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January 10: Thomas Paine Publishes "Common Sense"

Thomas Paine Publishes "Common Sense" (1776)

The pamphlet called "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine

It was on this date, January 10, 1776, that an anonymous pamphlet called "Common Sense" was published in the American colonies, authored by English-born citizen Thomas Paine. It became so popular that Paine himself was often called "Common Sense." In effect, Thomas Paine, a Deist who denied the divinity but not the morality of Jesus, made a declaration of independence before Jefferson ever put those words on paper. Speaking of America, Paine wrote,

For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is. ... A government of our own is our natural right...

More important to freethinkers is that "Common Sense" argues against the prevailing concept of the divine right of kings — that monarchs derive their authority from God, rather than from the people. Divine right meant that criticism of the king was a repudiation of God, and regicide, the killing of a king, or revolution, the removal of a king, were a grave offenses because they opposed the will of God. Paine wrote,

But there is another and greater distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is, the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth enquiring into ....

England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones; yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. — It certainly hath no divinity in it. ...

Did it ensure a race of good and wise men it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. ...

Another evil which attends hereditary succession is, that the throne is subject to be possessed by a minor at any age; all which time the regency, acting under the cover of a king, have every opportunity and inducement to betray their trust. ...

All modern histories tell us the divine right concept is "no longer believed in," yet monarchy has a romantic attractiveness: to any girl who wishes she were a princess, any boy who believes himself special by accident of birth, any man or woman who dreams in terms of films and stories based in kingdoms. Harmless fantasy, perhaps. But when democratic leaders are treated as more valuable in their persons than the in office they hold at the pleasure of the people, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of democracy. Memory is short if history is not honestly taught: there are no absolute monarchs in modern democracies because, as Paine pointed out, the system is theoretically flawed and morally unsupportable.

Expelling God from government was an Enlightenment idea that made the modern world possible. There is no superior age to one in which democracy — rule of the people — thrives. In our day, that's common sense.

Originally published January 2004.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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January 28: Sarah McLachlan

Sings McLachlan, without reservation, “The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost // Is just somebody's unholy hoax. // If there's one thing I don't believe in // It's you.”

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