The Age of Tom Paine
By Bill Moyers
June 15, 2009 - 11:50am ET
The following is a transcript from the June 12 edition of PBS' Bill Moyers Journal.
BILL MOYERS: He was the master wordsmith of the American Revolution. His ideas are embedded deep in our DNA. "These are the times that try men's souls," he wrote, and patriots of every rank responded — farmers, blacksmiths, merchants and aristocrats. Thomas Paine lived a life of adventure, stirred radical sentiments on two continents, knew Washington and Jefferson, Lafayette and Napoleon. But he died broke, scorned and alone, here in New York City two hundred years ago this week.
So unsung is this hero, a foundling father one historian calls him, that only a handful of his most ardent fans showed up at the ceremonies marking the bicentennial of his death.
REVOLUTIONARY WAR RE-ENACTORS: Fire!
JOYCE CHUMBLEY: Read Tom Paine, read about Thomas Paine, he will inspire you!
The reason Thomas Paine is not more celebrated, recognized is because he's still too dangerous. If we really adopted his principles, his ideas, it would be a very different world.
JOHN NICHOLS: All men, all women shall be free. Tyranny shall be thrust from this earth and a new age of liberty shall be born. This is the age of Paine!
BILL MOYERS: Thomas Paine came to America from Great Britain in 1774 when he was 37 years old. He burned with righteous indignation at the cruel tyranny of kings. Half a million copies of "Common Sense," his plainspoken call for rebellion, flooded this fledgling nation of three million people. His rhetoric so moved and persuaded George Washington that he read Paine's words to the troops at Valley Forge.
After America won its independence, Paine found himself in another fight, the French Revolution, and wrote another best-seller, "The Rights of Man." But he got into trouble in France and was thrown into prison, narrowly avoiding execution. He returned to America in 1802, a prophet without honor in the nation he helped to create.
Why has history forgotten him? With me are two scholars who actually know Thomas Paine's story well. The historian Harvey Kaye directs the Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay. His many books include two biographies of Paine, one for young adults and this one, "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America."
Journalist and historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of the "National Review," one of America's most influential conservative publications. He has written seven books about the leaders of the American Revolution, including "What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers." This is his latest volume, brand new in fact, published just this week, "Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement."
Gentlemen, welcome to you both.
BILL MOYERS: What's the most important thing to know about Thomas Paine, and why does he fascinate you?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: He fascinates me because I'm a journalist, and I think he may have been the greatest journalist to have ever lived. Certainly the greatest one in America. The pieces and the pamphlets that he wrote, especially in the early days of the Revolution, were so urgent, they were so on point. I think the first "American Crisis" that he wrote, when Washington was being driven across New Jersey by the British, that is comparable to the speech in Shakespeare when the Henry V is rallying his troops for Agincourt. But that's fiction. And that was written, you know, two hundred years after the real battle. This was real time. It was happening.
HARVEY KAYE: Here's this guy, you know, essentially off the boat. Somehow he picks up on the spirit of America quickly. And he takes that pen of his, and he figures out how he's going to sort of grab hold of that American spirit and turned it in this radical, democratic direction, to make a new nation.
BILL MOYERS: What was the Paine idea? What was his singular contribution to the Revolution?
HARVEY KAYE: The singular idea, people immediately think independence. But I think it goes far beyond independence. I think it has to do with the idea that he took what he recognized in American life, and he inscribes it into the meaning of America-- and that is, the democratic impulse. And that democratic impulse would be a model to the world. I think that's what's fundamental to Paine.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: He certainly is a world thinker, because we're only the first revolution he involves himself in. He is the man who conveys the key to the Bastille, after it has fallen, to George Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Literally?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes. Lafayette--
BILL MOYERS: He brought it back?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Lafayette gave it to Paine, said "Please give this to George Washington." And Paine knew both men. And he happened to be in France at the time, building a bridge.
HARVEY KAYE: Right.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: But so, he's the one who brings it over to Washington. And he says, "A share in two revolutions is living to some purpose."
HARVEY KAYE: I also would add, "In two revolutions and a great social movement"-- the British labor movement. As E.P. Thompson said, there were two Bibles in the English democratic and labor movement, "Pilgrim's Progress and The Rights of Man." And I think, you know, we shouldn't leave that dimension out as well.
BILL MOYERS: In one way, he was a visionary of democracy. He wanted to end slavery. He wanted to grant women equality. He wanted to abolish all property requirements for citizenship. He wanted a complete separation of church and state. He wanted to establish public schools and old age pensions. I mean, he did see the promise of America unfolding through the years.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he saw a lot of things that came to be, and he also saw some things that didn't come to be, and maybe never could come to be.
BILL MOYERS: What was behind that long dispute he had with John Adams? Was it because Adams felt Paine's desire for a full-blown democratic revolution was unrealistic and even harmful, and Paine thought Adams wanted to unfold it too slowly?
HARVEY KAYE: Adams welcomed the call for independence. But Adams disliked aristocrats and he didn't trust the people. And when he read Paine's arguments-- he's a brilliant guy, Adams-- he recognized pretty quickly that this was a call for a far more democratic kind of struggle and nation-building than he imagined. And as I tell my students, it's fascinating to consider that when Abigail Adams reads "Common Sense," she sends the letter to John Adams and says, don't forget. Remember the ladies. We can't trust you men.
And Adams writes back, knowing full-- and with a touch of affection, there's no doubt about it. He says, "Not you too." You know, the black slaves are rising in North Carolina, the students are rising in these Ivy colleges, Indians on the frontier, artisans in New York, something to that effect. Now, the biggest tribe of all is demanding this kind of democratic revolution. So, I mean, Adams knew that Paine could be extremely valuable to the revolution, but very dangerous in the sense that working people would respond to that call.
I'll just add, there's that moment where Adams is in the barber's chair in Philadelphia, and the barber has his blade in hand and is shaving him and says, "Have you read "Common Sense?"" And Adams must have been wondering, "Uh-oh, you know, the blade is at my throat."
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, but to do Adams justice, he was a very skeptical man. He was always looking for things that might and could go wrong, and he was often right to look for those things. Not always. So, when Paine-- whose visionary quality is so both intoxicating and, Paine hopes, transformative-- Adams is saying, "Well, no, look it's just-- it's not going to be that easy. It can't happen this way. What are we thinking here?"
HARVEY KAYE: But in terms of the democratic impulse, which never ceased in America, in every generation, progressive movements, radical to liberal, reached back to the American Revolution. And who did they rediscover? Oh, yes, they honored Washington, they honored Jefferson, but the words that they reprint-- sorry, I'm shouting. The words they reclaimed were Thomas Paine's.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: That's true. But as we see in Paine's own life, there are possible problems on this path. And Paine, the second revolution he's involved in, I think he misunderstands what's going on, on the ground.
BILL MOYERS: In France?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: In France.
BILL MOYERS: What did he do wrong?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he comes to France, he's highly honored in France. They make him a member of the National Assembly. He's elected from the district on the Channel, Calais. Now the one problem is, he speaks very little French. So, the people--
BILL MOYERS: That is a handicap.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: The people he associates with are the people who also speak English. And this is the Girondins faction. Well, as the Girondins start duking it with the Jacobins, the ones who go to the guillotine first are Paine's faction. And the only reason he's not guillotined is that a guard, by accident, passes his cell in the night.
BILL MOYERS: That's for real? That really happened?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: That is for real.
BILL MOYERS: The guard passes by--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: He was on the list and he just passes past the cell.
HARVEY KAYE: That is-- that is true.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: And, you know, the Girondins were as bloodthirsty as bad as the Jacobins. They're sort of romanticized by later historians of the Revolution, but it's like Trotskyites versus Stalinists. These were two bloody, totalitarian gangs. And Paine did not see that quality.
HARVEY KAYE: Paine's problem, and I think of this as a wonderful problem, is that America had turned him into a revolutionary. This is a man who creates this Atlantic revolution of these radical democratic artisans. And all of it based on his having come to America and drunk -- having had-- you know, taken in the waters of this democratic spirit, and then explained it all to Americans
BILL MOYERS: But his colleagues back here disliked him. I mean, they thought he really made a serious mistake in underestimating the bloodiness of that French Revolution.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, Jefferson stuck with the Revolution until Napoleon appeared. But then Paine stuck with it after Napoleon appeared.
BILL MOYERS: I read that Napoleon kept Paine's words under his pillow. I mean, this little despot--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Isn't that sick? I mean, that sort of tells you something about Napoleon's, I think preening and-- and hypocrisy. Because he's the man who buttoned the revolution up and ended up.
HARVEY KAYE: But you know what? There is something important that came out of that relationship. Paine, by the way, did not trust Napoleon. Let's make that clear. But what is important is that Paine played-- and this is something historians have never quite resolved-- he played a role in Jefferson's acquisition of the Louisiana territories. And so, if you think about Paine in that sense, throughout, from that time he comes to America, calls for an end to slavery, calls for an American Revolution, all the way through his life, you can't refer to anything that took place in the late-- and I'm sure you would agree-- in the late-18th century that Paine himself hasn't inspired or enabled. I mean, it's-- I mean, he-- in some ways, he's both the product of his times, and he defines his times.
BILL MOYERS: So what's kept him from receiving the honor that both of you think he deserves? I mean, he's rarely mentioned in the text books. There have been numerous efforts to try to erect a statue of him in Capital Hill. And all of them have failed. How come he can't get no respect?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he attacked two people in late-18th century America that it was fatal to attack: George Washington and Jesus Christ. And that's not a good reputation-builder.
HARVEY KAYE: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Just last weekend I read a letter that he had written George Washington. I hadn't seen it before. Scathing. Calling Washington names and all.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: He was bitter, because he felt Washington had not exerted--
HARVEY KAYE: Had abandoned him in the--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: --to get him out of prison, in France.
HARVEY KAYE: Right. We don't actually know if Washington even knew that he was remaining in prison in France.
BILL MOYERS: But you don't call the founder of your country a bastard. And win the Gallup poll, right?
HARVEY KAYE: Well, consider this — no, undeniably-- But it was not unpopular, in many circles, to do that. Let's keep in mind, the United States, how ever much Washington was revered, was at that time divided between these Republicans and Federalists. And the Fed-- and the Republicans, they're the ones who published the letter. And it's the kind of thing where it had a resonance in America.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: But I think the big sort of turn in his reputation and in his career had to do with the "Age of Reason," his great work after the "Rights of Man." And this is his full frontal assault on organized religion and particularly on Christianity. He's not an atheist. Teddy Roosevelt called him a "filthy atheist." He wasn't an atheist. But he was a deist, and he thought organized religions were frauds and impositions and lies and all the rest of this. And he lays this out at devastating length.
BILL MOYERS: Well, just as he loathed the power of medieval kings, he loathed the influence of priests, right?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: But he also he loathed the Bible. And he knew the Bible very well. But he quotes its inconsistencies. And, you know, what he thinks are its follies and its mistakes and its obvious errors. And it's-- I mean, it's rather entertaining, but it's just a full-fledge assault on Christianity. And that's certainly--
HARVEY KAYE: Well, on all organized religions. No one could feel comfortable-- none of the faithful of any faith would feel comfortable with it.
BILL MOYERS: That's where he says that all books are written by men, not God.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And books are sensible, he said, or not sensible. They certainly aren't sacred or divinely inspired.
HARVEY KAYE: If I could just say, in Paine's defense, as a believer, that Paine believed that the creation was God's presence. I mean, he was absolute about that and repeatedly pushed the idea. If we want to worship God, then we should study the creation.
BILL MOYERS: So, would Paine cringe to hear President Obama refer to the Holy Koran and the Holy Bible?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Oh, sure. He'd be out there burning them. I mean, you know, he was-- he was-- well, he was--
HARVEY KAYE: Burning them, I think may be-- might be pushing it.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he wouldn't want to oppress believers.
HARVEY KAYE: Paine would never burn books. I think that's --
RICHARD BROOKHISER: But he would-- he would mock their scriptures.
HARVEY KAYE: Undeniably.
BILL MOYERS: So, is this where he fell from grace? No pun intended. I mean, is this where he really fell out of favor with the burgeoning population of this country? Because he seemed to be anti-religion?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: I would say so. And I think one reason Jefferson was such a successful politician is that even though Jefferson shared a lot of these views, he didn't run around proclaiming them. Because he knew what Americans were, he knew what the electorate was. And he wasn't going to stick his chin out there in that fashion.
HARVEY KAYE: I think the key here is that undeniably Paine became the antichrist to many people. But I also want to say that that doesn't explain two hundred years of conservative efforts to either denigrate his reputation or deny he even existed.
BILL MOYERS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. I mean, the last thirty years, the people who most reached out to claim him are the Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, circles in this country.
HARVEY KAYE: It's fascinating. Absolutely fascinating.
BILL MOYERS: Is that right?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, Ronald Reagan used the sentence, "We have the power to begin the world again." He loved that sentence, so it was very Reaganesque.
BILL MOYERS: Let me show you the video we have of that 1980 speech when Reagan accepted the Republican nomination. Take a look.
RONALD REAGAN: There are no words to express the extraordinary strength and character of this breed of people we call American. [...] They are the kind of men and women Tom Paine had in mind when he wrote during the darkest days of the American Revolution, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
HARVEY KAYE: Reagan was a New Deal Democrat, okay? And the other thing about Reagan is this-- I mean, you know, people are shocked when I say this on the left. Reagan, though not my kind of politician at all, he understood the American spirit far better than the liberals of the 1970s and perhaps even most of the 1960s. And what he knew is that Americans did not forget Thomas Paine. Any more than they had forgotten Roosevelt.
Who were the two people he keynotes? FDR and Thomas Paine? Now, why would he do that? Because he wanted to speak to American working people.
BILL MOYERS: Richard, as a long time conservative, do you agree with Harvey that Ronald Reagan was speaking to the working people of America, when he invoked Thomas Paine?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he was certainly speaking to a vein in America that responds to rhetoric about liberty. And Paine is one of the great wordsmiths of such speech. And so, I think Reagan was not poaching or stealing somebody else's heirloom. I think it was a legitimate for him to invoke that.
BILL MOYERS: Libertarians have claimed him, because of his long time opposition to any consolidation of power. And they take him as one of them, right?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes. Yes, they do.
HARVEY KAYE: But it's the same line, curiously enough. "Government is a necessary evil."
BILL MOYERS: The Libertarians?
HARVEY KAYE: That's Paine. Libertarians love him. And the anarchists love him. For that very reason. And--
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but you take from Paine what you want and give to him what you need to give him, right?
HARVEY KAYE: Well, I guess we all do. But I like to think of, you know, the image that I don't dwell on the "Government is a necessary evil" because I think of that as his diatribe against aristocratic government at the time. The image I like is a little-- four or five paragraphs later, when he's talking about gathering under this big oak tree, to deliberate. Now, he admits that this is not possible. Okay? Any longer.
But imagine this fundamental democratic moment. And this is also what distinguishes him from Locke, where Locke doesn't take that next step and imagine that democratic possibility. And I think that that's my Paine, I have to admit. I mean, you have your journalist Paine. And I love you for having that Paine. And I have the democratic Paine, right there in that moment. And that's the Paine that grabs me.
BILL MOYERS: He wrote "Common Sense," "The Crisis Papers," you just mentioned the "Age of Reason," which is the one that really got him into trouble with believers. What about his third book, "The Rights of Man?" What kind of impact did that have?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, it had a huge impact. And in a way, Paine is at the founding of modern dispute about revolutionary movements, because he's responding to Edmund Burke's reflections on the revolution in France. And Burke was a liberal politician in many ways. But when he saw the revolution beginning in France he was appalled by the direction that it was taking, even very early on. And wrote an eloquent attack on it. And Paine responds with "The Rights of Man." This was like a split in sort of liberal English sentiment, going in two different directions. And two eloquent men, you know, taking each other on.
HARVEY KAYE: Yeah. You know, I'm glad you said that. Because, you know, when people are teaching political theory, it's Hobbes, Locke and so on. But the real grounding of modern political theory, I think is in the Burke/Paine exchange. Because the Hobbes/Locke always does is social contract and liberalism. But if you really want to get to the fundamental American question, it's probably the debate between Paine and Burke, having to do with liberalism versus conservatism. And at that moment, it's radicalism, reaction, but it's liberalism and conservatism. But in the United States, we have that same kind of interaction between Paine and Adams.
These are the two currents in American thinking. Adams, the tempered Republican, and Paine, the radical Democrat. And I think that's very, very fundamental.
BILL MOYERS: Toward the end of his life, Paine urged American citizens to renew their patriotism in reference to, he said first principles. Today, 2009, what are the first principles you think Paine, if he were blogging today, would be espousing?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, I think he would say liberty. I think he would say opportunity. And economic opportunity. I think those are the things that he would hammer at.
HARVEY KAYE: I agree. But I think I would take it a step further. And I go back to what I said at the beginning. Paine was a small "d" democrat. He was a political democrat. He became a political democrat by what he recognized in American life. And later, when he did come out of prison, he wrote "Agrarian Justice." And there he lays out a social democratic vision. That's where he says, "Let us create real opportunity for young people. And not give them a life of poverty. Let us tax the landed wealth, and use that money in some kind of community chest, a national treasury, to provide stakes, S-T-A-K-E-S."
You know, grants to young people, so when they reach twenty-one, and he said that of men and women, which was a very progressive thing to do at the time. And that way, they'll have a chance to, you know, buy land, gain an education, set up a small business. And we can also then afford pensions to the elderly. So, he did very much sort of look ahead to the idea, absolutely, of economic opportunity, but in a social democratic way, I think.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes, if he had thought that there were people who were permanently stuck in a, you know, servile or lower economic class, he would not have liked that. And he would have--
HARVEY KAYE: Right. And he did say--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: --he looked for means to--
HARVEY KAYE: He did say--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: --move them outside of it.
HARVEY KAYE: --everyone had to accept the payment, whether you needed it or not. You could give it back afterwards. But he didn't want it to be a charity.
BILL MOYERS: Richard Nixon came up with something like that. Remember that? Is that part of Paine's genius, part of his greatness? That we, each of us, no matter what end of the political spectrum we're on, find a real American there, a true American there?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Isn't that a problem that writers always face with their words? I mean, once you let those words out there, then they're not yours anymore. And especially if they're words as well written as Paine's. And then people grab them for bumper stickers and off they go.
HARVEY KAYE: Very true. But I agree with you, I really do. 'Cause I cannot deny the beauty of the words and the wonder of the pen. But I think the real question is, "Why do Americans seek to recover Thomas Paine?" And I think it's because they feel the impulse that he imbued in American life. And they go looking for the source of that impulse, when crisis occurs. And I think that's why I think Paine's great legacy is this American democratic impulse.
BILL MOYERS: Why aren't liberals quoting him more? I mean, you don't find any liberals in the last thirty years--
HARVEY KAYE: That's the most-- that frustrates me to no end. I find it-- I think it will actually haunt liberals, ultimately. Because it's Thomas Paine who can renew the democratic spirit that liberals need to rediscover. They don't need to rediscover themselves in government. They need to rediscover their connection with American working people.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: And maybe liberals are not so keen on the democratic spirit.
HARVEY KAYE: Maybe they're not.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Maybe they feel their agenda is not popular.
BILL MOYERS: Corporate liberalism is all about a regulated economy.
HARVEY KAYE: Maybe they're not. Maybe they're not.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Maybe social liberalism that, you know, "We the enlightened know what should be done. But, you know, we have to bring the boobs along slowly."
HARVEY KAYE: Well, my friend Norman Lear says, "With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?"
BILL MOYERS: Richard Brookhiser and Harvey Kaye, thank you for a very interesting discussion.
HARVEY KAYE: Thank you.
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