Until we build the monument to Thomas Paine on the Mall in Washington, D.C., authorized by Congress in 1992 —that is, until we officially admit Paine into the top rank of the Founding Fathers—I will continue to contend that all the usual suspects, yes, all of them are overrated.
If, as I believe, the world-historic importance of the American Revolution and founding of the United States—for all the tragedy and irony that our nation’s development has entailed —has been about the advancement of freedom, equality, and democracy, then we must surely conclude that the great patriots are comparatively overrated. The Virginians—Washington, Jefferson, and Madison—were slaveholders. In fact, for all of Jefferson’s talk of the necessity of a “little rebellion now and then,” he didn’t even trust white artisans, while Adams and Hamilton, as well as Morris, not only scorned working people but also remained hostile to the idea of popular democratic politics. We cannot explain America’s democratic dynamic and greatness by way of the traditional cohort of Founding Fathers.
Although the powerful, propertied, and pious no longer try to suppress Thomas Paine’s memory, as they did for almost 200 years, Paine definitely remains our most underrated Founder. The son of an English artisan, he came to America in 1774 at the age of 37, bearing in one hand a curriculum vitae that registered an elementary education and aborted careers as a corset maker, privateer, preacher, teacher, tax collector, and labor activist, but, more important, in the other, a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, whom he knew through artisan and scientific circles in London.
Struck by America’s magnificent possibilities, moved by the spiritedness of its people, and suddenly offered a career as a magazine editor and writer, Paine dedicated himself to the American cause and—through pamphlets like
Paine’s Common Sense (January 1776) explained to Americans, north and south, urban and rural, high and low, enlightened and evangelical, what they were fighting against and what they were fighting for; and his Crisis Papers (the first in December 1776) renewed and sustained America’s Revolutionary spirit when the struggle seemed doomed. Arguably, if David McCullough is right about 1776 being our most fateful year, then Paine’s great pamphlets stand, alongside the Declaration and the Constitution, as our most important texts. And yet there’s more: Paine’s unwavering commitment to American independence and national solidarity led him to enlist in Washington’s army (1776), serve as secretary to Congress’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (1777–79), write
Paine firmly believed that America possessed extraordinary potential: “The birthday of a new world is at hand.” But he did not see that potential as belonging to Americans alone: “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” Paine often called himself a “citizen of the world.” But the United States always remained paramount in his thoughts and evident in his labors, and his later writings have continued to shape American events and developments from the 1790s to the present.
Endowing American experience with democratic impulse and aspiration, Paine in 1776 turned Americans into radicals, and we have remained radicals at heart ever since. Rebels, reformers, and critics such as Lorenzo Dow, Frances Wright, Thomas Skidmore, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, Jeremiah Simpson, Clarence Darrow, Eugene Debs, and innumerable others right down to the present generation would regularly rediscover Paine’s life and labors and draw ideas, inspiration, and encouragement from them as they themselves sought to extend American freedom, equality, and democracy.
President Andrew Jackson once observed that “Thomas Paine needs no monument made by hands; he has erected a monument in the hearts of all lovers of liberty.” Agreed. But in these new “times that try men’s souls,” erecting the promised memorial to Paine in the nation’s capital is the least we should do, not so much for his sake as for our own.