Thomas Paine on Honor and the Congress

Connecting to the Principles, Part 2

Almost a year before Thomas Paine published Common Sense, he served as the editor for The Pennsylvania Magazine. He was still known as Thomas Pain, his family name, when he published a brief piece in May, 1775, about the use of titles among the aristocracy called “Reflections on Titles.”

Pain, recently emigrated from England, soon changed his name to Paine to distinguish himself as a new “American” free to write about topics that would become increasingly important to the cause of independence from Great Britain. From personal readings in high school and college of Common Sense and his other works, as well as 1776 America’s reactions to Common Sense, most Americans today know how vital Paine was to the cause.

About titles, Paine wrote “Virtue is inflamed at the violation, and sober reason calls it nonsense.” He went on to note “for when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon” discussing what he considered to be unthinking and unchallenged acceptance of traditionally granted but unmerited title and rank.

There was one exception Thomas Paine noted about titles and their uses in “Reflections on Titles.” His words, published well before he was known in America as a writer for the cause of independence, praised one specific group in particular. “Reflections on Titles” could serve well to motivate that group’s progeny 239 years later. Paine’s observations honor the body of our nation’s founders who invested so much to create America. Note Paine’s thoughts that should inspire even today:

Modesty forbids men, separately or collectively, to assume titles. But as all honours, even that of Kings, originated from the public, the public may justly be called the fountain of true honour. And it is with much pleasure I have heard the title of Honourable applied to a body of men, who nobly disregarding private ease and interest for public welfare, have justly merited the address of The Honourable Continental Congress.

Paine wrote this brief but timely piece along with a number of other important (or at least interesting!) works that led up to Common Sense. In contrasting those who aspired to titles, mostly from his native country, he of course referred to the assemblage in Philadelphia who eventually pledged “Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” The words with which he praised the Continental Congress in 1775 should have inspired generations of Congresses and even state and local assemblies.

Sadly, this admiration from our nation’s past seems less fitting today.

Paine as a Connector to the Public

Paine also noted that the “public may justly be called the fountain of true honour,” an observation that suggests that it was indeed the public who must be responsible to bestow the title of “Honourable” to the Congress, then and now. As a matter of precedence, this would also suggest that the public must be intellectually capable of determining upon whom it would bestow the title of “Honourable”.

It is the general claim of Fulfilling the American Promise in the Connected Age that the public, particularly the Center, is in fact capable of bestowing this title. But one must wonder how many members of the Center today would in fact apply Paine’s definition to the current governing body of this nation.

Part of “qualifying” for the title of Honorable, to modernize the term, is an adherence to a set of principles based on our Constitution, as well as an application of “common sense.” The Constitution (including the Bill of Rights) provides an exceptional framework for governance and serves as a foundation for the principles of honorable governing.

It seems fair to say that all Americans, and certainly the Center, want the people they elect to represent them to be honorable servant-leaders of our nation. The gulf that exists between our political parties today precludes effective governing. The term “honor” is not even part of the dialogue when discussing contemporary politics at the national level. We proposed an initial set of Principles and Objectives in a recent FAPITCA piece that we feel could resolve the current dilemma, enhance the vocabulary and add value to a quest for the return to eligibility of the title “Honorable” to our governing bodies.

It’s worth noting that Thomas Paine was also a master of the connectivity of the 1770s: the accessibly readable pamphlet. He connected by delivering content that appealed to a great many people while still maintaining its intellectual essence. Paine used the language and network of the time to stimulate people to think, share and yes, be inspired to learn more and to intelligently lift America from the “Monarchical tyranny” of the British King and Parliament.

We believe the Center must also become masters of the tools of communication and learning in the current world: the Connected Age. As we noted in the Principles of FAPITCA, as “leaders of America in the 21st Century, we must leverage the technologies of the ‘connected age’ on behalf of our people to connect and bind us rather than to divide us.” We must apply the principles and lessons from honorable men and women who have gone before us.

When the Center connects to our electoral process and ensures responsible outcomes that help unify us instead of divide us, we get closer to enabling the honor in our elected bodies Thomas Paine praised in 1775. When the Center engages and pressures elected officials to stop listening to the extremists and their lobbyists, honor returns to our political process. At that point, our elected bodies return to being of the people…for the people, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. Our elected officials become leaders once again.

It’s our responsibility as the Center to help our leaders achieve this greatness. It would just be “common sense” to Thomas Paine.

Originally posted by Carl and Chuck Hunt, 2/28/2014

Editor’s note: The next-to-last paragraph of this post was slightly edited on 3/1/2014 for clarity.

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