At a typical rally, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will frequently tell his cheering crowd that Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, voting rights for felons, and free public college are “not that radical.” After all, the principles behind such goals can be traced back to John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a recent campaign ad informs us.
But in truth, many of his principles and propositions can be traced back still further, to the ideas of founding father Thomas Paine in Rights of Man (1791-1792). Although Paine made no mention of either public health care or tuition-free universities during a period when medicine was still in its infancy and universities were attended by a fraction of the population, he was arguably the first modern writer to tackle the collected issues of political and economic injustice head on, building, as it were, upon a Western tradition of rights from the twelfth century to the eighteenth that winds through Wat Tyler, Thomas More, the Levellers, Diggers, Algernon Sidney, Joseph Priestley, and others. And more than two centuries and three decades later, Paine’s ideas can be said to be as relevant as ever. Specifically, Paine shed light on five issues that should seem quite familiar to voters today: the problem with inherited power and wealth, inequities in compensation and taxation among the 1% and the 99%, inadequacy of public services, war fatigue, and a disenchantment with the promise of one’s country.
In order to understand the significance and pertinence of Rights of Man, it is important to recall the social, economic, and political circumstances of late 18th-century Britain. On one hand, it was viewed by much of the West as the most enlightened nation, one far more egalitarian and prosperous than others — even after the loss of its American colonies. On the other hand, it was viewed by a growing number of reformers within the country — and some without — as backwards.
It was not until the publication of Rights of Man, however, that these issues converged around Paine’s defense of the French revolution, a response to the charges leveled by erstwhile reformer Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke upheld the existence of a monarchy, aristocracy, and state-church. But Paine pushed contemporary criticisms of the monarchy and aristocracy to their very limits — having already urged American colonists to declare independence and adopt republicanism in his best-selling pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), and the American Crisis papers (1776-82). Explaining that France was justified in eradicating such artificial distinctions as titles of nobility, game laws, and the state-church establishment, Paine forcefully radicalized the reformist gripe that Britain was politically regressive.
While Burke’s Reflections attracted numerous replies over the course of a decade, it was Paine’s Rights of Man that outsold practically every other text published during the eighteenth century. Lauded by reformers and radicals on one hand, naysayers — Tories as well as the more liberal Whigs — castigated the work for its criticism of hereditary government and its overall style. Gothic novelist, Horace Walpole, dismissed Rights of Man as a text “so coarse, that you would think he means to degrade the language as much as the government.” “Tom Paine,” others opined, was obviously “stupid” and “envious.” Not least did they fear that the easy accessibility of his prose would lead to a revolution in Britain. With the alarming sales of Rights, the government declared that the “wicked, malicious….and ill-disposed” Paine was guilty of seditious libel in December 1792. Indeed, the practice of what we refer to as “astroturfing” was already evident in the 1790s when local elites organized Church and King mobs to burn effigies of Paine all across the land.
Paine claimed that something was deeply wrong in Britain despite that nation’s apparent affluence. The glaring problem, as he saw it, was not only the inordinate power of the aristocracy, the literal and figurative 1% of the day, but the very existence of a hereditary monarchy and nobility, and a state-sponsored church establishment that perpetuated these inequities. This was how and why taxes on land, for instance, were easily shifted to consumables. And, some might add, it was why crimes against property were punished with undue severity.
Outraged that the costs of supporting the aristocracy were “nearly equal to that of supporting the poor,” Paine lamented that impoverished youths were disproportionately imprisoned and insufficiently educated while the elderly were working themselves to exhaustion. Addressing the needs of the poor and elderly, Paine insisted, was “not of the nature of a charity but of a right” just as “civil government” should “not exist in executions; but in making such provision for the instruction of youth and the support of age.” If “at sixty,” man’s “labour ought to be over, at least from direct necessity,” it was “painful to see old age working itself to death, in what are called civilized countries, for daily bread.” While advocating a more public system of education, Paine would also propose a prototype of Social Security. After all, since nearly everyone paid taxes, why not return some of their taxes in the form of compensation to help the elderly?
At the same time, he deplored the sums spent on war, calling for a quasi-NATO alliance that would combine the armies and navies of France, Britain, and America in order to reduce military costs in Europe. With republican governments replacing monarchies, Paine maintained, the ending of fruitless wars of succession would benefit the growth of commerce. So would progressive taxation, by which the wealthy — often large landholders — would pay proportionately more than the poor. At the end of the day, a revolution was needed, for “it is not whether this or that party shall be in or not, or Whig or Tory, high or low shall prevail; but whether man shall inherit his rights, and universal civilization take place.”
At first glance, it might still appear that Paine’s advice has already been heeded. In America, for the most part, we don’t have hereditary government and privilege (if we don’t include nepotism and college legacy admissions). Thanks to FDR and Lyndon B. Johnson, over 40% of Americans enjoy the benefits of the welfare state while those over 65 enjoy Social Security. Further abroad, in constitutional monarchies such as the U.K. and Scandinavia, safety nets are more generous still with virtually free health care and significantly lower, if not free college tuition. Yet, it is an inconvenient fact that the US, far from being the relatively egalitarian paradise extolled by Paine and other founding fathers — a claim that has been backed up by modern economists Peter H. Linder and Jeffrey G. Williamson — has become an oligarchy not unlike that of 18th-century England. So what went wrong?
The simplest and most direct answer is that “commerce” and republican governments — which Paine rightly believed could obliterate feudalism in his century — exacerbated inequality and war in the latter half of the 20th century; Alexander Hamilton was probably less naive when noting in The Federalist Papers that republics and nations renowned for trade were at least as prone to war as monarchies. Instead, the effects of “commerce” — or rather what we refer to as capitalism today — have come to be viewed as the very causes of our dramatic inequality. As today’s legislators are drawn predominantly from the wealthiest classes, they pander to the whims of multinational corporations and Wall Street — thereby recreating the relationship between 18th-century M.P.s and aristocrats. This is something that Sanders has consistently critiqued.
Equally striking is the prevalence of hardship because of the lack of public services and stagnant or dwindling wages in both centuries. The shortcomings of our public school system, especially in inner cities and rural areas, have led in part to the increased incarceration of impoverished youths. Here, we are reminded of Paine’s observation that:
When, in countries that are called civilized, we see age going to the workhouse and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong in the system of government. It would seem, by the exterior appearance of such countries, that all was happiness; but there lies hidden from the eye of common observation, a mass of wretchedness, that has scarcely any other chance, than to expire in poverty or infamy….
Even more telling is the fact that the gap in longevity between rich and poor in 21st -century America is almost exactly like that in 18th-century England, with the rich outliving the poor by 10 years. Finally, and not least, although enfranchisement is easily available to all American citizens, gerrymandering and voter-ID laws serve to limit suffrage, especially among the poor and minorities.
But perhaps what is most disquieting is the prevailing sense of malaise in 21st century America evident in the frequency of violent crimes, the opioid crisis, and the sense of distrust for our government from both the Right and Left: an unhappiness that would seem to approximate that discerned by Paine:
Whatever the apparent cause of any riots may be, the real one is always want of happiness. It shows that something is wrong in the system of government, that injures the felicity by which society is to be preserved.
Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, the level of political discontent in the United States has risen steadily from 1958 to the present. Today, 74% of Americans think most elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country’s; 57% are frustrated with the government and 22% are angry. The report further observes a “growing gulf in the values held by political elites and ordinary people” that led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Could this explain the 1790s and present-day vogue for horror and dystopian fiction on one hand and a resurgent interest in Jane Austen’s fictions revolving around heirs, heiresses, and social climbers?
This brings back us back to 2020: not only to the surging appeal of Bernie Sanders among American progressives and Trump among former Tea Partiers, but the rapidly growing desire to curb excessive inequality, from the Occupy movement to Brexit and the French riots. Like Paine, today’s populists have little faith in party politics, contending — with good reason — that “The defect lies in the system” where “the foundation and the superstructure of the government is bad.” And more importantly, during a period of extreme inequality, they probably believe — like Paine — that:
When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.
These analogies between the work of Paine and contemporary discourse illustrate not only how the problems of principle tackled by Paine have continued to plague our polity, but also how his rhetoric extends well beyond his century. Perhaps it’s time to heed his words in order to make sense of the present — and to determine our future. In this context, Bernie’s Medicare for All, free public college, a $15 minimum wage, and a federal jobs guarantee may not be that “radical” after all if Americans wish to reclaim their political and economic rights.
Frances A. Chiu teaches history and literature at NSPE and Eugene Lang. She is the author of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (Routledge, forthcoming April 2020).