Five years ago today in New Jersey I stood outside the home of my hero Tom Paine, author of Common Sense, The American Crisis, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.
In his day he was known as “the most dangerous man alive” though his only weapon was his pen. So mightily did he wield it that President John Adams said “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
He helped shape the new republics of America and France; serving in the Revolutionary French National Convention representing Pas-de-Calais, bravely opposing on moral principle (anti-monarchist though he was) the execution of the deposed King and escaping the guillotine at the hands of Robespierre by pure luck. He was “a corset Maker by trade, a journalist by profession and a propagandist by inclination.”
Washington had Paine's pamphlet The American Crisis read aloud to his troops to inspire them. It begins:
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 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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.
He is the most important but least remembered of the Founding Fathers because — though profoundly religious himself — he offended the conventional (and in the case of the slave-owners, hypocritical) religiosity of the early Americans. Sadly his influence was also lost in France, where his fan Napoleon, who slept with Rights of Man under his pillow but whom Paine recognised shrewdly as “the completest charlatan that ever existed,” overthrew the Revolution.
When I stood before the images hewn into Mount Rushmore, I was probably the only person there thinking it sad that Paine’s was not among them.
I blog under his name not because I agree with all his ideas (he was as misguided in details as he was sound on principles) nor because I consider myself his equal (though he would have insisted upon that) but because he is a hero of the cause of Liberty. Also because if he were alive today the greatest of all pamphleteers (no publication has ever reached the same percentage of Americans as Common Sense) would blog and tweet to dangerous effect. I hoped my humble writings in defence of beleaguered Liberty might exert even a millionth part of the influence his had.