The birthday of Thomas Paine just happened, January 29th on the Julian calendar. But since he doesn’t turn 279 years old until February 9th on our Gregorian calendar, there is still time to pen a retrospective!
As a political figure, most Americans learned in middle school US History that he wrote something called Common Sense, and it was a big deal when everything was starting to pop off in the Thirteen Colonies. The trajectory of his life after 1776 showed how different his political philosophy was with the bulk of Founding Fathers. A feature in Jacobin written last year emphasized that until his relatively recent rehabilitation, Paine was the icon of rogues and radicals only. If the establishment hated you because you wanted to abolish slavery or have a trade union or whatever, you probably looked to Paine as a source of wisdom.
What stands out with Paine, and makes him a superior model compared to fatally compromised thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, is his consistent denunciation of all systems of exploitation. His argument in Common Sense was for independence, yes, but it was more importantly an argument aimed directly at the monarchy and aristocracy. Many Founders fought a war against a monarchical colonial power, but they weren’t necessarily republican in their thinking. The Declaration of Independence is an indictment of a particular king; Common Sense is an indictment of the whole idea of kings. Indeed, there was much ambiguity about the new American executive initially, with many wanting Washington to become king, or at least king-like. Gordon Wood talks about this aspect of the early republic, additionally his chapter “A Monarchical Republic” in Empire of Liberty is a summation of how conservative many Founders and Framers were about the break from hereditary rule.
So even in this first step, Paine was outpacing most of the other Founders. After colonial rule, he took on a whole spectrum of society. He went after the institutional church in The Age of Reason. He defended the democratic revolution in France, almost ending up a casualty in the purge-y portion. Agrarian Justice is the most substantial critique of private property and institutional privilege of its generation. He was one of the early abolitionists. And he stood against the majority of the National Convention that wanted the King executed- because he saw the death penalty as another archaic injustice not suited for a democratic age.
Indeed, Paine’s consistency is refreshing. Not only compared to Jefferson’s incoherent views on freedom and slavery in his own time, but today. Many people call themselves lovers of liberty, but only advocate for a part of Paine’s philosophy. Conservative Americans love the talk of liberty above tyranny in Common Sense, the irreligious enjoy the broadsides against Christianity in The Age of Reason. And it’s easy for liberals to like Paine’s argument for a welfare state in Agrarian Justice. Of course, this was the case in his own time- he was loved and reviled by the same people at different times. Even today, with many progressive developments, Paine remains radical. Where other Founders have calcified into marble, his fight is not yet finished.
The living character of his writing made him one of the few figures that benefitted from 1960s-era historical revisionism. In my generation, the pedagogy of the Founding has been complicated- how can the Virginia planters that dominated politics be lauded, when their leisure was the result of human bondage? Even now, the critique is hesitant and usually after-the-fact. Paine is in full color, waiting to be embraced.
So I believe that the question of Paine’s place in the traditional Founders isn’t worth debating. He fits in with the Founding Fathers that represent the rest of the spectrum of the American people. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Frederick Douglass. Lucretia Mott and William Ll0yd Garrison. And even John Brown, who despite his troubling nature still was willing to die to make “all men are created equal” something other than a statement of hypocrisy. Their revolution was about more than white men and their property rights. I suggest a promotion to hang out with a much more fitting pantheon.