Tom’s Paine: Letter from America – The Present Copies the Past

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From Brexit to ISIS to the rise of nationalism in Europe, not to mention Donald Trump and the chaotic recent American election campaign, it is easy to get the impression that the international order is coming apart at the seams.  To a certain extent it is, although what we are facing today is more of a matter of digesting globalization than calling for revolution.  At moments like this, it’s worth recalling the situation the world faced two and a half centuries ago when Britain tried unsuccessfully to cope with a revolt in its 13 North American colonies, and European feudal aristocracies were about to be shaken by the turbulent ideas of the French Revolution and the conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte that followed.

In North America, the man who clarified the confusion of the moment was a former British excise officer, Thomas Paine, who on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, sailed for Philadelphia in 1775.  Paine became editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, and writing under the pseudonym, Republicus, argued that the distraught colonies should band together to form one nation. “We cannot offer terms of peace to Great Britain,” he reasoned, ”until we agree to call ourselves by some name. I shall rejoice to hear the title of the United States of America, in order that we may be on a proper footing to negotiate a peace.”

The clarity of the logic in Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, is credited with forging the soul of America’s War of Independence.  His essay series, The American Crisis, begins: ”These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country, but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

The United States and world at large could use another Tom Paine today. What appears to be chaos is in fact a natural phenomenon in which society redefines itself and adjusts to a larger vision with larger parameters.  In the United States, the issue is the transition to a diverse, multi-ethnic and genuinely global population.  For the first time, Americans who trace their ancestry to western Europe no longer have a political majority.  The surprisingly vocal support for Donald Trump is a rear-guard action by a segment of society that feels it is losing out in the new America that is now taking shape.  The equally passionate support for Bernie Sanders in the primary campaign came from that segment that wants the transition to a new society to take place faster.

Both groups want change, only it is change in opposing directions.  The contentious, no-holds-barred election campaign, has led more than a few potential voters to seek relief from “election anxiety.” But the campaign has also probed the character of each candidate in a way that would have been difficult for any other approach to achieve.  This is what the Founding Fathers decided after they themselves had experienced even more contentious debates.  Machiavelli noted that when a crisis forces a society to reassess and reaffirm its values, it can provide unexpected benefits. As one woman, who had originally supported Trump, put it: “I want change, but I don’t think I want that kind of change.”

The real elephant in the room is the economy, that and technological disruption.  Globalization, which was pushed largely by private business in the interest of cutting labor costs, has done more to accelerate development in the Third World than decades of international aid programmes. It has also displaced hundreds of thousands of jobs in highly industrialized countries, but given the inevitability of automation, climate change and over-population, those jobs were doomed in any case.  The era of mass factory employment in which workers are imprisoned in endlessly repetitive, mindless tasks is over. What is needed in the world of the future is people who can think and use reason to work through problems. That requires an increased investment in education.  More than that, it requires government leadership. If you want to lead society through wrenching change,” a former Swedish prime minister once observed,” you need to first make people feel confident in the future.”

The world we’ve inherited is substantially wealthier and better than it was in Paine’s time. Paine became involved in the French Revolution after he had helped the one in America. He had a brief meeting with Napoleon, who claimed that he kept a copy of Common Sense under his pillow. Paine later denounced the self-styled emperor as “the greatest charlatan the world has seen.”  He returned to the US in 1802 at the invitation of Thomas Jefferson. Both he and Jefferson became embroiled in partisan politics that might have made even Donald Trump blush. Our debt to these men is nevertheless substantial.  Here at Global Geneva, we intend to contribute a regular column. It’s name, fitting enough: Tom’s Paine.


Americas editor William Dowell, is a journalist, author and former foreign correspondent for TIME and ABC News.

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