Angry voters are everywhere these days, apparently. We’re fed up, put out, put off, irate, furious, and enraged. Depending on who you ask, voter anger is an irrepressible force welling up from the rank and file of common Americans or a tempest cynically manufactured by calculating politicians, celebrity pundits, and Fox News. Depending on your perspective, it is popular democracy at its finest or a populist threat to democracy itself. This much seems clear, however: 2016 will be remembered as the “Year of the Angry Voter.”
So is voter outrage a constructive force or an irrational threat? My guess is that how we each answer that question will stem more from our personal philosophies and understanding of human nature than from a purported objective assessment of the current political landscape. I know that that is the case with me. When I think about today’s angry climate, my mind turns automatically to the New Testament admonition to be “slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). I think Scripture teaches that anger can be righteous, but in our fallenness it rarely is. Is the anger that we feel a righteous wrath against injustice, an expression of our zeal for the Lord and our love for His creation? Or does it stem from other recesses of the heart? I can’t say dogmatically, but surely this is the most important question we need to ask about it.
As a historian, I find myself wondering if there’s a careful study that puts voter anger in historical context. (There may well be; I welcome your recommendations if you know of any.) It would be interesting to see how 2016 compares in the intensity of voter outrage, and also enlightening to see what concrete results have followed in other times and places marked by strong voter discontent.
As I do every fall, I’m currently teaching a survey of American History up through the Civil War, and it occurs to me that the case can be made that the United States was born in an outburst of indignation. I say this because my class and I just got finished discussing Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, surely the most influential single work of political propaganda in our history. Pay no attention to the pamphlet’s title. It was Paine’s anger—not his reasoned argument—that made Common Sense an overnight sensation.
Thomas Pain (he added the “e” to his name later) only arrived in America in 1774, less than a year before the first blood was shed on Lexington Green to mark the onset of the American Revolutionary War. Thirty-seven years old, his life to this point had been marked by failure. The son of a corset-maker in the village of Thetford, England, he had followed in his father’s footsteps, being apprenticed to a stay-maker at age thirteen and spending the next twelve years of his life making whalebone ribbing for women’s corsets. Dissatisfied with this life (wonder why?), at age twenty-five he left his skilled craft to become, at various times, a tax collector, a schoolteacher, and the proprietor of a tobacco shop. By 1774, his business was bankrupt, he was separated from his wife, and his life was in shambles. With a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, he set sail for the colonies to start life anew as a writer for the Pennsylvania Magazine.
If prominent Founders John Witherspoon and Benjamin Rush are to be trusted, Paine’s first anonymous essays actually condemned the patriot cause. Even if untrue—it’s hard to know for sure—it is undeniable that Paine was an extremely recent convert to the cause when Rush convinced him in late 1775 to use his considerable writing talents to craft a case for independence. Paine responded with a medium length pamphlet (in my edition it’s about fifty pages long) that was rushed into print by January of 1776. To put this in context, the battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred the previous April, followed three months later by the Battle of Bunker Hill. Despite the reality of open war against British rule, popular opinion across the colonies was still divided, and although there were no opinion polls, it seems likely that a decided majority of Americans still hoped for a compromise in which the colonies would be granted greater autonomy over local affairs but remain part of the British Empire as loyal subjects of George III.
Sentiment had begun to change even as Paine sat down to write. News arrived in the colonies that George III had rejected a petition from the Second Continental Congress pleading for reconciliation and had branded the colonists “rebels.” News followed soon afterward that the King had hired German mercenaries and intended to use them to subdue American resistance militarily. Then came reports from within the colonies that the governor of Virginia was actually inviting the slaves of disloyal masters to join the British Army and was offering them freedom in exchange for their aid in subduing their former owners. Although even now few dared to call openly for independence, the moderate argument for reconciliation was becoming more and more difficult to sustain.
This was the setting when the first copies of Common Sense hit the streets at sixpence each. Within three months 120,000 copies were in circulation, and the number of colonists who actually read the pamphlet (or heard it read) was far larger. A rough estimate would be that by April 1776 one half of all the households in the colonies had a copy. For a comparable sensation, imagine a book released today selling forty million copies by Christmas!
Paine’s case for independence was scattered—an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of argument. He told readers that government was at best a necessary evil, and he appealed to natural law, Scripture, history, and self-interest to convince his readers that further allegiance to Britain was preposterous. The most coherent portions of his argument were hardly new; the parts of his argument that were new were hardly coherent. He argued, for example, that there was not a single benefit to membership in the British Empire, despite extensive evidence to the contrary. He borrowed selectively from Scripture to argue that ancient Israel had been a republic and that the Lord condemned all monarchy. (When John Adams privately told Paine that his reasoning from the Old Testament was “ridiculous,” Paine only laughed and made clear that he held the entire Bible in contempt.)
No, it was not Paine’s reason that made Common Sense a sensation. Two other factors were paramount. The first was the work’s accessibility. Most of the political literature of the period was written for a highly educated audience of elites, complete with historical references, literary allusions, and Latin quotations. Paine’s work was short, full of short sentences and short words that sent no one to the dictionary.
The second factor was the author’s rage, which seems to have resonated powerfully with the mass of Americans. For its day, the language of Common Sense was coarse and shocking. Here are some examples:
* The judgment of those who venerated the British constitutional system rendered them unqualified to speak to the present debate in the same way that “a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife.”
* On hereditary monarchy: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”
* On William the Conqueror and the origins of the British monarchy: “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.”
* On George III: “a royal brute,” a “wretch” with “blood upon his soul” who wields “barbarous and hellish power” against his supposed children.
But Paine saved his greatest invective for the colonists who dared to disagree with him. His ad hominem attacks began with the pamphlet’s title: the argument for independence was “common sense,” which meant that all who argued otherwise were either malevolent or stupid. In Paine’s accounting, no one opposed independence for principled reasons. They were either “interested men, who cannot be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; [or] prejudiced men, who will not see.” Warming to his task, Paine told Americans that anyone who would favor reconciliation with Britain after blood had been shed had “the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.” (Look up that last adjective. It’s not a compliment.)
John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass.”
Although they readily acknowledged Paine’s polemical skills, few of the men we now revere as “Founding Fathers” thought highly of the writer. Rumors circulated from the beginning that his personal habits were dissolute and that he rarely wrote until his third tumbler of brandy. His supporters got him a position as a clerk to the committee on foreign affairs but he was soon dismissed due to his “obnoxious” manners. When he sailed for France in 1781, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter wrote from Philadelphia that “there never was a man less beloved in a place than Payne [sic] is in this, having at different times disputed with everybody. The most rational thing he could have done would have been to have died the instant he had finished his Common Sense, for he never again will have it in his power to leave the World with so much credit.”
Paine further alienated his adopted country when he denounced Christianity in his 1794 work The Age of Reason. Writing mostly from a French prison—Paine was variously in and out of favor in France during the French Revolution—Paine judged Christianity as “too absurd for belief.” “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented,” he opined, “there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity.”
Writing from France in 1796, Thomas Paine publicly denounced President George Washington for his “ingratitude” and “hypocrisy.”
And when President George Washington didn’t act aggressively enough to try to get him released from his French dungeon, Paine further offended Americans by writing a lengthy (64-page) public letter to Washington berating the Father of their Country for his “deceit,” “ingratitude,” “hypocrisy,” “meanness,” “vanity,” “perfidy,” and “pusillanimity,” among other character qualities. Americans had won their independence through no thanks to General Washington, Paine informed the president, for you “slept away your time in the field till the finances of the country were completely exhausted,” and deserve “but little share in the glory of the final event.” “And as to you, sir,” Paine concluded, “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?”
Having denounced both Jesus and George Washington, Paine was now heartily despised by most Americans, to the degree that they remembered him at all. He eventually returned to the United States in the early 1800s—he had nowhere else to go—and eventually settled on a modest farm in New Rochelle, New York. There he lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1809. Most Americans now viewed him as a scoundrel and a self-promoter who turned on those who failed to support him. The author of the most popular political tract ever written in American history was laid to rest with no fanfare, and little mourning.