Thomas Paine and Roger Williams are the two founding fathers whose work is most often forgotten yet remains among the most consequential today. My belief was strengthened upon reading Craig Nelson’s excellent 2006 biography, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations.
Paine, born in England and truly a citizen of the Enlightenment world, wrote three of the bestsellers of the eighteenth century, topped only by the Bible. His Common Sense has long been recognized as a key work in changing the hearts and minds of the people of the United Colonies into citizens of what Paine was the first to characterize as the United States. Similarly, his Rights of Man helped shape the French Revolution and — although it would take more than a century — inspire constitutional reform in Great Britain and foreshadow Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Age of Reason, a forceful call against organized religion, finds Paine sticking to his Enlightenment and deist values even at the expense of his public reputation. Paine’s mind was clearly a force of nature, and Nelson characterizes him as “the Enlightenment Mercury who sparked political common cause between men who worked for a living and empowered aristocrats across all three nations.”
One of Nelson’s great accomplishments is to explain Enlightenment thinking and values in a way which places Paine and his work in a well-constructed context. Paine certainly has his flaws as a person, but he is more easily understood when placed within the value system that drove so many of the leading philosophers and political leaders of the late eighteenth century. Nelson’s other important accomplishment is to showcase Paine’s incredible relevance today.
“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Paine’s famous opening to The American Crisis, written in the winter of 1776, resonates today as much as it did when Washington’s small army was fighting for its life at Trenton and Princeton. Nelson certainly recognizes the challenge when he notes that the coalition that controls America today repudiates much of Paine in following the John Adams—Alexander Hamilton, ruling class of the rich, style of government. “While Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson would be crestfallen that the modern-day American federal government is the reserve of a new aristocracy—multimillionaire plutocrats and their corporate sponsors—Adams and Hamilton would be just as shocked to learn that their admired ruling elite no longer even pretends to lives of virtue.”
In his Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy, author Lewis H Lapham includes the essay The World in Time which makes this point even more forcefully. Lapham turns to Paine and doesn’t find himself
“in the presence of a marble portrait bust,” but meets instead a man “writing in what he knew to be ‘the undisguised language of the historical truth.’ To read Tom Paine is to encounter the high-minded philosophy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rendered in words simple enough to be readily understood.”
Instead of addressing the rich, as do many of the other Founding Fathers, Paine “talks to ship chandlers and master mechanics, and in place of a learned treatise he substitutes the telling phrase and the memorable aphorism—’Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.'”
Thomas Paine, in both Nelson and Lapham’s rendering, has “remained in the attic of oblivion” due to the publication of The Age of Reason and the subsequent attacks—over the next two hundred years—that placed him clearly outside this country’s obsession with religion. Lapham notes that “Paine’s plain and forthright speaking is out of tune with our own contemporary political discourse, which for the most part is the gift for saying nothing.”
As we struggle through constitutional crises, we would do well to find one of our most important founding fathers. Paine’s writing might be the tonic to point us back towards democracy.
More to come…