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Lecture 4b: Revolution or anarchy

February 18, 2014

This same year, Burke enters the House of Commons as an MP where he is to make his fame. At this time, he begins to take a great interest in the increasingly tense situation in the American colonies. Perhaps in relation to this interest, Burke was one of the foremost proponents of further limits to absolutist, monarchical power. This is not to say that he desired the dissolution of the monarchy. Quite the contrary, he viewed it as having an essential stabilizing role in society. Nonetheless, he advocated the increased importance of opposition political parties as checks on the powers of the monarchy or forces within the government. This comes out particularly in his speeches to Parliament of 1774 and 1775 in which he presses for reconciliation with the American colonies. Arguing that the American colonists should have some role in deciding their own system of taxation, Burke further maintains that, as Englishmen, these colonists have acquired the taste of certain natural rights due to them as citizens and that they will not easily give up that freedom when faced with the decision between liberty and bondage (slavery). In light of the colonies’ growing population, industry and wealth, Burke judged reconciliation the more prudent course of action.

It is here that Paine and Burke’s stories first cross paths. Paine (1737-1809) is born in Norfolk and attends grammar school in Thetford. He was not an exceptional student, and so, at the age of 13, he becomes an apprentice to his father, a corsetmaker. Being no more brilliant here, he eventually becomes an agent within a trade office and moves to the Sussex town of Lewes, a city with a long history of revolutionary activity (Bonfire Night). Here, he becomes a member of the city council and in 1772 joins other excise officers in petitioning Parliament for better pay and working conditions. 1774 sees him fired from his job and the failure of his tobacco shop. In order to escape debtor’s prison, he sells his household possessions. Faced with further trouble from the British government over his revolutionary discourse, he relocates to London and there meets Benjamin Franklin, who convinces him to emigrate to the American colonies. He arrives that same year in Philadelphia. The revolution begins the year afterwards with the shots at Concord, and Paine lends his support to the revolutionary cause. Although familiar with and appreciative of Burke’s speeches in favor of reconciliation, Paine considers this path a lost cause and devotes himself to the publication of a series of pamphlets Common Sense. The first of these appears in January 1776 and lays the blame for corruption squarely at the feet of King George III. The only path forward is that of separation and independence. 

Paine’s Common Sense proves an extraordinary success. Among the two million free American colonists, some five hundred thousand copies are produced both legally and illegally. What accounts for this enormous success? On the one hand, Paine writes in a rather plain language. On the other, he draws in large part on a central insight of the Scottish Enlightenment: humans are endowed with a certain common sense that enables the average individual to make (relatively) informed political decisions and that this commonly available knowledge or sense is, as per the general belief of the Enlightenment, sufficient to challenged and overturn traditional, conventional structures of government and power, previously unjustified. Finally, Paine sketches a captivating image of the situation of the American colonies: the best way forward for the colonies is a complete break with history, the embrace of a civic republican form of government (democratic participationism), and the best choice is an immediate step forward. This push, combined with the movement towards public discussion of independence, constitute the great appeal of Common Sense

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