“An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
— Thomas Paine, Dissertations on First Principles of Government (1795)
Have you noticed that there are some lessons that we seem to have special difficulty learning? Paine articulated this idea more than two hundred years ago, and I suppose most people alive today, especially in the West, would give it at least grudging assent. But we no sooner feel wronged or threatened than we fall back on older, harsher ways of thinking.
I have mixed feelings about classic quotations. On the one hand, it’s thrilling to see someone from long ago expressing eloquently an idea that has continued relevance today. Yes! Tom Paine got it! Good ol’ Tom, one of England’s best gifts to America. But on the other hand, after all these years shouldn’t it sound like he’s just stating the obvious? Shouldn’t this quote require a historian’s commentary to explain how this was once a radical idea in a world in which barbaric cruelties were still mostly taken for granted?
We have made a good deal of progress since 1795, but I can’t help but observe that if Paine were around today, a great number of my countrymen would still see him as a dangerous radical.