Dismantling Trump, choking Minorities, and supporting insurrection
In this edition: Basic background info (intentionally brief and not meant to be comprehensive) in preparation for next week’s edition which will revisit an article that sought to make Thomas Paine, the great radical of the revolutionary-period in America, the model for the digital age. Next week’s piece is based on an interview with President of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association Gary Berton, a good sport who (disclaimer) does not necessarily sign on to any of my views nor has he had anything to do with this first biographical piece.
Housekeeping: My last four pieces for TWN: Merck Halts Work on Vaccine, Moderna Delivers 30.4 Million Doses to Feds (1/27), NIH Database to Track How COVID-19 Disrupts Neurology (1/28), New Studies Stress Importance of Environment in Cognitive Performance (2/4), and CDC Report Shows LGBTQ More at Risk From COVID-19 (2/5). In addition to more TWN pieces, we should see publication of a feature I did on the slave spirituals and the first piece exploring racial wealth inequality for Investopedia sometime in the next week or so.
THOMAS PAINE arrived in Philadelphia in December, 1774, a little worse for wear. He had caught “typhus”, a flea-borne malady with a list of uncomfortable and potentially lethal symptoms. He was “so weak that he had to be carried off the ship,” recounts Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore.
Then aged 37, Paine had with him a note of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, whom he had briefly chanced to meet in London, and this (by some accounts) as much as delivered him from an early grave.
By this point in his life, Paine had worked as a corset-maker, his father’s profession, a tax collector, cabinet-maker, cobbler, schoolteacher, a tobacconist, and had even had, in his younger years, a successful stint as a privateer preying on French ships during the Seven Year’s War. To most, this would be a rather full life. But Paine had left the “Old World” in search of something.
He arrived to an America that was young and feverish. The colonies were in a population boom, which would later cause the reactionary Dr. Samuel Johnson, the genius essayist and the compiler of the great English dictionary, to growl that Americans “multiply with the fecundity of their own rattlesnakes, so that every quarter of a century doubles their numbers,” as a proof against the American Congress that taxation could not be over-burdening them.
Philadelphia itself was one of the hubs of the American Enlightenment, attracting men of science and letters. It was, at the time, one of perhaps four places in the colonies that could be called a city— the others being New York, Boston, and Charleston— and most “American citizens”, as Paine would see them become, lived rural lives.
Soon after arriving in the “New World”, Paine would become the editor of Pennsylvania Magazine, stared by the book merchant Robert Aitken, a job which would introduce him to the who’s who of the American Enlightenment, ranging from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington to Benjamin Rush. Paine would leave that job to write a fiery pamphlet called “Common Sense”, establishing forever his connection to the American revolution in an unforgettable 46 pages. In Paine’s mind, as he expressed it in Common Sense, the arguments against revolution were pitiful, unmanly even. He became moved to do something.
The next few decades of his life would see him scribble out pro-revolutionary propaganda, published under the title The American Crisis, while fighting in the ranks of the Continental Army, and would eventually see him in France narrowly escaping the guillotine. His exchange with Edmund Burke, defending the French revolution, ranks among some of the best political exchanges in the English language. The Thomas Paine National Historical Society now argues that Paine even played a previously unacknowledged editorial role in writing the Declaration of Independence, based on initials on the back of an early copy.
In many ways, Paine is one of the more forgotten but most viscerally alive American “Founders.” He was a man superbly important for the age. In our age, however, he has been somewhat unjustly forgotten. However, his name is still prone to pop up now and again. In one early essay about the digital age, for instance, which we will look at next week, a WIRED writer proclaimed that Thomas Paine was the obvious choice for a proper model for the digital age. That piece raised entirely contemporary questions about truth and journalistic values, activism, and the principled life. And we’ll talk to an expert who can help us make sense of this man and his legacy the light of that piece.