Ken Owen, Michael Hattem, Roy Rogers, and Benjamin Park discuss Thomas Paine, including reconsidering the importance of his most famous work, Common Sense, his life as an eighteenth-century transatlantic radical, and his legacy today compared to that of the other “founders.”
Even though Thomas Paine’s contribution to the revolutionary cause has never been doubted, the same cannot be said of his reputation as a “founder.” Paine’s Common Sense and American Crisis essays and pamphlets have been seen as integral to winning public opinion over for the resistance since the months after their publication. Recently, however, historians have begun to question the standard narrative in which Paine’s Common Sense convinced many fence-sitting colonists to oppose the British Crown and support independence for the colonies. Nevertheless, Americans’ relationship with this British-born polemicist has often been contentious and has always been conflicted. Paine was irreligious in a time when religious belief was widespread and this has made him especially suspect to succeeding generations of religious Americans. At the same time, Paine represents part of the Revolution’s most radical tendencies, which has often been unsettling to succeeding generations of conservatives who wanted the Revolution to be a story of consensus rather than conflict. Paine remains a polarizing figure of the founding era, a beacon to succeeding generations of radical liberals who saw in the Revolution the seeds of democracy and equality. At the same time, he remains a threat to succeeding generations of conservatives whose vision of the Revolution has traditionally focused more on the character, virtue, and leadership of individual founders.
- Who was Thomas Paine?
- What did he do before coming to America in 1775?
- Why did he write Common Sense?
- How important was Common Sense to the revolutionary cause in 1776?
- What were Paine’s most important writings besides Common Sense?
- What were Paine’s religious views?
- Why did Paine find himself in prison in France during the French Revolution?
- What were the other “founders'” opinions of Paine?
- What happened to his body after he died?
- How has Paine’s legacy changed in the two centuries since his death?
Ben Park is a Kinder Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Missouri’s Forum on Constitutional Democracy, where he also teaches courses on the cultural, religious, and intellectual history of early America. He has degrees from Brigham Young University (BA, English and history), the University of Edinburgh (MSc, historical theology), and the University of Cambridge (MPhil, political thought and intellectual history; PhD, history). His manuscript-in-progress examines the local productions of nationalism between the American Revolution and the nullification crisis, specifically how these conceptions differed according to locality, race, and gender, and with a focus on communities in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina as case studies. He is also the founder of The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History and is also the founder and contributor to a number of other history-related blogs.
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