Palin's Unlikely Hero

Thomas Paine gets a nod in Going Rogue, and Sarah Palin's not the only conservative who loves this American revolutionary. But the right has him—and their American history—all wrong, writes historian Harvey Kaye.

In Sarah Palin’s blockbuster new memoir, Going Rogue, the former Alaska governor quotes from Thomas Paine, but she’s not the first conservative to embrace one of America’s original radicals.

For 200 years, conservatives despised Paine and scorned his memory. And we can understand why. Through his revolutionary pamphlets Common Sense and The Crisis—and words such as “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” and “These are the times that try men’s souls”—he turned Americans into radicals.

[T]he right-wingers’ “Paine” just doesn’t make historical sense. Paine was a freedom-loving radical and social democrat whose writings clearly attest to his progressive commitments and aspirations.

And yet, ever since liberal-turned-conservative Ronald Reagan quoted Paine’s “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” at the 1980 Republican National Convention, conservatives have become Paine’s greatest champions. Just this year came Bob Basso’s YouTube videos “The Second American Revolution” and “We the People,” Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine, Newt Gingrich’s novel of the American Revolution, To Try Men’s Souls, and now Palin’s Going Rogue.

Eager to appeal not just to reactionaries but also to anxious middle-class Americans, today’s conservatives enthusiastically harness Paine’s scathing assaults on royal and aristocratic tyranny and privilege and his grand projections of America’s prospects and possibilities if liberated from the British state’s imposts and controls. Conservatives committed to cutting taxes, limiting regulation, and blocking new public initiatives like national health care and the Employee Free Choice Act, if not actually reversing the progressive advances of the 1930s and 1960s, especially love to recite his attack on existing governments: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”

Of course Basso, Beck, Gingrich, and Palin do differ in their efforts. Purporting to channel Paine’s patriotism and anti-British revolutionary rage, Basso rails against the past generation’s celebration of American diversity, arguing for, among other things, English-only laws and immigration controls. Claiming Paine’s anti-statist inspiration, Beck vehemently warns against the new cadres of progressives who would raise taxes, grow government, and redistribute wealth. And in his—admittedly successful—retelling of the “miracle” at the Christmas night 1776 Battle of Trenton, Gingrich essentially puts into story form the poetic line of Continental Army chaplain Joel Barlow: “Without the pen of Paine, Washington’s sword would have been wielded in vain.”

Conservatives seem to adore Paine, but have they really embraced him? Hardly. Basso, Beck, Gingrich, and Palin do no more than their hero Reagan did. Instead of trying to bury Paine’s life and labors, they now are trying to appropriate and render a version of them that they can use to counter his persistent radical-democratic memory and legacy, a task made all the more urgent by the 2008 elections. Conservatives have changed their tune about Paine, but their ambitions remain what they have always been—to constrain or control, and ultimately discharge, the democratic impulse that Paine inscribed in American life in 1776, an impulse that, contrary to the best efforts of powerful and propertied conservatives and reactionaries, has propelled generations of progressive movements and campaigns to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy.

Struck by America’s magnificent possibilities, and moved by the spirit and determination of its people to resist British authority, the English immigrant Paine not only emboldened Americans to turn their colonial rebellion into a war for independence. He also defined the nation-to-be in a democratically expansive and progressive fashion—which included a celebration of American diversity and a vigorous call to both separate church and state and make the country “an asylum for mankind.” All of this was just the beginning: Envisioning an Atlantic democratic revolution, he went on to apply his pen to European struggles. In Rights of Man he defended the French Revolution, challenged Britain’s monarchical order, and outlined a social security system to address the economic inequalities that made life oppressive for working people. In The Age of Reason, he lambasted the claims of Scripture and the power of churches. And in Agrarian Justice, he proposed taxing the landed rich to provide grants to young people and pensions to the elderly.

Fearing the popular appeal of Paine’s works, the powerful, propertied, and pious naturally sought to suppress his memory and limit the influence of his ideas. But they could not. His contributions were too fundamental and his progressive vision too firmly imbued in the American spirit. Moreover, there were those who would not allow Paine’s life and labors to be forgotten. Refusing to accept that history had come to an end, freethinkers, abolitionists, suffragists, anarchists, populists, socialists, labor organizers, and community, civil-rights, and anti-war activists drew inspiration and ideas from Paine’s works, renewed his presence in American life, and served as the prophetic memory of his radical-democratic vision.

Of course, the right-wingers’ “Paine” just doesn’t make historical sense. Paine was a freedom-loving radical and social democrat whose writings clearly attest to his progressive commitments and aspirations. He would never have supported policies and programs that place corporations and the rich before working people and the public good, undermine the wall separating church and state, seek to homogenize Americans and punish immigrants, and give the state an unlimited license to spy on its own citizens.

Nevertheless, as much as we can debunk the conservatives’ use and abuse of America’s Painite revolutionary heritage, it is not enough. The problem is not simply that the right is poaching and twisting Paine for its own ends. That is to be expected. Far more so, it’s that they apparently continue to appreciate what liberals and leftists, of all people, seem to have lost sight of: Americans remain radicals at heart.

Barack Obama quoted Paine in his inaugural address last January: “Let it be told to the future world… that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].” But while conservatives have been trotting out and promoting their eviscerated renditions of Paine and the American spirit, Obama didn’t even mention Paine’s name when he spoke his words from The Crisis.. .and so far it seems that it represented more than a simple omission.

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Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America.