There is a tendency today to lump the Founding Fathers together as though somehow they thought alike, acted in unison and actually got along with each other while leading the Revolutionary Cause and founding a new nation. Now that America’s founding is well over two hundred years old, distance brings clarity in understanding the period, but it just as easily can muddle distinctions and efforts of delineation. Questions such as “What would our forefathers think, or do?” often arise about current issues and controversies. Such questions gloss over philosophical differences and intense personal rivalries among some of the founders.
Two American founders who stand out for their contributions to the cause of Independence but who were far apart in their political thought are John Adams and Thomas Paine. Today, there is general agreement that among the founders Adams is an A-lister, while Paine remains a “quasi-founder” at best. But that case would have been harder to make in the winter and spring of ‘76.
When Paine’s Common Sense appeared in January, 1776, with its incendiary words ridiculing the crown and hereditary authority, and its forthright call for a declaration of independence and creation of a republican form of government, the sensational pamphlet excited many patriots but alarmed others. John Adams, for one, admired the author’s “manly” style of writing and unequivocal call for separation from British rule, but was shocked by the pamphlet’s “democratical” prescriptions for new governance. Fearing that he was being identified as the anonymous author of Common Sense, and recognizing the powerful and immediate effect the pamphlet was having on the people, Adams soon was composing letters to several colleagues with thoughts of his own. His proposals coalesced in a pamphlet entitled Thoughts on Government, also published anonymously, in April 1776. Soon after each pamphlet’s publication, everyone knew who the authors of Common Sense and Thoughts on Government were. And for Paine, his writing brought instant fame.
Regarding Paine as a clever but uneducated writer, Adams welcomed his vigorous call for independence in Common Sense, but remained troubled about Paine. He figured Paine, a new arrival to America, must have learned his American political philosophy and revolutionary rhetoric only recently in the coffee houses and taverns, and from the newspapers of Philadelphia, and was a latecomer to the American cause. Paine himself admitted as much:
I happened to come to America a few months before the breaking out of hostilities. I found the disposition of the people such, that they might have been led by a thread and governed by a reed. Their suspicion was quick and penetrating, but their attachment to Britain was obstinate, and it was at that time a kind of treason to speak against it…I viewed the dispute as a kind of lawsuit, in which I supposed the parties would find a way either to decide or settle it. I had no thoughts of independence or of arms. The world could not then have persuaded me that I should be either a soldier or an author…But when the country, into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir.
Adams would distance himself from Paine and his accomplishments as time went on. He increasingly viewed the role that Paine and his Common Sense had played in the era of independence with a mixture of resignation and jealousy, even denial. In time, Adams grew to regard Paine’s radical politics and character more darkly. Years after Independence, John Adams, calling Paine a “disastrous meteor” and that “star of disaster,” summed up Paine’s contributions. Of Common Sense, he wrote that it was a “poor, short-sighted crapulous mass.” And there was more:
I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do [he wrote at an unmellowed seventy-one to a friend], and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Thomas Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.
But early in 1776, Adams had heard that Paine was a man with genius in his eyes and he had much then to admire about Common Sense. At that time, he certainly could not dismiss Paine but instead felt compelled to answer Common Sense, because as Adams saw it, things were beginning to move too quickly toward separation from Britain and perhaps beyond Congress’ ability to control. He had good instincts.
To Paine, independence and a new “a continental form of government” for America were synonymous. After spending much time in Common Sense destroying every argument he could think of for preserving the colonies’ attachment to Britain, Paine turned to the issue of governance. “If there is any true cause of fear respecting independence, it is because no plan is yet laid down.”
Actually, he was wrong. The Galloway Plan was considered by the First Continental Congress in 1774, but rejected, after several delegates had urged the creation of a central government: “There is the necessity that an American Legislature should be set up, or else that we should give the power to Parliament or King.” And John Adams himself, writing as Novanglus in one of his Letters Addressed to the Inhabitants of the Colony of Massachusetts in March 1775, a year before his Thoughts on Government, broached the subject of a “new constitution …for the whole British dominions, and a supreme legislature coextensive with it, upon the general principles of the English constitution, an equal mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy….” But since “‘two supreme and independent authorities cannot exist in the same state,’ any more than two supreme beings in one universe,” then he concluded that “our provincial legislatures are the only supreme authorities in the colonies.” That certainly confirmed Adams’ credentials as a leading rebel.
Paine’s rebellion went further. He devoted only a few paragraphs in Common Sense to outlining his “hints” for a plan. But his proposals were democratic through and through. The opening lines of Paine’s proposals were enough to rattle Adams and some of his compatriots, whose support for Independence was not coupled to thoughts of radically overhauling the still admired British constitution. Common Sense, however, challenged that thinking: “Let the assemblies be annual, with a president only. The representation more equal, their business wholly domestic, and subject to the authority of a Continental Congress.”
In these few words, Paine shifted the debate from the much venerated British constitution to new thinking. Gone were the mixed government of King, Lords and Commons, and principles of heredity and aristocratic rule. Gone also was the King-in-Parliament model of legislative supremacy. In its place, Paine offered unicameral assemblies with a new model of executive authority for the colonies, based on democratic representation, and hints of federalism by restricting provincial legislative authority to domestic matters and subordinating it to a Congress within a context of national legislative supremacy.
The next four paragraphs of Common Sense outlined a system of representation for a large, national single-house Congress, including a scheme for executive leadership of Congress dependent upon the principle of rotation among the colonies, the use of an extraordinary majority in order to pass legislation (three-fifths of the representatives in Congress), and a call for a “continental conference,” based on principles of popular sovereignty, to frame a “Continental Charter, or Charter of the United Colonies.” This constitutional convention would be comprised of representatives selected by a combination of qualified voters and assemblies or conventions in each colony, and would create a charter that would establish the basis of representation for both Congress and the colonial assemblies, “drawing the line of business between them: Always remembering, that our strength is continental and not provincial.” It also would secure the rights of “freedom and property to all men, and above all things, the free exercise of religion….”
It was this set of proposals and not Paine’s call in Common Sense for independence that stunned John Adams and caused him to put his own thoughts down for a suitable plan for governance. He later said that he began “setting down his own thoughts on government…to do all in my power to counteract the effect of the popular mind of so foolish a plan.”
The Adams framework of governance in Thoughts on Government reflected republican revisions to, but not a complete break from, the English “mixed” constitution model, and applied to the new state governments. Adams offered a three-part government with an elected governor for an executive, a two-house legislature, and an independent judiciary. The bicameral legislature would have an elected upper house, instead of a hereditary one. The constitutions would embody principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, and the new constitutions would be based, in principle, on popular sovereignty since elections meant that power flowed up from the people, and not top-down from the king. Adams paid attention to constituting the representative assemblies, and was more specific than Paine about equal representation: “…equal representation or, in other words, equal interests among the people should have equal interests in it.” He did not share Paine’s faith in a “more equal” representative democracy.
Because Adams had been asked by several colonies for ideas to help them form their new governments, his recommendations paid scant attention to the powers of a national government. Unlike Paine, Adams’ proposals did not hint of federalism; in fact, he specified restrictions on any national legislature powers:
If the colonies should assume governments separately, they should be left entirely to their own choice of the forms; and if a continental constitution should be formed, it should be a congress, containing a fair and adequate representation of the colonies, and its authority should sacredly be confined to these cases, namely, war, trade, disputes between colony and colony, the post office, and the unappropriated lands of the crown, as they used to be called.
Interestingly, Paine and Adams were very close in their descriptions of the authority of the national government (war, relations among the colonies, a post office, etc.), even as they disagreed about its powers. But Adams provided no details about his national congress, its structure or any other details about the “continental constitution.” Adams, who would become an ardent nationalist following the Revolution, showed little signs of that persuasion in his pamphlet.
As soon as Thoughts on Government appeared in Philadelphia in the spring of ’76, an agitated Paine showed up at Adams’ doorstep in that city. Paine, for one, knew immediately who the author was. Adams later recalled the conversation in his autobiography:
Paine, soon after the Appearance of my Pamphlet, hurried away to my Lodgings and spent an Evening with me. His Business was to reprehend me for publishing my Pamphlet. Said he was afraid it would do hurt, and that it was repugnant to the plan he had proposed in his Common Sense. I told him it was true it was repugnant and for that reason I had written it and I had consented to the publication of it: for I was as much afraid of his Work [as] he was of mine. His plan was so democratical, without any restraint or even an Attempt at any Equilibrium or Counterpoise, that it must produce confusion and every Evil Work… This Conversation passed in good humour without any harshness on either Side, but I perceived in him a conceit of himself and a daring Impudence, which have been developed more and more to this day.
John Adams eventually said that Paine had been “better at tearing down than building up.” He was right. Though Paine’s ideas for governance influenced the first construction of several state governments, especially Pennsylvania’s, those early iterations which included single-house legislatures did not last long, something that Adams happily pointed out later in his writings when trying to dismiss Paine’s influence and promote his own. Adams took credit for contributing the leading ideas for the constitutions of Massachusetts, New York and several other states. And though he was out of the country during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the new Constitution bore striking resemblance to Adams’ proposals in Thoughts on Government. It should be pointed out that neither Paine nor Adams thought much of the original national constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Both became wary of the Articles even before it went into effect, because of its weak national powers. But Paine’s nationalist tendencies had preceded those of Adams.
True to Adams’ fear, the momentum toward Independence in the winter and spring of ’76 accelerated faster than anyone had anticipated. Paine’s Common Sense, along with King George’s proclamation declaring that the colonies were in a state of rebellion, which had arrived on the same day Paine’s pamphlet appeared in Philadelphia in January, spurred the independence movement and put great pressure on the Continental Congress to act. Adams succeeded in obtaining a resolution in Congress in mid-May to replace the original colonial constitutions tied to the king with new state constitutions, and he served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Paine joined Washington’s army as a volunteer aide-de-camp, continued writing pamphlets in support of the war effort and emerging new country, and served briefly as secretary of the congressional committee on foreign affairs in the late 1770s, before being dismissed for indiscretions involving state secrets. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, Paine had left America for Europe, where he would, for a while, gain fame anew. Upon his return to America in 1802, Paine found that most Americans would just as soon have forgotten him.
Adams had to share his starring role in the American Cause with Paine and he never got over it. He too, to use his own description of Paine, had conceit. That Adams made an indelible mark on the American framework of government is clear. Moreover, he would go on to become America’s second president (and the nation’s first single-termer), while Paine almost lost his life while trying to bring about another revolution in France. But the Adams vs. Paine debate didn’t end during the American Revolution and founding period. In time, America’s inexorable movement toward democracy and greater equality would revitalize an interest in Paine’s political thought and contributions. These two founders, who didn’t at all think alike, each left a lasting legacy for America’s future.
- Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York: Penguin, 2006), 205-222.
- Isaac Kramnick, “Introduction,” in Thomas Paine, Common Sense (New York: Penguin, 1986), 25.
- Scott Liell, 46 Pages, Thomas Paine, “Common Sense,” and the Turning Point to Independence (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003), 131.
- David Freeman Hawke, Paine (New York: Harper Colophon, 1974), 7.
- Phillip Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols. (New York: The Citadel Press, 1969), 1:27. Several online versions of Common Sense are freely accessible.
- Alpheus Thomas Mason and Gordon E. Baker, Free Government in the Making (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 132.
- Ibid. 116.
- Phillip Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 1:28.
- Ibid., 28-29.
- David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 97.
- John Adams, “Thoughts on Government, 1776,” in Mason and Baker, Free Government in the Making, 143. Several online versions of Thoughts on Government may be freely accessed.
- John Adams autobiography, part 1, “John Adams,” through 1776, sheet 23 of 53 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/, accessed May 20, 2105.
- Joseph J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), 14.
- The publication of the Age of Reason helped wreck Paine’s reputation in America, in addition to Paine’s famous letter blaming Washington for ignoring his plight in a French prison, and cost him the friendship of many of his fellow compatriots. Samuel Adams, for one, concluded that Paine was an infidel (which certainly was not true) and never had anything more to do with him. For an exchange of letters between Samuel Adams and Paine on the subject, see Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2:1433n; 1434-1438.