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Tom Paine yesterday and today


A number of readers have recommended a YouTube sensation - Tom Paine. The historical Paine was also a thorn in some flesh -

An East Anglia man, Thomas Paine was unexcited about life as a shopkeeper. With the help of Ben Franklin he sailed to America, where he became a journalist and a vociferous supporter of the American Revolution.

Common sense

In 1776 he publishes a bestseller called Common Sense. George Washington believes that Paine’s pamphlet does more to create support for a republic than any other contribution. “We have it in our power,” Paine writes, “to begin the world anew. . .America shall make a stand, not for herself alone, but for the world.”

As the bitter defeats of 1776 corrode hope, and Washington retreats west across New Jersey, Paine makes notes by the light of campfires. These are, as he will write in The American Crisis, “the times that try men’s souls.”

In Peekskill, so many men are without shoes “the blood left on the frozen ground, in many places, marked the route they had taken.” The Brits who have come to think of themselves as Americans are “battered, weary, ragged as beggars", but "not beaten.” They never will be beaten. As a British officer remarks, even if they had conquered all the men in North America they would never be able to conquer the women.

Something "between Pig and Puppy"

Not everyone likes Thomas Paine. He was once described as something "between Pig and Puppy." Back in Britain in the 1790s, Paine publishes the Rights of Man. He argues that the “illuminating and divine principle of the equal rights of man. . .has its origin from the Maker of man.”

Paine believes that all too often it is governments that cause the miseries of their people. His observation that public officials avoid taking blame for the mistakes they commit while taking credit for the good they have done nothing to create, may strike a chord.

History convinces Paine that monarchies and dictatorships are militaristic and that persecution is always the feature of a state religion established by law. He advises Brits to scuttle both titles and Parliament, hold a national convention, and create a republic free of a state church. A Deist, he denounces all churches and temples. He adamantly declares, “To say that any people are not fit for freedom is to make poverty their choice.”

An unfair burden

He describes high taxes as an unfair burden, and suggests a form of social security for the aged that would equal the interest they would have received from the money they paid in taxes. Some of his suggestions point to a welfare state, and destroy the rights he wants to protect, but his passionate thinking is always provocative.

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