On Thomas Paine

I wrote this essay recently in response to the following quotation, taken from Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.  I wrote it in only forty minutes, as practice for the AP English Language and Composition exam.  I thought an essay would be a nice change from all of the poetry I’ve been posting.

“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 a government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires, and all the parts are brought into cordial unison.”


Thomas Paine’s book Rights of Man describes America as a country where “people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship… are brought into cordial unison.”  There is a ring of truth behind these words that is evident through the tale of history and that extends even to the present day.  Although few of us in America think of our nation in Paine’s idealistic terms, and despite the constant reports of economic recession, terrorism, religious conflict, and disaster, America remains an oasis of “cordial unison” in a divided world.

Many people believe that the U.S. is traveling steadily downhill from its founding ideals, that it is succumbing to war and terrorism, that its economy is permanently crippled.  These pessimistic thinkers have an enormous heap of evidence in their favor.  The September eleventh terrorist attack, the recent Boston Marathon bombing, the increasing unemployment rate, the failure of U.S. political parties to come to lasting agreements, and the conflicts over issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are all referenced in support of the “downhill” argument.

But since when was America ever problem-free?  Anyone who says our country is on the decline has forgotten everything they learned in their high school U.S. history class.  From the very start of America’s existence, we have needed to fight to maintain our freedom and security, our “cordial unison.”  The revolutionary war must have seemed almost apocalyptic at the time, a hurdle that could not be cleared.  The early advocates of freedom, however, could see beyond the war, the bloodshed, the atrocities and hopelessness.  And what they saw was not a utopian society, but one that would continue fighting, age after age, so that its citizens would have the freedom that belongs inherently to all humankind.  George Washington and John Adams never said, “Once we’ve kicked out those redcoats, everything will be hunky-dory and we won’t have to do anything.”  Far from it!  They knew there would always be more work ahead, and they began it immediately after peace was made, framing a constitution and compiling a functional government.  This was only the beginning of the road for America, not the end.  The struggles that have been fought since the time of the founding fathers are numberless.  To name even those most important to modern America would take hours, but they include the War of 1812, the Civil War, the World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and women’s enfranchisement.

Thomas Paine’s phrase, “cordial unison,” does not mean that we all have a free ride to complete bliss here in America.  On the contrary, it means that, no matter our religion or ethnicity, we are all Americans, and we will come together to leap any hurdle, surmount and obstacle, fight any battle for the freedom and peace of humankind.  And we will not lay down arms until all on this earth possess their God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2013.

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