Burke himself had a severely limited influence. The world changed. It is changing. You can’t stop that, and it’s ridiculous to try. The question really becomes: Can we change change for the better?
It’s time to put aside this old squabble: it’s pretty certain both Burke and Paine, were they to haunt our times with living minds, would see the problems with some of the changes that have taken place since their days. A Common Sense for our time would take on today’s biggest problem: our republic is now imperial, not merely externally but internally, with an amazingly goofy notion having taken root. What notion? That we are better off to super-tithe our wealth, send it off to a distant capital where it filters through the hands and wallets of a few politicians and a myriad bureaucrats and comes back to our communities in dribs and drabs as “special projects.”
Today’s living constitution is a mockery of common sense.
But long before the Constitution morphed into its present-day mess, Paine’s reputation plummeted in America. For a century or more he was something of the Black Sheep among the founders. Why?
Well, he didn’t stop with The Rights of Man. He also wrote one of his time's most scandalous attacks on everyday opinion. He wrote The Age of Reason, in which he spelled out what many of the founding fathers believed, but barely dared mention: Deism. The book was an attack on the Judeo-Christian religions, and it earned his bones no resting place on consecrated ground in America.
And yet those bones had more influence than most men’s acts. Or words. As related in the delightful recent book by Paul Collins, The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, Paine’s influence wasn’t just in the main stream of history. Bizarre subcurrents of American and English life took his legacy (and corpse) for an odyssey so odd that, well, it required a whole book to explain it. Synopsis: a former political opponent dug up his body and brought it to England, where the brain got removed from the skull; where the skull and arm got removed from the rest; where most of it got lost in a bizarre string of inheritances by dissidents who supported free speech, republicanism, evolution, phrenology . . . and bizarreries even greater than the pseudoscience of head bumps. But the shriveled brain somehow came home to America. Whew.
Paine the man (try to forget, now, Paine the corpse) was indeed the odd man out amongst the revolutionaries. He was a recent arrival from England, not a colonial. He never seemed to find a home. In a land that was to celebrate the “pursuit of happiness,” Paine was himself something always of a Pain.
Indeed, that was his original name. He added the final “e” as a sort of finale to his last name, an upbeat end to express the wresting of hope from misery.
And that was his virtue. He hoped. He hoped the best for mankind. And he argued, cajoled, excoriated, reasoned, pled . . . all to bring out our best.
He was surely sometimes mistaken. (Aren’t we all, sometimes?) And as a man, he didn’t really fit. But as a writer, he fit the world to his hopes, and often proved right.
Years ago, when I started a radio program, I just had to call it “Common Sense.” Not because I aspired to be a Pain(e), but because the idea of marrying hope to reason seemed the best way to nudge America on a slightly better path. I’ve never been a slavish follower of the author of the original Common Sense, but I have been inspired.
It’s not only to honor the past that I rank Paine higher than others might. Think of the present. Think of the future. These, friends, are times that try men’s souls. We need something like a revolution now, a fundamental change in the direction Tom Paine himself pointed: to citizen control.
We aren’t spurred to this by academic theories of revolution or reform what-have-you. Or anything very highfalutin.
It’s only common sense.