by Tatiana Ryckman
I sometimes imagine conversations with Thomas Paine while twirling my hair around my finger and listening to cassettes of The Cure and popping bubble gum. Paine is the George Harrison of Early American History. The talented but largely ignored founding father you’d want to introduce to your parents, if only you knew more about him.
The irony of the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was not lost on founding fathers who knew they were holding hostages at home. But more interesting is the short list of founders who, despite their whiteness and maleness had no slaves and advocated adamantly for their liberty—among them pop star Alexander Hamilton, curmudgeon John Adams, and my favorite unsung radical, Thomas Paine.
When Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, was released anonymously in 1776, among fierce debates about the problem of the British (were we merely trying to demand respect for all the times we’d washed the dishes and taken out the trash, or were we really never, ever, ever getting back together?) John Adams was incensed. Not because Paine had made so wild and public a run at the necessity of leaving that abusive relationship for good—but because Adams had been failing to convince his peers in congress of the same thing for months. And who the hell was Thomas Paine? (He was, incidentally, nobody. A British immigrant with no money, family, or connections.)
When questions began to float about who the author of the compelling pamphlet might be, John wrote Abigale to say he never could have “written anything in so manly and striking a style.” This was as adorable an endorsement as he may have been capable of, given that he was pouting about not getting credit himself.
Paine didn’t just convince congress, though. He convinced the American people. The percentage of Americans in 1776 who read Common Sense is equal to the percentage of Americans who watch the Super Bowl today. His pamphlet was read aloud in taverns. It didn’t just change minds, it changed the whole conversation. And Paine didn’t stop there, he donated his earnings from the pamphlet to the revolutionary cause and continued to write to boost morale throughout the war with Britain.
When I think about the power a single piece of writing by a founding father had in encouraging an entire nation to pursue unfettered freedom, I have to wonder why we are so quick to reject the founding fathers wholesale today, when we could instead separate the wheat from the chaff, when we could perhaps dig up a fine example for the living old, white men many of us are fed up with. I imagine 30 years in the future, when elementary school kids look at rulers adorned with presidents’ faces, they will notice a shift in the early 2000s. What, I wonder, will the face of Donald Trump next to Barak Obama mean then? Will he just be another white man whose specifics have grown hazy and meaningless, or will we associate it with the revolutionary spirit that infected our own early leaders as, indeed, his supporters believe?
America had the unique luxury of being founded by a group of educated intellectuals explicitly dedicated to staving off tyranny, but it was only possible with the contagious promise of revolution. It is this same promise of revolution against a bloated and impenetrable government that has defied many of our expectations for the 2016 election.
Immediately following the election results on Wednesday morning, women (I saw via social media) began buying up plan B. While this smacks of conspiracy theorists building bomb shelters and buying up water and canned goods, it says a lot about a real fear that should not be taken lightly, but has been upsettingly easy for the right to dismiss—that being female is a risk from which there is no refuge. There are surely equivalents for Americans of myriad races and religions, and the half of the country that voted for Hillary Clinton was also voting for a revolution. One which addressed a different system, one of misogyny and racism and oppression.
But why was that fight so long in coming? Have we only just become aware of America’s unattractive reliance on slave labor for its first 250 years, and the possibility that that history has stunted progress toward a nation that is truly free for all? Did we just realize women couldn’t vote until 1920 and only now begin to consider the ways that late start is influencing traditional expectations of women at work and at home? Even after Tory witch hunts in the first days of the republic, and the trail of tears, and the flourishing of anti-Irish sentiments in the 1840s, and the Chinese Exclusion act in 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 which demanded immigrants prove their ability to read and write in English, and the Red Scare, we have the capacity to be surprised that bigotry and xenophobia persists?
These unattractive characteristics are, surely, woven into the fabric of America’s identity, but that fabric has be woven over hundreds of years, each thread installed by a new generation. Generations very much like our own, full of people very much like us.
I hope, for the love of Thomas Paine, impoverished immigrant and ardent activist, that we will not pin America’s entire legacy of inequality on the founding fathers. I don’t propose a blind acceptance of every man who begrudgingly signed an imperfect constitution—including a decrepit Ben Franklin who said he didn’t think it was very good, but also that they probably couldn’t do much better. (It’s held up surprisingly well, considering.) I propose instead a more thorough vetting of our modern revolutionaries.
The main point of “Common Sense” was to apply logic to something that seemed fundamentally illogical—the role of government. “There is something very absurd” he wrote, “in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” Sentiments not unlike recent cries against the reining 1%, or concerns about a billionaire’s motivation to look out for the working class.
Despite his jealousy, Adams said of Paine: “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” But in Adams’ old age even he forgot to what, or whom, America owed her vision, calling Common Sense, “a poor, ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass.” For which Adams should, I guess, get credit for creativity.
But Adams was not alone in his dim recollection of Paine’s contribution to American ideals.
After penning the pamphlet “Age of Reason” in 1794 (in which he suggested that perhaps religion had been used to control people rather than liberate them) the citizens of the United States conveniently forgot Paine existed. By 1805 he was denied the right to vote. I almost cannot fathom the irony of a founding father—arguably one of the most significant—being denied the right to express an opinion on the operation of the country he helped divine. But then, we are still suppressing those same people on whose labor our nation was built, on whose land it was built, in whose wombs Americans come from.
In a sad fit of insight Paine wrote, “Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.” But the question remains—what do you do when the lack of moral virtue is your government’s?
I cannot shake the feeling that our memories, like Adams’, are dangerously short. That we are not taking care to remove the baby before disposing of the bathwater when we dismiss the founding fathers wholesale. Without a Great Britain to unite against, though, what will bring the revolution to us all? Is “Common Sense” alone a unifying enough cause?
I am, perhaps to my own embarrassment, a big fan of the founding fathers, especially the poor and brilliant among them, those ahead of their time. They were starry eyed with the potential of America to be free and wonderful in ways no other nation had ever been before. I feel that way, too. Perhaps never as strongly as on Wednesday morning after the election, and I assume it’s my responsibility to make America a place I want to live. It is your responsibility, too.
Regardless of your feelings about the election outcome, consider that voting for president is the lowest rung of civic obligation. That despite the way we feel when we watch the news, this country is ultimately what we make of it, for ourselves and for the 319 million other people we share it with.
Tatiana Ryckman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, She is the author of two chapbooks of prose, Twenty-Something and VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live. Tatiana was an artist in residency at Yaddo and ArtHub, and is Assistant Editor at sunnyoutside press.