This may not be news to somebody who hadn’t swallowed the school approved version of American history whole, but there are a few important things to note:
Before 1776, Colonists paid less in taxes than Britons in their homeland did. While the colonies were not represented in Parliament, neither were big British cities such as Liverpool or Manchester. Meanwhile the colonists enjoyed a free press, voted for local representation, ate better, lived in larger houses, and were generally better educated than their British cousins (the literacy rate in Massachusetts was more than twice that in Britain).
It wasn’t until a coarse, blotchy-faced, tumbledown drunk named Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense that the revolution began to ferment. Amid “immense emotional confusion in America, he was possessed of an unusually clear and burning sense of America’s destiny.”
Despite the lower taxes, greater freedoms, and better quality of life, Paine advocated revolution. “’Tis time to part” he wrote, a bit of anticlimax after calling the crown of England “a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man” and “the royal brute of England.”
In short, Paine’s influence on the colonists was like that of Rush Limbaugh. He’s not known for his philosophy or originality; he’s known for telling Americans they pay too much in taxes and can’t trust their government.
But if Paine was selling revolution, who was the supplier?
History remembers John Hancock as a signator of the Declaration of Independence, it is important for us to also remember that his smuggling made him one of the richest men in New England. Like any government (the US included) the British tried to put an end to smuggling. Hancock’s interest was not in forming a nation, but disposing with British control over his imports. Further, it was not lost among British contemporaries that many of the authors of the Declaration (and later the Constitution), were also slave owners and traders.
America was formed not out of ideals, but as a tax shelter for businessmen. America is and always has been the land of big business. And what of Thomas Paine, the one who sold it to us? After failing at every job he’d tried prior to writing Common Sense, he fought as a common foot soldier in the war. He did a stint in France (mostly in prison) but returned to America. He was found passed out in a tavern in New Rochelle, NY where he died soon after. The whereabouts of his remains is unknown.
–inspiration and information for this piece was found in Bill Bryson’s Made In America, an informal history of the English language in the United States.
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