The Founding Fathers and Moral Courage

By Robert Contributor –

As patriots recount tales of military heroism during the Revolutionary War, I thought it apropos to remind LibertyChat readers of two episodes when the “Founding Fathers” displayed remarkable moral courage. The episodes involve John Adams and Thomas Paine, both of whom were willing to do what was right, even though they must have known the mobs—who would otherwise have adored them—would turn on them. In Adams’ case, his risky move turned out to pay off in narrow terms, while in Paine’s, it almost cost him his life.

First, recall the so-called Boston Massacre from American history classes: In the grand scheme of things, this was hardly a massacre; indeed the British apparently refer to the same event as the “King Street incident.” On March 5, 1770, British soldiers stationed in Boston in order to enforce Parliamentary legislation were being harassed by an American mob. Against orders, they fired into the crowd, killing five males and wounding six.

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Needless to say, the American colonists were none too happy with this “massacre” / “incident,” yet nonetheless attorney John Adams agreed to defend the British soldiers who had to stand trial for murder.

To appreciate just how brave this move was, imagine if you were a defense attorney and a strong libertarian, living in LA when the beating death of homeless man Kelly Thomas occurred. The cops couldn’t find anyone willing to represent them, and then you volunteered to do it—not because you agreed with the government’s policies, but because you thought everyone deserved a fair trial. How do you think that would go for you? Would you be celebrated as a hero standing up for individual rights and the rule of law?

Things actually panned out professionally for John Adams, who—among other career achievements—was the second President of the United States. But things did not go so well for Thomas Paine, arguably the intellectual architect of the American Revolution.

Paine, you may recall, wrote the brilliant 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, which to this day should inspire libertarians as they try to educate their neighbors. Here’s an example of its exquisite political analysis:

SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

 But when you absolutely, positively, must get people fired up for battle, there’s no substitute for prose like this, taken from Paine’s December 23, 1776 essay “The American Crisis”:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

Even though I don’t think physical violence is an effective path to lasting liberty, Paine’s words get me ready to throw down with some redcoats.

Now there is no doubt that this guy, Thomas Paine, is a bona fide hero of revolutionaries everywhere. Indeed, he went to France after their celebrated revolution began (in 1789), and wrote The Rights of Manas a vindication of the French in response to Edmund Burke’s critique.

In fact, Paine was such a hero to the French people that he was elected to the French National Convention in 1792, even though he didn’t speak French. But then Paine was presented with a moral conundrum: The revolutionaries, including the bloodthirsty Robespierre, were planning on beheading the deposed King of France. Yet in a remarkably brave move, Thomas Paine—the outsider from the Americas—told the French to spare the life of their hated king even as they abolished monarchy. (Thus the famous slogan, “Kill the king but spare the man.”) Here is an excerpt from his remarks (told through a translator to the assembly), in which he urged that the royal family be banished to the United States:

Monarchical governments have trained the human race, and inured it to the sanguinary arts and refinements of punishment; and it is exactly the same punishment which has so long shocked the sight and tormented the patience of the people, that now, in their turn, they practice in revenge upon their oppressors. But it becomes us to be strictly on our guard against the abomination and perversity of monarchical examples: as France has been the first of European nations to abolish royalty, let her also be the first to abolish the punishment of death, and to find out a milder and more effectual substitute.

What did Thomas Paine receive for his efforts? Imprisonment by the French freedom-fighters. Indeed he narrowly avoided his own execution.

While in prison, Paine wrote The Age of Reason, a deist work that was very critical of organized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular. It is probably this work that ruined Paine’s reputation among the American public. Here is how Wikepedia describes his end: “At the time of his death, most American newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New York Evening Post, which read in part: “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.” Only six mourners came to his funeral…”

So as I reflect this Fourth of July on the men we are taught to revere as our “Founding Fathers,” I celebrate not the willingness to kill for liberty, but instead the willingness to do what is right, regardless of the effects on popularity or even personal safety. On this score, few people in human history have performed better than the radical Thomas Paine.




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