"A Pledge to America": the latest in a long line of political protest pamphlets

"A Pledge to America" has its roots in an American tradition of a literature of political grievance.

Published in 1776, Paine’s "Common Sense" sold as many as 120,000 copies in the first three months, 500,000 in the first year, and went through 25 editions in 12 months

Republicans unveiled their new plan to fix the country with all the fanfare of a book release. It’s got a catchy title, “A Pledge to America,” juicy bits of it were leaked by the press last night, and it was introduced at a lumberyard-cum-hardware store in Sterling, Va., a deliberately folksy, off-the-beltway venue.

And like a well-timed J.K. Rowling release, the 21-page manifesto is making its own grand entrance just as voters grow increasingly dissatisfied with Congress and Democrats’ handling of the economy – and of course, just before mid-term elections.

The pledge calls for slashing government spending, cutting taxes, and ending President Obama’s health care and economic stimulus plans.

“Regarding the policies of the current government, the governed do not consent,” the pledge states. “An arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites makes decisions, issues mandates and enacts laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many.”

“A Pledge to America” is the latest in a long line of political pamphlets, a kissing cousin of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 "Contract with America" (still available on Amazon, perhaps enjoying revived sales), and both are descendants of the work of the great-great-grandfather of American political pamphlets, Thomas Paine.

In 1776, Paine published the 48-page manifesto “Common Sense” anonymously, signed “Written by an Englishman.” Structured like a sermon, with frequent Biblical references, “Common Sense” made a powerful argument for independence from British rule.

Nothing more than a political pamphlet, Paine’s manifesto sold as many as 120,000 copies in the first three months, 500,000 in the first year, and went through 25 editions in 12 months – not too shabby, even by today’s standards.

More to the point, “Common Sense,” which historian Gordon Wood described as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire Revolutionary era,” helped kindle the sparks of the Revolutionary War.

Some 218 years later, Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republicans laid out their “Contract with America,” a list of ideas aimed at reforming a Democratic-majority Congress. Soon after, Republicans got control of the House.

“A Farewell to Arms” it is not, but “A Pledge to America” is literature in its rawest form: a powerful expression of the grievances of our time.

What might its legacy be?

Husna Haq is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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