The Revolutionary Legacy of Thomas Paine & Those Who Would Distort It

Thomas Paine was the definer of an American identity when the American people thought of themselves not as Americans, but as Virginians, New Yorkers, Rhode Islanders, Carolinians, and so on. He argued the case for the separation of the American colonies from Great Britain and his words inspired the soldiers at Valley Forge to press on in spite of the misfortunes of that icy valley. Yet after all his work for the United States, his attacks on institutional religion would isolate him from the United States and send him to Britain. He was tried by Britain for seditious libel for his defense of the French Revolution in the Rights of Man. Invited to France and given a seat in the National Assembly, he almost lost his head due to being aligned with the foes of Robespierre. When he eventually returned to the United States, he was denied American citizenship and the right to vote. He died at the age of 72. Only six people came to his funeral. He was buried under a tree on his property. His bones were eventually dug up for reburial on the British soil of his birth that had rejected him so long ago. Unfortunately, the bones were not interred and became lost.

While the body of Thomas Paine has become lost, his ideas live on. Many people of differing political stripes claim him as their own. The most notorious of these claimants are the Tea Party, perhaps best personified in the person of Glenn Beck who wrote his own version of Common Sense “inspired by Thomas Paine”.

The Tea Party ostensibly stands against welfare, yet in Agrarian Justice, Paine argues for a mandatory minimum income provided by the country to its citizens through taxes. Many members of the Tea Party believe this country was founded as a Christian country, yet in Age of Reason, Paine criticizes the doctrines and dogma of Christianity. In fact, the Age of Reason would be one of the reasons Paine would leave the United States. The attacks by the Tea Party on their foes are not the same stuff of Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine was an advocate of the Enlightenment, progress, and the freedom to become something greater than you were before. The Tea Party stands for none of these, wishing only to return us to a new Dark Age ruled by faith, ignorance, and an exploitive new aristocracy of Robber Barons. They have perverted the legacy of Thomas Paine, if they ever knew it, in an effort to make him into one of their own. While Paine’s political thought had its troublesome elements well worth criticism, such as the lack of checks and balances in his formulation of how government should be, the ability of the Tea Party and Beck to relegate Paine to a figurehead into which they place whatever ideas they wish him to represent betrays the legacy of Thomas Paine. We would do well to remember exactly the things Thomas Paine stood for so that we do not fall prey to the arguments of fools like Glenn Beck.

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3 Responses to The Revolutionary Legacy of Thomas Paine & Those Who Would Distort It

  1. smbockrath says:

    This post is utterly fascinating! I have always been interested in those who take the words and beliefs of famous thinkers for their own, and these new twists from Glenn Beck and the Tea Party are really thought provoking. One can easily dismiss their apparent misunderstanding of Paine’s ideas as trivial — and they are — but there is a clear logic behind this strategy. Using Paine as a figurehead for their overtly conservative ideas serves the purpose of adding some credibility to what they have to say. So people who don’t know what Paine really said and believed in, but who still recognize his name and place in American history, are free to believe in what Glenn Beck and the Tea Party say Paine said. It’s a smart tactic, but one that only encourages the American people to remain ignorant of what great thinkers of the past actually believed in.

    The addition of the video at the end that is close to actually iterating Paine’s ideas was very enlightening, and it was fun to contrast it to the Tea Party version. The easiest way you can tell the difference between the two is that the latter version actually provides a coherent argument for why taxation and welfare are necessary parts of government, where the former version is only an incoherent mixture of shouts and demands (and the overuse of the phrase “illegal aliens”). It is good to know that some people will stand up for what great thinkers actually believed in (according to actual texts), and that condemnation exists for those who would dare compare themselves to the brave and extraordinary people who originally shaped this country.

  2. mbstanton says:

    A response to The Revolutionary Legacy of Thomas Paine and Those Who Would Distort it.
    I really enjoyed reading your response to this subject. Our classroom discussion on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was thorough, but as we were so enthusiastic to analyze the material, we didn’t seem to get a chance to relate the material to society today. For starters, I appreciate the use of music videos to introduce the subject of your writings. I liked the video evidence you utilized to support the written material. The last video of “Thomas Paine” addressing Glenn Beck and the Tea Party was entertaining to say the least. It was great to break down an issue that is prevalent in politics today. Thank you for your response.

  3. fern1007 says:

    This was a really interesting read. It seems that both sides of the political aisle, with I think is easy enough to do. There becomes this false dichotomy Paine is either a progressive godsend, or Paine is a conservative hero. To understand Paine it is important to understand his background and to place any piece of his within the larger context of his other works. The thing with posting all of these Youtube videos is that somebody who disagrees with your analysis could probably find videos of people dressed as Paine using his own words to refute your analysis.
    The mention of mandatory minimum is used in your post to make it sound that Paine would not be a conservative today, but there are libertarians who believe that some type of mandatory income would be beneficial to the market and to people. Perhaps we shouldn’t always try to pigeonhole our historical founders. Paine, like most of our founders do not fit into our two party dichotomy. And again, that is why conservatives and progressives argue about who Thomas Jefferson would vote for in 2015.
    Let’s let Paine be Paine, and those who would try to co-opt him just be pains.

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