In announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in November 1979, Ronald Reagan spoke eloquently about his vision for America. In his address, he acknowledged that an unease, a “malaise” President Jimmy Carter had called it, seemed to pervade the country.
But Mr. Reagan, ever the optimist, declared: “When Washington’s men were freezing at Valley Forge, Tom Paine told his fellow Americans: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again,’ we still have that power.”
With Thomas Paine’s rousing injunction of 1776 “to begin the world over again,” he sought to incite the colonists to rebel from England — to seek their independence — so, in his words, the Americans could form “the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth.”
We celebrate the Fourth of July with our parades and fireworks to mark the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation beginning the American Revolution. But Independence Day presents an opportunity to think, along with Thomas Paine, about the American Revolution’s deeper meaning, both to Americans and to the rest of the world.
Following John Locke, and other Enlightenment philosophers, Paine was a social contract theorist. He argued in “Rights of Man,” published in 1791, that each individual is born with certain fundamental, or universal, natural rights that exist prior to the establishment of government and that the primary reason governments are formed is to secure those rights. And, importantly, that if government fails to protect those natural rights, then society needs to regenerate or reorder itself, through revolution if necessary.
Thus, Paine declares, two years after the beginning of the French Revolution: “[W]hat we now see in the world, from the Revolutions of America and France, are the renovation of the natural order of things, a system of principles as universal as truth and the existence of man, and combining moral with political happiness and national prosperity.”
According to Paine, the American Revolution, at bottom, was a struggle to affirm certain universal self-evident truths — in the Declaration of Independence’s words, the unalienable right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Not surprisingly, Paine rendered this judgment:
“The Independence of America, considered merely as a separation from England, would have been a matter of but little importance had it not been accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practices of governments. She made a stand not for herself only but for the world, and looked beyond the advantages herself could receive.”
To be sure, not all shared Paine’s philosophical disposition toward regeneration of society through revolution. Foremost among those who didn’t was Paine’s contemporary philosopher and politician, Edmund Burke. Indeed, in his “Rights of Man,” Paine responded directly to Burke’s famous “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1791), which took a dim view of the French Revolution begun in 1789.
Burke was highly critical of British policies, expressly those regarding taxation, that were largely responsible for driving the American colonials to seek independence. Unlike Paine, Burke thought, as he made clear in Parliament in his notable “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies,” that the American Revolution could have been avoided had Britain tried to address the American grievances through conciliation.
But Burke’s dispute with Paine ran far deeper than just an argument over the immediate cause of the American Revolution. Burke had no sympathy for what he saw as Paine’s devotion to abstract theories regarding natural rights and individual freedom — at least when not tempered by the restraints and obligations derived from civil society’s accumulated wisdom and traditions. Here’s the way Burke put it: “[A]s the liberties and restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule, and nothing is so foolish as to cast them upon that principle.”
Regarding the American Revolution, Burke’s philosophical disposition would not allow him to go further than urging Parliament to approach the colonies with attention given to the “peculiar circumstances” riling the Americans, and “not according to abstract ideas of right” or “mere theories of government.” It did not give Paine pause, on the other hand, to remind the Americans, as he urged them to get on with the revolution, “that the cause of America is the cause of all mankind.”
In Yuval Levin’s excellent 2014 book, “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left,” he poses these basic questions in framing the tension between the philosophical dispositions of Paine and Burke: “Should our society be made to answer to the demands of stark and abstract commitments to ideals like social equality or to patterns of its own concrete political traditions and foundations?” “Should the citizen’s relationship to his society be defined above all by the individual right of free choice or the web of obligations and conventions of our own choosing?”
The point here is not to force a difficult choice between Paine and Burke or to suggest there are wholly right or wrong answers to the questions Yuval Levin poses. Rather I’m content to suggest that there is no better time than Independence Day to ponder — making whatever you will of Paine’s and Burke’s own answers — the true meaning of Independence Day and our own ongoing American experiment.
• Randolph May is president of the Free State Foundation.