Craig Nelson makes a convincing case that a writer (not a lawyer or an elected official) was the key "founding father" of our nation. Writer and immigrant Thomas Paine inspired Thomas Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and he encouraged a new nation-in-the-making. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" and "American Crisis" series led to the American Revolution and helped hold the Continental Army together in the lowest points of 1776.
Paine's genius was in seeing, thinking and writing clearly. He used words to conquer fear and build confidence. From "Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations":
"In the America of 1776, everywhere they looked, Americans saw reasons to be profoundly afraid -- afraid of what the redcoats would do to them, their families, and their property; afraid of losing their British Empire and their British citizenship; afraid of what this new homemade government would do, and what it would require. Paine answered all of these vague and paralyzing terrors in a mere eight pages."A low point came in the dead of winter of 1776, just six months after the Declaration -- "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
Paine gave away his copyright and all he earned from "Common Sense" in order to help fund the army. On December 23, when the future of the Revolution seemed to hang by threads, "George Washington ordered his officers to gather their men into small squads and read aloud what Paine had written":
"These are the times that try men's souls ... Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; 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 ..."
Historians, and the founders themselves, credit statesman Paine with not only inspiring the army and success in the war but also instigating the Revolution itself.
His "Common Sense" took on the "divine right of kings" and sought to replace it with democratic ideals of individual rights and freedom. He embraced "the eighteenth-century stoic view of selfless devotion to the greater good as key element of virtue."
For Paine and the founders, virtue -- like Navy core values of honor, courage, commitment -- was rooted in Roman and Greek culture but also included "virtue of the heart" gained from the Enlightenment, thanks to Isaac Newton and others. Paine's freedom in thinking spanned centuries and would lead to wider and more open acceptance of science by the end of the 19th century.
|Portait by Laurent Dabos.|
At first loved and respected, Paine would eventually become vilified and hated by most Americans by the end of his life. In later decades he would inspire Americans as diverse as Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Thomas Edison, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
Nelson describes him as a visionary who was always ahead of his time. He was one of the first champions of equal rights by editing and publishing in his Pennsylvania Magazine "An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex," which Nelson calls "one of the first arguments in favor of women's rights in America."
|Statues of Tom Paine are in Shetford, Norfolk, England; Paris; and Morristown & Bordentown, NJ.|
Cowritten with Thomas Pryor in November 1775, Paine (then still "Pain") wrote "African Slavery in America," an essay "that assaulted every excuse for the trade and demanded immediate emancipation of all Africans in every colony." His was a fearless defense of reason over ignorance or any other justification for human bondage, body and mind.
After Washington's army and navy defeated the British and around the time the founders created the Constitution, Paine, ever-restless and fully committed to egalitarian republicanism, sought to export the idea of individual liberty and representational government.
After the American Revolution, Paine began his "Rights of Man" to help bring democracy and individual freedoms back across the Atlantic to Europe. His ideas and the founders' ideals would eventually reach to the Pacific and beyond. Nelson writes: "Paine's 'Rights' ... brilliantly anticipated, two hundred years ahead of its time, the style of government for close to half the world's nations today."
One of his greatest and most controversial works, condemned by many who never read it, was "Age of Reason." Nelson explores the influence of deism in a chapter called, The Religion of Science: "Besides identifying the deist principles that underlay all faiths, deists suggested that Socrates, Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed were each attempting to return his society's corrupt religion back to its natural state -- the state of deism."
Paine's positions in "Rights" and "Reason" led to contempt and condemnation, including by John Adams and Samuel Adams, and charges of sedition in England and France, for which he faced imprisonment and near execution by guillotine.
Prison changed Paine. His disillusionment and feeling of failure were mirrored by other "founding fathers" late in their lives.
"Almost all of Thomas Paine's Enlightenment colleagues spent their last years as he did, believing that their revolutionary programs had failed, that the philosophy of the light had been proved a pipe dream, that their life's work had been entirely for naught and the great dreams of their youth would go forever unrealized. Instead, of course, it would be the shared, hopeless despair of their last years that would in time be proven 'almost categorically' the modern paradox of the world they made."The founders were in part disillusioned by the growing aristocracy, greed, materialism, disparity of wealth, and anti-intellectualism -- what they saw as a move away from virtue and core values.
"Yet, for anyone needing to be reminded of core Enlightenment beliefs -- that government can only be empowered by its citizens; that such citizens are born with certain natural rights; that none are born superior to any other; that all will be treated equally before the law; and that the state has a duty to help the neediest of its people -- reading Paine offers a political and spiritual inspiration, one that has driven men and women to achieve greatness across history."Nelson concludes his biography with an excerpt from the final letter written by Thomas Jefferson, "one last bravura manifesto combining the ideas of the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, and Thomas Paine."
Jefferson called for "arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government..."
Imagine if those words and insights could be read and understood in countries harboring violent extremists like ISIS/ISIL, the self-proclaimed "Islamic State."
Nelson quotes a 2004 survey by the Freedom House human rights organization showing democratic elections in 89 countries with "freedom of expression, assembly, association, education, and religion." Sadly, the most recent Freedom House annual country-by-country report on global political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World 2014, concludes: "The state of freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2013."
|Professor Eric Foner, another Paine biographer.|
Nelson's "Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations" was published in 2006. It is one of dozens of biographies by great writers and thinkers like Eric Foner, Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, Owen Aldridge, David Freeman Hawke, and John Keane. The works by and about Paine are recommended reading for every world citizen interested in the concepts of virtue, freedom and individual/collective responsibility.