Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Quote of the Day (Thomas Paine, on How a Nation’s Character ‘Is Much Easier Kept Than Recovered’)

“Let but a nation conceive rightly of its character, and it will be chastely just in protecting it. None ever began with a fairer than America, and none can be under a greater obligation to preserve it….

“With the blessings of peace, independence, and an universal commerce, the states, individually and collectively, will have leisure and opportunity to regulate and establish their domestic concerns, and to put it beyond the power of calumny to throw the least reflection on their honor. Character is much easier kept than recovered, and that man, if any such there be, who, from sinister views, or littleness of soul, lends unseen his hand to injure it, contrives a wound it will never be in his power to heal.”— English-born American patriot and pamphleteer Thomas Paine (1737-1809), “The Crisis XIII” (“The Last Crisis”), originally printed in The Pennsylvania Packet, Apr. 19, 1783 reprinted in The American Crisis and in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, edited by Eric Foner (Library of America edition, 1995)

Notice that date when this piece was first read by Americans? You would say, correctly, that it was 240 years ago today.

But it was also exactly eight years after shots rang out at Lexington and Concord, plunging the 13 British colonies into a war for independence—a conflict that gave rise to one country dedicated to liberty and that, Thomas Paine assured readers, would inspire the world.

Paine started his essay by quoting the first and best remembered line in the entire series on “The American Crisis” he wrote during the American Revolution, as if closing a circle: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

With a treaty now being negotiated with England to end the hard years of fighting, you can almost see him catching his breath as he lauds what “the blessings of peace, independence, and an universal commerce” would bring his adopted country.

But the sense of ease is short-lived, and the great pamphleteer couldn’t help but warn about the danger to the new nation’s character posed by someone, as yet unknown, who might injure it “from sinister views, or littleness of soul.” That character, so dearly won, can never be retrieved if lost.

For years, it appeared that America, though sometimes mistreating people who came under their sway, would survive the twin temptations of anarchy and autocracy that haunted Paine and other leaders of the revolutionary generation--sailing past the disputed election of 1800, the Civil War, and the Great Depression.

Now, in my gloomiest moments, I worry that Paine’s warning has recently gone unheeded. The insurrection of January 6, 2021 rent America’s reputation as a stable, durable example of a democratic republic where transfers of power were accomplished without violence.

Not only does the figure responsible for that event have (in Paine’s phrase) no “power to heal” the divisions he unleashed, but he shows not the least inclination to want to do so—and, in fact, has promised “retribution” towards those who upheld this nation’s honor by opposing his electoral schemes.

That “art of the steal” also resulted in a powerful global media company afraid to push back against the falsehoods he peddled about the Presidential election of 2020.

Until the settlement with Dominion Voting Systems announced late yesterday afternoon, Fox News seemed ready to risk a trial that could have cost it $1.6 billion—not to mention an adverse ruling that would have trimmed the libel protections long enjoyed by them and other media organizations.

Look at that “blessings of peace” paragraph again. Paine understood that national character could exist as strongly as individual character—that the two were, in fact, inextricably connected.

Nearly a decade later, in The Rights of Man, Paine identified more concretely than before the type of person who could despoil the national character—someone who, already rich, could further profit from his position in the government:

“When extraordinary power and extraordinary pay are allotted to any individual in a government, he becomes the center, round which every kind of corruption generates and forms. Give to any man a million a year, and add thereto the power of creating and disposing of places, at the expense of a country, and the liberties of that country are no longer secure. What is called the splendour of a throne is no other than the corruption of the state.”

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