Sunday, June 21, 2009

Heroes: Thomas Paine – Our Forgotten Father

In today’s jargon, Thomas Paine would be called a right-wing hawk by those who disliked him for advocating revolution in France and later in America, and would be called a left-wing rabble-rouser by those who disliked his stances against slavery and organized religion, not to mention his advocacy of a social contract. Yet this country was founded upon the ideals of freedom from tyranny and oppression, and Thomas Paine was truly one of The United States Of America’s greatest founding fathers. It is an absolute travesty that we only hear about him these days when some politician borrows one of his powerful quotes to further his own political ambitions.

The intro on the Thomas Paine page of says:

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

This simple quotation from Founding Father Thomas Paine’s The Crisis not only describes the beginnings of the American Revolution, but also the life of Paine himself. Throughout most of his life, his writings inspired passion, but also brought him great criticism. He communicated the ideas of the Revolution to common farmers as easily as to intellectuals, creating prose that stirred the hearts of the fledgling United States. He had a grand vision for society: he was staunchly anti-slavery, and he was one of the first to advocate a world peace organization and social security for the poor and elderly. But his radical views on religion would destroy his success, and by the end of his life, only a handful of people attended his funeral.

By the time Paine came under the tutelage of Benjamin Franklin in 1774, he had failed at just about everything he tried, with the one exception being the publication of The Case of the Officers of Excise in 1772, where he wisely argued for a pay raise for tax collection officers. But with the publication of Common Sense in 1776, in which he made a most persuasive argument for American Independence from England, and then The Crisis series of pamphlets from 1776-1783 to help inspire the Army, Thomas Paine became one of the most important figures of his time. According to, The Crisis series “as a percentage of the population … was read by or read to more people than today watch the Super Bowl.”

After returning to Europe and pursuing other ventures, including work on a smokeless candle and an iron bridge, he wrote The Rights of Man in 1791 and 1792 in defense of the French Revolution. This caused him to become an outlaw in England and to flee to France to avoid arrest. He was then imprisoned in France by 1793 for speaking against the execution of Louis XVI. He used his time in prison (1794-1796) to write and distribute the first part of The Age of Reason, in which he railed against organized religion. He narrowly escaped execution and was freed in 1794 thanks to the efforts of U.S. Minister to France James Monroe. He returned to America on an invitation from Thomas Jefferson in 1802, only to discover that his contributions to the American Revolution had been all but dismissed because of his religious views.

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right – Thomas Paine

Every science has for its basis a system of principles as fixed and unalterable as those by which the universe is regulated and governed. Man cannot make principles; he can only discover them – Thomas Paine

The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion – Thomas Paine

He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself – Thomas Paine

To say that any people are not fit for freedom, is to make poverty their choice, and to say they had rather be loaded with taxes than not – Thomas Paine

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one – Thomas Paine

If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately – Thomas Paine

I have chosen to include Thomas Paine in my Heroes Hall of Fame because, of all the founding fathers, the views he expressed in his writing most closely resemble my own. I fear that we, as a nation, have forgotten him at our own peril.

I want ice water.

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