Protest Literature

Anonymous

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. 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). 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