Apr 23, 2007


ENGL 221
Professor Iris Creagh
Sam Lively
22 April 2007
Free For All
It was the highest priority for Thomas Paine. William Bradford and the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony were willing to die for it. Both parties were willing to sacrifice other lives for more of it. The word is freedom. Its mention prompts many an American patriot to shed proud tears, thinking perhaps that the salty water on his or her cheeks is made of the same stuff as Paine’s ink and the Pilgrims’ blood. The dream extends on into eternity, when all will be seated together at a heavenly round table reading the Declaration of Independence aloud to standing ovations. This happy unity finds its surest base on the shared desire for freedom.
Conversely, varying definitions of freedom can introduce strife that could undermine a community. Paine and the Pilgrims held a few basic ideas of freedom in common, but differed fundamentally in more precise understandings of what evils they wished to be free from. The extent of the difference is drastic enough that neither party would survive in a fully realized conception of the other’s ideal society. Yet their legacies survive in close proximity to each other, even referenced in tandem, and modern America apparently sees no hypocrisy in paying homage to both.
The first landmark in the Pilgrims’ ultimate vision of freedom was escaping persecution. Their oppressor was the "lordly and tyranous" Anglican Church; the state church was devoted to routing out Separatists like the Pilgrims (Bradford 26). In this sense, they had much in common with freedom seekers such as Paine. In Common Sense, Paine builds his case for freedom largely on the misdeeds of the English monarchy. Paine rails against tyranny in the political realm, whereas the Pilgrims were focused on the abuses of religion, but the villain is the same in each case.
If they were reading each other’s works up to this point, Paine and Bradford might be voicing hearty exclamations of "Hear, hear!" and "Amen!" respectively. This ease of agreement is likely the reason Paine leaned so heavily on castigating England in Common Sense; it was far easier for him to find fellow believers in the wrongs of tyranny then in rightness of his favored brand of government, and especially in his beliefs about religion.
Religion comes strongly to bear in the determination of evil, and there begins the divergence of Paine’s and the Pilgrims’ values as they pertain to freedom. Paine is adept at camouflaging his unpopular religion of Deism. A cursory reading of Common Sense might give the reader the impression that Paine is a devout Christian. Paine thumps the Bible heavily to make several points in that text; he quotes liberally from I Samuel to undermine the doctrine that kings were established by God’s will. Apparently preferring to leave unequivocal judgements of evil, he quotes this passage, add his own emphasis in capitalizing it: "WE HAVE ADDED UNTO OUR SINS THIS EVIL, TO ASK A KING" (12).
Paine proceeds to make a value judgement that could nestle comfortably into Bradford’s work: "For monarchy in every instance is the popery of government" (12). Bradford writes of the "grosse darknes of popery" (25). This similarity is likely intentional, as Paine was writing for a predominantly Christian audience of mostly Puritan heritage, and it is, perhaps, deceptive. In his Age of Reason, written nearly 20 years after Common Sense, Paine confesses his Deist religious beliefs, stating, "My mind is my own church" (464). Later in this work he discredits the same Bible he made such thorough use of in his prior work.
Under the light of this information, the Bible appears much less in the actual framework of Paine’s arguments in Common Sense than his many allusions to the "scripture" at first indicate. More essential to his case is his humanistic belief in the fundamental right of man to live under the power of his own reason, free from the folly of another. Any Bible verses he includes he uses as confirmation of this belief. Perhaps he took on the auspices of a Bible-believing Puritan in Common Sense to avoid any unjust dismissal from his audience before his arguments were heard. Regardless, his views on freedom are not so rooted in Judeo-Christian beliefs as he makes them out to be.
The Pilgrims placed the Bible, religious counsel and supernatural revelation above all other resources available for decision-makers. Their entire reasoning for departing stemmed from their need "to have the right worship of God & discipline of Christ established in the church, according to the simplicitie of the gospell… and to have & be ruled by the laws of God’s word" (Bradford 25). Their lesser respect for man’s reason is evident in a quote from the same passage, decrying the sullying of God’s truth with "men’s inventions." They refer to Catholic rituals, but their disdain for those is not based on differing interpretation of the Bible; they loathe the addition worldly practices not specifically derived from the Bible.
Though his disbelief in the Bible distances Paine from the Pilgrims on a pre-suppositional basis, his reasoning in Common Sense remains only a short leap of faith away from the doctrines espoused in Of Plymouth Plantation. He does not believe in man’s innate goodness, perhaps partaking of the Calvinist doctrine that proclaims man's total depravity. Based on this belief, he does not advocate a libertine freedom, and acknowledges the need for government. He chooses an interesting metaphor for government, calling it a "badge of lost innocence" (4), an image reminiscent, or prophetic, of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.
The Pilgrims wore their badge of lost innocence with gravity. Since they viewed evil as a constant presence in the community, per man’s total depravity, their need for government was great. With unlimited personal freedom came unchecked sin, an epidemic the Pilgrim community had left their homes to be free of. The story of Thomas Granger, taken down by Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation illustrates. Granger was a teenager found guilty of bestiality and sentenced to death. Bradford’s commentary provides an important insight into the Pilgrims’ understanding of the role of government and the need to limit freedoms. The boy could not live because "one wicked person may infecte many" (203).
While Paine may have agreed with Pilgrims’ justice system as it pertained to laws such as the one that condemned Granger, he would part most dramatically with them on the extent of their government and their willingness to impinge on the freedoms of others. The Pilgrims’ believed they possessed a far-reaching commission in the enforcement of morality. A trouble-making Puritan named Thomas Morton settled near Plymouth; he erected a maypole and began to throw parties, providing alcohol and women to any who cared to stop by. According to Bradford, "it was if anew they had revived & celebrated the feasts of the Roman Goddes Flora, or the beastly practieses of the madd Bacchinalians" (141). The Pilgrims resolved to end the celebration by force, storming Morton’s settlement, cutting down the maypole and imprisoning Morton. This was the extent of the Pilgrims’ tolerance for others’ religious freedoms.
Paine, had he lived amongst the Pilgrims and avowed his faith to them, would have likely received similar treatment. His beliefs were as distant from the Pilgrims as were Morton’s, and though he may not have distributed alcohol, any sort of writing meant to persuade the Pilgrim faithful of a more worldly course of action would have earned the designation of evil and made him subject to the government. Paine could not have lived freely with the Pilgrims.
Nor would the Pilgrims have been welcome, or perhaps even safe, in Paine’s free society. In Age of Reason he designates any mixing of church and state as "adulterous." He follows this observation with a vision on the sort of revolution he desires to follow the American and French Revolutions, a "revolution in the system of religion" ending in the sole adoption of Deism. The Pilgrims would likely be casualties of such a revolution.
The time difference between the two parties prevented a true conflict and resolution between their opposing goals. Paine’s careful dilution of his radical religious motivations and his willingness to limit his vision for freedom to what could be expressed in Puritan terms also downplayed the controversy his true views would have sparked. What remains is a shared revulsion for a foreign tyrant, strong belief in the duty of government to free its society of evil and the word freedom. Love of freedom, if the bold dreams and visions freedom promises are kept only to the minds they delight, unites Thomas Paine and the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony.
Works Cited
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation Ed. Harvey Wish. New York, NY: Capricorn Books, 1962.
Paine, Thomas. "Common Sense." The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine. Ed. Phillip S. Phoner. New York, NY: Citadel Press, 1974.