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Paine's importance remains understated

By Gene Rigelon

Much has been written that the revolutionary spirit demonstrated by our founding fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and James Madison, was essential in the struggle for America's independence.

Conspicuously missing from that list is Thomas Paine.

It was Paine, one of the most extraordinary writers of the modern world, who demonstrated the truth of that old axiom "The pen is mightier than the sword."

At the conclusion of the war, it was Paine who was hailed as the most popular leader of revolutionary struggle. Joel Barlow, American diplomat, who had served as chaplain of the Continental army wrote: "without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain." Through writings like "Common Sense" and the Crisis papers, he not only turned America's colonial rebellion into a revolutionary war, but provided a powerful inspiration to the beleaguered Colonial army at a time of great despair and turned what was once considered a lost cause to a great victory.

It was memorable phrases like "The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth," "We have in our power to begin the world over again," "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind ... the birthday of a new world is at hand," "These are the times that try men's souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in a crisis shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and women." that was the sine qua non for the success of the revolution.

Generations of Americans have turned to Paine's writings for inspiration as they struggled to expand American freedom, equality and democracy.

Paine was also a champion for the working class. In the "Rights Of Man" written in 1791, he advocated for the right of people to chose their own governors, to cashier them for misconduct and to form a government for themselves, ideas that were radical at that time.

He went on to propose an estate tax to limit the accumulation of wealth, raising the income of the poor, relief for families for children, social security for the elderly, and employment centers for the jobless.

In a pamphlet published 1775, he was one of the first to speak out on the issue of slavery. "That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain is rather lamentable than strange," he wrote.

Unfortunately, it is for his most controversial book "The Age of Reason" that Paine is most remembered. His critique of organized religion made him anathema to his once admiring fellow revolutionaries. John Adams hated Paine. In 1805 he wrote to a friend: "I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. ... never before in any age of the world was suffered the poltroonery of mankind to run through such a career of mischief."

As a result he was wrongly branded an atheist. He was no atheist, to the contrary, he produced "The Age of Reason" as an answer to atheism. He observed that "infidelity does not consist in believing or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe." Avowing his beliefs as a Deist, Paine goes on to say "I believe in one God and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. ... I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy. I do not believe in the any church I know of. My own mind is my own church."

He then mounts a direct assault on organized religion and biblical scripture; "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me to no other than human inventions set up to enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit.

Rejecting the stories of "miraculous conception and resurrection," he acknowledges that Jesus Christ was a virtuous and amiable man who preached morality of the most benevolent kind. Paine portrayed Jesus "the person" as a preacher of the "equality of man" and a "reformer and a revolutionist."

His religious views aside, it is time for Americans to acknowledge Paine's crucial role in the founding of this nation by elegantly expounding on freedom, equality and democracy.


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