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My Turn: No Paine, no gain

  • Portrait of Thomas Paine by Laurent Dabos, 1791. AP



For the Monitor
Thursday, December 07, 2017

Thomas Paine has been a favorite subject of mine. Born and educated in England, he emigrated to America and became a prolific 18th-century writer on many subjects, including politics and philosophy. His essays on the politics of the emancipation of the American colonies from the British Crown were and still are a source of inspiration to all patriots and to those who champion civic virtue and value the freedom of expression.

Today, that type of person is known as a liberal.

Paine was a son of the Age of Enlightenment, and his contributions to the advancement of all things that encouraged the self examination of a life well lived by reason and logic are considerable. In his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice,” he advocated for a guaranteed minimum income. That was in 1797!

Of his many literary offerings, including “Common Sense,” “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason,” one in particular is popular and often quoted: His pamphlet “American Crisis” was standard reading in civics classes when I was a school boy. In it, Paine skillfully appeals to the Colonial populace on the merits of courage in the face of adversity, confidence in the belief that their cause was just, patriotism as a virtue and the genuine desire to rid the American colonies of British sovereignty, sooner rather than later.

“American Crisis” begins with the familiar line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was an invocation to his audience in 1776 to rally in defense of liberty and emancipation, and is as relevant today as it was then. George Washington held it in such high regard that he had it read to the troops in the Continental Army on Dec. 23, 1776.

Our country is now a mirror image of what and where we were in 1776. I am confident that Paine would not approve of our current political state of affairs.

His quotes – such as “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot,” “tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered” and “what we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly” – are cautionary advice that we could all benefit from listening to today.

His expositions were mostly directed at the British Crown. Our crisis is to ourselves. We are a seriously politically and culturally divided country.

In 1776 Colonial America, there was not unanimity on the subject of the dissolution of our union with Great Britain. In the “The Crisis,” Paine rails against the Tory sympathizers in the colonies, particularly those in New England. “The period has now arrived, in which either they or we must change our sentiments.”

Like our countrymen in 1776, we are polarized in our political discourse and neither side is willing to compromise. Compromise is characteristic of mature reasoning and a willingness to engage others in mutual concessions. Paine offers hope in the conclusion of “The Crisis”: “But, before the line of irrecoverable separation be drawn between us, let us reason together.”

We are indebted to Paine and other patriots in that period in our history for their efforts and sacrifices to establish a just, equitable and generally progressive new nation on American soil. It was paid for in blood and tears.

I am not encouraged that the current administration in Washington will take Paine’s advice about reasoning together, but there is hope. The second Tuesday in November is less than a year away.

(Jim Baer lives in Concord.)