We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months. The reflection is awful, and in this point of view, how trifling, how ridiculous, do the little paltry cavilings of a few weak or interested men appear, when weighed against the business of a world.
The business of the new world Paine envisioned was that of liberation—from the British Empire, from colonialism, and from the immoral arrangements of elites who would enslave and indenture the many in the service of the few. Paine preached that the “new world” of the United States needed to end human bondage. That was not a universally embraced view in 1776, nor in the years that followed, when Paine’s contemporaries wrote a Constitution that accepted the continued enslavement of Black Americans and the economic and political subjugation of women, the poor, and Indigenous peoples.
Yet Paine’s position underpinned the radical faith of the best of those who answered his call and marched into battle against King George III and the cruel fantasy that monarchs and their autocratic associates were divinely empowered to rule over humanity.
This is the history I learned on the Memorial Days of my youth, when we garlanded the graves of war veterans in the little cemetery south of Union Grove, Wis.
Buried there was Revolutionary War veteran Phineas Cadwell, a soldier who shared Paine’s vision from his days as a 19-year-old recruit in 1776 until his death on the eve of the Civil War.
Cadwell enlisted with the 18th Regiment Connecticut Militia around the time that the Declaration of Independence was issued. He was mustered out four years later and lived the life of a New England innkeeper for most of his days. When he was around 90, the old soldier moved west to Wisconsin, after receiving a land grant that recognized his service in what Paine had described as “the cause of all mankind.”
Cadwell took those words to heart. He was not satisfied with a fight that delivered only a portion of liberty to a portion of humanity.
As one of the last surviving veterans of the Revolutionary War, Cadwell served as a living link with the founding declaration that “all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” When he finally died on February 11, 1857, he was just 17 days short of his 100th birthday. And America was just four years away from the Civil War. Knowing he would not live to see the fight to abolish the original sin of the American experiment resolved, Cadwell made his epitaph an anti-slavery statement.
“Oh my country, how sure I loved thee,” it reads. “In my youth I fought for, sought and saw thy prosperity. Free all thy sons. May thy freedom be universal and perpetual.”
That radical demand for the future recalled what was best about the nation’s founding faith.
Paine, Cadwell, and the finest of their comrades understood that they did not fight for their freedom alone. Theirs was not an empty vision of “liberty” that allowed them to do as they pleased, with no concern for the freedom of others. They had a deeper duty, and it did not end with the surrender of the British at Yorktown in 1781.
The revolution was, to be sure, a rebellion against the concentrated wealth and power of the distant elites of London. But the righteous among the revolutionaries knew that their insurgency would be incomplete if new elites were permitted to abuse power in the United States. Cadwell lived long enough to explain the plain truth that for America’s potential to be realized, it needed to maintain a revolutionary determination to upend the deepest injustice of its founding and make real the promise of liberty and justice for all.
The true history of America tells us that the struggle to realize this promise did not end in 1776. Or in 1865. Or in 1965. The business of building the new world, as Thomas Paine and Phineas Cadwell reminded us, is a permanent mission.