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Mr. Ulmschneider's Forums > AP Government: Madison, Paine, and Politics

Thomas Paine, America's First Public Intellectual

posted Dec 13, 2012 22:45:45 by BenS.McClure
In this article, Wood points out that "at the age of thirty-seven he had failed at everything he had ever tried" (208). I find this to be an intriguing point made about Thomas Paine. For his incredible intellectual contribution to the reasoning behind the American Revolution, in modern-day study he is portrayed in a more minor light. His pamphlets, particularly "Common Sense," had a profound effect on the colonies at the time, but I wonder whether it is hard to imagine him in the role of a "founding father" because of the inherent qualities of the traditional founding fathers that he lacks. Think of the men that historians and Americans perceive as the founding fathers: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin... these men all portray a commanding sense of leadership and intimidatingly strong-willed determination that characterized the sentiment behind the Revolution. Thomas Paine simply "does not quite fit in" (207). His demeanor does not fit the bill of someone with strong leadership qualities; his Revolutionary sentiment cannot be heartfelt but to a certain degree because it is only conveyed through written language. He seems to me "the man behind the curtain" (yes, Wizard of Oz reference...). So, when John Keane describes him as "the greatest public figure of his generation" (207), I find it hard to believe, because he wasn't a leader, he wasn't a public speaker, he didn't have that commanding presence and reputation attributed to the other founding fathers, and that's why his legacy is much less prevalent as a major contributor to the Revolution than the true founding fathers. So I would say I consider him an intellectual influence on the political scene of America rather than a public figure.
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5 replies
RichardSchweiker said Dec 14, 2012 03:28:39
Yeah man i tend to agree with that assessment. Though not explicitly called "founding father" , the importance of his work, like you mentioned, can't be denied. Virtually overnight "evils" of England were exposed to the people of America as Paine encouraged a "final separation." However, i feel like the legacy of Thomas Paine isn't as relevant today, as his writings more energized the people of the time to push forward and eradicate the evil of Great Britain. The influences on the Constitution, etc. are important, however, after that initial impact i don't feel like his writings are as relevant in the modern United States.
BenS.McClure said Dec 14, 2012 14:21:43
Richard I totally agree; I think that Paine's legacy lived in the past--and that his writings in "Common Sense" and others really were influential and inspirational to the Revolutionary mentality and ideals. In terms of political influence, as his famous pamphlet points out, he was certainly not a fan of monarchical governance. I think he was advocating personal freedoms of the people, and his title evokes the tone of his pamphlet: c'mon America, have some Common Sense! These British people don't know how to govern us properly - and therefore we should make it our business to create our own functional system of government that we know will work for our people.
SamAkers said Dec 15, 2012 23:20:19
I would argue the greatest factor that contributes to Paine's relative obscurity as an American revolutionary is the fact that he felt no particular connection America. He didn't venture to America until shortly before the start of the Revolutionary War, and he floated between England and France later in life. No doubt he was a revolutionary, but was he an American revolutionary? His beliefs about government were far more radical than even many of the founding fathers. In this regard, he seemed to fall more in line with the France revolutionaries, but only to an extent. Even the French found his beliefs troubling, and he was jailed for 10 months there. I think the best title for him would be "wandering revolutionary." He played an important role in the American Revolution, but he never seemed married to the cause.
ReynaHuang said Dec 16, 2012 02:40:49
I really like how you compare him to the "man behind the curtain," because I really see how that can serve as a good explanation towards why he wasn't the memorable figure that others were. It's as if he was hiding behind his pen and paper, and that since he was never a man of good social standing, strayed from society and only communicated properly through his writing. It makes even more sense when you think about how he progressed to eventually think of himself as a "citizen of the world." It was like he didn't properly fit in to any country, so his home/society because more general as the world in itself. Overall, it was more as if he was disconnected from America, and that's why he's not viewed like a "founding father" today.
KevinYuan said Dec 16, 2012 04:18:04
Ben, I agree with your points about Paine being more of an intellectual influence than a public figure (compared to most of the Founding Fathers), but I find myself disagreeing with your point about Paine not being a leader. We could span an entire topic discussing the qualities of a leader, though in short, I believe that Paine held leadership qualities shown in his various works - his ability to move the American public (whether or not many Americans agreed with him or not). Paine stirred up American sentiments with his fiery language to inspire separation from Britain. I remember reading one of Thomas Paine's works in APUS last year, "The Crisis," in which Paine delivers a rallying cry to American soldiers especially during the winter of 1776. In that pamphlet, Paine describes his experiences marching with the soldiers at Fort Lee to Pennsylvania. Paine was involved and influential during the actual Revolution (George Washington read "The Crisis" to his troops at Valley Forge, finding it moving). It's just that his works have been disappearing (and losing attention) along with his legacy. While I do agree that Paine isn't as much of a Founding Father as other major leaders such as Washington or Jefferson, I'd also say Paine deserves more credit than we give him.
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