Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thomas Paine: Thinking About the American Revolution

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman… yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”
— Thomas Paine, “The Crisis”

If Patrick Henry was the great orator of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine was the trigger. He has been called “The Father of the American Revolution” because it was he, not the legislators or the philosophers, who reached the minds of the populace. Any revolution requires the common citizen to be willing to take up arms against a perceived enemy and man the trenches. The American Revolution was not fought in Independence Hall in Philadelphia; it took place in the plains of Valley Forge. Yes, great leaders are necessary. Yes, troops must be willing to fight and even sacrifice their temporal lives on the battlefield. But it takes an ‘evangelist’ to stir up the people; that ‘evangelist’ was Thomas Paine!

Who was this man who could turn a phrase and mobilize the people’s army to stand up against the greatest battle machine in the world, the British army and navy? It was Thomas Paine, the Englishman who emigrated to the American colonies in 1774 as the Revolutionary War was starting on the fields of Lexington and Concord. It was not one of our native sons or one of the ‘Sons of Liberty.’ It was a simple English stay-maker, tax agent, and sometime teacher.

Let’s examine more closely his contributions to our American Revolution…

Thomas Paine (1773 – 1809)

“If, to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy… to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce, and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libelous… let the name of libeler be engraved on my tomb.”
— Thomas Paine

Paine was born and reared in the south of England where he spent his first thirty-seven years. Although he was raised in a Quaker home, he was an affirmed deist and a critic of the institutional church. He was a radical, revolutionary and intellectual person who was essentially self-educated. But he was a gifted writer who could present complex ideas in a manner that could be understood by the average reader. He employed a concise, style that spoke to the man on the street or on the farm, if you will. He shunned the formal, learned stylings of a Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton.

He took work as a printer for publisher of the Philadelphia Magazine. He used this publication for a series of articles on “The Crisis” and his most famous track: “Common Sense.” These publications stirred up the colonists with his radical ideas of what true freedom and liberty meant. In later years, he was to write “The Rights of Man” and other tracks that incited the French Revolution. His place in history was that of the ‘firebrand’ and ‘agitator’ of popular revolts, not as a stabilizing force for the development of democratic government. This is unfortunate, since the force of his writing and ideas could have aided the colonies through the period of the Articles of Confederation into the era of the U.S. Constitution. Alas, that was not to be.

“The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected…”
— Thomas Paine, “Common Sense”

Paine’s role in the Revolutionary War was not as a military or political leader, it was as the ‘evangelist’ to urge the colonists to action. His goal throughout was to spur these colonists to fight for their independence from Britain; he wanted to teach the British monarchy a lesson! He left the direction of the colonial army and the quest for a new model of governance to other, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, etc. John Adams was against Paine’s radicalism, his extreme view of democracy, one that bordered on anarchy, and called for a more conservative form of republicanism. Paine was notorious for making enemies of those who had initially supported him, which, in fact, almost led to his meeting the ‘widow maker’ (the guillotine) after offending Robespierre during the French Revolution.

One of his quasi-diplomatic successes was to obtain French financing for the war. He was successful in obtaining substantial financial assistance from the French government. He did this in conjunction with Ben Franklin, then the Colonists representative to the French court. For this, he was eventually given a small farm in upstate New York and some monetary compensation. As the colonies moved from the battlefield to the halls of government, Paine’s interests took him to France for new adventures in that civil war – the French Revolution.

“Often tactless, Paine provoked considerable controversy. He was invariably hard-pressed for money and had to depend upon the generosities of his American friends and the occasional reward from the French envoy in America. When the War came to an end, his financial position was so precarious that he had to campaign to obtain recompense from the government…”
— The History Guide, 2006, “Thomas Paine (1737-1809)”

As a writer, he communicated well with the common man. His ideas of radical revolution were a trigger mechanism that ignited uprisings in both the American colonies and the French capital. As most radicals, he was too ‘out in front’ of his peers who lost faith in him; he was dedicated to support of rebellions against tyranny, the established church, and other institutions in contemporary society. Thus, his vision was accepted at the beginning of the rebellion, but soon became too much of a burden upon his peers. He influenced the colonist to move to become independent of the British crown and parliament, but, thank goodness, he had peers to see through the war and the formation of a new government.

“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 country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”
— Spoken of Paine by President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, 2009

Thank you, Thomas Paine, for your contribution to our freedom. You gave us vision and the wake-up call for which we will ever be grateful.

Next Time: We will continue our examination of the intellectual history of the Revolutionary War with a consideration of the contributions of John Adams. Join us for that adventure…

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