Why the Words of Thomas Paine Are Relevant Now

“Where knowledge is a duty, ignorance is a crime,” declared Thomas Paine.

Posted Jun 18, 2020

My favorite Founding Father has gotten me into trouble recently. What’s worse, by many he’s not even considered a “real” Founding Father.

Don’t panic: I’m not about to birth an illegitimate nation.

But I am re-reading Thomas Paine. I’ve been talking about him a lot and some folks are surprised to learn that the first person to codify the phrase “The United States of America” was a man who would now be labeled a progressive.

Being a Thomas Paine fan is tougher than being a fan of George Washington or John Adams, who claim official paternity on America’s birth certificate. It’s certainly harder than being an Alexander Hamilton devotee; after opening out of town in Philadelphia in 1787, Hamilton’s star keeps rising. 

But Thomas Paine (whom I never think of as “Tom” because when I like referring to men I admire by using their full name, as my husband Michael will attest) gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. Even in an otherwise terrific 2015 children’s book about the Founding Fathers, Paine is portrayed as playing for the “Junior Varsity Team.”

Such a designation is only slightly more insulting than being dismissed as a “Filthy Little Atheist.” That designation was awarded to Paine by no less than Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was later willing to amend his insult by revising “Atheist” to “Deist” so long as he could keep the words “filthy” and “little.”

You’ll remember that Thomas Paine (who stood at the same height—5’11—as Roosevelt, by the way) was the author of 1776’s “Common Sense,” a pamphlet that directly influenced the rebellion of the American colonies against Great Britain. He also wrote “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason” and was the first person to codify the phrase “The United States of America.”

So why did Paine make so many people nervous?

Paine had no patience for those with unexamined lives. He was sharp, funny and relentless.  “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason,” he wrote in “The Crisis,” “And whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead.”

He’s neither a comfortable or comforting figure. In 1794, Paine explained that he believed “in the equality of man” and “that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy.” These words, which are the ones that rankled Roosevelt, were written with a complete understanding of the risk involved. Paine would be reviled for generations by those who insisted salvation must be found inside a man-made building rather than inside a human heart.  

But Paine willingly took risks. Unlike most of the Varsity Founding Fathers, Paine didn’t own enslaved peoples. He believed laborers deserved to profit fairly from their work, and he believed in the emancipation of women. Paine wrote to reveal what supported the system of institutionalized power, comparing it to “something behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss… but when, by accident, the curtain happens to be open, and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.” He wanted to show us the man behind the curtain and laugh tyranny off its throne.

Back in 1776, Paine issued warning about the dangers of monarchies, and yet so many of his passages are applicable to the occupant of today’s White House—this is the trouble-making part—it’s tough to choose.

Here’s my current favorite: “Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent… Their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests and… are frequently the most ignorant and unfit.”

My friend in Atlanta, Paul Miller Jr, commented that it’s "funny how we as a country remember things like the Second Amendment but seem to forget the very ideas that were involved in the creation of our country."  

“Where knowledge is a duty, ignorance is a crime,” Paine insisted.

The United States of America needs to work against the forces of ignorance. And these days, that’s a seditious statement—almost worthy of Thomas Paine.