“There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of American Revolution with those of the late American War. The American war is over, but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed.” 1787, Benjamin Rush
-the beginning of the book, Citizen Tom Paine, by Howard Fast
On this 4th of July weekend the name of Tom Paine, as usual, is rarely heard in official government celebrations. Yet without Tom Paine, it is likely that the war of independence against British colonialism that forged what became the United States of America never would have succeeded. That is how important this poor, struggling, working-class Englishman was to the revolutionary cause. This was a person who made a difference.
It is also rare, from my experience, that the name Tom Paine is voiced among those in 21st century USA who see themselves as revolutionaries or on the political Left. I understand why this is the case, but I think there are very good reasons why we should be raising up his name as we continue to build our growing 21st century, revolutionary movement demanding that all Black Lives Matter, for a Green New Deal, for Medicare for All, for equity and equality for women, all people of color and lgbtq people, for “liberty and justice for all.”
Howard Fast’s book is not a biography of Paine; it’s a work of historical fiction. But it presents the truth about the man, from his very real personal weaknesses and worts to his brilliance as a writer, speaker and organizer, his commitment to the causes of overthrowing tyranny, ending slavery, “a way for children to smile, some freedom, some liberty, and hope for the future, men with rights, decent courts, decent laws, men not afraid of poverty and women not afraid of childbirth.” (p. 77)
Paine saw himself as a revolutionist. This was his life’s work. In a fictional exchange with fellow revolutionist and doctor Benjamin Rush, in a discussion about revolution, Rush articulates what was historically new about what was happening in the American colonies in the 1770’s: “The strength of many is revolution, but curiously enough mankind has gone through several thousand years of slavery without realizing that fact. But here we have a nation of armed men who know how to use their arms; we have a Protestant tradition of discussion as opposed to autocracy; we have some notion of the dignity of man [mainly white men]. . . but now we must learn technique, we must learn it well. . .Six months ago you were rolled in the dirt [assaulted] because people knew what you were writing; two weeks ago a man in New York was almost tarred and feathered because he planned to publish an answer to [Paine’s] Common Sense. That’s not morality; that’s strength, the same kind of strength the tyrants used, only a thousand times more powerful. Now we must learn how to use that strength, how to control it. We need leaders, a program, a purpose, but above all we need revolutionists.” (pps. 116-117)
Paine was a particular kind of writer, one who was immersed in the cause of independence, on the front lines of deadly battles, spending time in the bitter winter encampments of the nascent continental army, organizing, encouraging men to stick with it, inspiring them and pointing out how important what they were doing was. “This was all Paine had ever thought of or dreamed of, the common men of the world marching together, shoulder to shoulder, guns in their hands, love in their hearts.” (p. 124)
Fast paints a picture of Paine writing the first issue of The Crisis, a newspaper published during the war to present facts and strengthen morale: “The men gathered around him. They read as he wrote: ‘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. . . If there be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace. . . Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and repulse it.” (p. 145)
That’s a good last line, relevant for us right now in the summer of 2020. Let the city and the country come forth to meet and repulse our common danger, this decade’s King George III, and, after his defeat this November, the unjust, destructive system which spawned him. It’s just common sense.
Ted Glick is the author of the just published Burglar for Peace: Lessons Learned in the Catholic Left’s Resistance to the Vietnam War. Past writings and other information can be found at https://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jtglick.