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

Thomas Paine's Legacy

posted Dec 16, 2012 22:18:05 by
In the article, Wood claims that Thomas Paine's ideas and writings played a significant role in shaping the American political culture. However, he also points out that "most Americans have never been able to make Paine a central figure." I find it very odd that Paine held such profound influence during the time period itself, yet his legacy is not as noted or studied in modern times. His pamphlets, particularly Common Sense, spread through the colonies with vengeance, as he sold over 150,000 copies in a time where pamphlets were commonly sold by the hundreds or low thousands. I find his influence hard to deny, yet I do not agree with either John Keane's idea that Paine was the "greatest public figure of his generation," or Wood's claim that Paine should be considered a founding father. Perhaps Paine's influence has faded in our minds because Paine did not write with originality. He held many of the same ideals as other heroes and ideologists of that time, with the only distinction being his ability to put them into words. Similarly, I think many Americans neglect Paine's influence because he was never truly connected to America, but instead was considered "a citizen of the world." As Paine concerned himself with many nations other than America, including France and Britain, people may minimize his importance and deny him the position of a founding father. Maybe his impact has faded because he never had the same traits as our typical historical heroes, particularly the status of a gentleman. In reality, Paine's sole contribution was his ability to relay revolutionary ideals to the public in a memorable, passionate way. Where Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin were directly involved in the political arena of the new born nation, Paine was simply a influential writer with a large audience.
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5 replies
StephenDavis said Dec 17, 2012 00:30:43
It's definitely true, Paine was a synthesizer, not an original thinker. Like a modern hip-hop star shamelessly steals from
80s dance tunes and Biggie lyrics, Paine synthesized the original thoughts of Locke, Montesquieu, and others on government into his own works. However, I don't think this is the reason for his relatively small influence today. After all, he did apply these ideas to the conflict with Britain, and "Common Sense" was the primary reason many people finally became patriots!

In the end, like you said, I think it's the politicians we remember, not the writers. Paine had enormous influence on the political atmosphere and the ideas that went into the Constitution, but he was never a part of the new American government. We can only guess the reasons: his humble origins, his argumentative nature, or even his pride in not having connections.

AbbyWilliams said Dec 17, 2012 00:49:09
I completely agree. The ideas he wrote about came from people like Washington and Jefferson, and the real founding fathers, with very little originality of his own. He was able to take those ideas and transform them into passionate pieces promoting liberty and freedom and for that he was celebrated, but he does not rank up there with the same men who really did shape our country. Paine observed and liked to be in the middle of a conflict. He moved around following fights and participating in the action never really declaring patriotism or committing to a single place. I feel like his style of work and the type of observational, in depth writing techniques would be very fitting in the media today. The media is always looking for a good story, some sort of action to report and Paine really grasped the ability to sell literacy. His pieces were one of the first ones to fall under the critiquing and fault finding media methods really exposing the wrongdoings of government, and probably molded the evolution of media to this day.
GrantBroussard said Dec 17, 2012 02:06:06
I think Paine is under-credited mainly because of how he was attacked by his critics who resided in the elite for being an "atheist
." However, I think you are correct in all your reasons listed, but I think that is what caused his contemporaries not to like him, as he simply didn't fit in. However, I feel like he deserves more credit today than is given. He wasn't a founding father in my opinion, but he did revolutionize the way in which politics connects to people. That is how we were taught to regard him in APUS, as he was able to make politics easy to understand for the masses, pushing revolutionary ideas forward. However, I think the reason why if you ask a person on the street to name an influential revolutionary figure they won't say Paine is that those who wrote the history books at the time disliked him due to his foreigner status, blatant language, and opinions on Christianity.
avatar said Dec 17, 2012 02:20:31
I agree with both of you. Stephen, while I am not quite sure why Oprah and Tom Cruise were included in your post, I think that you bring up a good point in that Paine's "Common Sense" was indeed the final push for many people to become patriots. In that sense, Paine does deserve more acknowledgement since Paine had an uncanny ability to motivate the masses. And Abby, I think that your idea regarding Paine and the modern media is definitely valid. Paine's relentless writings on the wrongdoings of government parallels to the "watchdog" function of modern media nicely. Taking everything into account, Paine's influence on America has been significantly understated in history.
avatar said Dec 17, 2012 02:25:57
Oh sorry Grant! I was typing while you responded. Founding fathers and other highly regarded people from the era all fit into a certain mold, and Paine just simply does not fit into that group. So I agree with you, while Paine likely did revolutionize the connection between people and politics, his downfall was his overall personality and fallouts with other elite gentlemen from the period.
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