Though Thomas Paine galvanized this country into being and gave it its very name, The United States of America, there is almost no trace of him here. In Philadelphia, where he spent his most significant years, there is a Thomas Paine Plaza, but it is barely marked as such, with no statue of the man. Instead, one finds a bronze likeness of Frank Rizzo, of all people, and a Jacques Lipchitz sculpture that Rizzo once compared to a dropped load of plaster. Composed of torturous human forms holding up some insufferable burden, it’s titled “Government of the People,” though walking by it for decades, I actually thought it was a Holocaust memorial. Just outside the Paine Plaza, there is also a huge statue of Ben Franklin as a printer. Unlike Paine, Franklin is all over Philly, with the largest monument to him the bridge that leads to Camden. When it opened in 1926, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge. Franklin is so beloved here, even his toilet is commemorated with a explanatory marble lid.
Up the river in Bordentown, New Jersey, where Paine had a house for 25 years, there is a statue of this most significant of Americans and, for two years now, an Easter egg hunt-styled game around Paine’s birthday, with plastic “Thomas Paine” bones hidden at downtown businesses. Hey, if it can more customers in, then why not? Buried in New Rochelle, NY, a town that didn’t even allow Paine to vote in local elections, his bones were dug up by a British admirer, for the purpose of a ceremonious burial back in England, but his remains somehow became lost. It is said that one of his ribs might be in France, his skull in Australia, with other bones turned into buttons.
In 2006, I had a chance to visit Thetford, Paine’s birthplace, and there I saw his statue, one of only five in the entire world, but the most impressive monument in Thetford belongs to the Maharajah Duleep Singh. Maharajah who?! A child king of the Sikhs, Singh nominally ruled the Punjab, bigger than England itself, but after the English stole his kingdom and, incidentally, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, largest in the world at the time, they exiled Singh to Norfolk and converted the boy to Christianity. Queen Victoria thought him cute, “Those eyes and those teeth are too beautiful.” Although he died dissolute and broke, Singh now appears regal and dignified on his stately horse, elevated on a pedestal taller than a man’s head. Prince Charles dedicated the statue.
In Philadelphia, Paine is more invisible than Ben Franklin’s colon’s target, and in Thetford, his hometown, he’s lesser than Queen Victoria’s pet Indian, so what gives? As one who ridiculed the British Crown, it’s understandable that Tom’s effigy would not be anywhere within a canon shot of Buckingham Palace, but why has he been faded out here, in a country he had a seminal role in creating?
In bits and pieces, Paine does turn up in quite a few places, it is true. So quotable, his words are appropriated by numerous camps, including Libertarians, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil,” or gun owners, “The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms, like law, discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe.” In fact, if you donate up to $99,999 to the National Rifle Association, you will be listed as a member of its Thomas Paine Society. Bump that to a million or more, and you’ll be allowed into the Charlton Heston one. In the NRA pantheon, Paine is a sort of Scottie Pippen, or maybe just a Steve Kerr. A selfless man of unimpeachable integrity, Paine has even been hijacked by one of the phoniest Americans ever. In his first Inaugural Address, Obama dropped a Paine title into this sentence, “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations,” then quoted him entire later, “that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [and to repulse it].” It’s not clear why Obama skipped the last part. Maybe the teleprompter flickered. In any case, it’s telling that Obama did not mention Paine by name, only that this passage was read to American troops by “the father of our nation,” George Washington, he of the 300-plus slaves.
Hey, isn’t that a cheap shot? Didn’t they all, like, own slaves? Well, a bunch of the Founding Fathers certainly did, including Jefferson, Franklin, John Hancock, James Madison, John Jay and Benjamin Rush, but some of them didn’t, including, notably, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton and, of course, Thomas Paine. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Robert Morris, had also been a slave trader.
Poor most of his life, Paine couldn’t afford a slave had he wanted one, not that he ever did. Sanely seeing slavery for the barbarity that it was, Paine was one of the earliest and most outspoken polemicists against it. In fact, he thought that the very first act of the new American nation should be to abolish this monstrosity, “And when the Almighty shall have blest us, and made us a people dependent only upon Him, then may our first gratitude be shown by an act of continental legislation, which shall put a stop to the importation of Negroes for sale, soften the hard fate of those already here, and in time procure their freedom.”
Over and over again, Paine would speak and act from his firmest convictions, no matter the cost. A poor man, he gave his royalties from Common Sense and American Crisis to clothe the Continental Army, and even donated his life savings to it. As our first whistleblower, Paine exposed Silas Deane as an embezzler and war profiteer, thus provoking the wrath of not just Deane’s many powerful allies, but other corrupt officials as well. In Age of Reason, his dismantling of organized religions, Paine alienated many ordinary folks, his natural audience.
Always blunt and upright, Paine annoyed or threatened many people, including erstwhile allies, like George Washington, for one. When Paine was imprisoned and almost killed during the French Revolution, Washington didn’t gnash his ivory, cow bone and black slave teeth in worries or sorrows, and this mean coldness destroyed their lopsided relationship. Paine had mistakenly considered Washington an intimate friend. Except for Paine, America’s Founding Fathers came from the wealthiest stratum of American society, so during and after the Revolutionary War, they sought to protect their privileges. They tolerated Paine since he could rally the ordinary people, “the grazing multitude” in Washington’s memorable phrase, but when the war had been won, they had no more use for him.
Just as you and I inhabit a world entirely alien to those who rule over us, Paine was also viewed by the elites of his time as a clear outsider or pesty gadfly, if not outright freak. Speaking on the floor of Congress, Gouverneur Morris described Paine as “a mere adventurer from England, without fortune, without family connections, ignorant even of grammar.” John Adams acknowledged Paine’s unmatched sway over the masses, but arrived at a colorful and telling conclusion, “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs or the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief,” so to have such influence over ordinary people is to indulge in a career of mischief? So Paine was little more than a demagogue from many elites’ perspective, but if he could get farmers and tradesmen to pick up rifles, then he had a temporary role to play.
Paine gave the American Revolution a much more democratic veneer, and he’s still trotted out every now and them, in tiny doses, to give the impression that we have stayed true to his vision, but if Paine’s foundational ideas are really compared to the actual state of our union, it’s clear that we’ve gone from a flawed yet promising beginning to become this physically and mentally ill, insatiably rapacious yet raped nation. Throughout our entire history, the American underclass has been partially appeased by a trickled down prosperity achieved through endless plunder and conquest, but our rottenness is becoming harder to hide as our ship creaks, lists and sucks in cascades. Standing in this bilge, we can’t help but see our misfortune steadily rising to our ankles, shins, thighs and higher. It’s past time we act.
To begin to see what ails us, let’s start at the top. Paine equated kings with wars, and although we have no king as such, our executive office has usurped the power to unleash war to itself, irrespective of Congress or popular opinions, so that each President has become a de facto king as long as he occupies the White House. With no check or balance, he can have anyone killed, imprisoned or tortured, and even destroy an entire nation. Or take our current President’s nonchalance towards his kill list, as in “I’m a very good killer” and joking about drone strikes, and compare it to the agony Washington went through as he contemplated executing a Brit soldier, Charles Asgill, in retaliation against an American prisoner of war who had been hanged by the English. Asking Congress to decide Asgill’s fate, Washington wrote that “It is a great national concern, upon which an individual ought not to decide.” Echoing Washington’s anguish, Paine called this possible revenge murder “a sentence so extraordinary, an execution so repugnant to every human sensation.” In the end, Asgill was spared. Released, Asgill charged that he had been treated barbarically during his captivity, but this is only an indictment against his local jailers, not anyone higher up. An Abu Ghraib it was not. Think also of how American diplomacy and civility has declined since, for Washington’s behavior is a far cry from Hilary Clinton’s chirpy “We came, we saw, he died!” when speaking about Muammar Gaddafi, a foreign leader who had been sodomized with a knife, killed then displayed in a supermarket freezer by the American-supported thugs. And no, such breezy barbarity is not at all common, since no one but the US routinely violates foreign countries, persons or corpses.
As for Congress, Paine writes that our elected representatives “are supposed to have the same concerns at stake which those have who appointed them, and who will act in the same manner as the whole body would act were they present.” It sure doesn’t sound like what we have, that’s for sure. In fact, Americans’ approval rating for their “representatives” has been hovering in the single digits, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it hit zero soon enough, complete with a dead cat bounce. Maybe it will even sink below zero. With fresh outrages each day, we’ll have to come up with new ways to measure our degradation. First of, an American politician cannot serve the common man when he can really get paid by the big boys or, more importantly, be destroyed by them should he step out of line. With mass surveillance a normalized fact of life, all of his hidden crimes, vices, peccadilloes and goofy or ghastly kinkiness can also be exposed. This is no conspiracy theory but what happens when our bankers and war profiteers are also in control of our mass media. The same fat guys and gals sit on each other’s boards.
Paine spoke of the American Tories as an internal enemy who should be expelled, with their properties confiscated, which in fact happened to 60,000 Loyalists of all kinds after the War of Independence, but who are our internal enemies of today? Contrary to the relentless propaganda that molests our synapses daily, America’s greatest internal threat does not come from terrorists lurking at airports, train stations and shopping malls, but a ruling apparatus that openly serves supranational or even foreign interests. A Federal Reserve that bails out openly criminal banks, domestic and foreign, is certainly an internal enemy, as are all politicians who support the wrecking of our financial and moral standings to advance another nation’s geopolitical interests. Besides oil companies, who do you think benefit from our series of ruinous Middle East wars? Last week, newly elected mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, proudly declared, “Part of my job description is to be a defender of Israel [for] it is elemental to being an American.” No, it’s not, Bill, for it’s only elemental to being an American politician, as things now stand. Persistently defending a rogue state, we have become a naked one ourselves, as led by traitors who have pledged “Israel, right or wrong.” The continued offshoring of American industries and jobs under the cover of “free trade” is also hostile to our interests, so all American politicos who facilitate it must be considered as enemies.
In Scranton, I once saw Thomas Paine quoted on a huge, unsightly memorial outside the county courthouse, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.” Since most of the other quotations advocated unquestioning participation in any American war, the Paine snippet had clearly been taken out of context. Again, he was being used. Far from a being a limp protestor, Paine fully believed in the use of violence, but only if the cause was just. He supported the American army when it was a popular force fighting against oppressive, despotic rule, and certainly not wars of greed, “Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder.” If Paine was alive today, he would be aghast at our brainwashed or mercenary soldiers who don’t question being sent anywhere to defend the war profiteers’ and banks’ bottom lines and, episodically, even Israel.
There is something very relevant, though, about Paine’s admonition about not passing on our troubles to subsequent generations, for that is exactly what we are doing, and in the most grotesque manners, too. No people in history have so mortgaged the future. We’re indebted beyond salvation, and as our currency becomes debased through reckless money creation, or quantitative easing in current parlance, we won’t just sink ourselves but condemn our offspring to a much degraded existence. In this, Paine also had plenty to say, for he warned against the abuses of fiat money, as controlled by a greedy elite. He would be astounded to see that not only have we allowed paper money to breed unchecked, we’ve come up with the dodgy innovation of paper gold. Soon enough, even the still smug among us will find out that we’re rich in paper only.
In Paine’s time, the enemy was a distant and easily identifiable king, but in ours, the enemy is within and mostly invisible. Our public officials are only the cabana boys and girls, or waiters, of this sick system, and they’re certainly not serving us. In fact, we can’t even press our noses against the glass to see who are dining within. Standing out back, we fight among ourselves for the discarded scraps and that, for now, is our only battle. We’re sad.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union .