Where in the World is Thomas Paine?

When it shall be said in any country in the world, “My [people] are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness”: when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.

Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle, is a species of vice.

Thomas Paine, a name well known from history, well known as a prominent figure in the founding of the United States of America, but not given the same praise, or attention, or credit as many others. According to Harvey J. Kaye, in his book, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, it should be given more attention and credit. To understand why this is the case would be to understand Paine’s background. It would require taking a close read of his writings. He was a revolutionary and a radical. He was a strong proponent of representative democracy, and a vehement denouncer of royalty, aristocracy, and any form of economic or political oppression and elitism.

Today, Paine would be reviled by the mainstream press, by clergy, by republicans, by democrats, and even the tipsy tea-party folk. If he were alive, and still free to voice his thoughts, he’d have to deal with mountains of rhetorical haranguing, and probably go into exile for self preservation. (Sound like anyone in the news lately?) He was tried and convicted of seditious libel, in his absence, in Great Britain. And yet, he’s reservedly respected for his contributions to the American revolution, not only before the Declaration of Independence, with his most influential work, Common Sense, but just as importantly with his prolific trail of subsequent pieces that helped keep the focus on independence and democracy. His words spread meteorically; his pamphlets sold in the hundreds of thousands, in multiple editions, and multiple translations. It was a publishing phenomenon that today would rank him number one on the best seller list with each new world record breaking publication. He influenced the French revolution, the demise of monarchies, and the push towards democracy throughout Western Europe. Yet little is really known, or taught in American History about how profoundly his words effected both sides of the Atlantic, or how precarious the revolution was, or how strongly his words resonated within the populace. Kaye’s book probes the impact of his writing and its continued relevance.

This is a history lesson that needs review. Especially now, when our democracy is at risk. When our economy is topsy-turvy. Our people are not happy; ignorance and distress are found across the continent; jails are full, beggars are commonplace; the aged are in want, and though taxes are not oppressive, corporations and the wealthy are certainly not paying their fair share; the rational world is being challenged as the enemy rather than applauded as friend. We can not boast.

There is a saying : Good government is ashamed of its poverty; bad government lacks for shame of its rich. We appear unconcerned with poverty—continually pretending it’s the fault of the victim. And we’re gleefully proud of the undeserving rich—hoping against the odds that maybe we’ll be part of that one percent someday. It’s easy to overlook and forget that the US was founded by revolutionaries and radicals. Those who dared stand up to the established authorities, king and church, their own homeland. Those whom we honor in our history books were outlaws. They recognized the inequities and the exploitation swaggered by the rich and powerful. This book puts a spotlight on a pivotal figure, not just for the US, but for civilization. He flattered himself a kind of prophet for democracy and egalitarianism. In his time he was. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve lost to memory.

We don’t need another Thomas Paine. What we need is to bring the principles he wrote about back to life.

Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, Harvey J. Kaye, Hill and Wang, 2005

[A Paine in the ass : America’s Crazy Uncle]

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