The Age of Tom Paine
By Bill Moyers
June 15, 2009 - 11:50am ET
The following is a transcript from the June 12 edition of PBS' Bill Moyers Journal.
BILL MOYERS: He was the master wordsmith of the American Revolution. His ideas are embedded deep in our DNA. "These are the times that try men's souls," he wrote, and patriots of every rank responded — farmers, blacksmiths, merchants and aristocrats. Thomas Paine lived a life of adventure, stirred radical sentiments on two continents, knew
So unsung is this hero, a foundling father one historian calls him, that only a handful of his most ardent fans showed up at the ceremonies marking the bicentennial of his death.
REVOLUTIONARY WAR RE-ENACTORS: Fire!
JOYCE CHUMBLEY: Read Tom Paine, read about Thomas Paine, he will inspire you!
The reason Thomas Paine is not more celebrated, recognized is because he's still too dangerous. If we really adopted his principles, his ideas, it would be a very different world.
JOHN NICHOLS: All men, all women shall be free. Tyranny shall be thrust from this earth and a new age of liberty shall be born. This is the age of Paine!
BILL MOYERS: Thomas Paine came to
Why has history forgotten him? With me are two scholars who actually know Thomas Paine's story well. The historian Harvey Kaye directs the Center for History and Social Change at the
Journalist and historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of the "National Review," one of
Gentlemen, welcome to you both.
BILL MOYERS: What's the most important thing to know about Thomas Paine, and why does he fascinate you?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: He fascinates me because I'm a journalist, and I think he may have been the greatest journalist to have ever lived. Certainly the greatest one in
HARVEY KAYE: Here's this guy, you know, essentially off the boat. Somehow he picks up on the spirit of
BILL MOYERS: What was the Paine idea? What was his singular contribution to the Revolution?
HARVEY KAYE: The singular idea, people immediately think independence. But I think it goes far beyond independence. I think it has to do with the idea that he took what he recognized in American life, and he inscribes it into the meaning of
RICHARD BROOKHISER: He certainly is a world thinker, because we're only the first revolution he involves himself in. He is the man who conveys the key to the Bastille, after it has fallen, to George Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Literally?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: He brought it back?
HARVEY KAYE: Right.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: But so, he's the one who brings it over to
HARVEY KAYE: I also would add, "In two revolutions and a great social movement"-- the British labor movement. As E.P. Thompson said, there were two Bibles in the English democratic and labor movement, "Pilgrim's Progress and The Rights of Man." And I think, you know, we shouldn't leave that dimension out as well.
BILL MOYERS: In one way, he was a visionary of democracy. He wanted to end slavery. He wanted to grant women equality. He wanted to abolish all property requirements for citizenship. He wanted a complete separation of church and state. He wanted to establish public schools and old age pensions. I mean, he did see the promise of
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he saw a lot of things that came to be, and he also saw some things that didn't come to be, and maybe never could come to be.
BILL MOYERS: What was behind that long dispute he had with John Adams? Was it because Adams felt Paine's desire for a full-blown democratic revolution was unrealistic and even harmful, and Paine thought
I'll just add, there's that moment where Adams is in the barber's chair in
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, but to do
HARVEY KAYE: But in terms of the democratic impulse, which never ceased in America, in every generation, progressive movements, radical to liberal, reached back to the American Revolution. And who did they rediscover? Oh, yes, they honored
RICHARD BROOKHISER: That's true. But as we see in Paine's own life, there are possible problems on this path. And Paine, the second revolution he's involved in, I think he misunderstands what's going on, on the ground.
BILL MOYERS: In
RICHARD BROOKHISER: In
BILL MOYERS: What did he do wrong?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he comes to
BILL MOYERS: That is a handicap.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: The people he associates with are the people who also speak English. And this is the Girondins faction. Well, as the Girondins start duking it with the Jacobins, the ones who go to the guillotine first are Paine's faction. And the only reason he's not guillotined is that a guard, by accident, passes his cell in the night.
BILL MOYERS: That's for real? That really happened?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: That is for real.
BILL MOYERS: The guard passes by--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: He was on the list and he just passes past the cell.
HARVEY KAYE: That is-- that is true.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: And, you know, the Girondins were as bloodthirsty as bad as the Jacobins. They're sort of romanticized by later historians of the Revolution, but it's like Trotskyites versus Stalinists. These were two bloody, totalitarian gangs. And Paine did not see that quality.
HARVEY KAYE: Paine's problem, and I think of this as a wonderful problem, is that
BILL MOYERS: But his colleagues back here disliked him. I mean, they thought he really made a serious mistake in underestimating the bloodiness of that French Revolution.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well,
BILL MOYERS: I read that Napoleon kept Paine's words under his pillow. I mean, this little despot--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Isn't that sick? I mean, that sort of tells you something about Napoleon's, I think preening and-- and hypocrisy. Because he's the man who buttoned the revolution up and ended up.
HARVEY KAYE: But you know what? There is something important that came out of that relationship. Paine, by the way, did not trust Napoleon. Let's make that clear. But what is important is that Paine played-- and this is something historians have never quite resolved-- he played a role in Jefferson's acquisition of the
BILL MOYERS: So what's kept him from receiving the honor that both of you think he deserves? I mean, he's rarely mentioned in the text books. There have been numerous efforts to try to erect a statue of him in Capital Hill. And all of them have failed. How come he can't get no respect?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he attacked two people in late-18th century
HARVEY KAYE: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Just last weekend I read a letter that he had written George Washington. I hadn't seen it before. Scathing. Calling
RICHARD BROOKHISER: He was bitter, because he felt
HARVEY KAYE: Had abandoned him in the--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: --to get him out of prison, in
HARVEY KAYE: Right. We don't actually know if
BILL MOYERS: But you don't call the founder of your country a bastard. And win the
HARVEY KAYE: Well, consider this — no, undeniably-- But it was not unpopular, in many circles, to do that. Let's keep in mind, the United States, how ever much Washington was revered, was at that time divided between these Republicans and Federalists. And the Fed-- and the Republicans, they're the ones who published the letter. And it's the kind of thing where it had a resonance in
RICHARD BROOKHISER: But I think the big sort of turn in his reputation and in his career had to do with the "Age of Reason," his great work after the "Rights of Man." And this is his full frontal assault on organized religion and particularly on Christianity. He's not an atheist. Teddy Roosevelt called him a "filthy atheist." He wasn't an atheist. But he was a deist, and he thought organized religions were frauds and impositions and lies and all the rest of this. And he lays this out at devastating length.
BILL MOYERS: Well, just as he loathed the power of medieval kings, he loathed the influence of priests, right?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: But he also he loathed the Bible. And he knew the Bible very well. But he quotes its inconsistencies. And, you know, what he thinks are its follies and its mistakes and its obvious errors. And it's-- I mean, it's rather entertaining, but it's just a full-fledge assault on Christianity. And that's certainly--
HARVEY KAYE: Well, on all organized religions. No one could feel comfortable-- none of the faithful of any faith would feel comfortable with it.
BILL MOYERS: That's where he says that all books are written by men, not God.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: And books are sensible, he said, or not sensible. They certainly aren't sacred or divinely inspired.
HARVEY KAYE: If I could just say, in Paine's defense, as a believer, that Paine believed that the creation was God's presence. I mean, he was absolute about that and repeatedly pushed the idea. If we want to worship God, then we should study the creation.
BILL MOYERS: So, would Paine cringe to hear President Obama refer to the Holy Koran and the Holy Bible?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Oh, sure. He'd be out there burning them. I mean, you know, he was-- he was-- well, he was--
HARVEY KAYE: Burning them, I think may be-- might be pushing it.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he wouldn't want to oppress believers.
HARVEY KAYE: Paine would never burn books. I think that's --
RICHARD BROOKHISER: But he would-- he would mock their scriptures.
HARVEY KAYE: Undeniably.
BILL MOYERS: So, is this where he fell from grace? No pun intended. I mean, is this where he really fell out of favor with the burgeoning population of this country? Because he seemed to be anti-religion?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: I would say so. And I think one reason Jefferson was such a successful politician is that even though
HARVEY KAYE: I think the key here is that undeniably Paine became the antichrist to many people. But I also want to say that that doesn't explain two hundred years of conservative efforts to either denigrate his reputation or deny he even existed.
BILL MOYERS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. I mean, the last thirty years, the people who most reached out to claim him are the Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, circles in this country.
HARVEY KAYE: It's fascinating. Absolutely fascinating.
BILL MOYERS: Is that right?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, Ronald Reagan used the sentence, "We have the power to begin the world again." He loved that sentence, so it was very Reaganesque.
BILL MOYERS: Let me show you the video we have of that 1980 speech when Reagan accepted the Republican nomination. Take a look.
RONALD REAGAN: There are no words to express the extraordinary strength and character of this breed of people we call American. [...] They are the kind of men and women Tom Paine had in mind when he wrote during the darkest days of the American Revolution, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
HARVEY KAYE: Reagan was a New Deal Democrat, okay? And the other thing about Reagan is this-- I mean, you know, people are shocked when I say this on the left. Reagan, though not my kind of politician at all, he understood the American spirit far better than the liberals of the 1970s and perhaps even most of the 1960s. And what he knew is that Americans did not forget Thomas Paine. Any more than they had forgotten
Who were the two people he keynotes? FDR and Thomas Paine? Now, why would he do that? Because he wanted to speak to American working people.
BILL MOYERS: Richard, as a long time conservative, do you agree with
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, he was certainly speaking to a vein in
BILL MOYERS: Libertarians have claimed him, because of his long time opposition to any consolidation of power. And they take him as one of them, right?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes. Yes, they do.
HARVEY KAYE: But it's the same line, curiously enough. "Government is a necessary evil."
BILL MOYERS: The Libertarians?
HARVEY KAYE: That's Paine. Libertarians love him. And the anarchists love him. For that very reason. And--
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but you take from Paine what you want and give to him what you need to give him, right?
HARVEY KAYE: Well, I guess we all do. But I like to think of, you know, the image that I don't dwell on the "Government is a necessary evil" because I think of that as his diatribe against aristocratic government at the time. The image I like is a little-- four or five paragraphs later, when he's talking about gathering under this big oak tree, to deliberate. Now, he admits that this is not possible. Okay? Any longer.
But imagine this fundamental democratic moment. And this is also what distinguishes him from Locke, where Locke doesn't take that next step and imagine that democratic possibility. And I think that that's my Paine, I have to admit. I mean, you have your journalist Paine. And I love you for having that Paine. And I have the democratic Paine, right there in that moment. And that's the Paine that grabs me.
BILL MOYERS: He wrote "Common Sense," "The Crisis Papers," you just mentioned the "Age of Reason," which is the one that really got him into trouble with believers. What about his third book, "The Rights of Man?" What kind of impact did that have?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, it had a huge impact. And in a way, Paine is at the founding of modern dispute about revolutionary movements, because he's responding to Edmund Burke's reflections on the revolution in
HARVEY KAYE: Yeah. You know, I'm glad you said that. Because, you know, when people are teaching political theory, it's Hobbes, Locke and so on. But the real grounding of modern political theory, I think is in the Burke/Paine exchange. Because the Hobbes/Locke always does is social contract and liberalism. But if you really want to get to the fundamental American question, it's probably the debate between Paine and Burke, having to do with liberalism versus conservatism. And at that moment, it's radicalism, reaction, but it's liberalism and conservatism. But in the
These are the two currents in American thinking. Adams, the tempered Republican, and Paine, the radical Democrat. And I think that's very, very fundamental.
BILL MOYERS: Toward the end of his life, Paine urged American citizens to renew their patriotism in reference to, he said first principles. Today, 2009, what are the first principles you think Paine, if he were blogging today, would be espousing?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, I think he would say liberty. I think he would say opportunity. And economic opportunity. I think those are the things that he would hammer at.
HARVEY KAYE: I agree. But I think I would take it a step further. And I go back to what I said at the beginning. Paine was a small "d" democrat. He was a political democrat. He became a political democrat by what he recognized in American life. And later, when he did come out of prison, he wrote "Agrarian Justice." And there he lays out a social democratic vision. That's where he says, "Let us create real opportunity for young people. And not give them a life of poverty. Let us tax the landed wealth, and use that money in some kind of community chest, a national treasury, to provide stakes, S-T-A-K-E-S."
You know, grants to young people, so when they reach twenty-one, and he said that of men and women, which was a very progressive thing to do at the time. And that way, they'll have a chance to, you know, buy land, gain an education, set up a small business. And we can also then afford pensions to the elderly. So, he did very much sort of look ahead to the idea, absolutely, of economic opportunity, but in a social democratic way, I think.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Yes, if he had thought that there were people who were permanently stuck in a, you know, servile or lower economic class, he would not have liked that. And he would have--
HARVEY KAYE: Right. And he did say--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: --he looked for means to--
HARVEY KAYE: He did say--
RICHARD BROOKHISER: --move them outside of it.
HARVEY KAYE: --everyone had to accept the payment, whether you needed it or not. You could give it back afterwards. But he didn't want it to be a charity.
BILL MOYERS: Richard Nixon came up with something like that. Remember that? Is that part of Paine's genius, part of his greatness? That we, each of us, no matter what end of the political spectrum we're on, find a real American there, a true American there?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Isn't that a problem that writers always face with their words? I mean, once you let those words out there, then they're not yours anymore. And especially if they're words as well written as Paine's. And then people grab them for bumper stickers and off they go.
HARVEY KAYE: Very true. But I agree with you, I really do. 'Cause I cannot deny the beauty of the words and the wonder of the pen. But I think the real question is, "Why do Americans seek to recover Thomas Paine?" And I think it's because they feel the impulse that he imbued in American life. And they go looking for the source of that impulse, when crisis occurs. And I think that's why I think Paine's great legacy is this American democratic impulse.
BILL MOYERS: Why aren't liberals quoting him more? I mean, you don't find any liberals in the last thirty years--
HARVEY KAYE: That's the most-- that frustrates me to no end. I find it-- I think it will actually haunt liberals, ultimately. Because it's Thomas Paine who can renew the democratic spirit that liberals need to rediscover. They don't need to rediscover themselves in government. They need to rediscover their connection with American working people.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: And maybe liberals are not so keen on the democratic spirit.
HARVEY KAYE: Maybe they're not.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Maybe they feel their agenda is not popular.
BILL MOYERS: Corporate liberalism is all about a regulated economy.
HARVEY KAYE: Maybe they're not. Maybe they're not.
RICHARD BROOKHISER: Maybe social liberalism that, you know, "We the enlightened know what should be done. But, you know, we have to bring the boobs along slowly."
HARVEY KAYE: Well, my friend Norman Lear says, "With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?"
BILL MOYERS: Richard Brookhiser and Harvey Kaye, thank you for a very interesting discussion.
HARVEY KAYE: Thank you.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs