Thomas Paine and the Democratic Revolutionaries: Egypt 2011, America 1776

To the young democratic resisters in Egypt, some of whom I’ve heard saying in street interviews that they admire the American Revolution, I want to say something complicating. (No, I don’t literally think they’re taking time out of changing their country and the world to follow my blog — but hey, you never know!) This: It’s a somewhat bleak fact that the only successful American founding-era revolution for democracy occurred in Pennsylvania in 1776 — and that wasn’t the Continental Congress’s declaring independence from England.

This may be annoying. There may be times for believing in the big, uncomplicated American narratives, and this may be one of them. But Egyptians want democracy, and our famous Declaration was not a declaration for democracy, and since that’s what my books are about, I’m seeing events in Egypt a certain way.

(For what it’s worth, that is. Back when I was shouting and waving my fist in the steet, I didn’t live in a military dictatorship. And I sure didn’t go back the next day to sweep up. Respect.)

Anyway, the real 1776 democratic revolution I’m talking about is at once an inspiring and a cautionary one for worldwide democratic revolutions today.

I should note that everything I know about politics in Egypt I’ve learned from the papers and the radio in the past month. Like so many others, I’ve followed the uprising there with bated breath because of its nonviolence and the strange — possibly unique? — relationship of the military to both the protestors and the regime. With everyone else, I await next steps. Will a government that has been a military one for generations actually enable real elections and subordinate the military to representative civilian authority? Maybe. But if so, the ironies will be many. BBC and others have reported that it is the younger officer corps (not young, younger) that groks the civilian-control thing — and that’s because unlike their Soviet-tutored elders, they’ve grown up under the influence of the U.S. alliance and studied in our war colleges. That would mean our long alliance with a military dictatorship may have had a liberalizing influence on its military. Hm.

There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.

That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.

Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine.

Paine wrote “Common Sense,” and along with its bold characterization of all monarchs as tyrants, that pamphlet called for a hyper-democratic republic, when the better-known founder John Adams was calling for a republic in which democratic impulses would be sharply checked. Paine and Adams had a shouting match over it. Later Adams became President of the United States, and Paine became persona non grata in the United States, to whose independence he’d contributed everything he had. So be careful.

With Paine were less well-known radical American democrats. Herman Husband. Christopher Marshall. James Cannon. Thomas Young. Timothy Matlack. Benjamin Rush (he later became unradicalized, went the John Adams way — so we’ve actually heard of him). Hardly names to conjure with today, but these are our revolutionary democrats. What they wanted was to sever the ancient Whig connection between property and rights (a connection beloved by Adams, Madison, etc.), and to use government to restrain wealth, regulate business, and promote economic equality.

David Reiff recently wrote that without a focus on what’s nowadays called economic justice, there can be no real democracy in Egypt. If so, I’d love to commend Paine, Husband, Young, and the others to the Egyptian revolutionaries’ attention. History has obscured them, but it’s worth the effort to seek them out.

That crew led the radically democratic revolution that took over Pennsylvania in 1776. I know it’s obscure, compared with the famous, non-radical republican revolution carried out by the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention — but my obscure democratic Pennsylvania revolutionaries made their revolution in a way that reflects strangely on Egypt’s. “The army is with the people!” some of the Cairo protestors exulted, and we hope it’s true. In 1776 Pennsylvania, however, the army was the people. Militia service was required of all able-bodied adult men. The genius of James Cannon was to organize the unenfranchised, propertyless militia privates throughout the state as a hugely powerful force on which security depended, and then have them seize the franchise simply by declining to take orders from a legislative body, the Pennsylvania Assembly, that had never allowed representation to the propertyless. With that, a new government was instituted in Pennsylvania, which for the first meaningful time anywhere allowed people with no property not only to vote but also to hold office.

So it was a strange thing, with interesting connections to Egypt: a millitary coup, on behalf of democracy, that didn’t kill anyone. But there the similarities with Egypt’s revolution end. The Pennsylvania revolution depended on a long tradition of citizen soldiery and on well-established civilian command of the military. Democracy in Egypt will depend on an elitist, professional military choosing to subordinate itself to popularly elected command.

Still, the goals of the 1776 PA revolution are worth remembering at this exciting and scary moment. When the upscale men of the Continental Congress declared independence by saying “all men are created equal,” they meant that equality exists before governments are instituted. They didn’t mean that government has responsibility to promote equality. It was the funky and down-at-heels outsiders Paine, Husband, Cannon, and the other Pennsylvania revolutionaries, excluded from the Congress, who believed in that kind of equality — and they actually managed to bring it about, for a time.

One other theme from the democratic Pennsylvania uprising of 1776 — intellectually and spiritually poignant to me, relevant for Egypt now. Paine was a kind of Deist. Young was probably an atheist. But Cannon and Rush were fervent Christian evangelicals, inheritors of the Great Awakening, and Marshall was some kind of universalist mystical fundamentalist. In pursuit of radical social change the extreme rationalists and the extremely religious collaborated. That’s pretty uplifting.

But with victory, that collaboration broke down. Marshall and Rush wanted a religious test for office in the newly egalitarian Pennsylvania. Young the rationalist scoffer fought back. Cannon, though deeply evangelical, wanted freedom of conscience for people like Paine and Young. The fracturing of the radical alliance over church-state issues weakened the democratic alliance. And Pennsylvania’s radical democracy did not survive after 1790.

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5 thoughts on “Thomas Paine and the Democratic Revolutionaries: Egypt 2011, America 1776

  1. The only TV talking head to point out (in the context of Egyptian protests) that 1776 was not a democratic revolution… Glenn Beck.

    • The United States has profoundly undemocratic roots as a country. When I try to explain this to people they look dumbfounded. No one seems to realize where we started. They don’t know about property requirements, poll taxes, the lack of the secret ballot or the election of Senators by Legislatures. Is Glenn Beck the only talking head to realize this, or do the others not want to confuse their viewers? Are they being ironic or simplistic?

  2. Add in that Democracy for the founders had the same meaning that Anarchy does today. Hence Madison’s comments.

    Somehow that is another thing which has been lost in the fog of history.

  3. I host a one hour radio program in Santa Fe, New Mexico: Our Times with Craig Barnes. It airs Saturday mornings for one hour. I am also the author of Democracy At The Crossroads, Princes, Peasants, Poets and Presidents Struggle for (and against) The Rule of Law, (Fulcrum, 2009) and have been giving lectures on related topics this winter. One focus has been plutocracy and the significance of the American revolution as against the historical norm. Your post this morning on Truthout about currency, banks, and lending in pre-revolutionary times is most relevant. I would like to invite you to appear on my program. We would have an hour to talk about the history and its modern application and could schedule a recording time that would suit your requirements. Let me know if you are interested.

  4. I very much like Paine. And way too many people, newly awakened to the evils of the ‘new liberalism, ie socialism’ are relying on 1965 history book version of American history.

    I was just introduced to your site…I expect to visit regularly.

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