On 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.