Capitol Hill needs Thomas Paine memorial

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As a phalanx of new war memorials rise in Washington, D.C., over the next few years, including long overdue recognition of Native American and African American veterans, the American Revolution’s foremost patriot still remains locked out of our nation’s capital. 

Amazingly, there is still no statue or memorial in Washington to Thomas Paine, the immigrant writer and soldier who not only first inscribed the “United States of America” in print on June 29, 1776, but galvanized the American Revolution in one of the darkest times in our nation’s history with his writings. 

{mosads}“Without the pen of the author of Common Sense,” founding father John Adams begrudgingly admitted, “the sword of (George) Washington would have been raised in vain.” Adams added later to Thomas Jefferson, “history is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine.”

It’s time for our nation’s capital to ascribe this fact in stone. In fact, never have we needed Paine’s vision of defending a fledgling American democracy more than now.

While numerous statues of treasonous Confederate leaders still stare down bystanders in the U.S. Capitol, Paine’s enduring challenge to our nation to resist duplicitous authority, uphold inalienable freedoms of speech and the press, recognize our country as a sanctuary for refugees, and “reinvent” the world in our own times, remains as vital as in his own Revolutionary times.

By finally correcting Paine’s erasure from the historical record, largely due to competing interests in the aftermath of the American Revolution and his subsequent writings on religion, we can begin to reconstruct a fuller picture of history for others left out of its official rendition. A monument to Paine, in effect, would be an act of reclaiming the commons for “we the people,” recognizing the need for multiple viewpoints of history, especially in times when our nation—and its leaders—need to be held accountable for the unfulfilled challenges of the American Revolution for all Americans. 

“Petition and resistance,” Paine explained to his readers in the aftermath of the American Revolution. “It left to the Americans no other modes of redress than those which are left to people under despotic governments.” 

In an attempt to forge an American unity, Paine upended a colonial malaise with his writings—first Common Sense, then a series of “Crisis” pamphlets. Urged by fellow Patriots in Philadelphia to draw up a response to the times, mindful of its treasonous risks, Paine began to write Common Sense with the fervency of a true believer. “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense,” he declared in the first lines of his unsigned pamphlet, which rolled from the printer’s shop on Jan. 10, 1776.

That seemingly harmless sentence, of course, is loaded with meaning, especially in today’s dizzying mess of “fake” news.

Paine also wrote anonymously at first, setting a precedent for our own times. 

Paine chided a timid Continental Congress. “The evil is not sufficiently brought to their doors to make them feel the precariousness with which all American property is possessed.” Holding the colonists accountable as much as any Tory, Paine effectively forced the fence-sitters to take a side. “If you still can shake hands with the murderers,” he warned, “then you are unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.”

To the “men of passive tempers” still hoping to “be friends again, for all this,” Paine delivered a long-awaited denouement: “Since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake let us come to a final separation.”

Paine gave the American resistance its voice–and a backbone. And Paine’s personalized refrain against the “royal brute” of England and his colonial enablers inspired a chorus of indignation, and emboldened a daring movement for Independence.

For the two military commanders in the field, General George Washington and General Charles Lee, Paine single-handledly crossed the enemy lines and raised the flag of separation: “A masterly, irresistible performance,” Lee gushed, “the coup-de-grâce to Great Britain.” Washington called it an “unanswerable reasoning” for separation, “working a wonderful change in the minds of many men.”

Hailing it our “duty rightly,” Paine had urged Americans, in one of the most hopeless moments before the American Revolution in 1776, to “take our children in our hand, and fix our station a few years farther into life.” The seeds of our democracy, he reminded the disconsolate, would take root from an American resistance to “sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man” and a system that had subjugated the majority of its inhabitants.

Those seeds have flourished into our democracy today, and it is under attack by the Trump administration. Paine’s admonition of the fundamental American credo to resist such authority when our democracy is under attack remains vital, as well. 

According to Paine, the future of the United States of America—and consequently the world—rested in the hands of “science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all,” which served as the great “temple where all may meet.”  As American negotiators met with British counterparts in 1782 in Paris, Paine warned American leaders to set aside their “temper of arrogance,” which would “entail the dislike of all nations,” and find a way for the world to live in peace. 

Two hundred and thirty-five years after Paine’s historic analysis of the American Revolution and the role of science in uniting world concerns in Paris, President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the historic Paris climate accord on June 1, 2017, rejecting science and fact-based assessments on climate change, and defending a corporate energy lobby of coal, oil, and gas that had produced most of the nation’s carbon emissions. 

Similarly, as the Trump administration moves to maximize its travel ban on select Muslim-majority countries and ramp up deportations of undocumented immigrants targeted from Mexico and violence-torn Latin America, we need to reclaim the vision set out by Revolutionary forerunners like Paine. As an immigrant from England, he embraced the Declaration of Independence’s demand for immigration rights, seeing as a foundation of democracy. “Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!” He added: “O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

In an often overlooked passage of Common Sense, Paine noted the minority status of the English in his adopted city of Philadelphia, the larger ethnic diversity of the colonies, and the shaping of an “English Only” mythology that would be wrongly utilized for the next two hundred years: “Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, are of English descent. Wherefore I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England only, as being false, selfish, narrow and ungenerous. But admitting, that we were all of English descent, what does it amount to? Nothing.”

Paine’s rhetorical question, of course, underscored the criteria for much of the flawed American immigration policy for the next century: the 1790 Alien Naturalization Act limited citizenship to a “free white person” with “good moral character.” To undo the mistake of white supremacy as a litmus test of migration would require nearly two more centuries of debate and iterations of the Naturalization Act, which are once again under revision.

“An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot,” Paine wrote later in his life.

In an age of war memorials, so would a statue of Thomas Paine on Capitol Hill. 

Jeff Biggers is the author of numerous books, including “Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition.” 

Tags Common sense Donald Trump Thomas Paine

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