“The world is my country. To do good is my religion.” – Thomas Paine, founding father.
On every July 4th, we should honor an under-sung founding father who well represents all those who forged the American nation and brought modern popular democracy into the world.
On January 29th people around the world working for reform and free thought celebrate Tom Paine’s birthday. He deserves to be nationally honored post-911 as a great American who fought for freedom, equality, direct democracy, and human rights.
The Revolution might have failed without Tom, or perhaps not even started. He wrote America’s first bestseller Common Sense, taking backroom revolutionary discussion public, and leading directly to the signing of the Declaration of Independence six months later. He spent two years in the Colonial Army with Washington, including the brutal winter at Valley Forge where he wrote The Crisis to talk the starving, freezing army out of deserting the cause. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” are among the most famous words in the American revolutionary liturgy.
“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 all men and women.”
Paine’s words saved the army and the infant nation. Sent to France by Congress at his own expense to find aid to save America from bankruptcy, he not only got the aid, but bankrupted himself buying a desperately needed ship and cargo of muskets, powder and shot, quite literally saving the army and the nascent nation a second time.
Paine may be the only true revolutionary in our Revolution. His ideals bring common people together as a community. No one is above the law. Justice and fairness shall prevail. Everyone gets to vote. He argued for social security, childcare reform, universal health care, animal cruelty penalties and animal shelters 225 years ago!
He warned us to watch, guide, and stop the powerful elite if we want humanity in general to succeed. He proposed that any bill that enriches a corporation or grants a corporate charter should be enacted in one session of the legislature, and confirmed in a second, after a vote of the people, to stop corporate raids on the public treasury.
Paine was made an honorary citizen of France after our Revolution so he could be elected to the French National Convention to help form their new republic. He wrote much of the first French constitution and his masterwork The Rights of Man, both of which still inform the world. He was certain that democracy was spreading and would soon free all of humanity from tyranny. He was jailed, instead, as too moderate (!) and his health was wrecked. He asked his old friend Washington for help to get home, but George ignored him to protect treaty negotiations with England for access to rich West Indies trade. Tom wrote a bitter letter: Washington was a monarch who ignored honor to friends, and to allies who helped set America free, instead helping the filthy barbarians who kept her enslaved for the sake of ungodly profit.
Washington’s political party the Federalists was outraged. Tom languished in prison for Washington’s eight-year presidency, and four more because John Adams carried an old grudge for Paine calling him a would-be king (which he was). Jefferson finally welcomed Tom home after fifteen years, but trouble was waiting.
Paine wrote The Age of Reason while in exile to “avoid politics and controversy,” but rejected religion in it. We can just stare at a tree, he said, and believe in God. Who needs revealed religion? Religionists branded him an atheist, Federalists recalled his insult to their great hero general president, and both went “a-howl in the newspapers over the drunken, atheist, radical Jefferson has let back into the country.”
Tom couldn’t get a job or a pension. All he wanted was repayment for money he gave to the Cause – dollar for dollar – without other reward, but he was only given a small farm in New Rochelle, New York as compensation. He retreated to it in poverty to write letters to the editor and to Jefferson, and articles on controversial topics. When Louisiana petitioned for statehood with a right to keep slaves, he wrote that admitting slaves to a free and equal society was unthinkable. “Pennsylvanians” must be sent to teach Louisiana about democracy; and don’t call the state “Louisiana” because it honors a king, which insults the republic just won by the people’s blood!
He tried to vote for his friend Thomas Jefferson in 1804, but the New Rochelle election board wouldn’t allow it: he was a “French citizen” because of the honorary citizenship permitting him to serve in the Convention. He spent his last days in the courts trying to redress this ultimate indignity, but it was not the final disrespect.
He was refused burial in Quaker ground despite his request because the Quakers feared someone might immodestly raise a monument to him. He was buried on a remote corner of his New Rochelle farm, and a visiting Englishman later dug his bones up secretly, took them to England, stashed them under his bed, and forgot about them. Upon rediscovery years later, they were sold and parted out all over England as souvenirs, and the whereabouts of Tom Paine’s bones is today unknown. It begs the question: How frightened of a man must one be to want to hide his very bones?
After Tom began to grow in popularity and accreditation during the threatened nationally self-conscious democracy of the 1930’s and ‘40’s, his full American citizenship was belatedly admitted in 1945. In truth, he’s a citizen of the world. Tom Paine’s fierce principled call for human rights and, yes, loving hearts, still echoes and is still needed, for as much now as then, “These are the times.”
Citizen Tom Paine was the essence of our great democratic republican experiment: we are rebels as well as patriots. On the fourth of July and on Tom’s birthday January 29th, lift your cup and toast a great American, friend to all the world, and constant champion of humanity. Sing out: “Hurrah!” for Tom Paine. © J. Legry