By Jason Miller
Our history books tell us that George Washington was the father of the abomination America has become. Many around the world, including some Americans, have written off the possibility that the United States is capable of acting with morality and sanity. Yet hope remains on the horizon for our country. Harvey Kaye's Thomas Paine and the Promise of America rekindled my fading belief in the United States as a potential home to true freedom and justice. Thomas Paine's spirit burns as an intense beacon lighting the way toward his envisioned "asylum for mankind". Paine, in contrast to Washington, is the intellectual father of an America which does not yet exist, but is still very possible.
Washington epitomized the aristocracy which has dominated our nation both socially and politically since its inception. It is time for the cultural descendents of Thomas Paine--the poor and the working class---to awaken from our slumber and lay claim to our share of the wealth and power in the United States. In so doing, we can remake this nation in the image that Paine envisaged:
When it shall be said in any country in the world, "My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want,
the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness": when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government."
Something is Very Rotten in Denmark
I have written reams about the social and political ills of our ailing nation, which have risen to disturbing heights under the Bush Regime. Given the courageous defiance of tyranny displayed in the American Revolution and the noble principles embedded in our Constitution, it is virtually inconceivable that our King George II could make King George III look like a "Bush-league" tyrant. Yet he has managed such a feat.
Consider the following:
1. Over 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians and over 2,000 US military personnel are dead as a result of our illegal, imperial occupation of Iraq
2. The "Gulag of Our Times", including Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib, "secret" CIA prisons, and the extraordinary rendition program (before you write the prisoners of the Gulag off as "terrorists", remember, the crucial issues are due process and justice....most of those in custody have not even been charged with a crime, let alone had a trial. You could be next!)
3. The rise of Social Darwinism which has led to tax cuts for the rich, corporate welfare, and the diversion of our tax dollars from social programs to benefit humanity to an obscene war machine (which catalyzed the Diaspora in New Orleans).
4. The frightening attacks on Habeas Corpus and Posse Comitatus.
5. Wiretapping and eavesdropping by "Big Brother"
6. Increasingly unregulated corporations running roughshod over consumers and the environment (just keep telling yourself that big corporations have your best interests "at heart" and that Global Warming is a myth)
7. Continued unflinching support for the state terrorists in Israel who are committing a form of genocide against the Palestinians
8. A widening wealth gap, an unconscionable concentration of wealth in the hands of 1% of the populace, 45 million Americans without health insurance, one million homeless Americans, and 13% of Americans living below poverty level
9. Neocolonial policies which perpetuate corporate America's capacity to exploit the people and resources of other nations (i.e. Bolivia)
10. A declared policy of attaining global domination
11. Flagrant violations of international law
12. An Orwellian "Patriot Act" which violates four of the ten Amendments in the original Bill of Rights
Newsflash: The American Revolution Is Still Happening
While a fair number of Americans still suffer from the delusion that we are a benevolent superpower, painful realities poking us in the eye scream otherwise. Thankfully, Harvey Kaye's book awoke me to the fact that the dreams and ideals embodied by some of our Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Paine, are not dead. The fact that America has evolved into a nation ruled by corrupt, bloated plutocrats is not a reason to despair. Our Constitution is more than "just a goddamned piece of paper". It is the embodiment of true freedom and a mechanism for the preservation of the rights of all members of society. As Kaye's tome chronicles the life and times of Thomas Paine, and the impact of Paine throughout the history of our nation, Kaye reveals some powerful aspects of America which transcend the sewer in which we are mired. The America Paine visualized has been a work in progress from the beginning. Despite the regression we have suffered in recent times, the "Promise of America" is not dead.
Paine's words remind us that while the ongoing Revolution is daunting, it is well worth the effort and risk:
"Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us: That the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. 'Tis dearness only that gives everything its value."
Kaye's book has inspired me as I continue my writing and activism on behalf of global social justice, economic justice, human rights, and intellectual freedom. The true value of this book is that it is that it serves as a reminder that America can still rise to Paine's aspirations. Throughout our history, champions for the down-trodden have sacrificed their blood, sweat, tears, and even their lives to progress toward the goal of conquering the tyranny of America's plutocracy. The Populists, Progressives, Women's Suffragists, Abolitionists, Anarchists, Wobblies, Socialists, and members of the civil rights and anti-war movements were each influenced by Thomas Paine in some fashion.
Who Was Thomas Paine?
According to Professor Kaye's depictions, Thomas Paine, a British immigrant to the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War, was the common man incarnate (who happened to have some uncommon gifts). Born in Thetford, England in 1837 to a Quaker father and an Anglican mother, Paine grew up in an environment of severe social and economic inequality. His Quaker father forged young Paine's deep suspicion of state and religious authority. At thirteen, his parents withdrew him from school so that he could learn his father's trade of corset or stay making. The local economy prevented him from making his living in this field, so in 1756 Paine became a privateer on a mercenary vessel called the King of Prussia. An avid reader and student, two years later he found himself in London where he often attended lectures by self taught, working class dissidents. In London, he learned the philosophy of John Locke and the art of rhetoric. He opened his own business as a stay maker and was married in 1759. Sadly, his wife and baby died in child-birth shortly thereafter.
Over time, Paine developed a reputation as a formidable debater and "wordsmith". Thomas Clio Rickman, Paine's long-time friend, said of Paine:
He was tenacious of his opinions, which were bold, acute, and independent, and which he maintained with ardour, elegance, and argument.
After a second marriage, which did not last, and a stint as an excise officer, Paine utilized his friendship with Benjamin Franklin to emigrate to the American colonies in 1774. Fortunately for the colonists, according to Kaye, "he had acquired skills and knowledge, tested his courage and intellect, made friends and contacts, and developed an intolerance of hypocrisy, injustice, and inequality along with a budding sense of working people's political potential."
January 10, 1776 marks an intellectual watershed for the American Revolution. It was on that day that Paine's unsigned pamphlet called Common Sense began circulating the streets of Philadelphia. His scathing critique of Great Britain's government and compelling argument for the colonies to break ties with their imperial master ignited a revolutionary flame throughout the fledgling nation.
By December 4, 1776, the colonies had declared their independence and the American army was dogged by defeat and hopelessness. Thomas Paine responded with another powerful dose of writing. The American Crisis buoyed sagging spirits and reinvigorated the colonists as they fought to forge a sovereign nation. Paine spurred on his fellow revolutionaries with this opening line:
THESE are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
Having done his part to spark and perpetuate the American Revolution, remaining true to the way he defined himself ("my country is the world, and my religion is to do good..."), Paine left America in 1782 to return to England. There he continued to wage the battle for the common man by publishing The Rights of Man, which supported the French Revolution and decried monarchy. Charged by the British government with seditious libel, Paine fled to Paris. He became a French citizen and became involved in politics. When he opposed the execution of Louis XVI, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. It was from his cell that he penned The Age of Reason, which incurred the wrath of many Christians because of its exposure of the contradictions, untruths, and immoralities contained in the Bible. Despite his professed Deism, Paine's memory is dogged to this day with charges of atheism.
James Monroe managed to secure a stay of execution and freedom for Paine. In 1802 he returned to America to discover that The Age of Reason had ruined his reputation with many Americans. Paine's stubborn commitment to the working class, human rights, spiritual freedom, and reason had cost him dearly. He died in New York in 1809, poverty-stricken and a pariah.
Which Father Knew Best? The Answer Depends on Your "Pedigree"
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey Kaye (a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay), serves as a powerful reminder that the American Revolution may not have started without Common Sense or may have failed without The American Crisis. It also reminds us that the ongoing American social and political revolution (which has advanced the rights of women, minorities, workers, the poor, farmers, and consumers) embodies the spirit of Thomas Paine rather than that of those Founding Fathers who were wealthy aristocrats, owned slaves, opposed the Bill of Rights, and limited the inclusion of the "common people" in the nation's power structure.
With the advent of the Bush Regimes (both I and II), an amoral plutocracy (or Miscreant Dynasty) has seized virtually absolute power in our nation. While most of our presidents have represented America's aristocracy first and foremost, virtually all of them advanced the cause of the poor and working class to some degree. Bush I and II and their myriad criminal accomplices, including Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice and a host of plutocrats quietly working behind the scenes, have hijacked the America that Thomas Paine had foreseen. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans (largely pacified by consumerism, popular culture, and propaganda) have stood idly by as unwitting victims and accomplices.
A nation is an abstraction, a complex and intricate set of dynamics involving many people and processes. It is in a constant state of flux and is not easily definable. However, in recent history, generally speaking, the United States has morphed into a social and political cesspool viewed contemptuously by most of the world. We have strayed woefully far from the "Promise of America", but as Kaye's powerful analysis of Thomas Paine and his impact on the evolution of our nation reveals, it is not too late to fulfill that promise. George Washington is the father of a country ruled by the wealthy elite. The spirit of Thomas Paine is poised to become the father of a nation ruled by all Americans. It is time that "We the People" adopt a new father and wrest the power away from a group of narcissistic, avaricious malefactors who are the enemies of humanity.
As Sinclair Lewis warned in It Can't Happen Here, tyranny can arise in highly unexpected places. And it has. If enough of us join together, exhibit fortitude and patience, and take action, we can put an end to this nightmare. For a motivational jump-start and an awakening to what America was meant to be (and still can be), I highly recommend Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey Kaye.
Jason Miller is a 39 year old activist writer with a degree in liberal arts. When he is not spending time with his wife and three sons, researching, or writing, he is working as a loan counselor. He is a member of Amnesty International and an avid supporter of Oxfam International. He welcomes responses at firstname.lastname@example.org or comments on his blog, Thomas Paine's Corner, at http://civillibertarian.blogspot.com/.