It’s no accident that Glenn Beck cites Thomas Paine to stoke the Tea Party movement’s fires. Paine’s penchant prose is just as relevant today as it was at the dawn of this great nation—even if he never envisioned the threat of an Al-Qaeda attack or a President so eager to expand the national deficit.
These Are the Times That Try Men’s Souls: America—Then and Now in the Words of Thomas Paine, edited by John Armor, connects some of Paine’s most stirring passages to our current struggles.
It’s a verbal elixir for what ails us.
Paine’s writing retains its elegance, its sense of reason mostly unchanged by time. The author’s words and influence “turned mere colonists into Americans, into citizens of a new nation,” Armor writes of his influence.
His work touched on the withering impact that monarchies had on the human spirit, on the need for smaller government, and on America’s place in the Industrial Age world and beyond.
Paine’s words marginalized the tyrannies that squelch freedom, mocking them in ways that hearken back to Toto the dog’s revealing the true nature of Oz.
“But when, by any accident, the curtain happens to be open—and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter,” Paine wrote, a line that could be applied to some modern dictators. Tyrannies, Armor writes, are always “disguised in show and pageant.”
Modern voters routinely wring their hands over the personal and private matters of politicians—witness the split over President Clinton’s sexual dalliances in the Oval Office. Paine argued that “a thorough knowledge of the persons whom we trust” is called for.
“Paine’s advice that the public needs to know not only what they do but why they do it remains as important as when he wrote these words,” Armor adds.
The 2008 financial crisis—and subsequent panic—jibe neatly with Paine’s philosophy on how the country should absorb such shocks:
“They produce as much good as hurt, their duration is always short … they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light,” he wrote.
The Founding Father also dealt with the folly of price controls, offering the example of the French Assembly of 1793 to buttress his case.
Paine’s reflections on religion caused him the most personal and professional heartbreak. He brought the same keen sense of reason to spirituality as he did to other intellectual pursuits, and the results of this lost him a legion of admirers.
The same powers of reasoning that proved critical to the American Revolution as well as modern-day populists like Beck left him “unwelcome” during his final years.
Paine’s writings on slavery, Armor notes, also divided critics. Some suspected that the words were not his own. Armor finds their style and meaning consistent with Paine’s other efforts. The intellectual was “a true abolitionist,” someone who sought the punishment of its “perpetrators of law,” Armor notes.
The national debt during the country’s formative years can’t be compared to the figures economists throw around today, but the principles behind them have enough in common with modern times for us to take notice.
Paine understood the need to increase deficit spending in times of crisis and war, but he knew that doing so in peacetime could have calamitous effects. And, as Paine argued, America stands as a beacon to the rest of the world in many ways, from its financial dealings to its modes of critiquing nations that engage in butchery.
Many of Paine’s philosophies still matter today, but he wasn’t perfect. Armor catches him in the occasional contradiction, such as when he attacked an intellectual peer for personal reasons but ordinarily castigated those who took such a path.
And Paine feigned humility even though he wasn’t above boasting of his success. When challenged, he would cite his populist sales figures, using them as a cudgel against detractors.
He also understood the power of the written and spoken word. The corrupting of our language, Armor explains of Paine’s position, helps begin the corruption of our political process. Words to consider, when the politically correct speech police prevent public figures from saying the truth—just ask Bill O’Reilly and Juan Williams.
Paine’s “Common Sense” proved more popular than any “Star Wars” feature today at the time of its release. His work could be said to be bigger than the Beatles in terms of the contemporary proportion of people digesting it. Those who couldn’t read his work—illiteracy rates were much higher than they are today—attended public events where readers shared Paine’s books in public.
“His success came because ordinary Americans responded to his words,” the editor writes.
These Are the Times That Try Men’s Souls reminds us of Paine’s contributions to his country then—and hopefully now.