Thomas Paine on War and Taxes

On January 10, 1776 Thomas Paine published Common Sense, the pamphlet that turned a revolt into a revolution. Only six months later the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress proposed that these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states -- an idea that had only a few quiet advocates before Paine spoke out. Common Sense earned Paine a worldwide reputation. By 1790 he was in Europe, entangling himself in the politics of the French Revolution and defending it against intellectual attacks. Edmund Burke, a member of the British Whig party, was alarmed at what he saw happening in France. Burke had always been suspicious of government power and years earlier had often urged Parliament to avoid going to war with the American colonies, saying that 'a great many redcoats will never rule America.' But on November 1, 1790, Burke published a 350-page book called Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he attempted to wake up those English gentlemen who had no desire to see 'their mansions pulled down and pillaged, their persons abused, insulted, and destroyed.' [1] Reflections earned Burke praise from his enemies and rebukes from his fellow Whigs. His old foe George III loved it and encouraged others to read it. Charles James Fox, once Burke's 'pupil,' criticized the tome as being in 'very bad taste.' [2] The two men argued in Parliament over it, and Burke ended by terminating their friendship. Paine had been Burke's friend, too, but his mission now was to defend the French Revolution. He studied Reflections and found himself agreeing with a great many points, such as Burke's claim that 'a jealous, ever-waking vigilance' was needed to 'guard the treasure of liberty.' But Burke launched into ad hominen attacks on various individuals, including Paine, deriding his line from Common Sense that 'government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.' He also ripped the artisan class from which Paine originated, saying that such occupations cannot be a matter of honor to those employed in them. Burke made it clear that he preferred existing states of inequality in society and attacked the ideals of republican self-government. Reflections was immensely popular and was finding sympathy in public replies. Paine knew that his answer to Burke had to be strong and expressed in a style commensurate with his views. Burke wrote in the familiar heavy style of the privileged status quo; Paine would need to write in a manner more fitting for a republican. As with Common Sense, his goal was to avoid 'every literary ornament' and make his rebuttal 'as plain as the alphabet.' [3] Paine's reply was Rights of Man, which eventually earned him an absentia conviction of seditious libel in England. Though parts of it delve into welfare and social security proposals, there is much in it that libertarians can treasure. I have extracted some of Paine's insights on war and taxation, and present them here for your Fourth of July enjoyment. And remember: American wars include those waged against other countries, as well as the domestic kind, such as the War on Drugs. From Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine: To reason with governments, as they have existed for ages, is to argue with brutes. It is only from the nations themselves that reforms can be expected. . . . Had governments agreed to quarrel on purpose to fleece their countries by taxes, they could not have succeeded better than they have done. . . . [G]overnment seems to be placarding its need of a foe; for unless it finds one somewhere, no pretext exists for the enormous revenue and taxation now deemed necessary. . . . War is the common harvest of all those who participate in the division and expenditure of public money, in all countries. It is the art of conquering at home; the object of it is an increase of revenue; and as revenue cannot be increased without taxes, a pretense must be made for expenditure. In reviewing the history of the English Government, its wars and its taxes, a bystander, not blinded by prejudice nor warped by interest, would declare that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes. . . . [T]he portion of liberty enjoyed in England is just enough to enslave a country more productively than by despotism, and that as the real object of all despotism is revenue, a government so formed obtains more than it could do either by direct despotism, or in a full state of freedom, and is, therefore on the ground of interest, opposed to both. . . . [T]he caterpillar principle of all Courts and Courtiers are alike. They form a common policy throughout Europe, detached and separate from the interest of Nations: and while they appear to quarrel, they agree to plunder. . . . Every war terminates with an addition of taxes, and consequently with an addition of revenue; and in any event of war, in the manner they are now commenced and concluded, the power and interest of Governments are increased. War, therefore, from its productiveness, as it easily furnishes the pretense of necessity for taxes and appointments to places and offices, becomes a principal part of the system of old Governments; and to establish any mode to abolish war, however advantageous it might be to Nations, would be to take from such Government the most lucrative of its branches. . . . It is time to dismiss that inattention which has so long been the encouraging cause of stretching taxation to excess. . . . To say that any people are not fit for freedom, is to make poverty their choice, and to say they had rather be loaded with taxes than not. . . . If, from the more wretched parts of the old world, we look at those which are in an advanced stage of improvement we still find the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised to furnish new pretenses for revenue and taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey, and permits none to escape without a tribute. . . . Can we possibly suppose that if governments had originated in a right principle, and had not an interest in pursuing a wrong one, the world could have been in the wretched and quarrelsome condition we have seen it? What inducement has the farmer, while following the plough, to lay aside his peaceful pursuit, and go to war with the farmer of another country? or what inducement has the manufacturer? What is dominion to them, or to any class of men in a nation? Does it add an acre to any man's estate, or raise its value? Are not conquest and defeat each of the same price, and taxes the never-failing consequence? . . . Government, on the old system, is an assumption of power, for the aggrandizement of itself; on the new, a delegation of power for the common benefit of society. The former supports itself by keeping up a system of war; the latter promotes a system of peace, as the true means of enriching a nation. The one encourages national prejudices; the other promotes universal society, as the means of universal commerce. The one measures its prosperity, by the quantity of revenue it extorts; the other proves its excellence, by the small quantity of taxes it requires. . . . It can only be by blinding the understanding of man, and making him believe that government is some wonderful mysterious thing, that excessive revenues are obtained. Monarchy is well calculated to ensure this end. It is the popery of government; a thing kept up to amuse the ignorant, and quiet them into taxes. . . . The government of a free country, properly speaking, is not in the persons, but in the laws. The enacting of those requires no great expense; and when they are administered, the whole of civil government is performed- the rest is all court contrivance. . . . Government ought to be as much open to improvement as anything which appertains to man, instead of which it has been monopolized from age to age, by the most ignorant and vicious of the human race. Need we any other proof of their wretched management, than the excess of debts and taxes with which every nation groans, and the quarrels into which they have precipitated the world? . . . If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. Made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable; but by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires, and all the parts are brought into cordial unison. There the poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged. Industry is not mortified by the splendid extravagance of a court rioting at its expense. Their taxes are few, because their government is just: and as there is nothing to render them wretched, there is nothing to engender riots and tumults.

1. Keane, John Tom Paine: A Political Life, Grove Press, NY, 1995, p. 289. 2. Ibid, p. 290 3. Ibid., p. 295

Your rating: None
George F. Smith's picture
Columns on STR: 71

George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.