America was not called into being by plantation owners or generals. It was Tom Paine, ink-stained wretch and citizen of the world, who first roused patriots with his unapologetic declaration that “the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth” than the revolt of thirteen small colonies against the mighty British Empire. None of the American revolutionaries–not Washington, not Jefferson, not Madison and surely not the cautious John Adams–understood as well what was at stake. This was no tea party, counseled Paine, who died 200 years ago on June 8, 1809. This was the fight “to begin the world over again.” With pamphlets that forged the intellectual and emotional framework for a glorious treason–Common Sense and the American Crisis series–Paine inspired open revolt against monarchy, imperialism and the churchmen who defended these corruptions. But even this was insufficient rebellion. The pamphleteer’s demand that the new nation fulfill the promises of the Enlightenment led Adams to fear that his time might become “the Age of Paine.” The second president needn’t have worried. The age of Paine would be delayed for the better part of two centuries.
Today it seems reasonable that the great “Farmer of thoughts” has become the founder of choice for Americans who dare to demand that this be a just Republic. Paine condemned slavery, argued for the rights of women and imagined social democracy. When most of the world accepted the divine right of kings, he objected to organized religion and championed freethinking with such fervency that even his fellow revolutionaries abandoned their tribune. Paine’s determination to “hold up truth to your eyes” did not endear him to comrades who had turned “respectable” or to the heirs of that respectability. Nearly a century after the truest patriot died without much honor in New York City, he was derided by Teddy Roosevelt as a “filthy little atheist.”
If TR did not approve of Paine, though, another young president does. Barack Obama is weaving the pamphleteer into the fabric of America’s twenty-first century. On the eve of his inauguration, Obama declared his hope that “the dream of our founders will live on in our time.” But which of the founders would be worthy of quotation in the inaugural address, to be heard by all the world as an affirmation of that dream’s highest values? A slaveholder president? A drafter of the Constitution, which compromised the ideal that all men are created equal? No, Obama turned to the outlier who recognized not only what America was at its founding but what it might be. Speaking of a “return to these truths” of the American experiment, the new president invoked Paine as an inspiration for our times: “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…it.” Obama quotes Paine frequently, recognizing–implicitly if not yet explicitly, as some of us hope he will–that no founder anticipated his presidency or the true meaning of the word “change” as well as the itinerant rebel who promised that “America ever is what she thinks herself to be.”