Over the centuries, one of the most important tools available to protesting groups was literature. Some of the most famous protest literature in the world has its roots in American history. For example, some great American authors of protest literature include Thomas Paine, Thomas Nast, John C. Calhoun, and Martin Luther King. Through eloquent, sometimes subtle means, these authors became the spokesmen for their particular protest movements. Thomas Paine was an English-born man who seemed to stir controversy wherever he traveled. Paine’s forceful yet eloquent prose made him a hero for the three great causes to which he devoted his life; the American Revolution, religious reform, and the natural rights of man.
At the age of 37, Paine strove for the fabled shores of America, determined to forget his past. He made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, and settled in Philadelphia. There, Paine was eventually hired into the profession of editor for the Pennsylvania Magazine. He published a series of minor essays, but his first important work was an essay written for the Pennsylvania Journal in which Paine openly denounced slavery. This was Paine’s first foray into the world of protest literature, and it clearly whet his appetite. Paine soon became fascinated with the ongoing hostility in Anglo-American relations, and, much to the dismay of his publisher, could not seem to think of anything but. Therefore, in late 1775, Paine had begun what was to become a 50- page Pamphlet known as Common Sense.
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In this work, Paine stated that: Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a Government, which we might expect in a country without Government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise (Fast 6).
This very biting and controversial stance is what characterized Paine’s writing. He went on to dismiss the King as a fool, and stated that natural ability is not necessarily related to heredity. Paine argued that the colonies existed only for British profit, and that the colonies must unite quickly if they were ever to form a single nation. This latter argument was more than likely influenced by Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” cartoon. Finally, Paine argued that the only way to gain the rights desired by the colonists and help from outside powers was to claim total independence.
In Paine’s own words, “Until an independence is declared, the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business…and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity” (Coolidge 31).
While Paine was working on Common Sense, the war had changed theatres into New York. Paine felt it his duty to fight in the cause he wrote so valiantly for, and thus enlisted in a Pennsylvanian unit in August of 1776. After fighting at Fort Lee, New Jersey, Paine’s unit joined with General George Washington’s army in its retreat. Here, Paine gained a quiet respect for Washington, and began the first of thirteen papers that would become known as The American Crisis. Again, Paine’s eloquent prose struck the hearts of patriots and laymen alike, and earned him a large following. It is in the first of these Crisis papers that one of the most stunning lines in protest literature is written: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” (Coolidge 38).
... by calling him “a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.” Paine not only ridiculed the throne, but defiled it completely. Pain ... and support from the colonists, and to get them to fight for their freedom, by using comparing and contrasting techniques. ... . His rhetorical document The American Crisis was very persuasive and influential. Some of Paine’s political ideas were praised and ...
Paine signed the pamphlet “Common Sense”, and this furthered his reputation. Washington was so impressed by this work that he ordered it read to the men to bolster morale just before the first major offensive of the war. Reinforced by the dramatic coup which Washington scored at Trenton, the first of the Crisis papers helped to inspire many thousands of men into joining the war effort. The second Crisis paper was a great chance for Paine to launch a personal attack of George III, whom he deemed incompetent and unintelligent. His third paper was directed against the American Tories, and particularly the loyal Quakers of Philadelphia, whom Paine scathingly rebuked for their lack of courage. In his fourth Crisis, Paine gave a call for his fellow man to join in the fight against the yoke of British oppression, stating that “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it” (Fast 54).
This helped to draw new members into the faltering Army, and also to convert some of those who were considering leaving into freedom fighters.
Another great talent of Paine’s was in explaining events, as was evidenced by his version of the events of the winter of 1776: Look back at the events of last winter and the present year, there you will find that the enemy’s success always contributed to reduce them. What they have gained in ground, they paid so dearly for in numbers, that their victories have in the end amounted to defeats. … He (Howe) has everybody to fight, we have only his one army to cope with, and which wastes away at every engagement: we can not only reinforce, but can redouble our numbers; he is cut off from all supplies, and must sooner or later inevitably fall into our hands. (Fast 54) Although somewhat braggadocios (it is very unlikely that the Americans could have doubled their numbers), Paine sends a clear and powerful message to all those who read his works. He further insults the British by comparing their army to a “band of ten or twelve thousand robbers” and implores the American people to continue the fight, stating that the only way the British could possibly conquer so great a nation would be if the people “sit down and suffer them to do it” (Fast 54).
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Paine further pictured General Howe as a “chief of plunderers” (Fast 55).
Through his clear language and remarkable imagery, Paine left no doubt as to the poignancy of his arguments. Paine’s other influential protest work was his Letter To Washington. Paine, after long sufferings in Europe, had appealed to America to help rid him of his imprisonment, and been many times denied. He did not realize that Washington had nothing to do with this refusal to help, and as such Paine narrow-mindedly attacked Washington. As always, Paine was not gentle, striving merely to prove his point, and not heeding the consequences and people he may have hurt. For example, Paine bluntly accuses Washington of complacency, stating that Washington was obviously conniving to keep Paine jailed, and that Washington was the last person Paine would have suspected of treachery.
These damning terms showed a bitter, resentful, shallow Paine rather than the man of objectiveness and intelligence he had once been. In a statement that is humorous today, Paine states that the only logical explanation to Washington’s silence was “that every thing is not as it ought to be amongst you” (Fast 334).
He further accuses various officials as “prate”, “pompous”, “offensive, suspected, and ridiculous” (Fast 334).
Paine also was disenchanted with the development of the Federalist party, and could not bring himself to understand how a country that had fought against injustice for its own freedom could issue a proclamation of neutrality and refuse to help another country trying to gain independence. He concludes by expressing regret for having lost the friendship of a man he once respected: I am sorry you have given me cause for doing it (writing the letter); for, as I have always remembered your former friendship with pleasure, I suffer a loss by your depriving me of that sentiment. (Fast 336).
This cynical piece of literature showed how much of a personal fight Paine’s protest of the development of America had been, and the degree of his disenchantment with it spurred him into writing one of the most scathing protests ever. Protest literature is not confined to the written word. For example, another very important American to protest “literature” was Thomas Nast. When one mentions protest literature, Nast is not a name that many people would refer to, mainly because much of the general public thinks of him as “only” a political cartoonist. However, political cartoonists can be considered authors of protest literature; after all, they oftentimes can point out problems with one illustration much more efficiently than a journalist who writes a lengthy story. Also, political cartoons often invoke humorous images in order to send a message, a ….
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