Harvey Kaye: Interviewed by Bill Moyers about Tom Paine

Historians in the News

BILL MOYERS: Back in mid-January of 1980, another race for the Presidency was underway. As it is now, many Americans were worried about the economy and a failed policy in the Middle East. They hungered for change and hope.

Along came a former California governor named Ronald Reagan. He rallied his party at the Republican National Convention with these patriotic words: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

Calling for a revolution, Reagan chose those words from the writings of America's first great radical, and our first best selling writer. His name was Thomas Paine. Over two centuries ago this month, Paine's most famous book, COMMON SENSE, sold what today would be fifty million copies. Farmers in the fields stopped to read it.

Other influential works followed including THE AMERICAN CRISIS which proclaimed, "These are times that try men's souls." George Washington took those words to heart when he ordered his troops to be read Paine's passionate call for liberty as they went into battle.

Thomas Paine's extraordinary life was both glorious and tragic. He was not always revered by some of our other founding fathers. You can read the story in this book by Harvey J. Kaye, THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA. Harvey Kaye teaches history and social change at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He has dedicated much of his life arguing for Paine's decisive influence on the American experiment in democracy. Harvey J. Kaye was in town this week lecturing on Tom Paine. And he's with us now. Welcome.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Thank you. It's great to be here.

BILL MOYERS: Harvey, I have never met a historian more enthusiastic about his subject than you are about Thomas Paine. You seem obsessed with him. Why?

HARVEY J. KAYE: Well, I met Paine when I was a child at my grandfather's apartment in Brooklyn, New York. And my grandfather who was a trial lawyer, if he felt that way about Paine, I figured I ought to feel that way too. So, I adopted him. And I didn't-- I wasn't an American historian to begin with. I started out in Latin American studies. I moved into British studies. But I came to the conclusion that the only way to make a difference was to speak American. And the way to do that was to embrace my hero, Thomas Paine, in a public way. So, in the Nineties, it was time to start talking Paine-ized language. And I did so. Because sorry, there was no other writer from the past who spoke to Americans it struck me in the way he did. And spoke to Americans in every generation. And still does.

BILL MOYERS: How do you mean spoke to Americans?

HARVEY J. KAYE: Well, when Paine came to America, he came at the age of 37. When he came to America--

BILL MOYERS: Poor and--


BILL MOYERS: Uneducated.

HARVEY J. KAYE: He had been fired by the British government as having been a tax collector. Franklin had encouraged him to come but they probably expected little to come of it. But who knows what goes on in the mind of someone like Franklin. But Paine came to America. And almost overnight, he fell in love with the country. He saw incredible possibilities, incredible prospects. And I think even with the contradictions of slavery and the developing inequality, he saw that Americans had it indeed to make the world over again. Or Americans had it to become Americans. I think that's what he said to America …

BILL MOYERS: Now, that sounds like a cliché. What do you mean to become an American?

HARVEY J. KAYE: Americans were in the middle of a rebellion. They were already fighting a war. But meanwhile, Washington when he had his officers together as late as January '76 was still toasting the king. Jefferson, Adams, they all said, look, we're part of one nation with the British. And Paine looked out and he said, my goodness. These people can govern themselves. They were already doing so by way of committees in Philadelphia and up in Boston. And he believed that they needed to be made aware of what they were doing. So, it's as if Paine saw what Americans hadn't yet seen, but were already themselves doing.

BILL MOYERS: And yet, who knows him today? I mean, he's not on Mount Rushmore. There's no swell monument to him on the mall. Ask a hundred kids in school to name our founding fathers and they name Washington and Jefferson and Adams. And not one of them is likely to name Paine.

HARVEY J. KAYE: You know, this is interesting. That's what I thought. But when I meet people, you know, I ride in a cab or I walk or even my students. And somehow, they hear a line out of Thomas Paine. And they say, "Oh, I know that." Or they-- and then they realize, oh, that's somebody my father used to talk about. In other words, Paine is the kind of figure from the American Revolution who was passed down. And every generation passed it on in their own fashion. You know, the powerful and the properties and the privileged, the pious, they all tried to suppress Paine's memory. They often talked about him so much, it probably excited young people to read him. And over and over again, whenever they tried to suppress his memory, a new generation of liberals and progressives and radicals in America reclaimed Thomas Paine to lay claim to America's purpose and promise. Because he spoke of democratic America....

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