Some people never truly find their place in history. Jack Johnson, a champion heavyweight boxer, was the most famous black man in American for more than 13 years during the Jim Crow Era. You probably have never heard of him, however, unless you have taken Dr. Ericson’s AP US Class or watched Ken Burns’ fantastic documentary. (Watch here!)
Gordon Wood argues that “most Americans have never been able to make Paine a central figure in even the American Revolution, never mind the age as a whole.” He offers possible explanations for this phenomenon, including Paine’s inability to function as a statesman, his unabashed rejection of Christianity that shocked many Americans, and his un-aristocratic demeanor. I don’t think that Paine’s place in history is as bad as Wood makes it out to be, though. All American history students learn that “Common Sense” convinced the public of the need for rebellion better than any other Revolutionary leader like Sam Adams did. Any history textbook will probably describe Paine like Wood did: as being “not an original thinker, but having the uncanny ability to put in to readable form what others had conceived of.”
History is never objective. Wood makes the case that Paine had as much influence on the Constitution as Locke and Hobbes did, and I agree. However, the fact that Paine never conducted himself as a politician and never became a part of the new American government is key. Henry Kissinger once said that “history is the memory of states,” and Paine never placed himself anywhere in the new American state. Historians generally place priority on those in the public eye, rather than those who exert large influence from behind the scenes. Even public officials with large influence like Henry Clay are little remembered by most people. Paine has his place in history as a Revolutionary thinker, but he must share this place with other influences such as Locke and Rousseau, as well as contemporary statesman who had more direct influence on the shape of the Revolution and the new government, such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Stop complaining, Mr. Wood!
[Last edited Dec 18, 2012 01:30:58]