Paine, Jefferson, Adams and Madison's Contributions to American Democracy
Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison all influenced the founding of the nation through their writings in many and varied ways. Seen, collectively as the Fathers of the Nation, these men contributed to and promoted the ideals on which our democracy was founded; reason, freedom and equality. These themes, originated in Enlightenment philosophies, provided the clarion call for the Declaration of Independence, revolution and the foundation of an entirely new form of government, by and for the people, because they borrowed from English thinkers, but took a more progressive view which captured the independence of the American spirit.
The call for revolutionary action was provided by Thomas Paine in his pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January 1776. Published just at the time of growing tensions between the colonists and the monarchy, it “inflamed further the passions of radicals and helped move moderates and fence sitters to favor independence over compromise” (Silver and Stanlick, 38). In it, he makes two compelling arguments which could not be ignored; that of nature and reason. He argued that “nature’s order is disrupted as long as America is not independent of England” and that it was unnatural for an island to rule over an entire continent (Silver and Stanlick, 38). He further cited the economic suffocation born from the Tax Act, Stamp Act and other stifling conditions placed upon colonists, and that the very balance of nature has been shifted by these circumstances which subjugate the colonists to second class citizens deprived of their rights as Englishmen.
Paine sees the very system of English government, monarchy, as contrary to the laws of nature in that “society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by united our affections, the latter by negatively by restraining our vices” (Paine, 3). He sees that nature itself is the strongest argument against kingship. Kings are regarded as the head of a nation, as a father figure. That would imply that all the king’s subjects are subordinate to him and thus, subject to his whims, as are children to their father. Paine’s most salient argument is that allowing this relationship to continue disregards all reason and serves to pervert equality because as Silver and Stanlick state, “Americans or any other human beings who passively allow themselves effectively to become children when they are adults have acted against the canons of their own rationality.” So therefore, when peaceful steps are not sufficient to produce change and a return to reason, revolution becomes the inevitable next step.
Just six months after the publication of Common Sense, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and others were appointed to draft a declaration that would articulate the vision that Paine expressed in the conclusion of his pamphlet, “Our plan is peace for ever. We are tired of contention with Britain, and can see no real end to it but in a final separation” (Paine, 54). This task, which at the time was not viewed as an honor, was given to Jefferson because the other, more able men were too busy to accept. The challenge was accepted by Jefferson and the resulting Declaration of Independence has been judged by history as one of the most eloquent and inspiring documents. In it, he expresses his philosophy: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure their rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.”
Again, the central themes of reason, freedom and equality ring true in this statement. Using reason, Jefferson deduced that these truths are “self-evident” that all are “created equal,” despite inherent contradictions, this equality was not acknowledged for African Americans or women, however, it did apply to men, especially for property owners. Also, clearly stated is that government derives its power from the governed. A mutually beneficial relationship is required to avoid tyranny or oppression. A certain degree of freedom and liberty must be afforded to the people so that they have the liberty to pursue happiness.
John Adams was more pragmatic than Jefferson, a pessimist about human nature, who would serve as George Washington’s Vice President for two terms, then the second President of the United States. Not as infamous as Washington, Jefferson or Franklin, Adams was present at both the First and Second Continental Congresses’ and negotiated and signed the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War in 1783 (Silver & Stanlick, 51). He held the view that government is necessary because “humans are driven by our passions, not always by reason, we need government: ‘Consider that government is intended to set bounds to passion which nature has not limited; and to assist reason, conscience, justice and truth in controlling interest without which it would be as unjust and uncontrollable” (Silver & Stanlick, 51). Clearly, the evolution of thought seen so far from Paine to Jefferson to Adams is a result of the times and conditions under which they lived and wrote. Paine wrote to inspire the colonists to free themselves from the yoke of British control and sparked the revolution, Jefferson wrote to articulate the ideals on which this new government would be founded and Adams wrote to express the justification for the new government during the time of its formulation.
According to Silver and Stanlick, Adams provided two important characteristics which balanced the more idealistic and inflammatory philosophies of Jefferson and Paine, these were “skepticism” and “equilibrium” (Silver & Stanlick 52). Because of his doubts about human nature, based on observation and lived experience, he knew that there had never and would never be a society in which all were “equal.” He also doubted that reason could control man’s desire for esteem, power and self-enrichment in his involvement in the government. For this reason, he advocated “that a lasting and true republic must be fashioned as skilled machinists fashion scales, namely with a balance of opposing forces of with what political scientists call ‘checks and balances’” (Silver & Stanlick, 53).
James Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution” because of his political wrangling and successful campaigning for a strong federal government, rather than strong state governments which would lead to competing interests and what he termed factionalism (Silver & Stanlick, 54). Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, authors of The Federalist, he defended a constitutional federation of states united under a strong federal government which would have a separation of powers and specific powers reserved to it. In Federalist #10, he treats the issue of factions. He viewed that any republican or democratic government, the issue of factions could serve to be problematic. He called this the “tyranny of the majority” and is described as this, “By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse or passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregates of the community” (Silver & Stanlick, 55). He related that the remedies for factionalism are too harsh to entertain and would constitute denying citizens their liberty. This solution is too odious to support, so the solution for Madison becomes enlarging the country so that there are so many people with so many diverse interests that no one group representing just their interests can dominate or form a majority.
Like Adams, Madison’s philosophies are pessimistic in nature. He recognized that self-interest, passions and greed frequently prevent reason from being triumphant. As a pragmatist, he understood that certain protections needed to be built into the Constitution to protect the freedom of the many. In this same capacity, he also knew that in order for the southern states to agree to ratification, the issue of slavery would be ignored.
The progression of thought as exemplified in the philosophies of these four men was rooted in Enlightenment values of reason, freedom and equality. Each writing for a slightly different purpose, they successfully laid the groundwork for our freedom and the foundation of a new nation.
Silver, Bruce, S. and Stanlick, Nancy, A. Philosophy in America: Interpretive Essays, Volume II. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.