History’s Hit Job on Thomas Paine

“I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last 30 years than Thomas Paine.”–John Adams, 1805

Given our current state of the union, this past 4th of July seemed as good a time as any to pay patriotic homage to our country’s greatest American revolutionary… Thomas Paine. Unlike George Washington, there is no holiday in his honor. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, there is no memorial in the Washington mall. And unlike many other of his dead revolutionary peers, you won’t find his picture in your wallet no matter how big a spender you are. And despite history’s hit job on his legacy, it just doesn’t get too much more American than the man who created the phrase: “United States of America”[1]. Paine was simultaneously a revolutionary during his time and 230 years ahead of his time.

Good American Revolutionary!

When it came to the American Revolution, General Washington was the fighter and Thomas Paine was the writer. John Adams stated: “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain”. Paine’s American Crisis Papers may have been equally as inspirational in winning the war as Common Sense” was able to galvanize popular support for it. His ” Rights of Man” which supported the French Revolution and, more broadly, human rights, quickly became one of the most popular books ever published. It called on Englishmen to join France and the US in a government “of the people and for the people and by the people” [2] at a time when Abraham Lincoln was not even born. Had Paine not escaped near execution in a Luxemburg jail he was committed to in 1793, he may have very well gone on to become our country’s most iconic founder. While mention of Paine’s ‘Common Sense’, and perhaps even “The Crisis Papers”, can usually be found in your average 8th grade textbook, his legacy often ends right there. Perhaps intentionally so.

Bad American Revolutionary!

Some freedom fighters just don’t know when to quit! Paine was a staunch and outspoken abolitionist. In this essay African Slavery in America, Paine, not one to mince words, published one of the very first articles in the US advocating the emancipation of all slaves. Its publishing date of March 8, 1775 may be just as significant as the essay itself. Paine also believed that women should be afforded equal rights and participation in the political process. And unlike many other founders, by 1895 Paine had come to advocate universal suffrage [3]. Paine was a free thinker and philosopher whose writings supported every forthcoming freedom movement (Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, etc.) on American soil. While he was initially beloved for his role in the American Revolution, he was essentially told to go back to his corner the more he kept talking all crazy about freedom for ALL its citizens. And when he openly criticized Christianity (see AGE of REASON) which, in his time, formed the backbone for monarchy, slavery, and inequality, well THAT was the last straw. Ultimately, he was ostracized, his hero status withdrawn, and his accomplishments minimized in our history books in the early 1800s. By 1809 he died broke and only a handful attended his funeral.

“Men of Their Times”

While our country continues to pay homage to popular slave-holding founders through schools, streets signs, and memorials, Paine is not nearly as well-known or celebrated in comparison, although gaining some recent ground). The sins of slaveholders are often overlooked, and iconic status is often granted through the common “men of their times” (MOTT) pass. This pass, otherwise known as the “but-mommy-everyone-else-is-doing-it” pass, has an awful lot of holes in it. For starters, the founders weren’t “men of their times” at all: They were REVOLUTIONARIES! “Men of their time” liked to sip tea, not throw it overboard. Their chosen specialty was freedom fighting. Besides that, Jefferson’s writings and Washington’s freeing of his own slaves at death offer a pretty good clue about their actual belief systems vs. their actual actions. Finally, the other founders were quite familiar with Thomas Paine. His ideas and writings (honorable mention to Benjamin’s “Rush” and “Franklin”) were not only well-known, but also served as the central backdrop that informed the Declaration of Independence. …Many slave-holding founders didn’t suffer from “ignorance of their era”, they suffered from being spoiled from spending a lifetime never having to plow the fields, plant crops, pick cotton, clean their house, install a new deck, mow the lawn, wash dishes, do the laundry, and take out the garbage. The benefit package of human bondage was nothing to sneeze at, and not all freedom-fighters were ready to give up those perks. And even if the “men of their times” pass was actually true, shouldn’t we raise the bar a tad bit before assigning iconic status? (Note: This is not to suggest that that we no longer teach historical facts about TJ’s writings or GW’s military generalship, this is a commentary on who our country decides to glorify and memorialialize all across America.)

Man of OUR Times

Thomas Paine was ahead of his time, and this fact gives us options that few know exist. If saddled with “men of their times” versus “men of OUR times”, shouldn’t it be a no-brainer who gets the historical love? Shouldn’t our history books make it self-evident that all white men in white wigs were not created equal? Unfortunately, I never did learn anything about Thomas Paine “the abolitionist” or “women’s rights activist” in school. And I wonder why that is.

Reversing History’s Hit Job

With 230 years hindsight, why have we not adjusted who is most deserving of our historical praise? Are the textbook-writing, building-naming, and monument-sculpting communities just really lazy or is there something else? While some still hold Paine’s criticism of Christianity against him, those critics tend to forget the lethally oppressive context of the late 1700’s, not to mention our constitution itself. And it is hard to come to grips with logic that gives the “men of their times” pass to slaveholders, but resists celebrating those that fiercely fought against the religious foundation for that very bondage. …But there may be a much greater issue at stake. To be aware of the FULL story of Thomas Paine is to force many to reconsider the lasting popular status and personal legacies of many of America’s other founders. Paine shines a greater light on their personal crimes (human, if not legal), and also allows his readers to uphold and fight for the values of our constitution in ANY era. To know Thomas Paine is to glorify our American values of freedom and equality WITHOUT HYPOCRISY, and to challenge hypocrisy wherever we find it; to simultaneously commend the best and condemn the worst in America; and, in the words of President Eisenhower, to “never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion”. To celebrate Thomas Paine is to celebrate American patriotism in its purest form. His legacy could not be any more relevant on July 4, 2007.

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again”–Thomas Paine


[1] Nelson, Craig, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations

[2] Fleming, Thomas, Liberty! The American Revolution, p. 369

[3] Keyssar, Alexander, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States p. 10

CHARLES MODIANO can be reached at: cmodiano@skills4youth.org