Monday, February 1, 2016

Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine

"These are the times that try men's souls. When, in crisis, the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot sink from the service of their country....." Thomas Paine penned those words in regards to the American Revolution. He is a founding father. His birthday just passed. Instead of giving him a postage stamp or a celebration we seemingly banish this patriot and dedicated Son of Liberty.

Over the years, Thomas Paine has been taught by history teachers as a part of The American Revolutionary unit. Then he is forgotten like the rest of high school. I still remember learning the first part of "The Crisis" in Mr. Tietz's history class with hand motions. I thought it was funny and eccentric just like my beloved instructor. However, I remembered the words but gave little thought or meaning to them let alone the man until some years later when I began my own journey with my pen.

George Washington was the general who made America possible. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the statesmen who's knowledge of government and how things work made the penning of the Declaration of Independence even a thought let alone a reality. Benjamin Franklin was the foul mouthed diplomat who moonlighted as an inventor that got the revolution foreign aid from France. John Hancock was the loud, obnoxious merchant who only joined the cause because he was sick of the British taxes making him lose money. Before that he admitted he could have cared less about the outcome of the war, but this Harvard College educated man was known for his quick wit and naughty sense of humor as well. Not to mention he signed his name the biggest on The Declaration of Independence, a proverbial middle finger to the British crown. George Washington, a hero of the French and Indian War and easy going father type, led the charge. Then making his entrance was a red haired, stubborn, Scottish born lawyer named Patrick Henry who cried, 
"No taxation without representation!"

In this play peppered with characters that the American education system waters down for the sake of time, we forget the voice. That would be Thomas Paine.

Yes, Thomas Paine, or TP as we called him in 9th grade. He was a British born sometimes homeless vagabond who was literally a professional revolutionary. Mr. Paine was a rebel without a cause long before James Dean dawned the leather jacket. Of course he found his cause, America. Mind you his revolutionary ideals were groundbreaking and long before their time. He was Marx and Engle, crafting pamplets readily available for people long before such a thing became a consideration. He was Che Guevara before the beret wearing bandit was even a thought let alone any of his ancestors. Thomas Paine was dedicated, matter of fact, vitriolic, and inspiring. While leaders encouraged their townsmen to take up arms, Thomas Paine's words put the weapons in their hand.

Thomas Paine's words were a challenge to the status quo. He encouraged America to break free from the tyrannical boot of King George III. Yes, the German born monarch from The House of Hanover who's inbreeding gave him both physical and mental problems. Yet this imbecile and his handlers who regularly took advantage of him, both revealed in historical hindsight, were given the divine right to rule. (I wish I were lying really and truly).

The Americans tried the easier, softer way. But King George was relentless in wanting to keep the colonists down and when the colonists took the civil steps to stick up for their rights, King George further punished them. That is when they said they would not accept nor would they tolerate. Thus began the American Revolution.

In hindsight, America was a crazy place during that time. Families were divided as sons took up arms against the crown, and others were loyal to the king. Native American tribes served as mercenaries for both sides, because the rouge government and the crown both made promises of land they never intended to deliver. Add in the Hessians, mercenary imports from the territory of Hesse-Kassil in Prussia, fighting for Britain, because in the words of the red coats who tolerated them, it was "a benefit of His Majesty the Sausage Sucker."

We must of course not forget the minutemen on the American side. They spring up in this epic around the time Paul Revere, a respected blacksmith and son of French Huguenots rode and warned, "The British are coming! The British are coming!"

As the scene of Lexington and Concord unfolded and those that similarly followed, minutemen lined the green as people who were forced to long accept and endure but would no longer tolerate. The illustrious, ill-trained, yet enthusiastic troops composed of illiterate farmers who knew how to carry a rifle to survive alongside overeducated city professionals who could correct their grammar but had no idea how to hold let alone carry a weapon. These men were all united, however, in that they would rather die free than enslaved to a monarch who was out of touch, out of line, and the dictionary definition of a despot gone oppressive. Together, despite their differences they decided they were sick and tired of being sick and tired. "Don't tread on me" became their motto and with good reason.

Lest we forget The Sons of Liberty who had many Founding Fathers as members. Today they are celebrated as heroes. Then they were little more than a terrorist organization. They tarred and feathered tax collectors simply doing their jobs and burnt down Loyalist owned businesses.

The old saying goes, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." It is ironic that we fight a war against terror when we have not looked at our own postage stamps lately. But yes, they were freedom fighters. Because of their struggle America exists as it does today, a nation taking the moral inventory of others but not looking at it's own side of the street.

Thomas Paine's words not only helped inspired a colonist led revolution, but also was the voice that kept the Johnny Tremain's in the ranks  going when things looked bleak. For the first part of the war American minutemen got slaughtered by British soldiers literally as a sport. Battles were being lost and many were deserting. In "The Crisis" Thomas Paine speaks of the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot, freedom fighters who are gung ho when the cause is easy. However, his words encouraged them to keep fighting. He promised them it would get better. They just had to keep going just a little longer......

It cannot be said how many people continued as a member of The Continential Army because of Thomas Paine, or how many enlisted because of him. But sure enough, the colonist did not back down their revolt. They kept going. Sure enough, the tide did change. France, the eternal enemy of England in those days, gave aid out of spite. French troops joined the cast, and even Rochambeau, a colorful French noblemen and military officer. Alongside him was Baron Von Steuben, a stern Prussian general and taskmaster that whipped the troops into shape. Washington soldiered on, secretly resentful of the British generals he had once worked alongside who were born into wealth and looked down upon him once upon a time for being born and raised in the colonies despite his previous service to the crown.

America won her freedom. Yet Thomas Paine has no postage stamp or national holiday celebrating him. Whatever happened to this man?

Thomas Paine was a professional revolutionary as I explained. When France revoluted, he held a seat on the Revolutionary Tribunal. Supporting their cause, Thomas Paine further encouraged the people to strike down the concept of Divine Right. His words cheered the French as they beheaded Marie Antoinette, the Austrian Princess who thought it was not only beneath her to learn the language of the people she ruled, but insisted that starving people should "eat cake." He also enouraged the execution of Louis XVI, the weakling king who was divinely christened by the Lord to rule, yet had no clue on how to do so.

While this sounds brutal, and in many ways it is, the people of France had it far worse than the Americans. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and they continued to starve and die as the aristocrats chomped on their bones. While World War I would be the final requiem knell to the concept on monarchy, divine right, and aristocrats feasting on the hard work of peasants, Thomas Paine would be the pen to take the first fatal blow to the concept.

Unfortunately, Thomas Paine made his share of enemies and was slated to be killed during The Reign of Terror. This being an occupational hazard of being a professional revolutionary, Thomas Paine willingly returned to America, the land of his first victory.

Living outside New York City, Mr. Paine wrote about the possibility of there being no God, and instead of enticing debate became a target for the wrathful Americans, those who's freedom his words helped secure. Just like today, many who cling to religion tend to be intolerant of those who are different, especially the non-believers. Rather than celebrate this man for his contributions and just chalking up his atheism to just a difference in principal, he was shunned.

Thomas Paine died alone. His funeral was sparcely attended. Buried in a pauper's grave, for years his bones were moved because when he finally got a stone it was vandalized. For years, his remains moved until it became a fact that part of him was in America, part in England, and part perhaps in France. Thomas Paine probably did not take being ostracized by those he helped personally. He suffered for his cause until the end. Other greats such as Ghandi and Malcolm X and even Yazik Rabin were killed by those they were trying to liberate. Yet, despite believing in no God, Thomas Paine gave selflessly. He wrote and risked execution on multiple occasions so people would not only believe they were entitled to an existence where their voices mattered, but that in fact it was their right. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of such people and that is why there names are known in history. If the world were filled with more, it can be cliche and apt to say the world would be a better place.

His demise was safe and assuring for the Founding Fathers. Yes, the rich white members of the oligarchy, many who owned slaves and never dreamed of seeing women as equals. This atheistic revolutionary, unafraid of a fight, probably made them guard their pocket watches and money purses as more often than not he lived on the run. Thomas Paine would have challenged their owning of slaves and their treating of female companions as second class citizens. He would have cut them to size with their own logic. Thomas Paine was safer dead, because the longer the man stayed alive his thoughts and ideas truly become dangerous.

As Ted Cruz perverts the principals this country was founded upon live on The Republican debates, he dares call New Yorkers "Godless liberals." He spouts out hate in the guise of "Conservative Values." However, this Harvard and Princeton educated, hypocritical, talking head forgets that if it weren't for the words of Thomas Paine, a "Godless liberal," writing as he did America would probably not exist. Then Donald Trump screams of "making America great again." He forgets America is great and was since it's inception, because Thomas Paine encouraged the people to stand up to rich tyrants who feasted on the hardworking people like Mr. Trump.

Thomas Paine's words have served as a guidepost too for other young activists in a myriad of causes. At one time it was against the law to help a slave escape, but even when it was dangerous The Underground Railroad continued to operate. Women did not have the right to vote let alone be educated, but because they continued to protest today we have women doctors, lawyers, professors, and statesmen. People of color were not seen as equals but today not only do they vote and have equal rights but we even have a black man as president. LGBTQ people were treated as less than human despite the fact they worked and paid taxes. Today not only can they marry, but laws protect them from hate crime discrimination. Each time, and in each cause, there was the temptation of young activists to be summer soldiers and sunshine patriots as there were deaf ears, set backs, and religion was sometimes even used as a weapon against them. But they continued to fight knowing it would get better.....and each time it did.

In turn, Thomas Paine's words have continued to inspire the oppressed all over the world. Not only does he assure them that being treated as a whole person is a right, but even from the grave he encourages them to revolt and make their dream a reality. He not only shaped America's philosophy, but has helped make us the go to place and the go to country for the rest of the world. When American troops come into a war torn country with people who have been under the control of a dictator or warlord, we tell them they can have democracy. And when it happens they have Thomas Paine to thank.

This man has no national holiday to commemorate him, nor does he have a postage stamp as I said earlier. Yet he probably would not have wanted one. Thomas Paine is probably in hell if you are Christian and damn atheists there. Or if you are a more progressive, spiritual person he is in heaven or the afterlife yucking it up about how he didn't think there was one and he was wrong. Or perhaps he is long gone, part of the Earth from hence he came.

Either way, last Friday, January 29 was his birthday. So wherever you are, TP, happy birthday as you perhaps float about in the Godless ether. While many do not celebrate you I do. Thank you for for being an author, the true yet uncelebrated backbone to any cause. Please know you inspired this writer and would be revolutionary. 

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