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In praise of Thomas Paine

October 30, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
I don't know as much about the Founding Fathers as I probably should, but I have a bit of a soft spot for Thomas Paine, the rabble rouser and pamphleteer whose words fired the American Revolution.

Rod Dreher, blogging at The American Conservative, reminded me of Paine today when he wrote about how Paine managed to dangerously annoy the ringleaders of the French Revolution by protesting the execution of King Louis XVI. Paine opposed execution and revenge killing on principle and said the king should be exiled to America instead because of his support of the American Revolution. Maximilien Robespierre didn't agree. Paine soon ended up in a French prison himself and nearly lost his own head to the guillotine. He survived because Robespierre was executed first.

I looked Paine up on Wikipedia and found "Common Sense" online and read it for the first time since high school and found myself rapt. This was a man who advocated progressive ideals a couple of centuries before our time: the abolition of slavery, the rights of women, the right of all men to vote, regardless of whether they owned property or not; a pension for the elderly so they are able to live in dignity in their declining years; a guaranteed minimum income.

Most of Paine's contemporaries seem to regard him as a pain in the rear and probably thought he lived up to his name. According to Salon, John Adams, the second president, compared "Common Sense" to a pile of manure. Paine said of Adams: "Some people talk of impeaching John Adams, but I am for softer measures. I would keep him to make fun of."

Paine, born in England, seems to have called for revolution and insurrection everywhere he went. His ideas were so unpopular in England that he was charged with sedition and libel and eventually forced out of the country, where he had returned following the American Revolution. He fled from there to France, where he eventually annoyed his friends the French revolutionaries too.

Paine eventually returned to the United States but had lost most of supporters because of his controversial writings on religion. Paine, born to a Quaker family, eventually became a Deist, meaning he believed in God but didn't believe God directly intervenes in human affairs. Only six people attended his funeral when he died in 1809, including the woman who cared for him in his last years, her son, also his godson, and two free black men. His obituary in a New York paper read: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." These days I think many would disagree with that assessment.

What would this thorn in everyone's side be doing if he were living today and participating in this year's election?


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