A Look Back At Thomas Paine, And Why Impeachment Makes ‘Common’ Sense (Even If You Think It’s A Losing Cause) [Opinion]
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made the case for beginning impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump on Tuesday. In doing so, she quoted an American founder and moral philosopher Thomas Paine.
“In the darkest days of the American Revolution,” Pelosi explained, “Thomas Paine wrote, ‘The Times have found us.’ The times found [the founders] to fight for and establish our democracy. The times have found us today, not to place ourselves in the same category of greatness as our founders, but to place us in the urgency of protecting and defending our Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
It’s one of my favorite lines from the speech Pelosi gave on Tuesday, and it makes a lot of sense. There is an immense feeling of urgency, expressed by millions of citizens and politicians alike, who want to protect the United States against the various encroachments this president has attempted.
But Pelosi missed a grand opportunity to quote another of Paine’s lines, which has two main points to it and is relevant to the impeachment process, too. We find the line at the beginning of his missive to colonial Americans in the pamphlet “Common Sense,” which was the call to action that many historians say helped spark popular support for Revolution itself.
Nancy Pelosi quotes Thomas Paine: "The times have found us."
"The times have found us today. Not to place us ourselves in the same category of greatness as our founders—but to place us in the urgency of protecting and defending our Constitution." https://t.co/E2e0WqWOBQ pic.twitter.com/BIP6zGSJI2
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) September 24, 2019
Because the line has two separate parts, I’ll separate it here to better explain it. First, Paine explained the need to speak out against a tyrannical power, notably Britain and King George III, because not doing so could be a dangerous action on its own:
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.
This first part actually has two sections on its own. In the first half, Paine says it’s important to note the “wrongs” that occur when injustices are clear — not doing so gives them the “appearance of being right.” In the second half, he notes that people’s first reactions to those complaints are always to side on the side of “custom” — that is, to oppose attacks against institutions.
Both parts of the first half of this line that I’m quoting fits perfectly with our present situation. We’ve seen many “wrongs” committed by the current president; to list them all would fill an entire page, but quickly, let’s point out three points we cannot forget:
- His refusal to acquiesce to Congressional subpoenas;
- His use of his office to pressure foreign governments to help his electoral chances in 2020;
- And various examples of obstruction of justice noted in the Mueller report.
Any one of those three items could justify impeachment on their own, for an ordinary president. And they’re not the only grounds for removal Congressional Democrats are looking into.
At the same time, yes, most Americans are not in favor of impeachment at this moment. It’s a reaction against a guarded institution — and citizens are going to behave in ways that make it seem they’re against the idea, by giving a “defense of custom,” as Paine put it.
It should be noted, however, that the same held true for a different president — Richard Nixon. At the onset of investigations, a majority of Americans felt it was a waste of time. As they learned more about his actions as president, the public (including a significant number of Republicans) became more supportive of his ouster.
That’s an interesting thing to point out, because a significant portion of Americans are ignorant of the misdeeds I pointed out above. For example, according to a recent Politico poll taken over the weekend, 46 percent of Americans are presently unaware of the whistleblower scandal, having heard very little or nothing at all about it (respondents answers here, too, might be misleading, as they may believe they’ve heard the crux of the story but have actually missed out on a lot of important and relevant details).
The point is, public opinion may not have moved on the subject because Pelosi, as head of the main institution that stands opposed to the executive branch, hasn’t herself yet called Trump’s actions wrong enough to warrant his removal. That leads us to the second half of Paine’s first line from “Common Sense.”
But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.
As time moves by, more people will see that what Trump has done while in office has been egregious, to put it mildly. Whether that leads to a majority of Americans supporting the cause or not, we don’t know. We do know that, within the Senate, even if impeachment is successful in the House, an indictment is unlikely.
But Trump’s actions needed to be responded to. Pelosi’s decision to formally begin a process of impeachment remedies the concerns of Thomas Paine — that, by calling out this president in such a forceful way, for his outrageous and improper behavior, we no longer accept what he’s done, or what he’s currently doing, as being superficially “right.”