Bring the Paine!

Screw fat old Ben Franklin and his 300th birthday. This city should be celebrating a real revolutionary, the man without whom there'd be no America.

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 9 | Posted Feb. 8, 2006

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Tom Paine's lodgings were around here someplace. Nowhere important. Just the place the most influential piece of writing in the history of the United States was composed.

Nothing worth a historical marker. Not like around the corner, where you'll find, carefully preserved, the remains of Benjamin Franklin's privy. God help us if we should forget to sanctify the place where Unka Ben shat.

It's Jan. 29, Tom Paine's birthday. Today there are Paine parties in England, New York, New Jersey, California and Florida. And in Philadelphia? Nothing. No roses, no fireworks. Just dudes in transparent-plastic-covered state trooper hats, keeping half an eye on the smattering of hardy tourists wrapped in brightly colored Gore-Tex who, hunched over against the rain, walk from Paine-free attraction to Paine-free attraction.

The Parks official behind the desk at the Independence Visitor Center is nonplussed. Birthday celebrations? None that he knows of. Anything in the displays about Tom Paine? Or Common Sense? Not really. "Nothing big."

Can he direct me to Tom Paine Plaza? He has to look it up in the phone book.

"It's near the statue of Mayor Rizzo," he says. "You'll see it. He's got his hand up, kinda like this, like he's seig heiling. Which is kind of ironic if you know anything about Mayor Rizzo."

Turns out the Rizzo statue is down the road a way. On Thomas Paine Plaza itself, there's a statue of ... Benjamin bloody Franklin!

There are hordes of rotund, bifocaled, frock-coated Ben Franklin impersonators currently working in Philadelphia, led by the brilliant Ralph Archbold, who plays Franklin as a cross between Saturday Night Live's Ladies' Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy.

The real Franklin was much nastier. Ben spent most of his political career as an ardent monarchist and convinced imperialist. He wasn't above using ethnic slurs. He profited from and apologized for slavery.

"But for all that, Franklin was more universal and egalitarian than most of the founding fathers," says David Waldstreicher, history professor at Temple University and author of the Franklin biography Runaway America. "But he doesn't stand comparison to Paine. The only, the only thing you could possibly criticize Paine for was that he was a good hater. And it's difficult to do that when you look at what he hated.

"I'm all for celebrating Paine. In fact, I'd rather we celebrated Paine. Franklin spends a lot of his time elsewhere. Philadelphia's not big enough for him, so for 25 years he left it-and he didn't want to come back. But Paine, unlike Franklin, spends the crucial years of the revolution here. He's here when things happen. He's right here when things turn really radical.

"Paine is much, much more revolutionary than Franklin. That's why some historians see the revolution as a middle-class revolution-which gave us rights-but a revolution with limits. But we need to look at who wasn't getting their rights. We need to think about slavery."

But that's not the history we're being taught this tercentennial year. We're told America's rebels were conservative revolutionaries, guys fighting for real American values. The values of Disney, Wal-Mart and Nike. And it's been incredibly easy to hammer Franklin into that hole. Ditto most of the other founding fathers.

None of these guys was that radical. Heck, some of them even owned slaves. But that's okay. Because you can't judge the founding fathers by the standards of 21st-century liberal PC America.

Or maybe you can.

Because then there's Paine. Thrice-damned Paine. The radical, shit-stirring, rabble-rousing, antiracist, internationalist, pro-women, pro-working class, antiprivilege, antityrannical, super-democratic throbbing heart and soul of the American revolution. A man who, if he were alive today, would have an FBI/Homeland Security file as thick as the Hulk's thigh. Hell, they'd probably deport his commie ass back to England.

The trouble with Paine is that he makes the rest of the founding fathers look bad. He makes all the excuses made on their behalf about slavery and elitism and snobbery and sexism look halfassed. And although modern Tories of all stripes-from Reaganite Republicans to wild-eyed right-wing libertarians-have claimed Paine as their own, in the end Paine is the American revolutionary who can't be defanged, forced into a business suit, swathed in a flag, shrink-wrapped and sold to the masses as a Stepford revolutionary.

Because Paine didn't stop with Common Sense. He wasn't just a revolutionary democrat. He was a witty and eloquent critic of all forms of oppression. He raged against slavery, poverty and female subordination. And he mercilessly dissected and mocked the absurdities of religion.

In short, the guy fucking rocked.

And for this he was never forgiven. He died poor and alone, his reputation destroyed by the slanders of reactionaries and religious bigots (who even accused him of raping his cat).

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Comments 1 - 9 of 9
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1. dtamayo said... on Jul 3, 2008 at 01:27PM

“I agree that Thomas Paine's influence in America was great and important, and that his memory is fully under appreciated by us all today, but you could have made your point and help educate people without having to bash another great person of history. Yes, Ben Franklin, above all was a great marketer of his person and was quite famous even during his day, but that doesn't take away from all the good things he did. In fact, bashing Franklin distracts from the point you are trying to make on Thomas Paine. They were both very different people and the reason Ben Franklin probably gets more attention than Thomas is because Benjamin was born and raised in America while Thomas was not. Also Ben was a deist while Thomas Pain was, by all evidence, an atheist - we know how much America loves us atheists. Either way, I thank you for the article and for reminding us that Thomas Paine was a key player in the forming of our great nation.”

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2. Pierre JC said... on Jul 4, 2008 at 12:23PM

“Hear, hear! Tom Paine is an American hero and a Founding Father. Anyone who fails to honor him is an anti-American piece of trash.”

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3. Edward J. Dodson said... on Jan 23, 2009 at 08:59AM

“As a member of the board of Thomas Paine Friends, I invite Mr. Wells and other Philadelphians to become a member of our organization. We are dedicated to restoring Thomas Paine to his rightful place in the history of the founding of the United States and his contributions to the advance of the democratic spirit worldwide.”

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4. Tina Lee said... on Oct 7, 2009 at 12:52PM

“Wonderful to see a story like this. I am from the Town where Tom Paine grew up and we have been celebrating his life and work all summer. I am participating in a play in honour of him on october 31st!! Great work paine!”

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5. jack said... on Jul 12, 2010 at 12:10AM

“dtamayo, that is so insulting to call thomas paine an atheist.. it's an absolute disgrace.

and you have the nerve to say 'by all evidence'.. what the hell are you talking about. have you ever heard of 'The Age of Reason'? Probably the greatest book ever written.. and it's all about deism, and attacking organized religion as well as atheism.

Franklin actually tried to persuade Paine not to publish it... there's been no greater advocate for deism than thomas paine, and no one can describe so perfectly what natural religion is all about besides paine.”

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6. Alexander James Bennett said... on Sep 26, 2010 at 11:18AM

“i'm from the 'Beatle' city of Liverpool, UK. Right now I reside in the village of Rainhill which lies just outside 'Big L' and is in fact the birthplace of the worlds first passenger railway system: a train pulled by a steam engine called 'The Rocket' and, of course, the means by which the USA was eventually opened up, not to mention the entire world.

If that doesn't beat all, what about that guy Rober Morris (1734-1806) a Signatory of the Declaration of Independance who also hailed from this city and the real founder of of the USA never mind the lesser turncoat Tommy Paine. He was dubbed 'The Financier of the American Revolution and kept the home fires burning when all seemed lost. If it hadn't been for him there'd be no Stateside! He also founded in 1782 The Bank of North America.

And, as for Paine being an Amercan hero, he was in fact, a 'limey' just like Bobby Morris. Heavens to murgatroyd!”

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7. christopher H. holte said... on May 27, 2012 at 06:12PM

“Ben wasn't so bad, it's just he was old and worn out by the time the Revolution started and treated his trips to Paris like a long overdue retirement. Paine owed him for helping him get started in Philadelphia. Also he and Ben Franklin both had humble origins, so they had much in common. From what i understand Paine was good at accidentally getting on the wrong side of people. There is so much more to Paine than even this account recounts! He was one of our first citizens to run afoul of our Security state. He found evidence of payoffs and bribes in respect to money the French were lending us/giving us, and he published the information leading to an investigation -- which was run by the crooks -- who then tried to charge him with treason for telling on them. Paine was a regular Wikileaks! These same folks then packed him off to France aboard a privateer to get him out of the way; That same Gouverneur Morris and his boss/uncle Robert Morris.”

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8. Jeanette Catala said... on Aug 2, 2013 at 10:53PM

“Mr. Thomas Paine, in my humble opinion, is the greatest import from England, turned American, this newly-forming nation ever had the honor to welcome to its shores. Yes, he was a deist. Yes, he believed in God. Yes, he was tired of the bureaucracy and self-serving nature of the churches and its leaders in his day. Yes, he believed in the after-life. Here he is gone, and two hundred years later, most Americans have no clue as to what he did for us. He advocated INDEPENDENCE. He advocated for JUSTICE for all. He advocated for a system of government that the PEOPLE would have a hand in. He was influential in ALL nations that declare themselves independent, because that is the model he gave America. LIBERTY was a price many paid highly for, including Paine. He was not afraid of what the "masses" who say or think about his views. He was a PREACHER, in his own sense. The masses LISTENED, because he spoke in a plain language ALL could understand. He is my hero, advocate of the FREE.”

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9. Mila said... on Apr 18, 2014 at 10:08PM

“Paine is my hero. What an incredible man!


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