Thomas Paine: Neglected Father of the American Revolution Who Changed the World
- Kamran Mofid
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Photo: wordpress.comThomas Paine (1737-1809)
Thomas Paine was a Founding Father, the philosopher of the American War for Independence, and a true revolutionary. His essays and pamphlets, especially Common Sense, noted for its plain language, resonated with the common people of America and roused them to rally behind the movement for independence. Following the American Revolution, Paine immigrated to Europe where the British government declared him and outlaw for his anti-monarchist views, and where he actively participated in the French Revolution.
Who was Thomas Paine, the British-born "father of the American revolution" ?
"Possibly the most influential writer in modern human history" - that's the billing Thomas Paine got from one of his biographers.
Paine was an international bestseller long before the days of Dan Brown or Jackie Collins and is the only Brit to have been quoted in Barack Obama's inauguration speech in2009.
There are statues of him in Paris and New Jersey and a monument to him in New York - though we still haven't reached a situation where, as French leader Napoleon Bonaparte said: "A statue of gold should be erected to him in every city in the universe."
Just who was Thomas Paine?
Born in Thetford, Norfolk, England, in 1737, Paine's early adult life as a corset-maker and school teacher was largely unmarked by politics. But it was his subsequent job as an excise officer that inspired him to pen his first political work - a 21-page pamphlet that demanded better pay and conditions for his fellow workers.
A chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the US, in London in 1774 changed Paine's life - and, in time, American history. Following Franklin's advice to cross the Atlantic, Paine pitched up in America in November 1774, just as American revolutionaries were having heated debates about whether to break with Britain.
Common (sense) man
Paine threw his lot in with those Americans who were thirsting for independence from Britain. In January 1776 he published a short pamphlet that earned him the title The Father of the American Revolution.
Titled simply, Common Sense, the work has been described by the Pulitzer-winning historian Gordon S Wood as "the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire [American] revolutionary period". It put the case for democracy, against the monarchy, and for American independence from British rule.
It became a sensation, selling 120,000 copies in the first three months. Given that America had only two million free citizens at the time, that is the equivalent of an American author selling 15 million books in three months today.
It also altered history.
"In January 1776, only one third of the delegates to the Continental Congress [the political body of the American Revolution] were in favour of declaring independence from Britain," says Cheryl Hudson, associate fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University.
"Then, Paine published Common Sense which argued for immediate and complete separation of the colonies from the 'mother country'. His visionary and uncompromising words captured the public imagination, and under pressure from the people, individual colonies began to instruct their delegates to vote for independence."
Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence followed soon after.
Cited by Obama
Not content with intellectually spearheading the case for American independence Paine went on to write a series of pro-revolutionary pamphlets, which were later published together as The American Crisis.
They were designed to lift the spirits of America's supporters of independence in difficult times, and 200 years later were invoked by Barack Obama with a similar aim in mind. Though this time the difficulty lay in economic recession rather than a revolutionary war.
"Let it be told to the future world... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]", said Obama at his inauguration speech, taking his words from Paine's Crisis No 1.
Paine worked in various positions in America's early revolutionary government. But he was never accepted as one of the founding fathers largely because his restless spirit and appetite for revolution led him to another mass revolt, this time in France.
But while Paine was elected to France's first democratic parliament and Napoleon Bonaparte numbered among his fans, his next pamphlet, The Age of Reason, was a step too far for many of his early admirers.
An attack on organised religion and a defence of "free and rational inquiry", the work saw him subtly edged out of founding father status in the US. When he died on 8 June 1809 in Greenwich Village, New York, there were only six mourners at his funeral.
Today, though, his legacy is enjoying a rehabilitation.
Harvey Kaye, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, says Paine is "possibly the most influential writer in modern human history".
"His words changed the world. His voice was essentially a voice of democratic progress."
"And he is still relevant today", says Kaye. "He put the case for political democracy AND social democracy, arguing in The Rights of Man that young people and the elderly should be afforded financial security by their governments. These welfare ideals are under attack right now, in our era of recession."
Katherine Mangu-Ward, associate editor of the right-leaning, Washington-based magazine Reason, says Paine is enjoying a comeback amongst both left-wing and right-wing American thinkers.
"Everyone wants a piece of Paine these days. After languishing in obscurity for years, he's enjoying a renaissance. He's the Mickey Rourke of the Founders.
"The left loves him because he hated the Church. The right loves him because he's a freedom-loving founding father."
Cheryl Hudson of Oxford University says Paine, the history-shaping Brit, should be taught more widely in British schools: "At the centre of his thought was a profound trust in the people and in their 'common sense'. He encouraged the public's aspirations for a better, more democratic world and he expressed his support in a rigorous and robust vernacular style.
"Today, political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic pay lip service to concepts like 'personal empowerment' but Paine truly believed in the transformative power that the people could and should wield."
Tantalising words, especially amid the current crisis in public trust of parliament. Chad Goodwin, chair of the Thomas Paine Society, says his hero would have been "astounded that we still have a hereditary monarchy... not to mention an unelected upper chamber".
But this scandal unfolded in Britain's highest elected chamber - the House of Commons.
"Paine thought just because something seemed to be working, on whose behalf was it working? He was a constant revolutionary, "says Mr Goodwin. "He believed that government shouldn't be fixed and that it was up to every generation to say how they should be governed.
"He would have been a great supporter of the Freedom of Information Act [under which MPs' expenses came to be revealed]. He always said there is nothing mysterious about government."
Ms Hudson says there are similarities and differences between the disillusionment with mainstream politics today and the anger about politics that drove Paine and his supporters 250 years ago: "Paine and his contemporaries were just as scathing about the venal and corrupt nature of their politicians as people are today - the difference was that they, especially Paine, had something constructive to say about the alternative to that corrupt politics."
The above was originally printed at BBC Magazine Monday, 8 June 2009
Now watch a most informative account of Thomas Paine’s life, work and legacy
Rights of Man: Thomas Paine
Duration: 1 hour
Melvyn Bragg tells the remarkable story of the 18th-century English radical political writer, Thomas Paine (1737-1809).
Paine wrote three of the bestselling political essays of all time: Common Sense, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. His books changed the world and helped shape modern democracy. He lit the fuse for the American Revolution, was an active participant in the French Revolution and laid the foundation for political reform in Britain.
Melvyn Bragg travels from Norfolk to Philadelphia, New York and Paris as he follows in the footsteps of one of the great champions of democracy and human rights - Thomas Paine. Along the way, he shows how the freedoms we all now enjoy grew out of 18th-century Enlightenment thinking and were given popular voice in the works of Thomas Paine.
Watch the video: