Thursday, May 5, 2011

Common Sense

Thomas Paine is one of the best-known among the Founding Fathers of the USA even though he never held a political position. His main claims to fame are Common Sense, Rights of Man and Crisis, booklets that helped to incite colonists into overthrowing the British Government and starting a new civilization. I remember reading about this booklet in school, but we didn't actually read it. Had we done so, it would've been most illuminating, I think, to hear that the seeds of the American Revolution had proto-capitalistic motives even then:

"What have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because, it is the interest of all Europe to have America a FREE PORT."

There are a lot of aspects of Paine that didn't make it into my high school civics class, in fact. Our textbook by Daniel Boorstin didn't mention that after helping to found America, Paine high-tailed it to France, palled around with Napoleon, and advised the French government on methods to conquer America. Eventually he ended up pissing off the French as well, and found himself in a cell awaiting the gullotine. He very narrowly escaped being beheaded and got a reprieve.

He published a diatribe against Christianity and religion in general, called The Age of Reason. In so doing, he turned almost all of his former friends and allies against him. When he died in 1809, only six people attended his funeral.

His contradictions and excesses must be taken with the giant grain of salt necessitated when assessing any truly great man; he ping-ponged around the globe like a pirate philosopher, doing whatever he needed to do to survive, and for his ideas of free-thinking to survive. Somehow, in the midst of all his revolutionary activities, he found time to be editor of Pennsylvania Magazine, architect of bridges (one of which was unique enough that he received a patent on its design), developed a smokeless candle, and worked with John Fitch in inventing steam engines. What have you done lately?

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