas Paine attempted to tap into over the course of Common Sense. By repeatedly invoking the name of God in a way that most revolutionary polemicist avoided, and by drawing upon his prospective audience’s personal connection to a variety of spiritual concepts, he sought to cast the burgeoning Revolution as an event with profound religious significance and independence as the fulfilment of a sanctified order. Examples thereof are generally less common than Paine’s use of plain reasoning or realpolitik arguments, though their recurrence across the length of Common Sense nonetheless lends a strong sense of tonal continuity. Keeping in mind that the previous ten posts provide a fairly thorough overview of all four sections of Common Sense and a great many of the arguments Paine deployed throughout, the discussion that follows will encompass an accordingly brief rundown of the various ways he laced said arguments with distinctly religious rhetoric.

As mentioned in weeks (nay, months) passed, members of the Founding Generation tended to be rather stingy with explicit invocations of God, particularly when compared to subsequent cohorts of American statesmen. Indeed, I recall (or just pulled up a second ago and re-read) that a sampling the State of the Union Addresses of the first three Presidents, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, turns up uses of the word Providence in nine out of twenty documents while the word God is completely absent. Paine’s Common Sense is comparatively rich with the latter, in fact reversing the ratio exactly (nine God to zero Providence) within a single document. Because they are so few I feel it worthwhile to identify each of them in turn rather than attempt a general summary as to their varied context.

The first is located in the twenty-first paragraph of the first section, wherein Paine argued that the power held by the British monarch was inherently dangerous. Said power, “could not be the gift of a wise people,” he wrote, and, “neither can any power, which needs checking, be from God.” In this case the Almighty was invoked in their traditional political role as the fountainhead from which all just authority flowed. A people whose self-identified relationship with God tended to be, as aforementioned, very personal, his American readers would no doubt had followed Paine’s lead and questioned the right of a British monarch to claim derivation of power from a divine source, the implication thereof being the existence of an exclusive relationship. All people, the First Great Awakening had led them to understand, were fundamentally equal in the eyes of the Lord; only their actions could determine their worth, the role they were to fulfill in live, and their fitness for salvation. The very essence of European-style monarchy, Paine reminded them, denied this commonly-held truth and was thus inherently invalid (if not outright blasphemous).  

The next two uses of the word God can be found in paragraph nine of section two during a lengthy discussion of the origins of monarchy among the ancient Israelites. Without going into great detail as to the nature and content of the explicit Old Testament references he therein unfolded it will suffice to say that Paine made use of the word God in describing David, the second King of Israel, as less a leader whose authority was directly derived from a divine source than as, “a man after God’s own heart.” Again, the personal nature of faith is what Paine seemed intent on drawing attention to; David was not a wise and just king (as he is often described) because he enjoyed God’s special favor, but because he personally aspired to it. This would necessarily seem to disqualify later monarchs, those presumably following in the tradition of David, who claimed a divine right to authority regardless of the un-Godly ways in which they often conducted themselves. God, Paine implied, did not favor kings outright so much as he favored those who favored him. The second use of the word God in paragraph nine appears to corroborate this idea. Having realized their folly in asking the prophet Samuel to appoint a king for them once the Lord had made clear his displeasure, the Israelites begged, “Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God that we die not, for WE HAVE ADDED UNTO OUR SINS THIS EVIL, TO ASK A KING.” God, Paine pointed out, was opposed to the very idea of kingship; those that favored it suffered his wrath, thunder and rain in a time of harvest, and were forced to beg his forgiveness. Described thus, Paine established God unambiguously against monarchy and the people foolishly and regretfully in favor. Being, again, a people whose relationship with the divine was very deeply and very personally felt (not unlike that of the Israelites themselves), this account of the ancient origins of monarchy doubtless struck many Americans – confronted at that moment in their history with either preserving monarchy or abandoning it – as a distressingly immediate cautionary tale.

At the end of section two of Common Sense Paine himself clearer still as to the adversarial relationship between God and monarchy in paragraph twenty-one of section two, stating, “'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.” There was likely little need to provide evidence as to the latter clause; monarchy, and often the succession thereto, had been cause for conflict among European states for centuries as of the 1770s. The Seven Years War, still very much in living memory, doubtless stood as a particularly vibrant example in the minds of colonial Americans of the kind of bloodshed competition between monarchies could, and did, engender. This, Paine intimated, was contrary to God’s will; if he approved of kingship he would not continually punish mankind by visiting the bloodiest kind of warfare so often upon monarchies. Paine further claimed in paragraph twenty-four of the same section, “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” Notwithstanding his characteristically casual dismissal of monarchs as “crowned ruffians,” this statement attests yet again to the importance Paine attached, or rather that he perceived colonial Americans attached, to personal morality and personal virtue “in the sight of God.” To their thinking, value in the eyes of the Almighty – fitness for salvation – derived from acting and living well, in this case by being honest. Conversely, the Western European tradition of monarchy had come to understand rulers as ordained by God outright, regardless of how they behaved in life. It would seem to have been Paine’s hope that the deep-seated religious sensibilities of his audience would lead them to a consequent rejection monarchy as a concept and of the British monarchy in particular.

The following two invocations of the word God in Common Sense would seem to be somewhat more casual than most of those that preceded them. One, in paragraph twenty-six of section three, can be found amidst a lament by Paine of the apparent pointlessness of petitioning for reconciliation with a monarch who seemed only to grow more obstinate. “Wherefore,” he wrote, seeming to rhetorically throw up his hands, “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 and unmeaning names of parent and child.” Though this would appear to be an exhortation informally tossed off as so many of us would do in casual conversation, I submit that there was virtually nothing about Paine’s approach in Common Sense that was truly either informal or casual. Taken literally, this sentence declared that the independence of the Thirteen Colonies from British authority should have been accomplished for the sake of God; that is to say, because God desired it, because it would have fulfilled his purpose, or because it was in his interest. Thus, American independence, as Paine characterized it, would have fulfilled God’s purpose, or at the very least avoided an outcome that displeased him (i.e. war between “parent and child,” Britain and the Colonies). Having arrived over the course of the mid-18th century at a general understanding of their faith as deeply personal, highly internalized, and concerned with self-improvement, morality, and personal salvation, Paine’s fellow colonists likely would not have passed their eyes over the phrase “for God’s sake” as lightly as a modern reader. Told that a potential outcome was for the sake of God, they doubtless would have seriously considered its implications and weighed for themselves where they stood on the matter. This, I think it fair to say, is exactly what Paine intended.

The next seemingly casual use of the word God in Common Sense is located at the end of paragraph forty-seven of section three. Said paragraph, and the three that precede it, concern themselves with Paine’s proposed outline for a formal national government to effectively replace the Continental Congress, and an accompanying constitutional convention. Having provided a basic rundown of how said government could be organized, how a “Charter of the United Colonies” could be arrived at, and what sort of matters needed to be discussed in the process, Paine concluded,

Immediately after which, the said Conference to dissolve, and the bodies of which shall be chosen comformable to the said charter, to be the legislators and governors of this continent for the time being: Whose peace and happiness, may God preserve, Amen.

By capping his proposed framework of a united American government thusly, Paine seemed almost to transform it into a kind of sermon. Just as a priest would bless his congregation at the end of a homily, in effect also offering benediction to the shared experience of church attendance, Paine blessed both the officers of his proposed national government in their endeavor, as well as the effort that would potentially bring said government into being. This apparent fusion of a republican vision of self-government with the spiritual weight of sanctified oration was likely intended to co-opt the significance of the latter on behalf of the former. If Paine’s fellow colonists could come to experience membership in a shared political community – transcending local or even state loyalties – with the same emotional, personal, or moral resonance as they did membership in the spiritual community that is a church congregation, American independence could have been ensured of a solid social foundation.

Further evidence of Paine’s attempt to combine the political and spiritual in a prospective independent American republic comprises his final use of the word God in Common Sense, found in the fiftieth paragraph of section three. Addressing potential criticism of post-independence America’s lack of a king, Paine declared, in what seems a fit of nose-thumbing pique, “let a day be set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve as monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING.” Putting aside the tremendous spectacle that this description calls to mind, it’s enormously significant that Paine advised the theoretical national charter to be crowned be placed upon “the word of God” before the deed was done. In that action the “divine law” and man’s law would literally touch, a constitution resting atop, presumably, a Bible, together to be declared the sole sovereign of the American people. Apparently content to throw subtlety out the window, Paine thus provided his audience with a vivid visual metaphor of the relationship he envisioned between law and liturgy in the nation they all stood on the cusp of forming. Going a bit farther, perhaps unnecessarily, I might even call attention to the arrangement of the two constituent elements: on the bottom, the Bible, providing a sound spiritual and moral bedrock for the new nation; on top, the constitution, a clearly written expression of the customs and norms of a free people, buttressed by the weight of the sacred knowledge that rests beneath it. A more powerful, and for countless American colonist in 1776 a more appealing, image of what an independent America could have been I defy anyone to locate. Though I again remind my own readers that Thomas Paine was himself a radical religious skeptic, his grasp of the spiritual sensibilities of his fellow colonists was arguably unparalleled and was put, over the course of Common Sense, to expert use.   

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