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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Conservatives downplay Paine's role in the creation of the U.S.A. for the same reasons they prefer to disguise the revolution as a "war of independence." And I guess for the same reasons official Philadelphia is going all gooey over Unka Ben but totally ignores his way more radical protege, Paine reminds us the revolution was fought and won by ordinary Americans.

His writings remind us that economic, racial and sexual oppression in all their forms are incompatible with true democracy, that a death penalty applied almost exclusively to the poor is an abomination, that right-wing Christianity is an absurd oxymoron, and that any society that tolerates poverty is fundamentally sick and in desperate need of radical change.

Jan. 25, I phone Cara Schneider at the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation to ask about any upcoming events celebrating Tom Paine's birthday.

"Well, I'll be reading Common Sense and sipping Johnny Walker with a friend, but apart from that, nah, not a stitch!"

Last year Alaine Lowell of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Thomas Paine Society visited Philadelphia in search of her hero-and was horrified to discover just how effectively we've airburshed him out of our history in favor of his fatter and more conservative friend. "We've got buses coming, packed with kids from all over America, to learn about the revolution, and yet we've got almost no mention of the man who was so instrumental to it, who was at its center. And you've got to ask yourself, if that's the case, are we even telling them the truth?"

George Holtz, a Philly expat who moved to Pasadena, died in 2001, leaving the Thomas Paine Society a legacy to build a Paine museum in Philadelphia. If past events are anything to go by, they're facing an uphill task.

Paine has been at the center of a centuries-long culture war in Philadelphia. On one side have been the Painites-liberals, socialists, suffragists, labor unionists, antiracists, freethinkers, atheists and Walt Whitman. On the other, a mostly faceless ragbag of bureaucrats, reactionaries, right-wingers, jobsworths and religious bigots determined to prevent Philadelphia from raising any monument to the greatest Philadelphian.

In the 1940s the Fairmount Park Commission blocked a Paine statue that, it was felt, might possibly offend the sensibilities of passing Christians. No one was surprised. For decades there was a ding-dong battle fought over the bust of Paine in Independence Hall. The bigots won and-after languishing for years in the Hall's basement-the bust now resides in the librarian's office at the American Philosophical Society (which is also home to a large collection of Paine's papers).

Thomas Paine Cronin is president of District Council 47 of the government workers' union AFSCME. As a teenage Philadelphia boxer, he once sparred with the young Joe Frazier.

He's spent his entire adult life living up to the radical standards set by his namesake.

In the '60s and '70s he was a civil rights organizer and anti-Vietnam War activist. In the '80s he fought against poverty and apartheid. Today he campaigns against another stupid and futile war.

Sharing Paine's name has been a mixed experience.

"Some people get frightened. No, really. Usually when I get called for jury duty, they hear the name and I get dismissed immediately. They assume I'm sort of radical-and they're right."

So far Cronin hasn't been invited to any of the Benjamin Franklin birthday events. "I'm not exactly A-list," he laughs. "I'm more S-list."

"I understand why Paine's not here in Philadelphia," says Cronin. "It's clear to me the fear that someone like Paine would inspire in bigots and morons. There's been a conscious attempt to write Paine out of the American revolution because of his political and religious ideas. I think they're too advanced for the powers that be. He was way ahead of his time. I mean Paine was the first one to use the term 'United States of America.' Paine has even been credited with being the real author of the Declaration of Independence-not the watered-down version that exists now. Paine's declaration had prohibitions against slavery, had universal suffrage. Women had the right to vote. He spoke about a united nations. I mean he was light years ahead of even most people today.

"I think Bush's America would make Paine roll over in his grave like a rotisserie," Cronin continues. "Bush is the antithesis of Paine. I don't think Paine would've been happy with us going into Iraq based on lies and deception.

"If you really talked about what Thomas Paine really talked about, you'd have a different country."

Paine's big mistake-the reason why it's Unka Ben's name plastered all over Philly and not his-was that he didn't know when to keep his goddamn mouth shut.

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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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