No Paine, No Gain: A July 4th Special

July 6, 2008

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Story Transcript

VOICEOVER: Washington, Jeffrson, Adams—these are the names we typically think of when we celebrate July 4. But there’s another who should be mentioned right along with them: Thomas Paine. Paine’s radical belief in democracy helped fuel the revolution. When we lose touch with that radicalism, we do so at our own peril. In the years leading up to 1776, many of the Founding Fathers were pursuing a path of accommodation with England. They didn’t mind being colonized; they just wanted to renegotiate the relationship. As late as November 1775, Jefferson wrote, quote, "There is not in the British Empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do." That same year, Washington was raising toasts to King George III at dinner parties. Then, in January of ’76, Paine anonymously published a 47-page pamphlet called "Common Sense." In fiery prose, it tore down the Crown’s hereditary claims to power and argued that the only true source of governmental authority was held by the government. It lit up the American psyche like a fireworks display, inflaming a whole new conversation about liberty, equality, and democracy, and sold so many copies that it almost outpaced sales of the Bible. "Common Sense" was, of course, derided by those loyal to the Crown. They called it a dangerous doctrine and warned that it would lead to anarchy and democratic tyranny. But Paine’s work was too powerful to be muted. It sparkled with a contagious enthusiasm for what America could be and focused the fight against the Red Coats. As a diplomat back then noted, quote, "Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain." Just as Paine’s pen helped draft the first chapter of the American story, subsequent chapters are touched by it: abolition; progressive reform; suffrage; civil rights. And it doesn’t stop there. Paine even hatched ideas like a progressive estate tax, a system of social security for the elderly, special aid for families with children, and public funding of education—radical ideas then, sensible policies now. And that’s what Paine teaches us, generation after generation: radical is good. America is a radical experiment at its core. Too often, though, "radical" is used as a derogatory term, as a way of dismissing ideas or people who challenge the status quo. But are we not living in times that call once again for more of Paine’s radicalism?

TEXT ON SCREEN: "Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice." —Thomas Paine


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