“O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!”
—Thomas Paine, Common Sense
I write in a winter of discontent that marks the 280th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Paine, the Enlightenment thinker and revolutionary writer who called the American experiment into being. I write in recognition of the peril that is posed to that experiment with the assumption of the presidency by the authoritarian Donald Trump, and in celebration of the resistance to that peril by the true heirs to Paine’s legacy.
Paine came to the American colonies as a refugee from an old and oppressive order, which he had offended as a pioneering organizer of workers and ardent advocate for egalitarian ideals. He arrived in Philadelphia in ill health and with limited prospects. Yet Paine began an immediate agitation against illegitimate governance, and in less than two years he had written the most influential tract of his time, Common Sense, which envisioned an independent United States that would serve as a refuge from injustice.
“Every spot of the Old World is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart,” wrote Paine in his call to rebellion against not just a monarch, but old ways of thinking about the human condition. “O! receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
Paine influenced citizens and future presidents to adopt enlightened policies that rejected monarchy and inherited power, and the distinctions along lines of religion that had underpinned and defined the empires of old. They would seek, as Paine proposed to “begin the world over again” with a Constitution that rejected religious tests and declared its commitment to the free exercise of religion. The first leaders of the new land would embrace religious diversity and make clear their intent to erect a “wall of separation” between church and state so that government would never promulgate policies favoring one faith tradition over another.
Paine, the most ingenious of the founders, was quite aware that he had not always succeeded in convincing his contemporaries to do the right thing. He recognized the weaknesses of those who would assume positions of authority. Paine counseled leaders to avoid repressive measures and to eschew assaults of religious and political minorities in order to “protect” society. “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws,” he wrote in the closing pages of his 1795 Dissertation on the First Principles of Government. “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”