Remembering Tom Paine
By Mumia Abu-Jamal
—Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (1791-92).
The name Tom Paine may be known here in America, but it is not revered. If he is seen as a so-called “founding father,” he is a forgotten one, who gets few accolades, when one compares him to his contemporaries, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Ben Franklin.
The faces of these men emblazon U.S. currency, and there are universities, hospitals and other institutions that proudly bear their names. There is a state and, of course, the nation’s capital, that bears Washington’s name. If one looks at the counties of this nation’s 50 states, at least 30 states have a Washington County; 25 states boast a Jefferson County; and Franklin brings up the rear with 20 counties named after the Philadelphia scientist.
Thomas Paine, the powerful pamphleteer who wrote the best-selling Common Sense, and Rights of Man, writings which stirred the hearts of American colonials against Britain, gets nothing (while Oklahoma has a “Payne” County, its spelling suggests it has little to do with the revolutionary).
Paine was a poor man, who, in his 37th year, was a failure at business, and marriage. When his pamphlet, Common Sense, took off, selling about 120,000 copies in the Colonies, he found his niche in life. It is from his writings that the words “Declaration of Independence” were first found in print, and this English-born scribe coined the phrase, “United States of America.”
He went to France shortly after the American Revolution, to join in the anti-royal struggle there, later writing to Washington, “A share in two revolutions is living to some purpose.”
Today, almost 200 years since his death, his words, his brilliance, his clear prose and true radicalism is little known. I have found his works in right-wing and libertarian book catalogs; yet few leftists quote him, far fewer seem to study him, and few pore through his works (outside of occasional graduate courses).
He, as a man among the poor, wrote and spoke about the boiling, burning issues of the day; he opposed slavery; he opposed capital punishment; he opposed kings and much of organized religion with equal vigor. During the French Revolution, he spoke out against the execution of Louis XVI, and earned himself a date with the guillotine. By chance, he survived, until the cold lawyer, Robespierre was beheaded, and in the euphoria of that event Paine, and other political prisoners, were freed. He never forgave his fellow American rebels, Washington, nor Gouverneur Morris (then U.S. representative to Paris), for not lifting a finger to help him during his wait for the guillotine. He would write a bitter “Letter to Washington” (1796) where he accused him of treachery and incompetence:
“And as to you, Sir, treacherous in private friendship (for so you have been to me, and that in the day of danger) and hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”
Thoroughly radical, a believer in international revolution, an opponent of slavery, anti-death penalty, and advocate for the poor, Thomas Paine embodied some of the most humanistic movements of his time. He shouldn’t be the “forgotten founding father,” but a model of radical, and even revolutionary activism for millions of folks today.
Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter if there are no counties named after him, or universities. It would mean much if his radical vision lived in the minds and hearts of young people, in America and beyond.
—Copyright Mumia Abu-Jamal, August 29, 2004