Thomas Paine: The Forgotten Founding Father
Why should we remember Thomas Paine? Why is what he wrote and did over 200 years ago still relevant today?
Let me tell you about Tom Paine. He died two hundred years ago, but what he did and what he wrote changed the world, and is still changing it. He said, “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion”, then he spent his life trying to spread freedom around the world. There have been others with a similar mission including Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Huey Newton and Tupac Shakur, but Tom was the first.
Thomas Paine was the kind of friend that you love because he tells the truth but you wouldn’t want to hang out with him too often because you know you will get in trouble. Not that he does anything wrong, but he just can’t keep his mouth shut. If he was alive today, Tom would be like the type of person who yells at the cops for hassling someone, and then, because you are with him, you wind up getting beaten up and thrown in jail.
Why don’t you already know about him? Perhaps because he could not compromise enough to fit in, he never held political office and he embarrassed his friends (like Thomas Jefferson) who did; he couldn’t keep a job or keep his mouth shut. Paine believed in Freedom and after attacking the political establishment, he went after the religious establishment and that sure did bother people. He was not a very good soldier or administrator but he sure could write. Joel Barlow said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vein.”
Thomas Paine and the American Revolution come out of the Age of Enlightenment, a period where reason was advocated as the primary basis of authority and both the aristocracy and the established churches were being challenged.
Thomas Paine came to Philadelphia, which was the political and cultural center of America, in 1774. He had a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met in London. He became the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine and friends with a group of radicals who were centered here. Shortly after Paine arrived in Philadelphia, he wrote to Ben Franklin that he could see the slave market from his apartment window and asked how we could be talking about freedom and allow slavery to exist. One of Tom’s first essays was African Slavery in America (1775), and he was one of the first members of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society (which still exists here in Philadelphia).
Thomas Paine invented a new language of politics in 1775 when he wrote Common Sense. His pamphlet was the first time that “we the people” were invited to participate in political discussion, in deciding what our fate would be. Before Common Sense, politics was decided by the upper classes and “we the people” were just told what to do. Paine used everyday language so that everyone could understand the issues. He made fun of the king and ridiculed the aristocracy, those who had ruled our lives. It was the first time people were called on to make up their own minds, to take control of their own lives, to revolt, and to take control of their country. Paine was not the only person doing this but it was his book, read by almost everyone in America, that awoke people to action.
When the success of revolution was in doubt, Paine wrote The Crisis (December 1776), again inspiring people and bringing them back into the revolutionary army. This essay was read to the troops before battles, stirring up the soldiers for victory. It was from this essay that President Obama quoted in his inauguration speech:
“Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.,”
although he didn’t mention Paine’s name. It is also from The Crisis that we get perhaps the most famous quote in American history: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.” Paine wrote sixteen Crisis papers between December 19, 1776 and December 9, 1783, turned all the money he made on these best selling publications over to Washington to support the army and is perhaps the only founding father that did not profit from the revolution.
Paine helped write the new constitution for the state of Pennsylvania, which was the most radical constitution ever written and became the model for the constitution adopted by the French Republic. But Paine was not suited for a day job and soon headed back to England to promote his design for a single-span iron bridge. In 1791 Paine published The Right of Man, Part 1 in response to Edmund Burke’s 1790 attack on the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Not only did Paine defend the French Revolution, he berated Burke, denounced the concept of monarchy and the right of the aristocracy to rule. In response to Rights of Man, Part 2 (1792), the King of England issued an arrest warrant for treason and Paine barely escaped to France.
Rights of Man was a best seller throughout Europe as a defense of the French Revolution, in promoting the overthrow of Monarchy, and in the establishment of the republican form of government. In France, Paine was a hero and was elected to the National Assembly even though he did not speak French. He, of course, instantly got into trouble. He suggested to the Assembly that since France was the first country to overthrow the monarchy it should also be the first country to do away with the death sentence, that the king should be exiled to America and not killed. The Jacobins under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre were not pleased. Paine was arrested and sent to jail.
Each evening, a guard would come through the jail and put a chalk X on the door of the prisoners to be executed the next morning. The door to Paine’s cell was open when the guard put the X on his door, so when the door was closed the X was on the inside. This is the only reason he was not executed. Washington as President and Gouverneur Morris as Ambassador to France refused to intercede on Paine’s behalf. It was not until James Monroe became Ambassador to France that Paine was released from jail, and not until Thomas Jefferson was President that he could safely return to America.
For writing The Age of Reason (1794), Paine was attacked as an atheist and lost much of his popular following and many of his friends. Age of Reason continues the concepts of Rights of Man and asserts the individuals right to freedom of choice. In the preface to Age of Reason, Paine wrote, “You will do me the justice to remember that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason.” In the opening paragraphs of Age of Reason, Paine says,
“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy. I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
Christopher Hitchens, concerning Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man wrote, “Paine wanted to prevent the French Revolution from becoming a full-blown instatement of atheism. Much as he may have welcomed the end of the rotten alliance between pulpit and throne, he was dismayed by the violent rush towards godlessness. His book, therefore, had the dual purpose of subverting organized religion and asserting ‘deism’.” Deism is the belief that a supreme natural God exists and created the physical universe, and that religious truths can be arrived at by the application of reason and observation of the natural world. Deists generally reject the notion of supernatural revelation as a basis of truth or religious dogma. These views contrast with the dependence on divine revelation found in many Christian, Islamic and Judaic teachings.
Paine’s last major work, Agrarian Justice (1795), continued the discussion of the problem of poverty and developed further his proposals for limiting the accumulation of property. “. . . The accumulation of personal property,” he wrote, “is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is, that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.” Agrarian Justice proposes taxing the landed rich and inspired Henry George to write his classic work Progress and Poverty (1879). Agrarian Justice also encouraged the Single Tax movement (to abolish all taxation except that upon land values) and introduced many of the elements of the modern welfare state. While pensions for the elderly (social security) was finally introduced in the 1930’s, his other proposal of providing start up funds or “stakes” for young people is still a dream.
Every time our country has gotten in trouble and we need to reach into our history for inspiration, we turn to Tom Paine. “Rebels, reformers, and critics such as Frances Wright, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, Susan B. Anthony, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Parsons, Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Alfred Bingham, Franklin Roosevelt, A.J. Muse, Saul Alinsky, C.. Wright Mills, and innumerable others right down to the present generation rediscovered Paine’s career and work and drew ideas, inspiration, and encouragement from this… Historically, we have turned to our revolutionary past at times of national crisis and upheaval, when the very purpose and promise of the nation were at risk or in doubt. Facing wars, depressions, and other travails and traumas, we have sought consolation, guidance, inspiration and validation. Some of us have wanted to converse with the Founders and others to argue or do battle with them. As one historian has noted: ‘The Founders have come to symbolize more than just their own accomplishments and beliefs, what did (they) really stand for? This is another way of asking. What is America? What does it mean to be an American?’ “… from the introduction to Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey Kaye