Although Glenn Beck, Herman Cain and the Tea Party would have us believe that Tom Paine was one of them—a man who supposedly stood for “small government”—this could not be further from the truth. On the eve of Paine’s 275th birthday, on January 29, let’s restore some common sense here: Paine was a progressive to the core. He was one of the first to decry the aristocracy and landed elites of his day—the 1%—while emphasizing the welfare of the masses. True government, as he saw it, ought to be “a delegation of power for the common benefit of society,” founded on the “RES-PUBLICA, the public affairs, or public good,” not the “cavillings of a few interested men.”
By writing in a manner that was easily accessible to the literate and illiterate alike, Paine brought politics to the 99% with Common Sense (1776) and other formative texts. He dared to urge a complete break from Britain when others were still trying to compromise with George III and his Parliament. And he was among the first to question hereditary government; acknowledge women’s rights; support the abolition of slavery and challenge disparities in pay while advocating labor organizing rights. A former corset maker, teacher and excise officer, Paine knew there was something wrong when bishops earned 1,000 times as much as hardworking parish priests—just like we know there’s something wrong when CEOs earn 1,000 times as much as their employees. And he knew there was something wrong when the young were being sent to jails and the elderly forced to continue working, just like know there is something wrong when numerous urban and rural youth continue to wind up in prison while Boomers and the elderly face prospects of deferred retirement.
Interestingly but not surprisingly, Paine was treated like many future left-wing dissidents and radicals. He was burned in effigy by rowdy mobs throughout his native England and sentenced for sedition for his criticism of monarchies and feudal privileges in Rights of Man (1791). In fact, it’s worth noting that the mobs who did so were paid by wealthy nobles and powerful members of the government, not unlike Tea Party mobs who are funded by the Koch brothers and others. As they say, plus ça change.
Yet regardless of the unpopularity of his views, especially after the publication of his controversial Age of Reason (1794-5), Paine never flinched. Unlike many of our Founding Fathers, and would-be liberals today, Paine was not preoccupied with money or the trappings of wealth. He was proud of his little house in New Rochelle, New York, with its collection of farm animals and functional pots and pans. Paine donated nearly all of his considerable earnings from Common Sense and Rights of Man to the Continental Army and British radical organizations struggling as they fought for a new nation. Not least, he enjoyed hanging out in pubs and taverns, where he conversed with ordinary working men. Paine was a man who talked the talk and walked the walk all the way to the finish line.
Were he alive today, Paine might discern more than a few uneasy parallels between the conditions of 2012—corporate serfdom, disproportionate taxation, joblessness, unlawful foreclosures—and those of 1792. Personally, I think he’d stand proudly with Occupy Wall Street and the determined fight for the rights of Main Street. He’d be proud of our “winter soldiers” who’ve braved the jeers, violence and freezing temperatures to declare independence from crony capitalism and corporate corruption.
Like Paine, who wrote in 1776, “We have it in our power to begin the world again,” so OWS declares: “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” And on the eve of Paine’s date of birth, his humanity, conviction and simple eloquence inspires us again. As he put it, “When it shall be said in 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…then may that country boast its constitution and its government.”
Now, celebrating that courage of the past, it’s our chance to use bold common sense and enact the solutions of the future.
Frances A. Chiu earned her doctorate at Oxford University and is an assistant professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences departments at the New School. She is currently working on a study of horror and the rise of modern liberalism.