By J.F. McKenna
“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” — Thomas Paine, The Crisis
Pamphleteer Tom Paine was a master of the opening line. Likewise, he was a craftsman of the lines that followed—well considered, well fashioned, and always timely, even to our 21st century world of instant communication, tactics to hack into that messaging, and the effective countermeasures that address such hacking. Paine, who started life in England as a corset maker apprentice to his father, understood the value of the foundation, be it in ladies’ garments or a nation desirous of freedom. Is it any surprise that General George Washington had the Paine essay—from which the above lines are taken—read to his revolutionary troops at Christmas, on the eve of their victory at Trenton.
Historian and author Gordon S. Wood declared the amazing polymath “America’s first public intellectual.” In his 2006 book, Revolutionary Characters, Wood added in his chapter on Paine:
“After Common Sense had established his reputation, Paine came to know nearly all the political leaders of the United States, including Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, and he continued to write on behalf of the American cause. The most important of these writings was his American Crisis series, essays that appeared throughout the war with Britain….
“If these important contributions were not sufficient to immortalize Paine as one of the founders of the United States, then we have his extraordinary book Rights of Man (1791-92), which became one of the most important works of political thought in the history of the Western world. Although the book was written after Paine had left the United States in 1787 and was intended as a refutation of [Edmund] Burke’s Reflection on the Revolution in France (1790), it actually sums up what he had learned about constitutionalism and political theory during his years in America. In fact The Rights of Man is the best and most succinct expression of American revolutionary political thinking ever written.”
Despite Paine’s exceptional efforts, writes the professor from Brown University, the revolutionary “never quite has had what it takes to get admitted to the sacred temple of American founders.” The good professor, who himself has won an enviable Pulitzer Prize, called the early Republic’s biographies “muckraking diatribes that pictured Paine as an arrogant, drunken atheist.” Actually, many decades after Paine died in 1809, Teddy Roosevelt said much the same thing about Paine.
In our century, Thomas Paine has yet to receive “his due measure of homage from the people and nations of the world whose aspirations he expressed with such force and clarity,” according to the late philosopher Sidney Hook. “His passion for human freedom shines through everything he wrote.”
Again to quote Professor Wood, Paine’s writing was very different, noting that the revolutionary champion “looked for readers everywhere, but especially in the tavern- and artisan-centered world of the cities.” (He understood foundational marketing, eh?) Thomas Paine, continued Dr.Wood, “spoke out of a tradition of radical republicanism that ran deeper and was more bitter yet more modern than the balanced and reasonable classical republicanism of most of the founders.”
In Rights of Man, Dr. Hook writes, Paine proposes that the government undertake “the amelioration of distress which entitles to be considered almost despite himself a forerunner of the Welfare State.” Ever so gently Dr. Hook, a 1985 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, excuses Paine’s inconsistency as “a tribute to his sense of compassion for human suffering.”
Even in this election year, when the delivery of the varied political messages is more than shopworn, Thomas Paine’s core message still is not given its due: the passion for freedom.
Maybe in time that will change, for as Paine wrote in 1776, “Time makes more converts than reason.”
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor, and marketing-communications consultant. While at IndustryWeek magazine in the early ‘90s, he wrote a series on Total Quality Government and chaired TQG conferences across the country. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dog, Lord Max. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org