Harvey J. Kaye: Why Tom Paine Is Now So Popular

Roundup: Talking About History

Harvey J. Kaye, in the American Prospect (July 2005):

[Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. This article is excerpted from Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, to be published in August by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.]

On July 17, 1980, Ronald Reagan stood before the Republican national convention and the American people to accept his party’s nomination for president of the United States. Most of what he said that evening was to be expected from a Republican. He spoke of the nation’s past and its “shared values.” He attacked the incumbent Carter administration and promised to lower taxes, limit government, and expand national defense. And, invoking God, he invited Americans to join him in a “crusade to make America great again.”

Yet Reagan had much more than restoration in mind. He intended to transform American political life and discourse. He had constructed a new Republican alliance -- a New Right -- of corporate elites, Christian evangelicals, conservative and neoconservative intellectuals, and a host of right-wing interest groups in hopes of undoing the liberal politics and programs of the past 40 years, reversing the cultural changes and developments of the 1960s, and establishing a new national governing consensus.

All this was well-known. But that night, Reagan startled many by calling forth the revolutionary, Thomas Paine, and quoting Paine’s words of 1776, from the pamphlet Common Sense: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

American politicians have always drawn upon the words and deeds of the Founders to bolster their own positions. Nevertheless, in quoting Paine, Reagan broke emphatically with long-standing conservative practice. Paine was not like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Jefferson. Paine had never really been admitted to the most select ranks of the Founding Fathers. Recent presidents, mostly Democrats, had referred to him, but even the liberals had generally refrained from quoting Paine the revolutionary. When they called upon his life and labors, they usually conjured up Paine the patriot, citing the line with which, during the darkest days of the war for independence, he opened the ?rst of his Crisis papers: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Conservatives certainly were not supposed to speak favorably of Paine, and for 200 years, they had not. In fact, they had for generations publicly despised Paine and scorned his memory. And one can understand why: Endowing American experience with democratic impulse and aspiration, Paine had turned Americans into radicals, and we have remained radicals at heart ever since.

However, for more than a quarter-century, we have allowed the Republican right to appropriate the nation’s history, de?ne what it means to be an American, and corral American political imagination. It is time for the left to recover its fundamental principles and perspectives and reinvigorate Americans’ democratic impulse and aspiration. And we must start by reclaiming, and reconnecting with, Paine’s memory and legacy and the progressive tradition he inspired and encouraged. We must redeem Paine’s revolutionary vision, his con?dence in his fellow citizens, and his belief in America’s extraordinary purpose and promise. Doing so will help us to remember not only what we stand in opposition to but, all the more, what we stand in opposition for....

Ironically perhaps, in these years of conservative ascendance and the retreat of liberalism and the left, we have witnessed an amazing resurgence of interest in Paine, extending all the way across American public culture. Indeed, Paine has achieved near-celebrity status. His writings adorn bookstore shelves and academic syllabi. References to him appear everywhere, in magazine articles, television programs, Hollywood Films, and even the works of contemporary musical artists, from classical to punk. And while Paine’s image may not have become iconic, the editors of American Greats, a hall-of-fame-like volume celebrating the nation’s most wonderful and fascinating creations, enshrined his pamphlet Common Sense as popular Americana, alongside the baseball diamond, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Coca-Cola recipe, and the Chevrolet Corvette. Media critic John Katz dubbed Paine the “moral father of the Internet.”

Paine has definitely achieved a new status in public history and memory and come to be admired and celebrated almost universally. Nothing more ?rmly registered the change than the October 1992 decision by Congress to authorize the erection of a monument to Paine in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall. The lobbying campaign for the memorial involved mobilizing truly bipartisan support, from Ted Kennedy to Jesse Helms. And more recently, in 2004, while Howard Dean and Ralph Nader were issuing pamphlets modeled on Common Sense, and the online journal TomPaine.com was publishing liberal news commentary, Republicans and Libertarians were quoting Paine in support of their own political ambitions.

Paine’s new popularity truly has been astonishing, leading Paine biographer Jack Fruchtman to muse, “Who owns Tom Paine?” The very extent of it has made it seem as if it had never been otherwise. Reporting on a campaign to have a marble statue of suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Osborne Mott moved into the Capitol Rotunda, a Washington-based journalist wrote, “Imagine a statue of Benjamin Franklin shoved into a broom closet in the White House. Or a portrait of Thomas Paine tucked behind a door. That would never happen.” And in Columbus, Ohio, a reporter noted without reservation: “Some politicians evoke Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Paine to express Middle America’s ideal of honesty and patriotism.” ...

... [W]hy have we become so eager to reconnect specically with Paine? Perhaps because when compared with the other Founders, he has come to look so good. He was no slaveholder or exploiter of humanity. Nor did he seek material advantage by his patriotism. But that explains his popularity in an essentially negative manner. Besides, as admirable as Paine was, the answer lies not in his life alone. It also has to do with our own historical and political longings. However conservative the times appear, we Americans remain -- with all our faults and failings -- resolutely democratic in bearing and aspiration. When we rummage through our Revolutionary heritage, we instinctively look for democratic hopes and possibilities. And there we ?nd no Founder more committed to the progress of freedom, equality, and democracy than Paine. Moreover, we discover that no writer of our Revolutionary past speaks to us more clearly and forcefully. In spite of what might have seemed a long estrangement, we recognize Paine and feel a certain intimacy with his words. ...

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

"Although I like to think that he was a major formative factor in my psychological and mental formation I hardly remember anything he wrote!

Well I guess you know it by know after some time one does not recall exactly what he read or heard but, if it was very good or very bad, it will remain with him!
I put it this way:
"For he was that kind of man whose influence forms more than teaches. "
I can not think of a higher form of praise than that.
While we are at it I would rather dwell,for now only, on a sunny side of America (Tom Paine) than the multitude of its ugly faces.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

No attempt at a rebuttal just an opportunity to praise that exceptional man that the USA failed utterly.
Would you care to tell me how the USA "corrected " its crimes in:
-Indochina i.e. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and the millions killed, directly and indirectly, by the USA and its puppets?
-In Iran by toppling Mossadegh and returning the Shah?
-In Chile by replacing Allende with Pinochet?
-In Indonesia by bringing to power the arch corrupt Suharto and the killing of hundred of thousands members of the opposition!
-In Palestine by empowering the racist, aggressive and expansionist state of Israel up to the point of total occupation and creeping annexation while financing, directly and indirectly, settlements and the Wall?
-In Iraq ( the latest victim) by replacing a secular regime with an avowed confessional biased , mullahs dominated regime while systematically destroying the foundations of the state: the civil service, the army and security organizations, handing it over to Iran trained and financed militias and dismembering the country and turning it into a slaughter house with an average of 35 civilians murders per day?
All in the recent past only!

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

None of the above, unfortunately, shows how the USA ever "corrected" any of its crimes...which was your original contention that called forward my riposte!

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

None, or possibly, in recent history the Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Switzerland!?
I wait now for your answer as to HOW the USA "corrected" its many crimes of the recent past and how it proposes to correct its ongoing crimes in Palestine and Iraq!

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

It has been quite some time since I last read for or about or read or heard the name Thomas Paine.
More is the pity for with an unshackled, wild and omnipotent America on the rampage what he had to say, what he fiercely believed in and tirelessly advocated, is needed now more than ever!
Although I like to think that he was a major formative factor in my psychological and mental formation I hardly remember anything he wrote!
For he was that kind of man whose influence forms more than teaches.

From what I read for and about Tom Paine, the man and the political theoretician, I recall an outstandingly noble, unique and free soul obsessed, words fail me for a better term, with justice, freedom and the equality of man; the seminal values and potential of man any where, any time.
He was among the first to see America's boundless potential for good
But capitalistic America , Cf labour laws, social security, public health and public education, internally and imperialistic America, Cf Central and South America , Indochina and the Middle East etc externally more than failed Tom Paine ; it betrayed him for which both America and the world are the poorer!

Adam Shelby Betz - 7/4/2006

Again, as I answered you before on this question, it is how one percieves these as crimes. I do not percieve a preemptive strike to a tyrranical and radical Muslim leader a crime because I am convinced he (Saddam) would have attack the United States eventually given more time. In Vietnam, the United States was attempting to assist France in keeping its grasp on the land in Vietnam. You percieve these as crimes, sir. I do not.

Adam Shelby Betz - 7/3/2006

And you never answered my question to you, sir which was what nation has been absolutely without falt?

Adam Shelby Betz - 7/3/2006

These are things that you may see as crimes but they are from an opinion only and not fact based. Yes, the U.S. has helped place many of those you mention, however once they act, that is not the fault of the United States. A personal example: The state of Michigan gave me a drivers license. Back in 2003 I recieveda DUI however, it is necessarily the fault of the state that I chose to drink and drive because they gave me the abilty to drive? No, the wrong was done by me and by me only.

A large problem world wide today is the way people point blame and fingers. We always seem to have to find someone to blame and why not blame America, right? That is what I see you are doing. You don't hold those accountable for most of the killing, for example, the jihadist terrorist wreaking havok in Iraq. Sir, be a man and put the blame where the blame is rightfully due. Do not blindling throw blame at the easy target. However, that seems the easy thing to do and I cannot blame you for that. If I was to think like you I would blame the easier target, not yourself. I would blame the ultra-liberal socety and colleges of the day for preaching American hate to our younger generation.

Again, Semper Fi to you, Sir!

Adam Betz

Adam Shelby Betz - 7/2/2006

Not much of a rebuttal there. I was not saying you thought badly of Thomas Paine but how badly you talk of the United States. May I ask where you live now if not in America? If you are an American sir, may I inquire as to what nationality you are originaly?

And one other thing. What nation or person for that matter does not have an "ugly face." Are we all perfect? Is the nation of your loyalty absolutely withou fault? More importantly (as was my point in the earlier post), how has that nation, if there even is one, admitted and corrected its wrongs? As I have said, this is the true test of a good hearted and righteous people.

Adam Shelby Betz - 7/1/2006


You say you don't remember the writings of Thomas Paine, but you then go on to claim that everything America stands for is against what Paine believed in. That is a bit confusing.

In addition, I have kept track of many of your posts. You seem very displeased with the way the United States has conducted itself. What nation has not had its falls, sir? The important thing to remember about Americans is that we recover rather quickly from nation ebarrasment and strive to change things. Americans do not tend to sit idly by and wait for someone to help as is often the case with many other nations.

I would suggest keeping in mind the positive things about the United States and not focus entirely on the bad, which thus far seems to be your track record.

Regards and Semper Fidelis,

SSGT Adam Betz

Kenneth R Gregg - 7/4/2005

Paine was a true visionary. He spoke, not only to his own generation, but to the generations that have followed him throughout the world.

Paine was a man of the future whose words are as clear and clean today was they were when first written. I know of almost no other writer that, when I open to a page of any of his books, essays and remonstrances, that I can begin at any point and continue from there, understanding his arguments and ideas, hopes and dreams. It is as though each word of each sentence within each paragraph is so carefully crafted that they are melded into a single voice, echoing throughout the ages.

It is true, that as a classical liberal and libertarian, I have taken him into my heart and hopes. But I think that it is more than that. If you listen to your own, Thomas Paine is lurking in the shadows waiting to venture out.

May he never be forgotten, may his dreams become our future.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Nathaniel Brian Bates - 7/3/2005

I have mixed feelings about Tom. On the one hand, the Age of Reason was prejudicial in many ways, including some barbs against Jews and other non-western poeple deemed unscientific. On the other hand, we owe him a great debt of gratitude for our Freedom.

I choose to honor the latter aspect of Tom Paine on the Fourth. No one is perfect. And, he is right. We are better off without kings and dictators telling us what is what.

Of all the Founders, he was the most consistent, on slavery, women's rights, democracy, and war. Honors and praise to Tom Paine,