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.
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.