THOMAS PAINE: PATRIOT & SOCIALIST

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Thomas Paine called “The Firebrand of the Revolution,” had strong opinions about Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

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.

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An enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, he nearly lost his head when he began criticizing the revolution’s excesses.

 

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.”

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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.

Hero Patriot and Paine in the Butt

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Pilgrim Communism, Part II

Plymouth Bay Colony Seal
Seal of the Plymouth Bay Colony, showing a colonist planting crops

In our discussion of Pilgrim and Puritan Socialism in our previous essay, we of course simplified what are sometimes nuanced issues, and in this medium we rarely footnote all the sources which relate to a subject.  However, if one looks at various pop articles and secondary sources relating to the subject of early New England socialism, you will find a distinct bias to those articles.  Largely penned by Conservative Christian apologists, they strain to emphasize what a failure these early efforts at communal economic organization were and interpret it as the triumph of Capitalism over Socialism.

 

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Signing the Mayflower Compact, establishing the organization and rules for the Plymouth Bay Colony, (via Library of Congress)

First off, modern Conservative Christians stand in relation to Christianity in the way National Socialists stand in relation to Socialism—while they may sound the same, in the main it’s in name only.

Another thing to consider is that Capitalism did not exist in the seventeenth century; Capitalism was a by-product of the growth of industrialization, which did not really begin until the late eighteenth century and came to the fore in the nineteenth.  Mercantilism was the dominant economic system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and even at the beginning seventeenth century England still retained many vestiges of Medieval Manorial economics, such as the open field system.  So, to a certain degree, discussing “Capitalism” versus Puritan socialism is irrelevant and anachronous.  Apparently, some modern Conservative dogmatists feel threatened by the fact that their forefathers were not as ideologically pure as they.

That being said, there were other factors at work, especially in the Plymouth Bay Colony, that I did not go into in part 1.  Not all the colonists on the Mayflower were coming to the New World for religious liberty or enamored of Biblical economic justice; seventeenth century sources refer to “adventurers and planters” and clearly the Congregationalists were not among the “adventurers” in the group.

 

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The hard times of the early Plymouth settlers were not due to their socialistic economy so much as trying to plant European crops in a climate unsuited to them. Samoset and his tribesmen befriended the settlers and taught them to plant crops better suited to New World conditions.

So, the more secular settlers were of course unhappy about the austere communal (or “communistic”) system initially set up, where all their resources (mostly food) were stored in one communal warehouse and everybody shared work duties according to their ability and resources were shared equally.  To a large extent this austere form of socialistic practice was out of necessity.  The colonists did not land until November of 1620, far too late to plant any crops; many were already suffering from diseases such as scurvy due to the long sea journey and were too sick to pull their own weight as far as work was concerned.  As it was, the settlers had to steal parched corn from the nearby Indians due to lack of food.  Half of the colonists died that first winter; more, maybe all, would have died had they not pooled their resources and instead practiced “rugged individualism.”

Even after the first winter, the colonists tried to plant crops unsuited to the harsh New England climate and it wasn’t until the Native Americans (who most definitely were practicing a form of tribal communism) taught the immigrants how to plant native crops and cultivate them, that the food shortages truly disappeared.

 

It should be noted that Jamestown, which did not practice communism or socialistic economics at all, had an even worse time of it at the start because everybody did try to do their own thing (mainly looking for gold and trying to enslave the local tribesmen) and they were so short of food at one point that they started digging up corpses from the ground and engaged in cannibalism.  That is what “Capitalism” (sic) resulted in.  So, from a comparative viewpoint, the Pilgrims early form of communistic austerity was relatively successful.  However, as their governor, William Bradford, noted, many were far from happy with such a strict economic regimen and after the initial hard times, in 1623 loosened discipline to where land was parceled out to individual families, although ownership was still held in common by the colony as a whole.

 

So, was Pilgrim socialism successful?  The modern ideologues would have you believe it was a failure; but bear in mind the colony had been set up as a proprietary charter from the start and owed money to the financial backers of the colony in England, who expected their investment back within a certain time.  The colony was set up as a communal endeavor from the beginning, with the profits from the colony earmarked to pay back the investors, after which there would be a division of the assets among the colonists.  In fact, despite all the hardships and delays, the Plymouth colonists did pay back the investors, after which there was an equitable division of the assets of the colony among the surviving colonists.  So, while the “socialist experiment” did not continue on, neither was it a failure.

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Replica of early Plymouth storehouse and homes.

 

 

The situation could best be likened to the Lutherans of the Amana Colony of Iowa; they too set up a religious commune, which included both agriculture and manufacturing; eventually they sold the manufacturing rights to a corporation—which is why you can still buy Amana refrigerators to this day.  The Amana commune did not continue, true; but I would hardly call it a failure.  Much the same could be said of the Plymouth Colony and, with somewhat different circumstances, the Puritan’s economic experiment.  Today, about 35 million Americans claim ancestry from the Pilgrims; despite the challenges and hardships, I would say that is something of a success story.

AMERICA’S FIRST SOCIALISTS

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A communal feast where everyone shares equally in the fruits of their common labor–sometimes known as “The First Thanksgiving.” No tipping was allowed.

It remains to be seen whether the presidential candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders is just an outlier or the beginning of a major sea-change in American politics.  In either case, it would be good at this juncture for us all to reflect on Socialism and its history in American politics and society.  The history of American Socialism is not exactly a secret, but on the other hand most Americans have a very poor understanding of what it is and was.  Whatever one may think of it as a political and economic movement, the chances are you are wrong in your assumptions, good or bad.  At best, I think most folks know that Bernie Sanders is far from being the first socialist to appear on the scene, but how far back this movement goes is very poorly understood.

Do you know–or think you know–who were the very first Americans to practice Socialism?

—–Think it was members of the American Communist Party in the 1930’s?  Nope: they were outspoken, militant and slavishly devoted to Joe Stalin, and most people during the Cold War associated them with disloyalty and treason; but no, they were hardly the first or only ones to advocate some kind of socialist solution.

—–How About the Socialists active during Gilded Age and the early 1900’s?  Well, there were a bunch of folks active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and as mayors of cities and congressmen they generally had a good reputation for honesty and good government; but no they were not the first.  Guess again.

—–How About the Civil War Era, were they the first?  You’re getting warmer.  There were a whole bunch of people who espoused some kind of Socialism and were active in Abolitionism as well; but no, they weren’t the first, not by a longshot.

—–How About the Early decades of the Nineteenth Century, were there Socialists around during the Early Republic?  Yes, there were and in addition to those espousing political ideas, many organized communes were established as bold social and intellectual experiments, reminiscent of the Hippie communes of the 1960’s;  But no, sorry no brass ring; they weren’t the first.

OK.  If you’re still with me, let me clue you in: not only is Socialism as American as apple pie and a Thanksgiving Turkey, its origins in America go back to the very English first settlements–assuming we don’t include Native Americans, who lived in tribal communities without private property going back to the Mesolithic Era here.  It was, in fact, the early settlers of New England who first practiced Socialism, folk whom you may know as the Pilgrims.

Actually, there were two groups of settlers in New England, the ones we call Pilgrims (although they didn’t use that name) and the Puritans; the Plymouth Bay Colony and the Massachusetts Bay colony respectively.  According to my family’s genealogists we claim ancestors in both groups, although the lineage is a bit convoluted.  Regardless, these early settlers are usually held up as models of the Protestant Work Ethic and cited as positive role models for the Capitalist Way, which is a popular lie you no doubt were told in grammar school.

Protestants they were, and pretty austere ones at that, but they also did something modern Bible thumpers rarely seem to do; they read all the passages of the Bible, not just the ones that were convenient or suited some media evangelist’s get rich quick gospel.  If you get deeply into both the Old and New Testaments, you will find quite a bit there that does not jibe too well with modern notions of Capitalism and big business.  The Bible has things like, oh, a progressive income tax (OT), or, say, passages where it tells you to give all your possessions to the poor and follow Jesus (NT); stuff like that.

Eventually, of course, Mammon won out over Jehovah with the Puritans and they became prosperous smugglers, merchants, manufacturers, whalers, transporters of slaves and assorted other activities that made one filthy rich but are not particularly good for the soul.

If you travel through New England, you will find a vestige of the region’s socialist roots.  Just about every little town or village has a “commons” and, of course, the Boston Commons is well known to residents of Beantown.  Originally, every community’s land was held in “common” and distributed according to the town Elders’ dictates.

Across the state line in New York, the center of town is usually called the village “green” (as in “Tavern on the Green”) which is short for Bowling  Green.  Of course, the Dutch in New Amsterdam were fond of their bowling and would play Nine-Pins in the town square whenever weather allowed while quaffing the product of a nearby inn or tavern.  In Puritan New England, such merriment was strictly forbidden; hard work and prayer substituted for singing, dancing and gaming.

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A piece of the Rock–Plymouth Rock

When the Pilgrims first arrived in 1620, they did not have an easy time of it.  They did not arrive off the New England until November of that year, far too late for growing any crops and that first winter nearly half of the 102 colonists died.  Of more interest for our concern was the fact that, at first, everything that the colony produced was pooled together and held in the “common storehouse” at one end of the Plymouth settlement.  This system was in force for the first couple of years, partly out of necessity: the colony was facing starvation for first few seasons, and more indigent immigrants arrived by boat from England, but the extra mouths to feed were not accompanied by enough supplies to provide for them.  The Plymouth colonists at one point were reduced to stealing parched corn from a local Indian tribe to avoid starving.

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Local Native American leader Samoset welcomes the arriving English. They return the courtesy by stealing corn, which was better than the Jamestown colonists, who turned to cannibalism.

This communal system did not sit well with some of the more able bodied males in the colony, many of whom had migrated in hopes of making their fortune in the New World and not for religious reasons (they were called “the Strangers” by the more religious) and had no desire to provide for other men’s wives and children.  Governor Bradford and the English backers of the enterprise abolished the system of the common storehouse in 1623 and land was divided among settlers to farm individually.  However, the colony still retained communal title to the land even though it was farmed separately, and all the tools were still held in collectively and doled out as needed.  Moreover, meadowlands for the grazing of livestock were still managed in common, plus fishing, hunting and fowling rights were held in common as well, so the concept of private property and ownership still remained a weak one for some years.

The Puritan by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
The Puritan by Augustus Saint Gauden.  The Puritans were sober, industrious and, in the early days, socialists.

The story of the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, (begun by the Puritans, a different religious sect than the Congregationalist Pilgrims), was not dissimilar to that of the Plymouth colony, save that they were even more austere and, well, more puritanical. Moreover, the Puritan colony was planned from the start as a theocracy; in theory, not man, but God, ruled the Puritan communities.

Each new township established by the Puritan elders had about six to ten square miles of land, effectively some 30 to 40 thousand acres, and each resident of a township had access to the community’s common pasturage.  There was no particular ideology at work here, however, it was just the best way to organize a Godly community and, in many cases, they were simply continuing the traditional open field system they’d known in the Old Country, itself was a holdover from the middle ages.  As time went on, and austere virtue began giving way to unelightened self-interest and greed, and regulating the fair and proper use of the common lands of the New England communities became more and more bothersome for beleagered town elders having to discipline those who took more than their fair share.

In the end, the fact that most of the land in New England was ill suited to intensive farming probably had more influence in the breakdown of Puritan agrarian socialism than the economic superiority of Captitalism or any other economic theory.  Then too, many frugal Yankees found that building ships and transporting goods across the open seas was far more rewarding than the backbreaking work of being a Jabez Stone style farmer in a rock filled field.  Moreover, it became a firm tenet of Puritan belief that material wealth was Jehovah’s way of rewarding the virtuous–and by the end of the seventeenth century, Yankee merchants had become very virtous indeed.

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The Pine tree was the symbol of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the end Money triumphed over virtue in Puritan New England.

 

 

 

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