Thomas Paine (1737-1809)was a genuine revolutionary. He was revolutionary in politics, in society and in religion.
The difference between Paine and the first two subjects of this series is clear. Unlike the reforms and changes in direction fought for by FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins or by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, Paine wanted a completely new order of affairs.
In politics, Paine’s wrote his pamphlet Common Sense only two years after arriving in the United States from Britain. Common Sense circulated among large numbers of the literate population in America. It performed a task as important as military victory. It moved people’s minds towards accepting the concept of revolution.
In society, Paine was ardently opposed to slavery. It’s often said men like Thomas Jefferson should be viewed in the context of their times on slavery. Yet through men like Paine the moral information that slavery was wrong was part of the public debate. On slavery, Jefferson and others choose to listen to different voices and competing arguments.
In religion, Paine was a skeptic. This skepticism argues Susan Jacoby in Freethinkers—A History of American Secularism caused Paine to be shunned in his own lifetime and ignored after his death as one the great American Founding Fathers.
While Paine helped make the American Revolution, he risked his life in France by speaking out against excesses of the French Revolution. He was not for revolution for its own sake. He managed well the fine line between strong convictions and losing one’s way to pure ideology or moral certainty.
That Paine understood this line can be seen in an observation he made about the French Revolution as qouted by Jacoby. Said Paine, the “intolerant spirit of church persecutions had transferred itself into politics.”
Thomas Paine was the real deal. His mix of revolution and restraint is an enduring model for those willing to imagine a different and better future.