Keeping history in context

I have just begun to read the biography of “Thomas Paine.” The historian and biographical author, Craig Nelson. Let’s assume that Mr. Nelson did his historical research very well. That he did, he paints a very grim picture of 18th century England. The same England, in the same era, that our nation ultimately went to war with. Of course, we had a lot of help from Thomas Paine.

I visit the comments sections of the Spokesman-Review fairly frequently. I have seen plenty of talking points about how (example) national forests should be state managed. Or end result, sold off to the highest bidder. 18th century England. There was a time when the common folks could farm, etc. lands held in common. Then for what ever reason the British government decided to do this, that transferred public ownership of such lands to the wealthy and influential. End result, as people started to starve, they started rioting. As a consequence of such rioting, the British government cracked down on them.

There are many ways in which one can look back in history, especially at one of our more defining moments of that period of time. An ugly period of time, when you think about it. Out of such a period, there would in fact be reformers such as Thomas Paine. There would also be revolutionaries such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and etc. People who didn’t care for the status quo, of being a colony during this era and under these circumstances. Also, bearing in mind that Karl Marx, hadn’t been born yet. However, by the time he was born and growing up, his geographical area of Europe, probably hadn’t seen the flashes of light that came from enlightenment and reformation. But he was aware of the fact that it had taken place in other parts of the globe. Undoubtedly, he was aware of the American and French revolutions. Undoubtedly, he had some historical facts at hand as to why those revolutions even occurred. Finally, if you are some aristocrat that puts vast acreage of, what was after all once public holdings (land once held in common by the common people). Your wealth makes it possible. Your position in society makes it possible. But in the process, you deny a lot of people their daily bread. Wouldn’t this article of faith about money, to the extent that those who have it, now covet everything that those who don’t have it, but who do have something of value in their possession: in this case, land. Tend to blindfold the rich and influential, to any sense of compassion and humanitarian interests, in those less well off than themselves? It would certainly seem to. To mean, by the time of the French Revolution, British aristocrats were actually fearing for their own safety. After all, England was creating very similar circumstances, that touched off the French Revolution.

It is against this particular back drop, that Thomas Paine was born and grew up. It is also because of this fact of history, that Thomas Paine found a few reasons to absolutely detest it. He saw inequality; and the terrible results it produced. If he could argue toward a far greater sense of equality, where each man would be free to pursue his own happiness, then he most certainly would. For that, Mr. Paine would become a most hated man in his own right.

Where possible, I collected a few of Mr. Paine’s books. He had a view of religion (Age of Reason), that basically saw religion as a “thing” at odds with man’s progress. Especially in matters of science. Well, he did have an entire history, in which he would have been entirely vindicated in that view. But for holding such a view, John Adams no less, would detest him for such a publication. For presenting such a factual view, Thomas Paine would be given the “dirty atheist” designation. I didn’t exactly see that Mr. Paine held a low or no opinion of God. What I did see, was that Mr. Paine held a low opinion of religion, to ever get it right. Indeed, did any Christian churches, speak out against starving people, in Great Britain? Or did they just go with what ever the crown and the aristocrats preferred? Did any kind of priest tell aristocrats about not taking a poor man’s sheep a la what a prophet said to King David? Or did they prefer to just go along with what the crown and the aristocrats preferred? Then I will guess, that it would take one Thomas Paine, to radicalize a need to remember these humanitarian concerns.

Looking back on this history, Craig Nelson made a heavy use of progressives. Meaning, for their time, liberals to radicals. Social reformers of the kind, who spoke out against a “status quo” that caused so much suffering, while satisfying “the elite.” These same progressives (long before Karl Marx) thought that they could in fact, ease this burden and further, change something fundamental about the future of human society. In just the first chapters, Mr. Nelson tells us about humanists. That’s not a “humanist” circa the 20th century and the eye-rolling hilarity of the things they claim. Rather, the humanists of the 18th century, were in fact people who saw the suffering, the injustices that people faced, and sincerely wished to do something about it. Long before Karl Marx, and “progressive” is vindicated, by trying to advance the lot of human society. Quite frankly, when was it ever supposed to have become a dirty word?


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