Tom Paine and the Tyranny of the Dead

Tom Paine was too radical for even many of the American Founders.

Paine never owned slaves, and excoriated slavery almost immediately on his move to America.  On March 8, 1775, only a month after Paine became the editor, The Pennsylvania Magazine published an anonymous article entitled “African Slavery in America,” the first notable piece in the colonies proposing the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery.  Paine was the author.

The author of “Common Sense” and “The Crisis,” who influenced George Washington among others, Paine was born into and lived in poverty in England before he moved to the American colonies.  Perhaps his experience as one of the lower classes at a time the Lords and Ladies of England expected those below them to bow and scrape informed Paine’s insight into why inherited nobility and monarchs were absurd:  genius Paine wrote in the “Rights of Man” was not inheritable, but idiocy was.  Paine destroyed the conventional wisdom that some humans are born entitled to wear spurs and saddle themselves on the backs of others.

Paine destroyed the conventional wisdom that some humans are born entitled to wear spurs and saddle themselves on the backs of others.

Tom Paine’s birthday is uncertain given his “low” origins, but it appears it may have been February 9, 1737.  Paine’s statues are not being torn down or moved, first because there are not that many left, and second because his views were so advanced at the time that the rest of the world is only now catching up with his genius.  Unlike many founders, Paine would be comfortable with the most progressive of today’s thinkers.

Paine was a prolific author, despite limited formal education, his native genius compelled him not only to be a leader of the American Revolution, but also the later French Revolution.  When the French Revolution went off the rails onto the blade of the guillotine, Paine’s reputation was sullied through guilt by association, even though he never supported the violence and random killings, arguing instead for a principled future based on the “Rights of Man” and the “Age of Reason.”  But his unbending support for self-government and liberty was too much for many even in America who excoriated Paine once the American Revolution was secure and the reactionary forces moved into power.

 It is impossible to cover all the insights Tom Paine transmitted to “we the people,” contributing to the advance of human rights.  But one needs to be remembered:  life belongs to the living, and allowing the dead to impose laws on the living is a pernicious error.  Paine as a journalist seeking to, and succeeding at, informing the general public as to truths they needed to know to advance their rights in the face of English tyranny before the American Revolution, would have been sickened by the use of the Espionage Act of 1917 to throttle truth tellers in the 2020s.

The tyranny of the dead has no better example than the dead hand of Woodrow Wilson, a known racist, a war monger who embroiled America in World War I after running for re-election on the false promise to keep America out of that war, and tyrannical imposition of the Espionage Act of 1917 on his political opponents then and continuing to obstruct truth today.  Ed Snowden, Julian Assange and other heirs to the truth telling journalism of Tom Paine are being hounded by the dead hand of tyranny today because of laws made by those dead for more than a century. 

Ever the radical, Paine was more dead than alive when rescued from prison.  Paine was strictly opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances and he excoriated the French revolutionaries who were sending hundreds to the guillotine in his brilliant journalism of the time. Paine was imprisoned by his former fellow French Revolutionaries because of his stirring condemnations of their brutality.   While in prison Paine was writing a provocative new book, “The Age of Reason,” which contained his compelling argument that God did not influence the actions of people and that science and rationality would prevail over religion and superstition. Paine’s imprisonment in France caused an uproar in America and future President James Monroe used all of his diplomatic connections to get Paine released in November 1794.

After “The Age of Reason” was published, Paine came to be despised in fundamentalist America where he was called an anti-Christ, and his reputation was ruined. Paine remained committed to his scientific and rational views refusing to dissemble for 30 pieces of silver. Thomas Paine died a poor man in 1809 in New York and his remains disappeared—arguably the best outcome for a citizen of the world whose ashes, like his thoughts, transcend any one nation.

Perhaps the best birthday present we the living can give to Tom Paine, the most American of all founders, is to repeal not only the Espionage Act of 1917 but also to pass a law requiring ALL laws to sunset within one generation of their adoption unless renewed by a vote of the then living.  All slavery is odious because it violates the fundamental human right of consent. Allowing the dead to rule the living is certainly one of the most irrational forms of enslavement to be tolerated in a nation that is founded on the consent of the governed. 

Being chained to the thinking of those in the grave is absurd, especially as so many were reactionary while alive.  If we must be so governed, the writings of Tom Paine, though long dead, are at least eternally modern and worthy of our consideration.

Kary Love