Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Thomas Paine and the Despotic Danger of the Unaccountable Presidency

by Nomad

A Nation Turning Its Back on Its Own Glory

The last years of Thomas Paine, one of America's first and most outspoken intellectuals, were bitter ones. The American political activist and philosopher had left in the spring of 1787, bound for France.
A strong supporter for the anti-royalist side, he was caught up in the lethal throes of the revolution there. Charged with crimes against the state, Paine was arrested in December 1793 and was imprisoned for a year in Luxembourg Prison (formerly a palace.)
His survival was, by his own account, based solely on sheer luck. 

When he returned to the United States in 1802, he was disappointed in what he saw. The aged and ailing Paine was nearing the end of his colorful life with a profound sense of disillusionment. He wrote:
While I beheld with pleasure the dawn of liberty rising in Europe, I saw with regret the lustre of it fading in America.
His book, The Age of Reason - which challenged institutionalized religion and the legitimacy of the Bible, provoked public outrage and hostility wherever it was published. One Boston newspaper called this former hero of the American Revolution "a lying, drunken brutal infidel."
Despite Paine's efforts at establishing a secularist republic, religious fervor had returned in spades. Immigrants had seen America seemed "pristine, edenic and undefiled" and, to Paine's horror,
 "the perfect place to recover pure, uncorrupted and original Christianity."
His ideas about government had also been relegated to the past. In his absence, the Federalist Party had gained much support. A coalition of bankers and businessmen, the Federalists believed in a strong national government. The power of the nation now belonged to the well-to-do, rather than the common man.

While he had been gone, America had sold out its own revolution and cast off its own principles. She was, he said, "turning her back on her own glory, and making hasty strides in the retrograde path of oblivion."

No Longer the Land of Liberty

In his essay, To the Citizens of the United States- (June 5th, 1805) Paine describes the founding fathers' concerns about establishing a strong executive power. A president with too much power was, in his opinion, a threat to the American Republic.

When the plan of the Federal Government... was proposed and submitted to the consideration of the several States, it was strongly objected to in each of them.

But the objections were not on anti-Federal grounds, but on constitutional points. Many were shocked at the idea of placing what is called executive power in the hands of a single individual. To them, it had too much the form and appearance of a military government, or a despotic one.

What, many of them asked, would happen if such power ever fell into the hands of an unscrupulous individual?

Others objected that the powers given to a President were too great and that, in the hands of an ambitious and designing man, it might grow into tyranny as it did in England under Oliver Cromwell, and as it has since done in France. A republic must not only be so in its principles, but in its forms.

The founding fathers questioned whether, ultimately, any one person could be wise and considerate enough with so much power.

The executive part of the Federal Government was made for a man, and those who consented, against their judgment, to place executive power in the hands of a single individual, reposed more on the supposed moderation of the person they had in view, than on the wisdom of the measure itself.

Two considerations, however, overcame all objections. The one was the absolute necessity of a Federal Government. The other, the rational reflections, that as government in America is founded on the representative system, any error in the first essay could be reformed by the same quiet and rational process by which the Constitution was formed, and that either by the generation then living, or by those who were to succeed.

If ever America loses sight of this principle, she will no longer be the land of liberty. The father will become the assassin of the rights of the son, and his descendants be a race of slaves.

A Patriot's Sad Death 

Four years later, Paine was dead. His obituary notice read that Paine "had lived long, did some good, and much harm."
At the funeral of the man to whom the new nation owed so much, there was "no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display."
Only six mourners attended his funeral. That included his housekeeper and her son. History tells us, two of those who stood at his grave were freed African American slaves, who were "filled with gratitude."  

Two generations later,  politician and orator Robert G. Ingersoll said of Paine's passing.
Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts.
Nevertheless, his ideas have survived and have become an integral American ideal. In many respects, Paine was the father of American progressive thought.
The belief in the inevitability of progress, both scientific and social, his faith in the individual and a government created for the common good, are very much a part of Paine's legacy.

The King of America

Paine's concerns about relinquishing excessive power to the executive branch have never really abated over the centuries. In our age, we are facing yet another worrisome period in which the president considers himself to be above criticism by the press, heedless of the constitutional limits to his powers and unbeholden to the will of the people who collectively elected him. 

Donald Trump has shown repeatedly that he has no interest in the rule of law nor in the prescripts of due process. Since coming to power, Trump has convincingly demonstrated "his contempt, abhorrence and lack of respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, as well as for the office of president." As one source points out:
That’s clear from his sacking of FBI Director James Comey; his repeated lying to the public and press; his continuing to receive profits and benefits from foreign governments in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause; his attacking the integrity of federal judges and encouraging police misconduct; his disparaging the First Amendment’s protections of a free press; his falsely claiming that President Obama tapped his telephone—the list goes on and on. In addition, he has ridiculed and insulted numerous members of Congress, and has publicly and repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks.
The danger of putting too much power in the hands of one man is apparent for all the world to see. Through a series of decrees,  Trump has, in all but name, become the self-appointed King of America. 

For the time being, President Trump has successfully challenged Paine's famous declaration:
In America, THE LAW IS KING.
How this problem is resolved will determine whether the American Republic can survive. Whether the rule of law will prevail is still an open question.

The time to openly reject Trump and lawlessness that he propagates is now. For as Paine once wrote:
The strength and power of despotism consists wholly in the fear of resistance.