The Lost Founder
Thomas Paine has often been the
forgotten Founding Father.
by Harvey J. Kaye
The American Prospect magazine,
On July 17, 1980, Ronald Reagan stood
before the Republican national convention and the American people
to accept his party's nomination for president of the United States.
Most of what he said that evening was to be expected from a Republican.
He spoke of the nation's past and its "shared values."
He attacked the incumbent Carter administration and promised to
lower taxes, limit government, and expand national defense. And,
invoking God, he invited Americans to join him n a "crusade
to make America great again?'
Yet Reagan had much more than restoration
in mind. He intended to transform American political life and
discourse. He had constructed a new Republican alliance-a New
Right-of corporate elites, Christian evangelicals, conservative
and neoconservative intellectuals, and a host of right-wing interest
groups in hopes of undoing the liberal politics and programs of
the past 40 years, reversing the cultural changes and developments
of the 1960s, and establishing a new national governing consensus.
All this was well-known. But that night,
Reagan startled many by calling forth the revolutionary, Thomas
Paine, and quoting Paine's words of 1776, from the pamphlet Common
Sense: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again?'
American politicians have always drawn
upon the words and deeds of the Founders to bolster their own
positions. Nevertheless, in quoting Paine, Reagan broke emphatically
with longstanding conservative practice. Paine was not like George
Washington, Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Jefferson. Paine had
never really been admitted to the most select ranks of the Founding
Fathers. Recent presidents, mostly Democrats, had referred to
him, but even the liberals had generally refrained from quoting
Paine the revolutionary. When they called upon his life and labors,
they usually conjured up Paine the patriot, citing the line with
which, during the darkest days of the war for independence, he
opened the first of his Crisis papers: "These are the times
that try men's souls."
Conservatives certainly were not supposed
to speak favorably of Paine, and for 200 years, they had not.
In fact, they had for generations publicly despised Paine and
scorned his memory. And one can understand why: Endowing American
experience with democratic impulse and aspiration, Paine had turned
Americans into radicals, and we have remained radicals at heart
However, for more than a quarter-century,
we have allowed the Republican right to appropriate the nation's
history, define what it means to be an American, and corral American
political imagination. It is time for the left to recover its
fundamental principles and perspectives and reinvigorate Americans'
democratic impulse and aspiration. And we must start by reclaiming,
and reconnecting with, Paine's memory and legacy and the progressive
tradition he inspired and encouraged. We must redeem Paine's revolutionary
vision, his confidence in his fellow citizens, and his belief
in America's extraordinary purpose and promise. Doing so will
help us to remember not only what we stand in opposition to but,
all the more, what we stand in opposition for.
Contributing fundamentally to the American
Revolution, the French Revolution, and the struggles of Britain's
Industrial Revolution, Thomas Paine was one of the most remarkable
political writers of the modern world and the greatest radical
of a radical age. Yet this son of an English artisan did not become
a radical until his arrival in America in late 1774, at the age
of 37. Even then he had never expected such things to happen.
But struck by America's startling contradictions, magnificent
possibilities, and wonderful energies, and moved by the spirit
and determination of its people to resist British authority, he
dedicated himself to the American cause. Through his Common Sense
pamphlet and the Crisis papers, he inspired Americans not only
to declare their independence and create a republic; he also emboldened
them to turn their colonial rebellion into a revolutionary war,
defined the new nation in a democratically expansive and progressive
fashion, and articulated an American identity charged with exceptional
purpose and promise.
Five feet 10 inches tall, with a full
head of dark hair and striking blue eyes, Paine was inquisitive,
gregarious, and compassionate, yet strong-willed, combative, and
ever ready to argue about and fight for the good and the right.
The story is told of a dinner gathering at which Paine, on hearing
his mentor Franklin observe, 'Where liberty is, there is my country,"
cried out, "Where liberty is not, there is my country!"
A workingman before an intellectual and author, Paine developed
his revolutionary beliefs and ideas not simply from scholarly
study but all the more from experience-experience that convinced
him that the so-called lower orders, not just the highborn and
propertied, had the capacity both to comprehend the world and
to govern it. And addressing his arguments to those who traditionally
were excluded from political debate and deliberation, not merely
to the governing classes, he helped to transform the very idea
of politics and the political nation. At war's end Paine was a
popular hero, known by all as "Common Sense!' And yet he
was not. 00"-.i finished. To him, America possessed extraordinary
political, / - / economic, and cultural potential. But he did
not see that potential as belonging to Americans alone. -o2 T
He comprehended the nation's - .;-: history in universal terms-"The
cause of America is the cause - of all mankind"-and believed
that the actions of his fellow citizens-to-be were filled with
world-historic significance. "The sun never shined on a cause
of greater worth;' he wrote. "'Tis not the affair of a city,
a county, a province, or a kingdom but of a continent-of at least
one-eighth part of the habitable globe. 'Tis not the concern of
a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in
the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end
of time, by the proceedings now!'
America's struggle had turned Paine into
an inveterate champion of liberty, equality, and democracy, and
after the war he went on to apply his revolutionary pen to struggles
in Britain and France. In Rights of Man, he defended the French
Revolution of 1789 against conservative attack, challenged Britain's
monarchical and aristocratic polity and social order, and outlined
a series of public-welfare initiatives to address the material
inequalities that made life oppressive for working people and
the poor. In The Age of Reason, he criticized organized religion,
the claims of biblical Scripture, and the power of churches and
clerics. And in Agrarian Justice, he proposed a democratic system
of addressing poverty that would entail taxing the landed rich
to provide grants or "stakes" to young people and pensions
to the elderly.
Reared an Englishman, adopted by America,
and honored as a Frenchman, Paine often called himself a "citizen
of the world." But the United States always remained paramount
in his thoughts and evident in his labors, and his later writings
continued to shape the young nation's events and developments.
And yet as great as his contributions were, they were not always
appreciated, nor were his affections always reciprocated. Paine's
democratic arguments, style, and appeal-as well as his social
background, confidence, and single-mindedness-antagonized many
among the powerful, propertied, prestigious, and pious and made
him enemies even within the ranks of his fellow patriots such
as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris.
Elites and aspiring elites-New England
patricians and professors, Middle Atlantic merchants and manufacturers,
southern slaveholders and solemn preachers-feared the power of
Paine's pen and the democratic implications of his arguments.
In reaction, they and their heirs sought to disparage his character,
suppress his memory, and - limit the influence of his ideas. And,
according to most accounts, they succeeded. For much of the 19th
century, and well into the 20th, Paine's pivotal role in the making
of the United States was effectively erased in the official -
- telling. Writing in the 1880s, Theodore Roosevelt believed he
could characterize Paine, with impunity, as a "filthy little
atheist" (though Paine was neither-it, little, nor an atheist).
Not only in the highest circles but also in various popular quarters,
particularly among the religiously devout, Paine's name persistently
conjured up the worst images, leading generations of historians
and biographers to assume that memory of Paine's contributions
to American history had been lost.
Yet those accounts were wrong. Paine had
died, but neither his memory nor his legacy ever expired. His
contributions were too fundamental and his vision of America's
meaning and possibilities too firmly imbued in the dynamic of
political life and culture to be so easily shed or suppressed.
At times of economic and political crisis, when the republic itself
seemed in jeopardy, Americans, almost instinctively, would turn
to Paine and his words. Even those who apparently disdained him
and what he represented could not fail to draw on elements of
his vision. Moreover, there were those who would not allow Paine
and his arguments to be forgotten.
Contrary to the ambitions of the governing
elites, as well as the presumptions of historians and biographers,
Paine remained a powerful presence in American political and intellectual
life. Recognizing the persistent and developing contradictions
between the nation's ideals and reality, diverse Americans - native-born
and immigrant - struggled to defend, extend, and deepen freedom,
equality, and democracy. Rebels, reformers, and critics such as
Fanny Wright, Thomas Skidmore, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, Susan B. Anthony, Walt Whitman,
Herman Melville, Abraham Lincoln, William Sylvis, Albert Parsons,
Robert Ingersoll, Mark Twain, Henry George, Emma Goldman, Eugene
Debs, Hubert Harrison, Alfred Bingham, Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
Howard Fast, A.J. Muste, Saul Alinsky, C. Wright Mills, George
McGovern, John Kerry (of the Winter Soldiers movement years),
and Todd Gitlin (among other young people of Students for a Democratic
Society), along with innumerable others right down to the present
generation, rediscovered Paine's life and labors and drew ideas,
inspiration, and encouragement from them.
Some honored Paine in memorials. Many
more honored him by adopting his arguments and words as their
own. Workingmen and women's advocates, utopians, abolitionists,
freethinkers (as well as democratic evangelists!), suffragists,
anarchists, populists, progressives, socialists, labor and community
organizers, peace activists, and liberals have repeatedly garnered
political and intellectual energy from Paine, renewed his presence
in American life, and served as the prophetic memory of his radical-democratic
vision of America.
Ironically perhaps, in these years of
conservative ascendance and the retreat of liberalism and the
left, we have witnessed an amazing resurgence of interest in Paine,
extending all the way across American public culture. Indeed,
Paine has achieved near-celebrity status. His writings adorn bookstore
shelves and academic syllabi. References to him appear everywhere,
in magazine articles, television programs, Hollywood films, and
even the works of contemporary musical artists, from classical
to punk. Arid while Paine's image may not have become iconic,
the editors of American Greats, a hall-of-fame-like volume celebrating
the nation's most wonderful and fascinating creations, enshrined
his pamphlet Common Sense as popular Americana, alongside the
baseball diamond, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Coca-Cola recipe, and
the Chevrolet Corvette. Media critic John Katz dubbed Paine the
"moral father of the Internet."
Paine has definitely achieved a new status
in public history and memory and come to be admired and celebrated
almost universally. Nothing more firmly registered the change
than the October 1992 decision by Congress to authorize the erection
of a monument to Paine in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall.
The lobbying campaign for the memorial involved mobilizing truly
bipartisan support, from Ted Kennedy to Jesse Helms. And more
recently, in 2004, while Howard Dean and Ralph Nader were issuing
pamphlets modeled on Common Sense, and the online journal TomPaine.com
was publishing liberal news commentary, Republicans and Libertarians
were quoting Paine in support of their own political ambitions.
Paine's new popularity truly has been
astonishing, leading Paine biographer Jack Fruchtman to muse,
"Who owns Tom Paine?" The very extent of it has made
it seem as if it had never been otherwise. Reporting on a campaign
to have a marble statue of suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Osborne Mott moved into the Capitol
Rotunda, a Washington-based journalist wrote, "Imagine a
statue of Benjamin Franklin shoved into a broom closet in the
White House. Or a portrait of Thomas Paine tucked behind a door.
That would never happen." And in Columbus, Ohio, a reporter
noted without reservation: "Some politicians evoke Abraham
Lincoln or Thomas Paine to express Middle America's ideal of honesty
Undeniably, Paine's attraction is related
to the recent wave of "Founding Fathers Fever." But
saying that simply raises the questions: Why have we become so
intent on re-engaging the Founders, and why, specifically, Paine?
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. All of which is to be expected in a nation of grand
political acts and texts. As historian Steven Jaffe 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?"
In recent years we have faced events and
developments that once again have led us to ask ourselves, "What
does it mean to be an American?" Commitment to the "American
creed of liberty, equality, democracy," the "melting-pot
theory of national identity," and the idea of American exceptionalism
endures. We continue to comprehend our national experience as
entailing the advancement of those ideals and practices. And we
still want that history taught to our children. Nevertheless,
globalization, immigration, ethnic diversification, the expansion
of corporate power, the intensification of class inequalities,
political alienation, the enervation of civic life, and domestic
and international terrorism have instigated real anxiety and trepidation
about the nation's future and the political alternatives available.
In the 1990s, those very concerns fomented "culture wars"
and a discourse of social and political crisis reflected in works
with titles like The Disuniting of America; America: What Went
Wrong?; Democracy on Trial; The End of Democracy?; The Twilight
of Common Dreams; Bowling Alone; and Is America Breaking Apart?
In the wake of September 11, many of those
titles no longer seem relevant. The Islamic terrorists' attacks
on America and the nation's ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
dramatically refashioned the prevailing sense of crisis and danger.
However, they did not resolve the critical questions of American
identity and meaning. Not at all. They simply posed them anew
and in a more urgent manner.
We sense that America's purpose and promise
are in jeopardy and we wonder what we can and should do. Like
other generations confronting national crises and emergencies,
we have quite naturally looked back to the Revolution and the
Founders in search of answers and directions.
Still, why have we become so eager to
reconnect specifically with Paine? Perhaps because when compared
with the other Founders, he has come to look so good. He was no
slaveholder or exploiter of humanity. Nor did he seek material
advantage by his patriotism. But that explains his popularity
in an essentially negative manner. Besides, as admirable as Paine
was, the answer lies not in his life alone. It also has to do
with our own historical and political longings. However conservative
the times appear, we Americans remain with all our faults and
failings resolutely democratic in bearing and aspiration. When
we rummage through our Revolutionary heritage, we instinctively
look for democratic hopes and possibilities. Arid there we find
no Founder more committed to the progress of freedom, equality,
and democracy than Paine. Moreover, we discover that no writer
of our Revolutionary past speaks to us more clearly and forcefully.
In spite of what might have seemed a long estrangement, we recognize
Paine and feel a certain intimacy with his words.
Heartened and animated by Paine, progressives
have pressed for the rights of workers; insisted upon freedom
of conscience and the separation of church and state; demanded
the abolition of slavery; campaigned for the equality of women;
confronted the power of property and wealth; opposed the tyrannies
of fascism and communism; fought a second American Revolution
for racial justice and equality; and challenged our own government's
authorities and policies, domestic and foreign. We have suffered
defeats, committed mistakes, and endured tragedy and irony. But
we have achieved great victories, and far more often than not,
as Paine himself fully expected, we have in the process transformed
the nation and the world for the better.
Now, after more than two centuries-facing
our own "times that try men's souls"-it seems we have
all become Painites. Today, references to Paine abound in public
debate and culture; in contrast to the past, not only the left
but also the right claims him as one of their own.
Yet appearances and rhetoric can deceive,
for if we all truly revered Paine, we surely would have built
the promised monument to him on the Mall in the nation's capital.
We would have placed his statue where it belongs, near the images
of and memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and the
veterans of the Second World War, as well as those of Vietnam
whose lives and acts he so powerfully informed and motivated.
And we would have engraved Paine's words in marble to remind us
of how it all began, and to keep us from forgetting that "much
yet remains to be done."
But the truth is that not all of us are
Painites. For all of their many citations of Paine and his lines,
conservatives really do not-and truly cannot-embrace him and his
arguments. Bolstered by capital, firmly in command of the Republican
Party, and politically ascendant for a generation, they have initiated
and instituted policies and programs that fundamentally contradict
Paine's own vision and commitments. They have subordinated the
republic-the res publica, the public good - to the marketplace
and to private advantage. They have furthered the interests of
corporations and the rich over those of working people, their
families, unions, and communities, and they have overseen a concentration
of wealth and power that, recalling the Gilded Age, has corrupted
and debilitated American democratic life and politics. They have
carried on culture wars that have divided the nation and undermined
the wall separating church and state. Moreover, they have pursued
domestic and foreign policies that have made the nation both less
free and less secure politically, economically, environmentally,
and militarily. Even as they have spoken of advancing freedom
and empowering citizens, they have sought to discharge, or at
least constrain, America's democratic impulse and aspiration.
In fact, while poaching lines from Paine, they and their favorite
intellectuals have disclosed their real ambitions and affections
by once again declaring the "end of history" and promoting
the lives of Founders like Adams and Hamilton, who, in decided
contrast to Paine, scorned democracy and feared "the people?'
Still, conservatives do, in their fashion,
end up fostering interest in Paine. It's not just that, aware
of his iconic status, they insist on quoting him. It's also that
their very own policies and programs, by effectively denying and
threatening America's great purpose and promise, propel us, as
in crises past, back to the Revolution and the Founders, where
once again we encounter Paine's arguments and recognize them as
our own. Arguably, the heightened popular interest in Paine we
have witnessed these past several years reflects anxieties and
longings generated not simply by the grave challenges we face
but also by the very triumph of right-wing politics.
Yet those of us who might make the strongest
historical claim on Paine have yet to properly reappropriate his
memory and legacy. In the course of the late '60s and early '70s,
the left not only fell apart; it also lost touch with Paine. And,
while we continue to cite him and his words, we have failed to
make his vision and commitments once again our own. In contrast
both to the majority of our fellow citizens and to generations
of our political predecessors, liberals and radical reformers
no longer proclaim a firm belief in the nation's exceptional purpose
and promise, the prospects and possibilities of democratic change,
and ordinary citizens' capacities to act as citizens rather than
subjects. We have lost the political courage and conviction that
once motivated our efforts.
Electrified by America and its people,
and the originality of thought and action unleashed by the Revolution,
Paine argued that the United States would afford an "asylum
for mankind," provide a model to the world, and support the
global advance of republican democracy. But many on the left have
eschewed notions of American exceptionalism and patriotism and
allowed politicians and pundits of the right to monopolize and
define them. Presuming that such ideas and practices can only
serve to justify the status quo or worse, and ignoring how, historically,
progressives have articulated them to advocate the defense and
extension and deepening of freedom, equality, and democracy, many
of us have failed to recognize their critical value as weapons
against injustice and oppression.
Moreover, whereas Paine declared that
Americans had it in their power to "begin the world over
again," too many of us seem to have all but abandoned the
belief that democratic transformation remains both imperative
and possible. While we reject the right's end-of-history declarations,
we do not actually counter them with an overarching public philosophy,
a grand vision of democratic possibilities, or fresh ideas and
initiatives-ideas and initiatives that would stir the American
imagination and offer real hope of addressing the threats to our
freedom and security, the causes of our deepening inequalities,
and the forces undermining our public life and solidarities by
enhancing the authority of democratic government and the power
of citizens against the authority of the market and the power
of corporations. We must rediscover and reinvigorate the optimism,
energy, and imagination that led Paine to declare, "We are
a people upon experiments;' and, "From what we now see, nothing
of reform on the political world ought to be held improbable.
It is an age of revolutions, in which everything may be looked
And while Paine had every confidence in
working people and wrote to engage them in the Revolution and
nation building, we, for all our rhetoric, have remained alienated
from, if not skeptical of, our fellow citizens. Asking labor unions
to underwrite their campaigns and appealing to working people
for their votes, Democrats-the party of the people-hesitate to
actually mobilize them to fight for democratic political and social
change. Taking office in January 1993, eager to signal a new,
progressive direction in public life after 12 years of Republican
administrations, William Jefferson Clinton-who would also speak
of Paine at various times in his two terms-made every effort to
identify himself with the revolutionary author of the Declaration
of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. En route from Arkansas to the
capital to take the oath of office, Clinton retraced Jefferson's
inaugural trek from Monticello to Washington and filled his inaugural
address with Jeffersonian references. But the way Clinton presented
the Founder and third president, however stirring it may have
sounded, revealed an elitist dread of popular democratic energies
and a desire to keep "the people" at some distance from
power. Calling on Americans to "be bold, embrace change,
and share the sacrifices needed for the nation to progress,"
he stated, "Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the
very foundations of our nation, we would need dramatic change
from time to time?' Yet as Clinton surely knew, Jefferson did
not say that we needed merely change to sustain the republic.
What Jefferson said was, "I hold that a little rebellion
now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political
world as storms in the physical" [emphasis added]. Committed
to cultivating democratic life, liberals and other progressives
must ensure that Democrats not only commission expert panels,
draft plans, and line up legislative votes in a top-down fashion
but also engage American aspirations and energies and enhance
public participation in the political and policy-making process.
Paine would assure us that the struggle
to expand American freedom, equality, and democracy will continue,
for as he proudly observed of his fellow citizens after they turned
out the Federalists in 1800, "There is too much common sense
and independence in America to be long the dupe of any faction,
foreign or domestic?' Indeed, we have good reason not only to
hope but also to act, for Americans' persistent and growing interest
in and affection for Paine and his words signify that our generation,
too, still feels the democratic impulse and aspiration that he
inscribed in American experience. Responding to those yearnings,
we might well prove-as Paine himself wrote in reaction to misrepresentations
of the events of 1776-that, "It is yet too soon to write
the history of the Revolution?'
Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor
of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green
Bay and author of the forthcoming Thomas Paine and the Promise
of America from which this article is drawn.
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