Thomas Paine was the definer of an American identity when the American people thought of themselves not as Americans, but as Virginians, New Yorkers, Rhode Islanders, Carolinians, and so on. He argued the case for the separation of the American colonies from Great Britain and his words inspired the soldiers at Valley Forge to press on in spite of the misfortunes of that icy valley. Yet after all his work for the United States, his attacks on institutional religion would isolate him from the United States and send him to Britain. He was tried by Britain for seditious libel for his defense of the French Revolution in the Rights of Man. Invited to France and given a seat in the National Assembly, he almost lost his head due to being aligned with the foes of Robespierre. When he eventually returned to the United States, he was denied American citizenship and the right to vote. He died at the age of 72. Only six people came to his funeral. He was buried under a tree on his property. His bones were eventually dug up for reburial on the British soil of his birth that had rejected him so long ago. Unfortunately, the bones were not interred and became lost.
While the body of Thomas Paine has become lost, his ideas live on. Many people of differing political stripes claim him as their own. The most notorious of these claimants are the Tea Party, perhaps best personified in the person of Glenn Beck who wrote his own version of Common Sense “inspired by Thomas Paine”.
The Tea Party ostensibly stands against welfare, yet in Agrarian Justice, Paine argues for a mandatory minimum income provided by the country to its citizens through taxes. Many members of the Tea Party believe this country was founded as a Christian country, yet in Age of Reason, Paine criticizes the doctrines and dogma of Christianity. In fact, the Age of Reason would be one of the reasons Paine would leave the United States. The attacks by the Tea Party on their foes are not the same stuff of Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine was an advocate of the Enlightenment, progress, and the freedom to become something greater than you were before. The Tea Party stands for none of these, wishing only to return us to a new Dark Age ruled by faith, ignorance, and an exploitive new aristocracy of Robber Barons. They have perverted the legacy of Thomas Paine, if they ever knew it, in an effort to make him into one of their own. While Paine’s political thought had its troublesome elements well worth criticism, such as the lack of checks and balances in his formulation of how government should be, the ability of the Tea Party and Beck to relegate Paine to a figurehead into which they place whatever ideas they wish him to represent betrays the legacy of Thomas Paine. We would do well to remember exactly the things Thomas Paine stood for so that we do not fall prey to the arguments of fools like Glenn Beck.