Though Paine’s use, in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, of the word “God” rather than “Providence” or “Nature” is one of the more obvious ways he appealed to the spiritual sensibilities of his fellow American colonists, it is far from the only rhetorical technique he employed to that end. Over the course of said document’s four sections Paine made numerous references to various aspects of Protestant, or more broadly Christian, religion that delved much deeper into some of the more esoteric aspects of that faith than a simple invocation of the colloquial name for the Christian deity ever could. Among these more complex allusions the Old Testament figured prominently, as did suggestions of concepts like predestination (a staple of Calvinism) and original sin, along with the occasional jab at Catholicism and its adherents. While making use of the word God, in the proper context, was likely intended by Paine to appeal to the emotional side of his fellow colonists’ deep-seated faith, these more complex religious references were doubtless intended to tap into the strain of Biblical literacy that the Great Awakening had ingrained in generations of colonial Americans. By pointing to a particular passage in the Bible, or by shaping his arguments so as to suggest a similarity between Old Testament and American history, Paine attempted to tweak his audience’s knowledge of their own faith and its history to his advantage. At the same time he doubtless tried to demonstrate the depth of his own spiritual knowledge as a means of engendering trust between himself and his readers, thereby increasingly the likelihood of their accepting the validity of what he had to say.
A prominent, if not the most prominent, example of Paine drawing upon specific aspects of Christian history and theology in order to buttress his arguments in Common Sense can be found in paragraphs four through nine of section two. A somewhat lengthy digression into the aforementioned origins of monarchy in the history of the Israelites, these passages speak extensively of the prophet Samuel, the Judge Gideon, reference the governing structure of the ancient Jewish tribes, and juxtapose the allure felt by man for the prestige of being ruled over by an earthly king with the righteousness and humility inherent in acknowledging no other monarch than the Lord. Short of simply transcribing all that Paine had to say on these subjects, it will suffice to mention a few of the themes and some of the key terms he evidently deemed it important to discuss.
“Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom,” is how Paine tellingly began this segment. “It was,” he continued, “the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.” The equivalence drawn by Paine between monarchy and idolatry – the effective substitution of a mortal sovereign in place of God – is common throughout this particular discussion in Common Sense. At the same time it seemed he was keen on dismantling the accepted traditions of monarchy from the point of few of logic and reason, discussed in weeks past, he was also keen to establish the inherently impious nature of kingship among a people who claimed membership in the Christian faith. Also worth making note of is Paine’s use in paragraph four alone of the terms “heathen” twice, along with “the Devil,” “children of Israel,” “idolatry,” “Christian,” “divine,” “impious” and “sacred.” In terms of vocabulary alone it seems he was intent on catching the eye of his audience, as well as making himself quite clear as to the nature of the discussion about to take place.
The following paragraph, the fifth of section two, follows a similar pattern. In it he explained in no uncertain terms that, “the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings.” In passages such as these Paine’s intention of arraying God’s will, as communicated through the prophets of the Old Testament, against support for contemporary 18th-century monarchy seems exceptionally clear. Somewhat more subtle, though hardly hidden, are his comparisons of the American colonists with the ancient Israelites and the British with the ancient Romans. When Paine wrote,
All anti-monarchical parts of scripture have been very smoothly glossed over in monarchical governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries which have their governments yet to form [,]
It would no doubt appear that he was referring plainly enough to the American colonies and the British monarchy, respectively. As later sections of Common Sense would make clear, Paine was of the belief that a united American government was both possible and desirable, and likely thought it prudent to seed the idea early on in his all-encompassing pro-independence pamphlet that monarchy was a morally-indefensible basis on which to build.
He followed this claim, however, with a declaration that though, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” was the doctrine embraced by royal courts, this was in fact not an argument in favor of the ancient origins of monarchy, “for the Jews at that time were without a king, and in a state of vassalage to the Romans.” Though this constituted a literal refutation of the conception that ancient Roman authority over Judea was monarchical in nature, the implication of this point of logic was intended by Paine to be somewhat more immediate. Though Britain, like the Roman Empire of antiquity, might claim absolute sovereignty over the American colonies, it implied, said colonists were not required to acknowledge the same. Like the Israelites of old the colonists did not possess monarchical governments, and in fact their relationship with Britain was more akin to subjugated vassalage than willing acquiescence. However at odds this characterization might have been with the reality of the colonies’ relationship with the British monarchy (i.e. it was), Paine’s identification of the plight of his fellow colonists with that of the Israelites of the Old Testament undoubtedly seemed a powerful one to his Biblically literate readership. More than once he would invoke said identification over the course of Common Sense, hoping perhaps to ingrain in his audience the supposedly ancient precedents for the struggle in which they found themselves and the exceptional role in coming events that they were capable of playing.
Paragraph six of section two elaborates further on what Paine perceived to be the acute similarities between the ancient Israelites and his fellow American colonists at the same time it reinforces the supposed disdain with which the Almighty was said to regard the concept of monarchy. After three thousand years had passed following the time of Moses, Paine explained therein, the Jews chose to ignore the will of God and requested their leadership grant them a king. This represented a break with established tradition, for the Children of Israel had, except in “extraordinary cases, where the Almighty interposed,” governed themselves via what Paine described as a form of republic, “administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes.” “Kings they had none,” he made sure to emphasize, “and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts.” Upon a cursory evaluation the parallels Paine seemed intent on drawing appear rather obvious. The Israelites, a people allegedly chosen by God, enjoyed three millennia of proto-republican self-government whose end came, not at the tip of an invader’s sword but as a consequence of their own poor and impious judgement in embracing monarchy. It would seem doubtful to me that a reasonably pious American colonist in 1776 could read as much in Common Sense and not be put immediately in mind of their present situation. It was, I would add, particularly astute of Paine to note that the Israelites brought the supposed “sin” of monarchy upon themselves. This admission of agency, that he ancient Hebrews were in control of their own fate and yet chose poorly, was doubtless intended to remind Paine’s fellow colonists that they too were in a position to choose for themselves whether to continue supporting monarchy or discard it altogether.
Indeed, Paine’s discussion of the ancient origins of kingship among the Israelites seems structured in such a way as to remind citizens of the Thirteen Colonies, poised in January, 1776 on a fundamental tipping point in world history, not to repeat the mistakes of their ancient counterparts. As a people who had governed themselves in a republican fashion the Hebrews, Paine noted, were worthy of exemplification. Their failure, as he characterized it their essential moral downfall, stemmed from their disregard for the prerogatives of God. After being led by Gideon to throw off the oppression of the Midianites, he related in paragraph eight of section two, the Children of Israel, “proposed making him a king, saying, Rule thou over us, thou and they son and they son’s son.” This, Paine had earlier related, was partially a consequence of the Israelites wishing to imitate the style and prestige of government as practised by many of their neighbors. Essentially they, a chosen people, had wished to be more like those who did not enjoy God’s favor. Gideon, fortunately, was a pious man, and his reply is where Paine seemed intent on laying the greatest emphasis. “I will not rule over you,” he quoted the great lawmaker and general as saying, “Neither shall my son rule over you. THE LORD SHALL RULE OVER YOU.” While the basic circumstances of this ancient scenario are not all that similar to those in which the population of the Thirteen Colonies found themselves in early 1776 – they had for generations acknowledged the primacy of the British Crown and were just now in a position to question its legitimacy – the moral injunction that Gideon delivered to his people no doubt rang as true to Paine’s highly pious audience as it had in Biblical antiquity.
Paine repeated similar entreaties, to the primacy of God over mortal kings as well as the folly of the Israelites desiring a king in imitation of others, in paragraph nine. As Gideon, he related to his audience, had rejected an offer of kingship following his defeat of their enemies, so too did the Prophet Samuel attempt to defer a request that he choose a king for the Israelites on the grounds that it was a slight against the dignity of God. Having petitioned the Almighty as to how to proceed, Samuel was supposedly answered by the Lord, “Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee, for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, THAT I SHOULD NOT REIGN OVER THEM.” The implication of this passage would seem to be, as no doubt Paine intended, that any people who favored an earthly monarch over the monarchy of Heaven were guilty of having rejected the authority of God. Again, this kind of argument could not have but struck the average, church-going, Bible-reading, 18th-century American as a powerful moral condemnation of the continued recognition of monarchy in general and the British Crown in particular.
Similarly impactful, or so Paine surely hoped, was his comment that by seeking a king for themselves the ancient Israelites had wished, “they might be like unto other nations, i. e. the Heathens, whereas their true glory laid in being as much unlike them as possible.” This sense of “unalikeness” that the Children of Israel had rejected is what Paine seemed intent on calling to the attention of his audience. Independence, and the concomitant rejection of monarchy, would indeed make Americans unalike from the great majority of the world’s population in the late 1770s. Lacking a king, they might face isolation, resistance to requests for bilateral trade, or even outright rejection of any kind of diplomatic relationship. Yet, he was keen to assert in the case of the Israelites, there was glory in being exceptional, particularly when it aligned with God’s oft-stated will. Americans were poised, not to move from republic to monarchy as the ancient Hebrews had foolishly done, but from monarchy to republic. This, Paine had repeatedly argued, was in keeping with the Lord’s express desire.
Indeed, he was careful to assert that it was not necessarily his own opinion he was arguing in favor of, but God’s as expressed through the sacred texts that formed the liturgical core of Christianity. “There portions of scripture,” he reminded his audience at the end of paragraph nine of section two, “are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, of the scripture is false.” Having rendered this powerful ultimatum Paine thus lent a tremendous rhetorical weight to his case for independence and against monarchy. The Bible and its reading held a special place in the spiritual lives of Protestant worshippers, and quotations thereof would of necessity have been taken seriously by any who considered themselves faithful members of the Christian community. Consequently, by populating his arguments with Biblical meditations Paine elevated the status of his pro-independence pamphlet from that of a potentially amusing curiosity from the pen of a radical commoner to a conduit for the sacred knowledge countless post-Awakening Americans had come to know and revere in their own lives; the very word of God.
Before I move on to a discussion of some of the more abstract spiritual concepts Paine alluded to at various points over the course of Common Sense I’d like to wrap up this post by taking note of two more references to the Old Testament of the Bible he made use of in section three of the same. Unlike the lengthy discussion concerning the origins of monarchy among the Israelites that dominates section two, said references were quite brief, informal, and seemingly off-the-cuff. Indeed, one might be tempted to gloss over them entirely as mere casual turns-of-phrase from an author accustomed to speaking in a rather pious voice. This was, of course, not the case. As mentioned previously, Paine was a thoroughgoing religious skeptic. The Bible, at the centre of the spiritual lives of many of his fellow American colonists, by his own admission held for him no particular inherent value. Consequently, even a seemingly casual mention of God, Satan, sin or salvation made by Paine must be regarded as highly significant.
The first is found near the end of the thirty-second paragraph of section three. Therein, Paine discussed what he regarded as the imbalance between the costs his fellow colonists had already paid during their conflict with Britain in terms of vital resources, money, and lives, and the actual value of a reconciliation and resulting return to the status quo. As mentioned previously, he expressed at one point his former sympathy for those in favor of a peaceful return to the traditional relationship between the Crown and the colonies. “No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself,” he wrote, “But the moment the event of [the 19th of April, 1775] was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever.” A fairly unambiguous allusion to the Pharaoh of Egypt in the Old Testament story of Moses, this was a convenient and no doubt effective shorthand by which Paine could reinforce the roles he had previously established for the British monarchy and the colonies, respectively.
In said story, chronicling the flight of the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs (one who enslaves the Israelites and one who attempts halt their exodus) are undeniably the villains. The Israelites, a chosen people, suffered at the hands of these cruel, arrogant oppressors, and their deliverance arrives as a result of their possessing something that the Pharaohs lack; faith in the one true God. By referring to George III as “Pharaoh,” Paine thus suggested that the citizens of colonial America were the 18th-century equivalent of the Children of Israel; oppressed, cruelly mistreated, but ultimately destined for deliverance. Such a rhetorical construction admits of little nuance. The Pharaohs were not tragic, misunderstood villains, and the Jews were not morally ambiguous anti-heroes. If the King of England were thus a latter-day Pharaoh, he was unequivocally evil; if the Americans were the 18th-century secular counterparts of the ancient Israelites, they were God’s own children. At the same time that this scenario almost certainly sought to tweak the deep-seated religious and moral understanding of the 18th-century American public in order to engender a sense of confidence between Paine and his readers, it likely also attempted to force the undecided to cast aside any lingering sentiments vis-à-vis the British Crown. The conflict between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies was not, Paine appeared to argue, a complex, multi-faceted affair for which there was no simple solution. It was rather a choice between good and evil, oppression and freedom, the Pharaoh and the enslaved Children of Israel.
The second, and last, of Paine’s Biblical allusions I’d like to shine a light on occurs at the end of the forty-fourth paragraph of section three. After having laid out a loose framework for a theoretical national American government to replace the Continental Congress, Paine concluded by stating, “He that will promote discord, under a government so equally formed as this, would have joined Lucifer in his revolt.” Taken literally this would seem to indicate that Paine believed opposing or attempting to obstruct the operation of a government on the pattern he described would be tantamount or morally equivalent to rebelling against God. A concomitant assumption that might flow from this statement would be that said government, or the general principles behind it, or the virtue of the people who supported it, were in some sense specially ordained or blessed by God. Once again, a rhetorical construction such as this leaves little room for equivocation. Granted, a prospective reader could very well have disagreed with Paine’s assessment; perhaps they might have felt invoking God’s favor in order to promote a political enterprise was impious, manipulative or opportunistic. That Paine seemed to speak the language of the Protestant faithful, however, likely made his arguments difficult to simply ignore. Whether they agreed or disagreed with his unambiguously-expressed political sympathies it would likely not have escaped the notice of most readers in 1776 that the author of Common Sense had gone to significant lengths to demonstrate a knowledge of Christian history and theology and a clear reverence for God. Consequently a claim put forward by said author that an independent, politically united America was indeed blessed by God would have likely been difficult to dismiss out of hand. In that sense, even if a significant portion of his readership decided against him, Paine had at least succeeded in using expressions of mainstream Protestant piety to grab hold of his audience’s attention and thereby increase the likelihood of Common Sense achieving the effect he desired.