Readers of Tom Paine’s The American Crisis will have a hard time finding the line referenced by Mitt Romney in his Florida victory speech: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
A very hard time.
I’ve lectured on Paine at major universities, keynoted Paine commemorations across the country and written books that review and analyze his writings, and I never came across Romney’s quote in my examinations of the pamphleteer’s essays or letters. But, just to be sure, I contacted my friend Harvey Kaye, the great biographer of Paine, and asked him whether he was familiar with Romney’s “lead, follow…” line. Kaye’s response: “I never read anything by Paine that sounded like that—doesn’t even sound like him.”
The same responses came from other Paine scholars and enthusiasts.
No surprise there. Anyone familiar with Paine’s canon knows that the greatest of the founding fathers did not peddle empty platitudes of this sort.
But there was Romney misattributing the line to Paine, as part of his primary night attack on President Obama.
“In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, ‘lead, follow, or get out of the way,’” chirped the Bain Capitalist. “Mr. President, you were elected to lead. You chose to follow, and now, it’s time for you to get out of the way.”
If Romney cannot get his recollection of the past right, it is hard to take his assessment of the present seriously.
Of course, it should not be all that shocking that the candidate who has never been able to shake the trappings of aristocracy that so offended Paine would neither known nor understand the author of American revolution.
If Toryism has a contemporary face, it is that of Mitt Romney.
Everything about this millionaire son of privilege says he would have chosen the security of King George III and the British Empire over a dangerous alliance with the radicals who rejected the divine right of kings and declared “all men are created equal.”
But even if Romney had strayed into the revolutionary camp, it is a safe bet that he—like the effete John Adams—would have been ill at ease with real revolutionaries like Tom Paine. Unlike the “sunshine patriots” that he decried in The American Crisis, Paine was not satisfied with the casual reordering of society.
And that reordering would not have favored vulture capitalists.
It was Paine who argued, in his last great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, that taxation of the rich with an eye toward redistributing wealth should be seen as “an act of national justice.”
“Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained,” explained Paine. “All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”