The Most Founding Father of Them All
The Genius Revolutionary With Heart, Mind, and Talent
George Washington, probably the first historical figure you think of on the American 4th of July, said America would have lost to Britain if the rebels did not have Tom Paine -- an impoverished English immigrant with a gift for words -- on their side.
by Jeffery J. Smith, 2012, Interdependence DayWhen Gen. George Washington was losing battle after battle, and many soldiers and civilians wanted to desert the rebel cause, it was Tom Paine’s pen -- he was a correspondent for a newspaper in Philadelphia -- that fortified the resolve of the American troops and citizens. Around campfires, using a drum as a desk, Paine wrote dispatches from the front that stressed the silver lining around the dark clouds. Paine explained the merits of guerrilla warfare and was the one to christen the new country “The United States of America”.
Paine may have single-handedly swayed the American leaders to rebel. Just months before they declared independence from Britain, even eventual liberty-lovers like Thomas Jefferson were declaring their loyalty to the King. What changed their thinking was the huge popularity of Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense.
The public bought hundreds of thousands of copies of the booklet, which became the first bestseller, making Paine the first professional propagandist.
His success made wealthy the publishers but not him. Even the share he was allotted, he gave away to the cause of freedom. His was an ethic at odds with many wealthy rebel leaders -- which a decade later nearly cost him his life.
Paine also urged Congress to borrow from France. He went there with another Congressional delegate to pick up the loan and bring it safely home. He proposed using the money to fund a national bank, which became the First National Bank of Philadelphia and later the US National Bank.
Besides being political, Paine was also scientific. He took his friend Gen. Washington with him into a swamp to prove the stench was flammable by setting the gas on fire. After the war, he designed a bridge that was superior to others of the day, being lighter and stronger. He took his plans back home to England, where he was well received by the thinkers of the day, but he failed to sell his bridge idea. Eventually a builder did use Paine’s design but did not pay the designer.
When the French idealists, inspired by the Americans, overthrew their king, the worried nobility of England condemned the French Revolution. To defend the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Paine wrote another book, The Age of Reason, which sold even more copies than Common Sense, again making Paine rich and famous. However, once more he gave away his fortune to the cause and to his aging mother and ex-wife, and his fame embittered his aristocratic rivals.
Slandering Paine with accusations of drunkenness and atheism, the British government turned enough people against Paine that the rulers decided they could arrest him and execute him without arousing the wrath of the public. His friend the poet Robert Blake got wind of the approach of government agents and persuaded Paine to flee his native land. The agents caught up to Paine at the coast but the people there rallied around Paine, giving him the chance to sail away.
In France Paine received a hero’s welcome and was made a member of the National Assembly even though he knew very little French. Although popular in France, he was homesick for America, and started for home. But at the seaport, he felt a premonition of danger at sea, where the British Navy could capture him and take him back to England for execution. Indeed, the ship he was to sail on did get stopped by a British frigate.
Back in Paris with his idealist friends, he co-authored a popular document that led to the founding of the Republic. In the Assembly, Paine the humanitarian voted against executing the king and queen, a vote that also nearly got him killed. Before that fateful encounter, Paine had one more Earth-shaking bestseller in him.
To defend himself against the charge of atheism, and to explain the difference between religious obedience and spiritual consciousness, Paine wrote The Age of Reason. But by twisting his words, religious figures, who were siding with the rulers, against the people, were able to condemn him as anti-God -- along with the usual drunken philanderer -- none of which was true. The Americans whom he had helped set free, yet who were the descendants of religious purists and fanatics emigrating from England, were the most susceptible to those poisoned letters.
When the French Republic, under constant threat from foreign armies and domestic royalists, devolved into its Reign of Terror, Paine too was imprisoned. Though on death row, still the humanist, his warmth and wisdom made his fellow inmates suffer less while awaiting certain doom. He also used his remaining money to help other inmates.
The American ambassador could have gotten the release of Paine, as could his old friend President Washington. Yet neither did. The ambassador claimed Paine was not an American citizen. A native of England, a Founding Father of America, and an adoptee of the French, Paine was the first person to call himself “a citizen of the world”.
A more likely explanation is that the ambassador, a businessman, remembered Paine’s exposé of the graft committed by other businessmen during the American Revolution. And Washington, the richest man in America who as president sent more soldiers into the field against the Whiskey Rebellion farmers of Pennsylvania than he ever led against the British, was a politician who wanted to keep the powerful British happy.
The only thing that did save Paine was an accident (an “act of God”?). The day Paine was to be executed, the executioner missed seeing the X marking an inmate for execution on Paine’s door, opened to give Paine air as he suffered from fever. The next day, Robespierre, the leader of the ruling faction was murdered, and the Reign of Terror was over.
There was a fourth book by Paine of immense importance albeit of lesser popularity: Agrarian Justice. In it, Paine advocated banking reforms that could have mitigated, perhaps avoided, a financial collapse that struck soon after the book’s publication. He also proposed Social Security, which did come into existence a century-plus later. And most crucially, Paine pushed for the public recovery of socially-generated land values and the sharing of the recovered rents as a dividend to everyone.
The idea of some sort of land dues was not original to Paine. The physiocrats and other leaders of the French Enlightenment had already made the idea current. Paine’s friend and Virginia plantation owner Thomas Jefferson promoted similar ideas. Late in life, after losing lots of money in land speculation, Ben Franklin, America’s longtime ambassador to France, also became a physiocrat. The first constitution of the US, the Articles of Confederation, was quasi-physiocratic in requiring a levy on land. In France, a land tax paid for 80% of the first Republic’s budget.
Today, Paine is a hero to libertarians. But Paine’s legacy remains unfulfilled. If people are to enjoy liberty, they must have properity, something which Paine’s economic reforms could deliver. No longer called physiocracy but going by such names as “geonomics”, it means we’d quit our counterproductive taxing and instead recover the values of sites and resources, we’d quit our addictive subsidizing of special interests and instead disburse the recovered rents to all members of society equally.
If you hadn’t heard of these ideas associated with Paine, you may know of them via the work of Henry George, author of the all-time bestseller in economics, Progress and Poverty. George led a life remarkably similar to Paine’s, rising from miserable conditions to the world stage, where he almost got the job done but couldn’t quite pull it off. Now, to geonomize the world, that, dear reader, is up to you.
Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics and helped prepare a course for the UN on geonomics. To take the “Land Rights” course, click here .
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