The United States is the product of an accountability movement that was never fully realized. Thomas Paine called the country into being with Common Sense, a pamphlet that invited the beleaguered residents of 13 British colonies on the eastern shore of North America to indulge their fury at the imperial abuses of King George III. He ridiculed the “men of passive tempers” who “look somewhat lightly over the offences of Great Britain, and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, ‘Come, come, we shall be friends again for all this.’” Rejecting the prospect of reconciliation with “the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land,” Paine encouraged Americans to ask themselves pointed questions:
Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.
This was about more than refusing to shake hands with the murderers, however. It was, Paine recognized, about forging a new mentality that would see beyond the lie of reconciliation with those who abused positions of authority to the detriment of the people.
No excuses. No forgiveness. The stakes were too high for that. The American people needed to make a clean break with their imperial overlords, and with the foolishness that would suggest that a relationship so broken as that of Great Britain and the United States could be mended. A failure to do so would squander “the power to begin the world over again.” When that revolution prevailed, Paine entertained the hope the new nation might “form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth.”
Unfortunately, that never happened. George III and the petty royalists of Great Britain were repudiated. But then the petty royalists of the United States took over. Men in wigs, enslavers from the South and slave traders from the North, wrote a constitution that embraced the sin of human bondage, denied the franchise to the vast majority of Americans, and saddled the new republic with an economic system so crudely rapacious that it instantaneously made a lie of the founding premise that “all men are created equal.” As Gore Vidal observed, “Long before Darwin the American ethos was Darwinian.” The drafters of the Constitution, who excluded Paine and the truest revolutionaries from the process, set the United States on a course that would see genocide, civil war, systemic racism and sexism, economic inequality on a feudal scale, and social divisions so stark that they would be exploited, decade after decade, century after century, by charlatans who capitalized on a system that invited their villainy. The worst of their kind, a royalist who worshipped the queen of England, came to power in 2017 after losing the popular vote. Taking advantage of an Electoral College that permitted losers to become winners, Donald John Trump claimed a presidency for which he was wholly unfit, and proceeded on a ruinous course that would eventually see the country ravaged by disease, mass unemployment, and seemingly irreconcilable division.