Thomas (“Tom”) Paine — The Forgotten American Revolutionary

At a very critical moment in the direction of the Continental Congress, before a majority of the delegates to that congress were committed to the idea of complete independence from the British crown, Tom Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense.  If it had been published today, they would say that it “went viral,” for that is what happened with this explosive diatribe against the hereditary government of kings and titled aristocrats.  It could well be said that the United States owes its creation to this author whose pamphlet, at that decisive moment, persuaded the majority of delegates to the Continental Congress that nothing short of full independence from the crown was acceptable.  The pamphlet literally led directly to the creation of the United States as an independent nation with its democratic, representative government.

But this English-born, naturalized-American revolutionary was not done with the American Revolution — he was also very actively involved in the subsequent French Revolution that began in 1789.  In response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Tom Paine wrote his rejoinder Rights of Man to refute the points made in Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and its overthrow of hereditary government.

There are many well-known written rhetorical statements by Tom Paine that few realize today were his.  For instance, he began each of his series of pamphlets titled The Crisis, written during the darkest days of the American Revolution, with the familiar line: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”   Here is a representative sample of Tom Paine quotations — you can get a sense from them of how important principles were to this man who was a true revolutionary in thought as well as in deed:

  • A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.
  • A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be.  Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.
  • An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.
  • Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be true.
  • I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.
  • It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself.
  • If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.
  • One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests.
  • My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.
  • Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

In addition to advocating representative and democratic government and decrying as outmoded the hereditary government of kings and titled aristocrats, Tom Paine the revolutionary had many novel public-welfare ideas that were well ahead of his times, including advocating:

  • Graduated income tax.
  • Free public education for children
  • Financial assistance to the elderly, i.e., an early version of a social security program.
  • Providing a one-time payment for those just starting out in life at the age of 21.
  • Work relief program for the poor.
  • Financial support for the poor.
  • Financial support for young couples giving birth.
  • Financial support for young married couples.
  • Allowance for burials for the indigent.
  • Opposition to property as the prerequisite for the right to vote.
  • Opposition to slavery.
  • General anti-war sentiment on the grounds that war unleashes terrible and often unpredictable consequences.
  • Deism in religion (i.e., believed in the existence of one benevolent god),  but was highly critical of Christianity and the Bible as pure mythology, as critiqued in his book The Age of Reason.

Tom Paine summarized his beliefs as follows: “I believe in one God and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.  I believe in the equality of men, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, having mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy.”

In retrospect, it is curious how little attention Tom Paine — a pivotal figure in both the American Revolution and the French Revolution — gets for having played such a crucial role in the creation of our modern democratic, representative government.

Thomas Paine

Common Sense by Thomas Paine

Rights of Man by Thomas Paine

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