Thomas Paine

Thomas PaineOn this day in 1737, the great writer and political theorist Thomas Paine was born. He is best know for having written Common Sense, which remains the biggest selling book in American history relative to the size of the population. But it isn’t for this that we ought to remember him. The Age of Reason, his attack against organized religion, and Christianity specifically, is even more relevant today than it was then. It is especially because of his article “Agrarian Justice” that I most admire him. In it, he argues for a guaranteed income—an idea so radical that even today it is considered beyond the pale. Nonetheless, I now see it is a necessary salve to the institutional inequality of modern economies.

Another thing I like about him is that he was so good at getting into trouble. Even Common Sense had its domestic detractors. John Adams, who agreed with the conclusions of the pamphlet, said it was “without any restraint or even an attempt at any equilibrium or counter poise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work.” Rights of Man was largely an attack on Edmund Burke and the very idea of hereditary rule. It would have gotten Paine hanged had he ever returned to England. And then after narrowly escaping getting his head chopped off in France, he only made it back into America thanks to then President Jefferson. By that time, the religious people hated him for obvious reasons and now the Federalists hated him for Common Sense, even though the existence of the country was doubtful if not for how the book galvanized the people.

It bothers me that conservatives try to appropriate Paine. Glenn Beck even published his own version of Common Sense (Glenn Beck’s Common Sense), with the subtitle, “The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine.” This is nonsense. Paine wasn’t against government; he was against government that didn’t work for the people. He would have been appalled at the conservative view of government where its only purpose is to help the rich. That wasn’t Paine.

Of course, mostly Paine is just ignored. In grammar school, I was taught about Common Sense and then Paine was never mentioned again. Now all we know are the the presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. Not one of them was the man that Paine was. Two of them were major slave owners. And the other was a royalist. It’s almost as though we were an aristocracy, the way we honor only men who had such ostentation power. No person from the Revolutionary War era stands as such a great example of our country’s ideals. There ought to be a day named after him.

Happy birthday Thomas Paine!


This article is a minor revision of an article I wrote last year, The Only Founding Father Who Matters.

7 thoughts on “Thomas Paine

  1. That’s a nice video, good find. Conservatives will appropriate anything; MLK would have decried them, and the biblical Jesus, too, if such a person existed.

    The presidents thing is weird. Kids should learn about Paine, and Franklin, too. But we don’t teach history in school; it’s too dangerous! I wonder if other countries do any better.

  2. I’m sure that any counties are biased in their educations. There’s a funny line in The Cheap Detective where Lou expresses surprise when Blubber tells him that three Albanian fishermen conquered China. Blubber responds, “That’s because you didn’t study history in Albania!” But the problem is worse here. We have a very troubling history, but Americans have been allowed to, for example, avoid admitting to the genocide of the native peoples. Such is just not possible for Germans regardless of their treatment of the Jews.

    Paine was and remains a dangerous man. So he has to be whitewashed and reduced to Common Sense. And Franklin has to be reduced to the stove and the lightning rod. The great heroes of the formation of the country are Jefferson, Washington, and Madison: all major slave owners. After them, there is Jackson: a genocidal psychopath. But all we learn about him is the Battle of New Orleans. Most American school children think we won the war of 1812.

    It is a good video. I would love to see an hour and a half performance of that guy. It makes me want to write a play about Paine. I think I might be able to manage that. There’s lots of drama in his life and I understand him a lot better than Evariste Galois.

  3. A play about Paine is a great idea! It’d be a bit intimidating figuring out what direction to take on it and where to start, there’s so much material. Not just his writing and his fascinating life but the responses famous people had to him. One could easily go with a story about any of the above, or Paine talking today like in that video. Maybe combine them all? An act about Paine’s life adventures, an act where the bigwigs of his day sit and chat about him, the time-travel Paine today? Tough to decide.

    • I have a pretty clear way to do it. First, it would be a one-man show. Start with Paine in Greenwich Village at the end of his life. The great man widely despised by the people of the country that he was so important in creating. Have him work backwards — start by talking about his coming death and his thinking in The Age of Reason. Then go back to his early days as a corset manufacturer. It would be great fun. I would modernize it. Use modern dress and vernacular. I really don’t think it would be hard to write. And it would be a wonderful way to bring up his reputation and take a bite out of the reputations of Washington and Adams.

        • I may play around with it. One nice thing is that it wouldn’t take a whole bunch of research. I do like writing for the theater. It’s a lot more fun than writing novels. At least for me, I can see very clearly how things would be staged. But I have too many projects, so I doubt I will do much on this one. I’ve wanted to get back to the “Post Postmodern Comedy Hour.” That’s where my heart really is.

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