June 12, 2009
Decades ago Ronald Reagan borrowed a phrase from a founding father often overlooked. He rallied his party at the Republican National Convention with these patriotic words: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
Calling for a revolution, Reagan chose those words from the writings of America's first great radical, and its first best-selling writer. His name was Thomas Paine. More than two centuries ago, Paine's most famous book, COMMON SENSE, sold 500,000 copies. Farmers in the fields stopped to read it.
Other influential works followed including THE AMERICAN CRISIS which proclaimed, "These are times that try men's souls." George Washington took those words to heart when he ordered his troops to read Paine's passionate call for liberty as they went into battle.
Paine's extraordinary life was both glorious and tragic. He was not revered as some of our other founding fathers — and during his lifetime he was often feared and lampooned — and under threat of prison and even death. Harvey J. Kaye, who recently told his story in THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA, notes that Paine has again become currency in political debate because of a revolutionary idea that spread from the colonies to France and around the globe:
That the common people...that Americans could be citizens and not merely subjects. That people had it within themselves not only to listen to their superiors, but literally to speak to each other and deliberate and govern themselves.
On the 200th anniversary of Thomas Paine's death, Bill Moyers sits down with Harvey J. Kaye and NATIONAL REVIEW senior editor Richard Brookhiser, author of WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS DO?
Tackling Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine had a profound influence on the founding fathers and founding doctrines of the United States. A simple search at the Library of Congress brings up a wealth of personal correspondence between Paine and Jefferson, Washington and others. In his immensely successful pamphlet COMMON SENSE, published in 1776, Paine argued in print that colonies had outgrown any need for English domination and should be given independence. This and Paine's subsequent essays called THE CRISIS PAPERS are seminal documents of the American Revolution.
Lampoon of Paine by Thomas Gilroy
Raised a Quaker in England, Paine was well used to conflicts with the religions and political powers of the day. His thinking on the matter of religion and politics evolved further during a return to England when he wrote THE RIGHTS OF MAN, defending the French Revolution, and later THE AGE OF REASON, both of which earned him the enmity of the British government. His notion that there are certain "natural rights" common to all men was greatly influenced by and in turn influenced the Enlightenment philosophy known as "deism." Deists held that nature itself sufficiently demonstrated the existence of God, making formal, established religion unnecessary. Deists also scorned claims of supernatural revelation. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were all greatly influenced by deism.
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy. But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them. — Thomas Paine, THE AGE OF REASON
Harvey J. Kaye
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben and Joyce Rosenberg professor of social change and development and director of the Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
In addition to THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA, Kaye has authored ARE WE GOOD CITIZENS?, THOMAS PAINE: FIREBRAND OF THE REVOLUTION, "WHY DO RULING CLASSES FEAR HISTORY?" AND OTHER QUESTIONS, THE EDUCATION OF DESIRE, THE POWERS OF THE PAST, and THE BRITISH MARXIST HISTORIANS. His many articles, columns, and reviews have appeared in periodicals such as AMERICAN HERITAGE, THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, TOMPAINE.COM, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, THE TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION SUPPLEMENT, THE GUARDIAN, INDEX ON CENSORSHIP, TIKKUN, and THE COMMON REVIEW. He is now writing a new book, THE FOUR FREEDOMS AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA.
Richard Brookhiser is the author of RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE: COMING OF AGE WITH WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR. AND THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT and of seven books on revolutionary America: FOUNDING FATHER, REDISCOVERING GEORGE WASHINGTON; RULES OF CIVILITY-THE 110 PRECEPTS THAT GUIDED OUR FIRST PRESIDENT IN WAR AND PEACE; ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AMERICAN; AMERICA'S FIRST DYNASTY: THE ADAMSES 1735-1918; GENTLEMAN REVOLUTIONARY: GOUVERNEUR MORRIS, THE RAKE WHO WROTE THE CONSTITUTION; WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS DO? OUR QUESTIONS, THEIR ANSWERS; AND GEORGE WASHINGTON ON LEADERSHIP. He was author and host of REDISCOVERING GEORGE WASHINGTON, a film by Michael Pack, which aired on PBS July 4, 2002; he and Pack are currently working on REDISCOVERING ALEXANDER HAMILTON. He was the historian curator of "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America," an 2004 exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. In 2008 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal. Brookhiser is a senior editor of NATIONAL REVIEW.
To see the interview click here.
Guest photos by Robin Holland