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Monday, July 15, 2013

When one man's writing helped make a revolution

by Jamie Lutton

Revolution has been in the air of the world for the last few decades. The Iranian people threw out the Shah in the late 1970's, the Berlin Wall fell in the late 1980's, and in the last few years, the Middle East has seen one government after another topple in the Arab Spring.

Revoluion is on everyone's mind, as we watch other countries struggle -- and sometimes fail -- to replace old fascist governments with better ones.

But very few histories of our successful revolution have been written for the American people. The American Revolution of 237 years ago, 1775-1782 is usually presented as something inevitable, with men in white wigs, our Founding Fathers, debating quietly, while clever soldiers led by George Washington shoot behind trees at Redcoats marching in line. 
Bah.
The real story is a lot more exciting than that.   And by real story, I mean the documents and the politics behind getting a bunch of apolitical colonists to  decide to rule themselves. Why did we not end up like Canada? It was mostly because of one man, Thomas Paine. 

And he was an Englishman, a recent immigrant to the colonies, who, armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, got a job as a printer. He was middle aged, in an era when people died young.  He had been ruined financially, blacklisted in his occupation...but a good storyteller, and a lover of truth and justice.  
                
He had approached Ben Franklin for a letter to get a job in the colonies, as he had been ruined when he tried to politically organize the tax collectors.  He had corresponded with Franklin about designs for iron bridges...and Franklin got him a job with a printer in Boston in 1774. 
Thomas Paine first thought he wanted to teach at a girls school, as he was in favor of women's education..but the printing job was what he chose.  After writing some anti-slavery pamphlets, and a few other things, in the January 10,  1776, he wrote and published Common Sense, with the encouragement of friends.
                
At the time this pamphlet was written, the colonists were angry with Parliament, for passing tax laws without allowing them representation in Parliament, and other complaints.. Most colonists, however, thought of themselves as loyal servants of King George lll, but they did not like and were disgusted with the English Parliament. 
                   
Thomas Paine's Common Sense so persuaded and inflamed the readers, that enough of them rejected the King, and wanted independence from the Crown. 
                     
This slim pamphlet was pirated and copied over and over and over, and read all up and down the colonies.  Today, if read, it makes little sense unless you know the cases of the day, so I recommend the excellent book 46 Pages by Scot Liell, published a decade ago.
                    
This short book walks you thought the two years of Thomas Paine's life before, during, and after he wrote Common Sense, with an outline of the rest of his life, and his other writings.   
                   
After I read this book, I realized I had been had.  I had taken probably a year of American History in High School, and the life and writings of Thomas Paine were little touched on.  I understood though, after reading 46 Pages why.  Thomas Paine was ahead of his time.    
Raised as a Quaker, but not a practicing one,  he was a feminist, favoring full rights for women.  He was appalled by  warfare,  because he could see that it helped no one but elites.  He was a early abolitionist, and wrote extensively about the evils of slavery.  And he made John Adams, later our second president, jealous because Common Sense galvanized the people when Adams's own writings did not.   
                 
Common Sense was written in a open clear fashion with simple analogies, so that people with limited education could follow the arguments put forth. And it was a brilliant document.    But it can't be read on its own.  Too much time has passed to follow his writing easily, the language has changed a bit, and the complaints and arguments are antiquated.

I recommend 46 Pages  as one of the best history books I have ever read. I recommend it to readers who think they hate history.  Thomas Paine has been written out of our textbooks, and you should get to know him.  This book makes my list of the best 25 history books of the last 100 years. I would recommend it to immigrants new to this country,  so that they could meet an immigrant from England who helped create this country.  Historians generally believe that if it had not been for this 46 page pamphlet, for Common Sense, the American Revolution would not have happened.
                          
And there is more of his writings to read after that, such as The American Crisis, which was written to raise the spirits of the American soldiers, outnumbered and starving:

"These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated"
            
Paine moved to France, and was active in the promoting and defending the French Revolution, though he spoke no French, writing The Rights of Man in response to Edmund Burke's attacks on the revolt, He later repudiating the violence of the Terror, and was nearly killed himself.   When he later wrote The Age of Reason, which attacked Christianity, he was repudiated by his friends, and died in poverty. He had outlived his time.
              
The American Revolution as it is taught in the American school-system, tends to be rather dull. This is obviously done  to avoid exciting young students into any sort of revolutionary fervor  themselves, or to think such a thing could happen again. Teachers and textbook writers are not fools, they look at recent human history and note that Revolution has been in the air...Just think of the influence of Karl Marx to understand this. 
            
But - take the chance. For fans of Howard Zinn's history books,  or for those who think that history is dull, read about Thomas Paine, a middle aged man who had a second chance at life. A successful pamphleteer, theorist, revolutionary and inventor, who helped create the United States of America. 

And Paine kept writing great works, such as The American Crisis, which was written to raise the spirits of the American soldiers, outnumbered and starving:  His later adventures, such as his later fleeing England on a moment's notice (he had gone home to try to overthrow the King!) and his involvement in the early French Revolution make excellent reading.  His other writings - The Rights of Man...and the Age of Reason, aught to be annotated the way Common Sense was. Sadly, Scott Liell has died. 

Another great historian should take on this task. 

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