Jan. 29 marked Thomas Paine’s 284th birthday. Although Paine’s birthday is overshadowed by the birthdays of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, his life and writings are incredibly important, particularly after all the turmoil that 2020 brought.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Paine was born in England in 1737, He received a limited education and held several miscellaneous jobs during his early life, culminating in his becoming an excise officer that was responsible for collecting taxes on goods and apprehending smugglers. It was because of this job that he wrote his first pamphlet, in which he detailed corruption and grievances among his fellow excise officers. Shortly after this, he traveled to America, likely at the behest of Benjamin Franklin. Upon arriving in America, he began work as a journalist at a newspaper in Philadelphia. He quickly became a leading agitator for American independence from Britain after publishing Common Sense, a pamphlet that argued that the colonies should rebel not only against British taxation, but British rule in general. During the American Revolution, he served as an aide to General Nathaniel Greene and wrote his 16 Crisis papers, which were pamphlets distributed amongst American troops to improve morale. He would later be appointed as a secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. After the American Revolution, he retired for a time to a farm that was given to him by the state of New York as a reward for his efforts during the American Revolution. However, he would become involved with the French Revolution, during which he wrote Rights of Man and Rights of Man II and served as an intellectual figure (and occasional dissident). After the culmination of the French Revolution, he returned to his farm, where he would eventually pass away at the age of 72.
Thomas Paine occupies an interesting place in American history. For one thing, American affairs were not the singular focus of his life and his career. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paine devoted significant time and energy to the French Revolution, and some of his most formative work was written during this time period. For another thing, much of his writing was far ahead of its time, and the topics he covered were quite diverse. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, Common Sense was a catalyst for American independence and set the stage for the Declaration of Independence, and he argued for the abolishment of slavery far harder than most other founding fathers, going so far as to write the preamble to an act by the Pennsylvania Assembly that freed 6,000 slaves. Rights of Man and Rights of Man II, which were written as a rebuttal to Edward Burke, persist today as a powerful argument for a republican government with a welfare system that includes public education, pensions for the elderly, and relief for the poor, all paid for by a progressive income tax. He even discussed inequality in land ownership in Agrarian Justice, in which he proposed a form of social security as a remedy.
Paine is also respected by people across the political spectrum. According to goodreads.com, two ideologically distinct authors, conservative pundit Glenn Beck and progressive historian Harvey Kaye, have both written books in praise of him. While this may be caused by the diversity of topics in his writing, there is likely a deeper reason for Paine’s broad appeal, something that goes deeper than any of Paine’s political theory and beliefs. Thomas Paine believed in the importance of freedom, equality, and justice above all else, and this brief permeated every bit of his writing and life’s work. One of his most famous quotations occurs in Rights of Man, where he neatly sums up his commitment to justice:
“When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of happiness. When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and government. Independence is my happiness, the world is my country and my religion is to do good.”
This quotation doesn’t just sum up Thomas Paine’s life and work, it serves as an explanation as to why Paine holds the appeal that he does. Human history is a story of a slow march towards progress, marked by a constant determination to be better than those before us. After all the negativity of the past year, it may be easy to forget this and look to the past, to a time when we think things may have been better. However, Paine’s writing is not a call to the past; it is a reminder to look to the future, to devote ourselves to freedom, justice, and progress. As we reach the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and begin the recovery, we must draw on the values that Paine embodied and rebuild our country into something better than it was before. Our country has a lot of problems to face: income inequality and economic centralization continue to increase, systemic racism continues to rot at the core of our justice system, and global warming is looming as a threat even larger than the current pandemic. We have to start addressing the challenges ahead of us, and we cannot address these problems without a commitment to the same values that Paine embodied more than 200 years ago.