Was Thomas Paine an anarchist or Founding Father?

Posted: July 06, 2010

ON THE EVE of the American Revolution, Britain's North American colonists were divided over the issue of independence.

A third favored separation from England. Another third opposed it, and yet another third was indifferent, believing that the issue didn't affect them.

That changed in January 1776 with the publication of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense." The 47-page pamphlet served as a lightning rod for American independence by mobilizing the masses for revolution. But Paine's volatile rhetoric and his controversial background prevented historians from recognizing his significant contribution as a Founding Father until two centuries later.

Paine was a self-educated Englishman who had failed as a corset-maker, tax-collector and husband before emigrating to the colonies in 1774.

Settling in Philadelphia, he took a job as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, where he wrote inflammatory essays against slavery, the inferior political and social status of women and England's rule.

At the same time, Paine circulated among the common people. He worked hard to determine the political temper of the colonies, reading newspapers and frequenting the taverns and coffeehouses of Philadelphia, buttonholing anyone with an opinion.

BY THE AUTUMN of 1775, Paine's writings had captured the attention of the Second Continental Congress.

Delegates like Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush enlisted his support to test public opinion before making a definitive commitment to independence themselves.

Paine obliged by writing "Common Sense," which appeared on Jan. 10, 1776.

Using "simple facts, plain arguments and common sense," Paine launched a frontal attack on the British monarchy.

"If the institution were truly useful," he asked his readers, why would nature ridicule it "by giving mankind an ass for a lion" - the symbol of the British monarchy - "on the throne?"

Depicting King George III as a "tyrant" and a "co-conspirator with Parliament" in attempting to destroy the natural rights of the colonists, Paine likened the monarch to a "father-king" who relished his American children as a main meal:

"Americans should not feel any obligation to a crowned ruffian who sanctions war against them."

Instead, Paine argued, the colonists should replace him with a representative form of government in which the "law is king."

Like a preacher urging his congregation to embark on a divinely inspired mission, Paine reminded his readers of the American blood already shed at Lexington and Concord with the words: "O! Ye that love mankind! The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries 'Tis time to part!"

Of course, Thomas Jefferson made these same points in the Declaration of Independence six months later. But Jefferson showed much greater respect for George III and couched his arguments in careful, calculated and felicitous language designed to appeal to the political elite of the colonies as well as potential European allies.

Paine's audience, on the other hand, was less refined. They were the common people who eventually took up the musket and fought for independence.

Not only did he appeal to their reason, but to their emotions as well. The genius of Paine's work was that it expressed the ideas of revolution in language that the masses could understand.

"Common Sense" aroused public opinion in America in an unprecedented way. It quickly became a best-seller, with 500,000 copies sold in the first year after publication.

It found its way into bookstores, private libraries and taverns in both Europe and America. "Common Sense" also instigated hundreds of responses, pro and con, in the form of pamphlets, broadsides and newspaper editorials.

So why was Paine denied the rank of "Founding Father"?

Returning to England in 1787, he became embroiled in the political debate ignited by the French Revolution. Charged with seditious libel for advocating an end to monarchy in Britain in his "Rights of Man," Paine escaped to France, where he was elected to the French National Convention.

Once again, he fell out of favor with the government and spent almost a year in prison.

While living in France, Paine wrote his final great work, "Age of Reason," attacking the basic principles of Christianity.

He returned to America in 1802, a bitter and disillusioned man. Paine's attacks on organized religion caused waves of anger across the nation, and he was considered "a person to be avoided, a character to be feared."

That infamous reputation lingered into the 20th century, when President Theodore Roosevelt refused to honor Paine, dismissing him as a "filthy little atheist."

Not until the mid-1970s did historians acknowledge the critical role of "Common Sense" in mobilizing the masses for the American Revolution, calling it a "powerful expression of the American mind, just a step below the Declaration of Independence."

But Paine's greatest legacy was his faith in the ability of common people to determine their own political destiny.

William Kashatus is a historian and writer. He can be contacted at bill@historylive.net.

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