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Tom Paine's 4th of July Advice for Congress | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Tom Paine's 4th of July Advice for Congress

The Fourth of July ought surely, and above all else, to be a celebration of Tom Paine's resolve.

As the American colonies moved tentatively toward the fateful declaration of independence in those middle years of the 177Os, it was Paine who urged them to embrace the revolutionary spirit of that enlightened age and to get on with the cutting of the colonial bond.

"The cause of America," Paine wrote," is in great measure the cause of all mankind."

The very future of freedom depended on it.

Yes, of course, the pursuit of liberty was frightening -- especially when its pursuit was sure to inspire the mad wrath of King George III. "[But]" like all other steps which we have already passed over," Paine suggested to the colonials, "[Affronting the king and his empire] will in a little time become familiar and agreeable: and until an independence is declared, the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with thoughts of its necessity."

Confronting a tyrannical ruler named George is always difficult.

But necessity of it remains constant across our history.

Just as there were many 18th-century Americans who knew that King George and his aristocratic circle had to be seen off but feared the demands of the endeavor, so there are many 21st-century Americans who know that the madness of a president named George and his prince regent, Dick Cheney, must be ended. Yet, they avoid the inevitable demands of the impeachment power conjured by the founders of the Republic and intended for application in moments such as this.

Now that Cheney has attempted to declare himself as no longer bound by the requirements of the executive branch of the federal government established in the Constitution, even as he remains unwilling to submit himself to those of the legislative branch, more than a little evidence suggests that he has assumed the mantle of a monarch.

Certainly the description fits the vice president. Did not Paine anticipate Cheney when he wrote: "Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions."

And did Paine not anticipate Cheney's foreign policies -- and no one can mistake that the neoconservative craziness of this administration is an invention far more of the vice president than of the untraveled and unconcerned occupant of the Oval Office -- when he wrote of monarchical governments for which, "War is their trade, plunder and revenue their objects. While such governments continue, peace has not the absolute security of a day."

So it is, on this day when we celebrate a declaration inspired, outlined and prodded by Paine, that it is more than appropriate to celebrate the courage of those currently in positions of authority who have stepped up to hold this administration to account by embracing the cause of impeachment -- beginning with Cheney.

It is an honor roll not so very different from that of the 56 who finally made the declaration Paine encouraged. It begins with Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the sponsor of articles of impeachment against the vice president and now extends to include nine cosponsors: New York's Yvette Clarke, Missouri's Bill Clay, Minnesota's Keith Ellison, Georgia's Hank Johnson, California's Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters and Lynn Woolsey, Illinois's Jan Schakowsky and Maryland's Al Wynn. In the wake of the latest revelations regarding Cheney's lawlessness, and President Bush's commutation of the 30-month prison sentence for Cheney's former chief-of-staff, the list is expanding rapidly. California Congressman Bob Filner and Virginia's Jim Moran say they plan to sign on as cosponsors. They are expected to be joined by Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who declared after the president commuted "Scooter" Libby's sentence that, "The Executive Branch should be held responsible for its illegalities."

Joining it the list as well will be Washington's Jim McDermott, who says, "For months I have believed that impeachment was a dire course of action. Over these same months, I have seen the vice president repeatedly drive our nation into increasingly dire situations, in Iraq, in Iran, and within our own country as he tramples over the Constitution like it is a doormat... Since the president permits this flagrant disregard for the Constitution, it is up to the Congress to act and defend the American people."

The honor roll is not complete. There are many other members of the House, including Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers, D-Michigan, who are haunted by thoughts of the necessity of holding this administration to account, but who have failed so far to act.

Paine would tell them, as he did the members of the first American Congress on the eve of a distant 4th of July that, "We have it in our power to begin the world anew."

What is required, only, is the courage to act as common sense demands.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

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