A Liberal Dose

Thomas Paine, Lincoln, and the meaning of America

Author is White County native, novelist, and history professor


For a long time now, since the Nixon administration - essentially, though there were traces before then - the American right has heralded itself as the only true patriotic philosophy. Liberals, they have been saying for half-a-century or more, are not only insufficiently patriotic but they literally hate America and are traitors. I see that view presented in countless conservative editorials, and I’m sure you’ve noticed it, too. This goes back to our earlier discussion about the differences between conservatives and liberals: conservatives want to keep things the same (or change them to how they used to be), while liberals/progressives want to see things improved. To many conservatives, the very suggestion that America could be improved is unpatriotic  - love America as it is, they say, or leave it. Liberals, however, tend to subscribe to a vision of America  - not as it is, or as it ever was - but as it was meant to be, as it always should have been. They are engaged in an effort to fully reflect the principles on which the country was founded but which have been imperfectly carried out. As Bobby Kennedy famously said, “Some men look at the world as it is and ask why; I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”

In order to work toward an America as it was envisioned to be, it is necessary to understand accurately just what that vision was. In my opinion, two of the people who have summed it up best were Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln.

Thomas Paine was different from the other “Founding Fathers” in many ways. He never became a powerful political leader in the U.S. He did not come from a privileged background like the plantation owners, merchants, and successful lawyers who made up most of that group. In fact, when the American Revolution started, he was only a recent emigrant to the colonies from his native England. He was working as a journal editor after a string of failed businesses.

In 1776, Paine published his famous pamphlet “Common Sense,” in which he outlined his arguments as to why America should declare independence from Great Britain and what the new government should look like. Among other things, he said that a monarchy is a terrible way to run a government; that a government across the ocean would never look after, or even understand, the needs of distant colonies; and that as long as America was part of Great Britain, we would continually be getting caught up in wars that are none of our business. All those things, as the title implied, are just common sense.

But Thomas Paine went further than that. In fact, he went further than any of the other Patriot leaders had gone up to that point. Instead of complaining about oppressive tax laws or making legalistic arguments about citizenship rights, he painted a utopian picture of what civic republicanism should be. And he took it beyond the borders of the 13 colonies.

“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” he wrote. “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her - Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

This, then, was to be the mission of America - to be a beacon of freedom. All around the world, people oppressed by tyranny could look across the ocean to America and see a democratic republic in action. Everywhere else, Paine wrote, the King is the law –but in America, the Law is the king. The oppressed can be inspired and endeavor to throw off their own chains - and if their efforts do not work, he was saying, they can come to America - an asylum for mankind - and join with us in our own great experiment. And an experiment it was, to prove once and for all that such a form of government could and would work.

Paine’s words inspired the American public, in 1776, in a way that previous - more tedious - writings by patriot leaders had not. Paine’s vision gave them not only something to fight for but something to live for, something to die for, that was worth the living and dying. It lit a spark, without which that generation might not have had the ability to persevere in their great struggle.

Flash forward fourscore and seven years - to 1863. July of 1863, to be specific, and the Battle of Gettysburg - which most historians believe to have been the turning point of the Civil War. You all know about the speech President Lincoln gave on that battlefield and can probably quote the first line or two from it. But unless you are familiar with the arguments of Thomas Paine, in 1776, you’ve never gotten the full import of that brief speech.

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. ..It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced… that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Shall not have died in vain. This is why Abraham Lincoln, and millions of other Unionists (including one-third of white Tennesseans), could not let the Republic be fractured into two parts, which could then lead to being fractured into smaller parts still. If that happened, the experiment set forth by Thomas Paine and his peers would have failed. The whole world would see that a democratic republic could not endure longer than a couple of generations. Abraham Lincoln believed in Thomas Paine’s vision, and - like Paine - wanted to see it extend to as many people as possible.

I believe in that vision, too, with all my heart. When I talk about Paine and Lincoln, I get misty-eyed every time because I believe in it so much.

And I am a liberal.

I do not believe that vision was perfected in 1776 or in 1787 with the Constitutional Convention. For one thing, there was still slavery, Native Americans were being slaughtered and cheated, women couldn’t vote, and even poor white men couldn’t vote yet.

Nor do I believe it is perfected in 2021. Not because I hate America  - but because I love it.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.  


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