As a prominent liberal of his time and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Thomas Paine was bound to find himself in disagreement with the British conservatives. This opposition, however, did not discourage him in the slightest – if anything, Paine (1994) reveled at dismantling conservative arguments. Common Sense, which is arguable the most famous of his works, may serve as an excellent example. Using the concept of natural rights, Deism, and titular common sense, he thoroughly rebuked the arguments in defense of the British constitution and the continued monarchical dominance over America.
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One common line of argument that the conservatives of the time put forth to reinforce their political agendas was the deference to precedent. Given the extreme importance of precedence in common law, this approach may be fairly understandable, but Paine (1994) refused to acknowledge it as a sound example of political rhetoric. First and foremost, he ridiculed the idea of a precedent as an argument sufficient in and of itself. As the American thinker noted, it would be absurd o judge that a child, having been nursed on milk for several years, should be forced to consume nothing but milk for the following years (Paine, 1994).
Moreover, apart from highlighting the insufficiency of precedent on its own, Paine (1994) also offered a viable alternative. Instead of deferring to precedent, he argued for the cause of American colonies on the basis of natural rights (Clayes, 2020). The idea of people having inalienable rights by virtue of being human was a staple of liberal political thought since Locke’s Treatises of Government and certainly cast a shadow of doubt upon precedent-based thinking. By adopting it, Paine gained a powerful weapon against conservative arguments.
Closely related to his criticism of precedent was Paine’s uncompromising approach to the doctrine of the divine right of kings. According to the conservative thinking of the time, one of the principal justifications for the monarchy was the presumed fact that it was sanctioned by God and, therefore, not to be broken by people. Paine (1994) refuted this idea on a scriptural basis by pointing out that, according to the Bible, ancient Israelites originally and no monarchs and adopted this practice by imitating the neighboring idolaters. Thus, he beat the conservatives with their own weapons by showcasing that the very source they sought to justify monarchy through painted it as heathen rather than Christian.
However, the American thinker did not limit himself to the purely Biblical criticism of the divine right doctrine. An important thing to understand here is the fact that Paine was influenced by Deism – “a belief in a God who is known to us not through scripture, but through reason” (Hodgson, 2018, p. 47). As such, he maintained that the exercise of human rationality rather than the mere reading of the Bible was the best way to judge any claims involving divinity.
To that end, he offered to explore the well-known historical origins of the British royal family in the Norman conquest of England. In plain language, Paine (1994) proclaimed that a “French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives” mas very little divinity (para. 43). As Paine (1994) suggests, no reasonable person would assume that the right of conquest forcefully putting some people in servitude to others could be sanctioned by a benevolent God. Hence, the idea of the divine right of kings was as hollow as the rest of the conservative notions he criticized.
Apart from the general conservative arguments described above, Paine also rebuked the ones related directly to the revolutionary situation of the Thirteen Colonies. A particular favorite of his was the British conservative notion that the mother country protected the colonies and, therefore, the latter had to stay obedient, if only for the sake of gratitude. To this, Paine (1994) answered that Britain protected the colonies not for their sake but for its own expediency – and, sometimes, in the wars it has itself started. Had it not been for Britain, the colonists would have no reason to fight their French neighbors in the Seven Years’ War, suffering casualties and enduring hardship. With this in mind, Paine dismissed the protection argument as sheer hypocrisy that aimed to praise Britain for essentially dragging the colonies into the empire’s wars, in which they had no stake.
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As one can see, Paine’s criticisms of the conservatives of his time were numerous, varied, and invariably liberal in spirit. When the conservatives stressed the importance of precedent, Paine questioned its applicability and insisted on natural rights instead. If the conservatives argued for the divine right of kings, Paine pointed out that even the Bible itself painted the monarchy as a primarily idolater institution.
Not stopping at that, he also expanded upon the historical origins of the British monarchy specifically to highlight that no rational person would assign divine meaning to forceful and violent subjugation. Finally, when it came to the gratitude for the empire’s military protection, Paine pointed out that it was the protection against the empire’s enemies, with which the colonies had no quarrel. In every case, Paine dismantled the conservative arguments in favor of the existing power structures by applying the liberal principles of natural rights, rationalism, and minimal government intervention.
Clayes, G. (2020). Thomas Paine: Social and political thought [eBook edition]. Routledge. Web.
Hodgson, G. M. (2018). Wrong turnings: How the left got lost. The University of Chicago Press.
Paine, T. (1994). Common sense. Project Gutenberg. Web.