In announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in November 1979, Ronald Reagan spoke eloquently about his vision for America. In his address, he acknowledged that an unease, a “malaise” President Jimmy Carter had called it, seemed to pervade the country.
But Mr. Reagan, ever the optimist, declared: “When Washington’s men were freezing at Valley Forge, Tom Paine told his fellow Americans: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again,’ we still have that power.”
With Thomas Paine’s rousing injunction of 1776 “to begin the world over again,” he sought to incite the colonists to rebel from England — to seek their independence — so, in his words, the Americans could form “the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth.”
We celebrate the Fourth of July with our parades and fireworks to mark the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation beginning the American Revolution. But Independence Day presents an opportunity to think, along with Thomas Paine, about the American Revolution’s deeper meaning, both to Americans and to the rest of the world.
Following John Locke, and other Enlightenment philosophers, Paine was a social contract theorist. He argued in “Rights of Man,” published in 1791, that each individual is born with certain fundamental, or universal, natural rights that exist prior to the establishment of government and that the primary reason governments are formed is to secure those rights. And, importantly, that if government fails to protect those natural rights, then society needs to regenerate or reorder itself, through revolution if necessary.
Thus, Paine declares, two years after the beginning of the French Revolution: “[W]hat we now see in the world, from the Revolutions of America and France, are the renovation of the natural order of things, a system of principles as universal as truth and the existence of man, and combining moral with political happiness and national prosperity.”