In case you missed it, Mitt Romney quoted Thomas Paine the other night during his speech following the Nevada caucuses. Here it is:
J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 is not going to let Romney get away this. And rightly so. His critique of Romney’s use of Paine is two-fold. First, it is doubtful whether Paine ever said “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” (Thus proving that Romney needs a historian working for his campaign. So does Gingrich). Bell writes:
For me the bigger issue is how Romney and his speechwriters introduced the quotation: “Thomas Paine is reported to have said…” They knew that attribution was dubious. They knew that the Republican frontrunner was probably going to repeat a falsehood, so they added some weasel words as protection. It’s one thing to repeat a lie you honestly believe; it’s another to repeat something that you suspect is a lie but want to exploit anyway. That detail suggests the Romney campaign is running on a pervasive level of dishonesty. Second, Paine’s radical ideas about politics and religion “make a poor match for Romney as a politician.”
Second, Bell writes that anyone familiar with Paine “knows that his radical ideas on politics and religion make a poor match for Romney as a politician.”
On this second point, Bell is absolutely correct. It does seem odd that Romney would invoke Paine. But this has happened before. Paine has been appropriated by libertarians and other opponents of big government. Remember what Paine said at the beginning of Common Sense:
SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer!
By the way, here is Barry Goldwater invoking Paine. I don’t think he actually quotes Paine exactly here, but he does seem to references his thoughts in “Letter Addressed to the Addressors on the Late Proclamation…” (1795).
I am not arguing here that Goldwater got Paine right. I am just suggesting that Romney’s use of the radical Paine is not new to conservative politics.