Many times in American political discourse, we accept that references to the founding fathers, if they are truthful, are a sort of trump card in many arguments. We all delight at quoting a founding father to help us make a point or win an argument. Recently Obama made a statement during a campaign speech that got the right-wing riled up, and was the catalyst to many attack ads from Romney and right. Here is the main part of what Obama said:
“If you got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.”
I want to make it clear that Obama was not talking exclusively about the government being the the main helper, he was talking about the larger societal context and the people that exist in that context as being essential to any one man’s success. No man is an island unto himself. This is a point many on the right simply cannot grasp, apparently. However, since this has become such a big controversy in the last week or so, I have been thinking about it alot and remembered that my personal favorite founding father, Thomas Paine (who wrote Common Sense, The Age of Reason, and The Rights of Man, and helped start the revolution against the British Monarchy), wrote something about this very topic over 200 years ago. John Adams famously said of Paine: “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain”, so quoting him is a trump card in my opinion. Here is what Thomas Paine had to say on this idea that no man makes it on his own:
“Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.
Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”
From his essay Agrarian Justice
We can debate over how much one is entitled to give back, but we cannot deny that the words that Mr. Paine spoke all those years ago still ring as true now as they ever have. Hats off to Thomas Paine!