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.
For starters, Common Sense scared the crap out of some of the founding fathers.
"Masters, bosses-they always fear that their slaves or workers are going to rebel. That's a given," points out the author Harvey J. Kaye. "And when you start throwing a word like 'revolution' into the mix, you're going to scare people."
John Adams was Paine's most savage critic among the conservative founding fathers. He was horrified by Common Sense, calling it "crapulous." Worse than that, said Adams, the bloody thing was stirring up the servants and slaves and-horror of horrors-had even turned his wife Abigail into a feminist.
The revolution was over, but Paine just wouldn't shut the fuck up. He attacked slavery (again). He proposed that landowners be taxed to compensate the poor. He defended the little guy against the big guy at every turn. And then-to top it all off-Paine brilliantly demolished the world's three leading monotheistic religions in The Age of Reason.
Lots of the other founding fathers were deists (they believed in an abstract God but thought religion was bollocks), but only Paine was stupid or brave enough to proclaim it. This totally fucked with the heads of American conservatives. And it's been fucking with their heads ever since.
When Paine died (besieged by godbotherers beseeching him to repent his "atheism"), religious bigots threw rocks at and kicked over his tombstone. And they've been spitting on his grave ever since.
Some Philadel-phians have been fighting for the city to recognize Paine for years. Retired schoolteacher Mark Stone has blitzed all and sundry with beautifully written letters. And troublemaker antidiscrimination activist, militant atheist and fervent Painite Margaret Downey-of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, the Anti-Discrimination Support Network, the atheist Scouting for All pressure group and the Thomas Paine Memorial Committee-has taken her Paine loving to the highest levels of state and city government.
She's met with limited success. She managed to persuade Philadelphia City Council to declare June 8 Thomas Paine Day, but her bid to have a statue of Paine erected in Thomas Paine Plaza was dismissed out of hand. After all, it's not as if we need even one bloody statue of the most important, influential and righteous Philadelphian who ever lived, is it now? Not when we've already got a statue of Rocky.
Alas, a lot of the most indefatigable Philadelphia Painites are now knocking on a bit, says Downey. And she herself tends to take a bit of a back seat these days. Especially when it comes to pushing Paine projects to the high and mighty.
"Because now I'm the woman who tried to get the Ten Commandments removed from the Chester County Courthouse and who sued the Boy Scouts. Those guys want to get over it."
Okay. One question. If this city can find the space for statues of a fictional boxer; a racist mayor; a delusional Frenchwoman; a bunch of ball players; a generic "signer" of the Declaration of Independence; a Frenchman, a Pole and a German (all of whom fought with the Americans in the revolution); a 26-ton facing-the-wrong-way Billy Penn; and a giant clothespin, why can't it find the space for a single statue of Tom Paine?
"For generations people said it was Paine's deism that caused his unpopularity," says Harvey J. Kaye. "But I think it's that for all these years Paine has stood as a testament to America's potential, to what America could be. And that's always been so much better than the America that has actually existed."
"We need Thomas Paine," says the Thomas Paine Society's Alaine Lowell. "We don't have enough real heroes."
It's time Philadelphia gave Thomas Paine his due.
Steven Wells (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes the On the Radar column.
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PW's Fall Guide 2014