The notion that Socialism is a foreign innovation imported into the United States in the twentieth century is a falsehood which is deeply implanted in the modern American consciousness. We have seen how the Pilgrims and Puritans organized their first colonies on a socialistic basis and that that socialistic structure proved key to their survival in the dangerous early years the two colonies existence.
Let us now finally lay to rest the false narrative of socialism as being un-American by examining the case of American Patriot and revolutionary, Thomas Paine.
Having grown up in New Rochelle, New York–Paine’s home town during the American Revolution–I was exposed to Paine’s writings at an early age and visited Paine’s cottage to see where he penned many of his most famous phrases. I even wrote an early essay on the “Firebrand of the Revolution.”
So I have long been familiar with his life and works. However, until recently I had not grasped the economic aspects of his political ideology. In short, Thomas Paine was not only a Patriot and key figure in the American Revolution, but a Socialist as well.
Thomas Paine was about the closest the Thirteen Colonies had to a professional revolutionary. His pamphlets stirred the American rebels to action and motivated them to stay the course in achieving independence. His stirring calls to action and evocative phrases still resonate today: “These are the times that try men’s souls,” “The Summer Soldier and Sunshine Patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country,” “The harder the conflict, the more glorious t he triumph.”
But in amongst his calls to action in defense of liberty and independence, he also declaimed against organized religion (especially Christianity) and he also had quite a bit to say about equality—social as well as political. Of course, at the time of the Revolution, the Church of England was very much a political creature of both the Crown and the upper classes who ruled both England and America. We forget that it was the dissident Protestant sects in America who were most in favor of separation of Church and State which is enshrined in our Bill of Rights.
The economic aspects of his political philosophy are rarely mentioned in discussions of Thomas Paine today, but they were part of his political philosophy of equality and his ideas about promoting equality are perhaps more relevant today than they were in his day. If all wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, you inevitably end up with an Oligarchy. Economic inequality is the enemy of Democracy. There is no way around that fact.
After the end of the American Revolution Thomas Paine traveled to France to join in the French Revolution The French call for not just Liberty, but Equality and Fraternity had a strong appeal to Paine—and inherent in Equality and Fraternity is the notion of economic democracy.
To be fair and balanced (as it were) we should note the Mr. Paine was well surnamed, for at various times he made himself a royal pain to his fellow revolutionaries, both in the America and France. He criticized George Washington at one point and when he saw the French Revolution start to devolve into the Terror, he began criticizing some of the French revolutionaries and he came close to getting his neck shaved by Madame Guillotine. Not surprisingly Paine once quipped that, “he who dares not offend cannot be honest.”
Paine concentrated much of his social democratic ideas in a pamphlet called “Agrarian Justice.” It was written in the winter of 1795-96, but he held off publication for a time, due in part to the war between France and England. What apparently motivated him to go ahead and issue his essay was the verbal diarrhea of an Anglican Bishop who thought to answer his work The Age of Reason; the smug cleric entitled it “The Wisdom and Goodness of God in having made both Rich and Poor.” The title of the pamphlet outraged Paine, who pointed out that God “made only male and female, and he gave them the earth for their inheritance.”
I think we still have far too many people today who still believe that their wealth is somehow due to God rewarding them for their virtue and that, conversely, poverty is God’s punishment for the unworthy. As Paine pointedly note, economic inequality is mainly a condition mainly due to man’s injustice towards their fellow humans. As Paine put it, “instead of preaching to encourage one part of mankind in insolence . . . it would be better that priests employed their time to render the general condition of man less miserable than it is. Practical religion consists in doing good: and the only way of serving God is that of endeavoring to make His creation happy. All preaching that has not this, for its object is nonsense and hypocrisy.”
But I digress. In his pamphlet, Paine pointed out that poverty and want are not the natural state of man. Paine illustrates this by giving the example of Native Americans of his day, whose tribes held all their land in common and enjoyed an egalitarian lifestyle: “The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich.”
It was Paine’s premise that “the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.” However, because of the rise of civilization, which he noted was usually a product of the sword, the land was divided and subdivided so that now a handful of producers have possession the soil and its bounty.
Paine argues that the air, earth water and land are a common patrimony of all humanity and that only the improvements to the land as a result of civilization are actually private property. Beginning with the invention of agriculture, “the common right of all became confounded into the cultivated right of the individual,” Since it is impossible to separate the improvements from land itself, he proposed instituting what he called a ground rent on the propertied class.
From this single tax on land he proposed to funding payments to the landless to help equalize the disproportion between rich and poor. Beginning at the age of fifty and over, an annual stipend of £10 per annum was to given to everyone, regardless of economic status. Fifty is what at that time he considered the average life expectancy. Also, when anyone reached the age of twenty-one they would automatically be given a lump sum of £15 Sterling, “as a compensation, in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance.” This would, he hoped, help give them their start in life. A payment would also be made to those who became disabled or were infirmed and unable to support themselves sufficiently to make a living. These payments, he emphasized, were not charity but a right—a universal right—and would be paid out regardless of whether the individuals were rich or poor.
To modern ears, Thomas Paine’s proposal for “Agrarian Justice” may not seem so radical, but in its day it most certainly was—which is why it was never instituted, either in Europe or America. Bear in mind, in Paine’s day the Industrial Revolution had only just begun and land was still the primary measure of wealth and power. In fact, not just wealth and social status, but voting rights and office holding were also dependent on the possession of land, even in the United States.
The other side of the equation in Paine’s plan was the taxation. The improvements to the land would not be taxed, just the value of the land itself. The “land rent” of 10% was a once time assessment for a direct descendant inheriting property, although higher for “indirect” descendants. When that owner died in turn, an additional assessment was made. Paine estimated that the effective turnover in property would be about every thirty years, so that over time any concentrations of property and wealth would gradually be equalized, or at the least the extremes of wealth and poverty minimized. People would work still for their daily bread, but the extreme want and misery that existed would be eliminated.
Many aspects of Paine’s Agrarian Justice sound similar to our Social Security Insurance program begun by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930’s, although Social Security consists of an equal contribution between employee and employer and does nothing to fight inequality and the creeping Oligarchism of modern American politics. In recent years even Social Security has come under incessant attack by reactionary politicians and the billionaires who bankroll them.
Paine’s Agrarian Justice resembles another American Socialist’s ideas. Henry George, writing during the period when big business and monopolies were taking over the economy and the political establishment, penned Progress and Poverty in 1879. He advocated a Single Tax on land as a cure for the growing disparity between rich and poor similar to Paine’s tax. George, however, wrote in an industrial age and had a more elaborate political and economic program than Paine’s, and which also included proposals such as having all utilities being publicly owned and a secret ballot for elections. Many of George’s criticisms of industrial society remain relevent, although his Single Tax solution found less favor among both socialists and economists.
Whether or not one believes Thomas Paine’s Agragrian Justice would have been a practical means of achieving social and economic justice, he remains a notable early American Socialist and Patriot, whose ideas remain a cornerstone of American political philosophy.