At the 100th anniversary of the Thomas Paine Cottage Museum in New Rochelle Sunday, historians,
musicians. Revolutionary soldiers and the beauty of Thomas Paine’s "farm" off North Avenue in New Rochelle brough to life the story of a great man.
Below is the text of a speech at the ceremony, telling us a bit about who Paine was:
I am honored to be here today to speak about Thomas Paine on the centennial of the Thomas Paine Cottage’s honorable career as a historic site. Today is also the 206th anniversary of an infamous event involving two other New Yorkers – the duel fought by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, both veterans of the Revolution, both men of honor who felt that they had to fight a duel to vindicate their honor in the public’s eyes, even though dueling was illegal under the laws of New York and New Jersey. That duel reminds us how distant in time and in thinking the founding era was from our time. We must remember that distance in recalling also that that era laid the foundation for the American nation, for posterity, for us – no matter how bemused, perplexed, or even appalled the founding fathers might be if they could see the United States today.
Most accounts of that duel declare it to be a duel between two of America’s founding fathers. It’s easy to see Hamilton as a founding father, but it’s something of a stretch to drag Burr under that label. In a strange and bitter irony, however, most Americans would identify Aaron Burr as a founding fathers before they’d give Thomas Paine that honor. Indeed, even historians are not sure about Paine’s deserving to be counted among the company of the founding fathers – even though he and Thomas Jefferson were the George and Ira Gershwin of the American founding. They wrote the words and the music to the story of American nationhood, independence, freedom, and equality – and we want the founding fathers to speak to our time, and we hear Paine and Jefferson doing that. And yet, while we honor the memories of Jefferson, Hamilton, and (sometimes) Aaron Burr, Thomas Paine is the problematic founding father. Why?
It’s not for want of eminent admirers, though Paine would find the coterie of his fans ideologically confusing, as it includes the late President Ronald Reagan and the still-living FOX commentator Glenn Beck on the right and a host of eminent British politicians and historians on the left – the late E. P. Thompson, the late Michael Foot, and their friend and colleague Tony Benn, who is very much alive.
Partly, it’s that Paine is controversial in ways that even Jefferson is not. He has been denounced as a “filthy little atheist” (by former President Theodore Roosevelt), stigmatized as a drunken wreck (by the inventor Eli Whitney), and upbraided as irresponsible by a host of critics, past and present. The most memorable blast against Paine is by John Adams, whose life I am now writing. In 1805, Adams wrote to an old friend, the physician Benjamin Waterhouse: “I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.” Though this extraordinary salvo of words seems unfair, it’s hard to escape its denunciatory power. Even so, Paine deserves recognition as a founding father.
Part of the problem rests with Paine himself. He was vain, presenting himself as a wide-ranging intellectual to whom no field of knowledge was closed. His assertions of his own originality are hard to take, and sometimes he went too far. In 1791 a French friend, Etienne Dumont, reported: “He fancied that his book upon the Rights of Man ought to be substituted for every other book in the world; and he told us as roundly that, if it were in his power to annihilate every library in existence, he would do so without hesitation in order to eradicate the errors they contained and commence with Rights of Man a new era of ideas and principles. He knew all his own writings by heart, but he knew nothing else."
The most durable obstacle to evaluating Paine’s significance is the maze of half-truths and myths about his character flaws. What most Americans think they know about Paine is wrong, but as Shakespeare taught us, rumor is fleet of foot, leaving truth limping behind. Truth still deserves a hearing.
Paine’s significance and status as a founding father rests on many bases, but three themes bind his life together and define his enduring relevance: his part in inventing the democratic revolution, his invention of democratic political language, and his embodiment of the political dissenter.
First, Paine helped to invent the democratic revolution as a means of political and social change. He legitimized the idea that the people could rise up in revolt against inherited forms of government and established authority, and that they could devise new forms of government to secure their safety and happiness. For generations, his writings and arguments have inspired oppressed peoples around the world to believe that they too can overthrow their oppressors. He taught people to believe that no longer should they hold themselves hostage to ancient dogmas, encrusted traditions, and tyrannical assumptions, simply because things had always been that way. These ideas are second nature to us – but that they have become second nature is due, in large measure, to Thomas Paine. As he said, "A Share in two revolutions is living to some purpose."
At bottom, Paine was the prototypical dissenter – and this trait molded all his other endeavors and achievements. He defined his political and intellectual identity in opposition to the prevailing political, social, and religious order and sought to make a case against that order that embodied his vision of an alternative, better order.
Paine did not start his career with the goal of becoming a dissenter – not usually a career objective. Rather, what impelled Paine is what creates all dissenters: inner intellectual honesty, profound revulsion against existing injustices, and an almost visceral compulsion to oppose truth to error, liberty to tyranny, freedom of thought to prescribed canons, heterodoxy to orthodoxy. These themes are constants throughout his writings, animating not only his vigorous, eloquent, at times ferocious denunciations of existing society but also his evolving vision of what a just and equitable political and social order would look like. Political dissent achieves intellectual greatness and political effectiveness when it goes beyond mere denunciation to offer a constructive prescription for government, politics, and society, and Paine’s great writings meet that test.
Other historical figures achieve enduring fame at the hands of admiring posterity, through books, articles, even movies and television programs – but Paine still lives because of the power of his own writings, not because of any particular enthusiast or hero-worshipper. The late Michael Foot summed up the paradoxical forces that have shaped Paine’s legacy: “In all history there is no more curious story than that of Paine’s blaze to fame, his pitiable fall, and then the slow but assured recovery of his reputation. Strangely, that recovery itself is due to the persistent potency of his pen. It is Paine’s own writings that have made his name survive while the forgotten historians were busy expurgating it from the records. Almost every democratic state’s moral writer has found his way back to the source books.”
Paine still speaks to the challenges facing peoples all over the world who want to secure or to recover liberty and self-government for themselves and their posterity. At the moment when a people take government and their destiny as free human beings into their own hands, they confront the enduring democratic challenge. Paine gave his readers, then as now, not just the inspiration but the intellectual tools and emotional equipment to meet that challenge.
As Paine knew and taught, there is no royal or aristocratic road to wisdom. The only keys to knowledge are the will and the wit to acquire it: "Ignorance is of a peculiar nature; once dispelled, it is impossible to re-establish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant.” And thus, thanks in large part to events like this one, the world cannot and will not be kept ignorant of the problematic founding father, Thomas Paine.