Nearly everybody loves a “Top Whatever” list, “whatever” being a number, like ten, and a ranked subject, like “Greatest Statesmen” or “Most Annoying Politicians.”
This can’t help but strike the sophisticate as, well, rather silly. But hey: I’m no sophisticate, so I’ll just play along.
“The Top Five List” dominated High Fidelity, and in fidelity to that spirit I won’t object to The Atlantic Monthly’s goofy “Top 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time” list, in its December issue. Really, I won’t.
I’ll just ask the question: why did Tom Paine rank so low?
He ranks nineteenth, behind Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, FDR, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, John Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson, John D. Rockefeller, U.S. Grant, James Madison, Henry Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Ronald Reagan, and Andrew Jackson.
I would’ve nudged him up just a few notches on the list, above Jackson, Reagan, Twain, and the first Roosevelt, if not Henry Ford.
Most readers, I bet, are likely to think a demotion the best response. Who thinks about Tom Paine now?
Well, it’s confession time: I do.
My reading of the American Revolution is that it likely wouldn’t have come off were it not for the popularity of Common Sense. That essay was more than a bestseller in 1776; it was nearly ubiquitous. Suddenly, everyone was reading it, debating it. What seemed like an outrageous idea one moment — secession from the English empire! — seemed like “common sense” the next.
A powerful piece of writing. If he had written nothing else, he would have still “gone down in history.” But he wrote more. Another pamphlet, “The American Crisis,” rallied troops and supporters during “the times that tried men’s souls,” and, again incited Americans to action.
He also went on to a rather strange career as instigator in France and Britain. In The Rights of Man he penned an amazing attack on Edmund Burke. I know one is supposed to admire Burke (and I do, in no small part for his sympathy with the Colonies, and also his suspicions about the French Revolution, which were more than borne out in its outpourings of blood). But the early part of Paine’s book is certainly on the right track, and Burke off the proverbial rocker: tradition must not be seen as a dead weight forever forbidding fundamental change; Burke’s idea of some legislative act in the past as deciding the fate of England once and for all was bad for England, bad for the world.