America was called into being not with mere cannon fire or musket shots but with ideas, with words that inspired yeomen farmers and small shopkeepers to throw off the physical and mental yoke of empire.
Thomas Jefferson offered some of the finest words, in a Declaration of Independence that proposed the radical notion “that all men are created equal.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Seneca Falls Convention would extend the Jeffersonian promise by opening their Declaration of Sentiments with the line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would further bend the arc of history with his declaration: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
But the truest imagining of the American prospect came not from Jefferson but from the writer who the third president said did “with [his] pen what in other times was done with the sword.”
Thomas Paine electrified the colonies with a call to action that promised much more than mere independence from the British crown. Much more, even, than basic liberty or cherished freedoms.
Paine promised that a United States, founded in revolution against the British Crown, could become the city on a hill that would inspire all the peoples of all the world to reject the brutish repressions of empire, to throw off the barbarous hands of prejudice and superstition, to usher in an age of reason and justice.
“We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth,” wrote Paine in the seminal work of the American experiment, Common Sense. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.”
It is not merely good but indeed necessary to remember, on this and every New Year’s Day, that we still have it in our power to begin the world over again.
In the midst of the absurd “fiscal cliff” debate, it is easy to imagine an American experiment so decayed that it is incapable of getting anything done. Or, at the very least, incapable of getting anything done right.
But politicians, be they honorable leaders or disreputable scoundrels, do not make or break great nations.
Citizens, with equal rights and equal say in the governing of the republic, remain the definers of America’s destiny—if they are willing to seize their country back from the “economic royalists” who seek to built “new kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things”—as the great reader of Paine, Franklin Roosevelt, put it in his Depression-era renewal of Common Sense. That will take radical action, and a willingness to march, to protest, to occupy and to renew the Constitution by amending away the “Money Power” that denies full and functional democracy.
The task at hand is great.
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But Paine expected great things of America because he placed great faith in Americans.
The pampleteer who declared, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion” never believed that America was merely of or for itself. Rather, he argued, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested.”
America is a still young country. With its great influence in the world, its great resources and its great humanity, America can and should be an inspired and inspiring nation—leading not with weaponry but with the words and deeds that are worthy of our past, our present and our limitless future.
It falls to progressives, as it has since America’s founding, to ask more of the American experiment. To say not as a historical reference but as a contemporary call: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
In 2013, America should seize the power of Paine, and of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King and Patti Smith—“the power to dream…to rule…to wrestle the world from fools”—and use it to do great things—as a people and as a nation.
This can be a just nation.
This can be a great nation at peace with itself, with its neighbors and the planet.
This can be the America that Paine imagined and that the heirs to his radical vision share.
This is the year to make it so.