What early Americans could teach Donald Trump about this pandemic


Check out historian Andrew Wehrman‘s piece at The Washington Post:

Thomas Paine, who had helped shift public opinion with “Common Sense” in the spring of 1776, wrote a new book weighing in on the French Revolution from London, titled “The Rights of Man.” It was published in serial form on the front page of the Boston newspaper, the Independent Chronicle, and excerpts and reviews commanded tremendous public attention across other local newspapers, too. Supporters of shutting down the city during the epidemic used Thomas Paine’s words and reasoning to support their position.

He argued that government was “a trust. … It has of itself no rights; they are altogether duties.” He also urged the adoption of a system of “progressive taxation” to support a comprehensive program for the poor “to provide against the misfortunes to which all human life is subject.” The government needed to care for the “laboring man,” who paid all his taxes honestly but still could not afford it “if himself, or [his family] are afflicted with sickness,” Thomas Paine argued.

As the outbreak intensified and the pressure to shut down grew, city leaders announced on Aug. 28, 1792, that the city would close for a general inoculation. The people rushed to inoculate, quarantine and support the poor. On Oct. 8, Cooper declared that the city was free of infection. In all, 9,152 people had inoculated and 165 had died, a mortality rate of 1.8 percent. An additional 232 people caught the disease naturally, and of those, 33 died, a mortality rate of 14 percent. Closing down the city saved thousands of lives. Trade resumed and lives continued, but because the public health efforts were successful, they were largely forgotten.

Today’s leaders should heed the advice of one correspondent writing under the name “Centinel” in 1792. Centinel warned that politicians showed their “highest indignation” to the people by refusing to shut down to halt an epidemic. He argued that government ought to follow “the loud hints of the law, and the broad hints of the people.” He warned that when the public is kept from removing small pests like germs from their society, they will turn their anger on larger pests, like politicians.

Read the entire piece here.

Wednesday night court evangelical roundup


What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

It looks likes COVID-19 was present at Robert Jeffress’s Sunday morning political rally at First Baptist-Dallas.

Newt Gingrich is on the Eric Metaxas Show today talking about his new book Trump and the American Future. Gingrich says that 2020 will be the most consequential election since 1860. Gingrich has been using this line (or something similar) for a long time. He probably does not remember that he said the exact same thing about the 2016 election (go to the 1:55 mark of this video). And before that he said the exact same thing about the 2012 election. In 2008, he said the outcome of the election “will change the entire rest of our lives.” In 1994, he said that the midterm elections “were the most consequential nonpresidential election of the 20th century.” Every election is consequential. How long are we going to listen to Gingirch before we call this what it is: fear-mongering. Metaxas, an evangelical Christian, is facilitating this.

Midway through the interview, Metaxas’s binary thinking kicks-in. He continues to see everything through a culture-war rhetoric. In his Manichean world view, there are only two options: “Marxism” or something he calls “a Judeo-Christian American Western ethic.” Either Metaxas is incapable of nuance or else he is catering to the black-and-white thinking of his audience. I would put my money on the later.

Let’s remember that Western Civilization brought the idea of human rights and freedom to the world. Western Civilization birthed the ideals that ended slavery in much of the world. It also failed to provide human rights and liberty to people of color. We are still living with the results of these failures. It is called systemic racism. Two things can be true at the same time, but as Metaxas and the folks at Salem Radio know well, complexity does not lead to good ratings.

The discussion moves again to monuments. As I said yesterday, when people tear down monuments indiscriminately it only provides fodder for the paranoid style we see in this Metaxas-Gingrich interview. Metaxas once again says that the tearing down of statues is part of a spiritual assault against God. At one point, he applies this thinking to “all monuments.” Gingrich connects the tearing down of monuments to the decline of Western Civilization.  Gingrich has been saying the same thing for over thirty years.

In other court evangelical news, Richard Land needs to stop pontificating about early American history. This “New England writ-large” way of thinking about colonial America not only fails to recognize the intolerance and racism of Puritan society, but it also reads Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech through the lens of Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address to the nation. Here is Land:

By the way, if you want some good history about New England as a “city on a hill,” I recommend:

Fox’s Laura Ingraham is quoting from Tom Paine’s The Crisis. I am not sure Paine, who was a revolutionary who championed women’s rights, anti-slavery and the working class, would appreciate being invoked by a Fox News host. Let’s remember that John Adams thought Paine’s Common Sense was so radical that he called it “a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass.” In an 1805 letter, Adams wrote:

I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants of affairs than Thomas Paine. There can be no severer satire on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begot by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind to run through a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine….

Court evangelical Ralph Reed retweeted Ingraham today:

Paula White is talking about idolatry (she doesn’t mention nationalism as an idol) and some pretty strange theology:

James Robison somehow managed to turn an encouraging word to his followers suffering from COVID-19 into a screed in defense of Confederate monuments, Donald Trump, and Christian nationalism. Satan, in the form of “the Left,” needs to be removed from the United States! Watch it here.

The CDC and Tony Fauci are warning against July 4 gatherings. But Liberty University’s Falkirk Center is not:

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when court evangelicals talk about “truth.” This is from the Falkirk Center’s Facebook page:

Much of the modern day church has fallen victim to the woke mob’s revised Christianity- where “compassion” has replaced truth as the more important moral aim. While we are called to speak the truth in love, we are not called to entertain lies simply because it may make someone feel better. Too many Christians have compromised on this in order to be culturally relevant and to be seen as favorable and kind. We must weed out this self-glorifying corruption in the Church and speak boldly for what we know to be true.

Here is the Falkirk Center’s Jenna Ellis:

Hi Jenna: Let me encourage you to pick-up a copy of this book.  🙂

Trump wonder-boy Charlie Kirk thinks four centuries of systemic racism can be fixed in eight years.

Until next time…

David Blight: “And the many need government”


One of our finest American historians, Yale’s David Blight, reminds us that Americans have always relied on the government in times of crisis.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

In August 1861, several months after the secession of 11 southern states and the outbreak of the Civil War, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared that “nations seldom listen to advice from individuals, however reasonable. They are taught less by theories than by facts and events.”

The United States is currently being educated by facts and events. And, as in other times of crisis—war, economic collapse, natural disasters—even those who do not like government are realizing that they need it. Government can protect them; it might save their life and livelihood. Irony will not die in the time of the coronavirus; even many of those who believe the federal government should not intervene in society except for national defense, and would happily privatize most elements of public life, are now straining to have government save society. With this issue, we have a long history.

The times that “try men’s souls,” in Thomas Paine’s phrase, are usually those that test our fundamental ideas and values, or challenge the nations and societies by which we organize ourselves. The coronavirus pandemic is challenging America’s political leaders at all levels, and advocates are pressing them to use their powers in ways that have little recent precedent. It also poses broader questions: What do the people of this republic owe their governments, and what do governments owe their people? For 230 years this has been one of the most significant and fiercely contested questions in our polity. We are now asking it during every waking hour.

It may seem quaint, but for answers, we could take time to read some history. Some events, usually unanticipated, cause seismic breaks in time. Two such prior crises, when leaders were challenged to preserve and reimagine the America they had inherited, offer particularly relevant lessons. In 1854, the year Abraham Lincoln burst out of political quietude to oppose the expansion of slavery, he said this: “The legitimate object of government is to do for the community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves—in their separate and individual capacities.” That Lincoln quote became a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, as he moved toward a bold and experimental use of government to save the American economy in the 1930s.

Read the entire piece here.

Texting Paine’s *Common Sense*


Common-Sense-cover-NYPL-crop (1)

Over at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog, Clay Zuba, a high school English teacher in Phoenix, shares an assignment he gives his students asking them to use social media to communicate 18th-century texts to 21st century readers.

Here is the assignment:

Dear Student,

Do you ever wonder what the literature of the American revolution might look like if it was distributed through chats and memes????

If so, then you are lucky. This project asks you to convert a passage of revolutionary writing into a style and format (text, video, meme, or maybe something I don’t even know about) that would persuade your peers, and which they would be enthusiastic to read or watch.

Choose a passage from the selections by Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, Red Jacket, or Abigail Adams that we have read this semester. Then, in groups of 2 students, you’ll work together to accomplish the following:

  1. Recreate the passage’s argument and rhetorical choices as a string of text messages, a thread of tweets, a short video suitable for the Tik Tok or the YouTube, or a Meme. Make a script, then execute your choices in new media. Note that you’ll be expanding your original writer’s media choices by including visual and/or auditory persuasion. (15 pts)
  2. Compose a short (300 words or more) essay that articulates your creation’s argument and analyzes the rhetorical choices you’ve made to persuade through image, text, and sound (if applicable) rhetorically persuades. (15 pts)
  3. Present your recreation of the text to our class. Show us the original document, your new media creation, and explain how your creation uses audio, visual, and textual modes of communication to make the original writer’s argument in a format appealing to 21st-century consumers. Suggest what social media platforms would effective in distributing your new creation. (10 pts

Read more here.

Here is one example of what his students produced:

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Clark

ClarkJonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. This interview is based on his new book, Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Thomas Paine?

JC: Chance, the most important agent in human affairs. I was invited to write a brief essay to accompany the recent Yale UP edition of Paine’s selected works. I thought this would be easy, since I had read, and taught, Paine for many years. But as a preparation, I decided to read through Paine’s entire printed output. As I read, I reluctantly concluded that I had not understood Paine at all … and that nobody else had. I finished the essay, but I wrote a book as well.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thomas Paine?

JC: Paine is one of those famous figures who have been heavily mythologized, turned into ‘usable’ versions of themselves to answer the needs of later movements. The book argues that the ‘historic’ Paine was, to use a metaphor, more the inheritor of an old house than the architect of a new one; a man of his age, not the inspired prophet of a future modernity; and that this argument, if justified, calls in question the construction of ‘modernity’ itself.

JF: Why do we need to read Thomas Paine?

JC: Reinterpreting Paine allows us better to understand a wide variety of causes and issues of which recent historiography treats him as a privileged interpreter, including the American and French Revolutions, the nature of the societies they launched, reforming and revolutionary movements, and the current hegemony of natural rights discourse.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Of if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

JC: I am not an American historian; I am an historian of Anglo-America, a shared transatlantic culture in the eighteenth century. I contend that there was little, and perhaps nothing, that was specifically American about the causes of the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: A history of the Enlightenment. It will show how this famous movement was devised as a series of genealogies, projected back onto the past to provide justification for a series of twentieth-century crusades.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan.

Were the Founding Fathers Deists?


Tom Paine

If I had a dime for every time I heard this….

Over at the blog of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, political scientist Mark David Hall argues that the reports of founding father deism are largely exaggerated.  I made a similar argument in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a taste of Hall’s piece:

Given the numerous, powerful, and clear claims that that the Founders were deists, it is striking that there are few instances of civic leaders in the era openly embracing deism or rejecting orthodox Christian doctrines. In 1784, Ethan Allen published Reason: The Only Oracle of Man, the first American book advocating deism. The book sold fewer than two hundred copies, and after its publication Allen played no role in American politics.

A decade later, Thomas Paine published a defense of deism entitled The Age of Reason, but he was born and raised in England and lived only twenty of his seventy-seven years in America, so one can reasonably ask if he should be counted as an American Founder. Paine wrote and published his volumes in Europe, and when he returned to America in 1802 he was vilified because of them. These cases suggest that whatever attraction deism had among a few elites, expounding such views in public was quite imprudent.

We know from private letters and diaries that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams rejected basic Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. However, with a few minor exceptions they came to regret, they kept their heterodox views far from the public’s eye.

George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton are regularly referenced as Founders who embraced deism. Yet to my knowledge no writer has ever produced a public or private letter, journal entry, or text showing that these men rejected orthodox Christianity or embraced deism.

Before proceeding, we should note that if deism includes the idea that “God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs,” then one could argue that not one of these men was a deist, as all of them spoke or wrote about God’s intervention in the affairs of men and nations. Washington, for instance, referred to “Providence” at least 270 times in his writings. It is likely that Allen and Paine referred to God’s intervention in human affairs merely for rhetorical purposes, but there are good reasons to believe that even Founders who rejected some tenets of orthodox Christianity, such as Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, continued to believe in miracles.

By my count, then, there are exactly two Founders—Allen and Paine—whom we may confidently label “deists.” And one of the two is arguably not an American Founder.

Read the entire piece here.  HT: Jonathan Rowe

The Bible and Inauguration Day

Trump Jeffress

Here’s a piece I wrote on Inauguration Day.  It ended up never seeing the light of day at a news outlet, so I am posting it here.  –JF

On Friday morning Donald Trump attended a pre-inaugural service at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C..  As part of the service he heard a sermon from Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  The minister was one of the first evangelical leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s candidacy for President.

Jeffress used the Old Testament story of Nehemiah to claim that God had placed Trump in the presidency for a “great eternal purpose.”  He urged Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence not to let their critics distract them from that purpose.|

In an interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on the evening before the service, Jeffress explained why he thought Nehemiah was appropriate for such an inaugural sermon.  Nehemiah, after all, was a builder.  God told him to build “a giant wall around Jerusalem to protect the citizens.” The megachurch pastor described Israel in Nehemiah’s day as a nation that “had been in bondage for years in Babylon” with an “infrastructure” in “shambles.”  No one could miss the analogy.

Jeffress’s attempt to connect the Bible to contemporary political issues facing the United States—in this case immigration, infrastructure development, and national security—is nothing new.  Politicians and preachers have been using the Bible to promote similar agendas since the American republic was born.

In his famous revolutionary-era pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine tried to convince the colonies to declare independence from George III by invoking the devastating spiritual and political consequences that the nation of Israel suffered after God gave them a King.

Abraham Lincoln quoted from the Sermon on the Mount to bring healing to the nation in a time of Civil War.  John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan turned to Matthew 5:14 (or at least the 17th-century Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop’s use of it) to extol America’s exceptional role in world affairs. Barack Obama loved to remind Americans, using Genesis 4:9, that “we are our brother’s keeper.”

Patriotic clergymen in American history have not hesitated to mistake New Testament references to the spiritual liberty that Christians enjoy through faith with the political freedoms that all Americans enjoy as citizens.

For over two-hundred years Christian preachers have used their pulpits to argue that God’s promises to Old Testament Israel apply to the United States of America. With this context in mind, it is worth noting that Jeffress’s sermon was just the beginning.

In his inauguration address Trump quoted from Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”  What was originally written as a call for the gathering of Israel to worship the Lord in Jerusalem was used by the new president as a call for Americans to put aside their differences and unite around the Trump presidency.

And it did not stop there.  In her closing invocation, evangelical pastor Paula White conflated Psalm 90:17 with the Pledge of Allegiance.  She prayed: “Let your favor be upon this one nation under God.”

There were few references to the Bible on Inauguration Day that did not use the sacred scriptures of Christianity to buttress either the United States of America or Trump’s particular vision for it.  The closest exception came when Rev. Samuel Rodriguez read Matthew 5—a passage, known as the “Beatitudes,” that reminds Christians to be poor in spirit, humble, meek, pure in heart, peacemakers, and suffer persecution for their beliefs.

If taken seriously, the message of the Beatitudes should serve as a stinging rebuke to the new President as he enters office.  Only time will tell if that is the case.

If Trump’s campaign and period of transition are any indication, I have my doubts

What Would Edmund Burke Say About Donald Trump?


Edmund Burke

Over at the Anxious Bench blog, Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd wonders what the eighteenth-century English conservative Edmund Burke might say to Donald Trump.

Here is a taste:

Worst of all, Trump represents the opposite of what Burke called “virtuous liberty.” Uninformed about American history, and contemptuous of moral, familial obligations, Trump bases his campaign on zingers, nativism, and misogyny. About such characters, Burke warned that liberty without virtue or wisdom “is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”

Read the entire post here.

Kidd argues that Trump’s ideas are much more suited to Thomas Paine than Edmund Burke.  He concludes:

Trump champions radical Paineism, masked by faux Burkeanism. Trumpism dispenses with vital American traditions in the name of restoring an illusory American past. For example, Trumpism denies, in the face of all the wisdom of the ages, that republics need wise, experienced, and virtuous leaders to survive.

Like a manic Paine, Trump would cast away the rules of war, constitutional checks and balances, and conventional financial practices, such as paying national debts. He’ll keep out all the Muslims, and round up and deport tens of millions of Hispanics. Somehow by doing so, we’ll get back the America of the 1950s. We’ll know we’re there when we can all say “Merry Christmas” again. It will be the Revolution of 2016. Believe me.

The Author’s Corner with Edward Gray

TomPaineIronBridgeEdward Gray is Professor of History at Florida State University. This interview is based on his new book, Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge: Building a United States (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?

EG: There are really two answers to that question. The first is that I wanted to write a book about a familiar figure. My previous book was about the Connecticut traveler John Ledyard, somebody few had ever heard of. I got tired of trying to justify a book-length project on such an obscure person. The second is that I had been teaching Paine’s famous 1776 call-to-arms, Common Sense for years. When I finished the Ledyard book, I decided to re-read the rest of Paine’s oeuvre. That process led to my discovery of Paine’s interest in iron bridges. It seemed weird that at the height of his powers as revolutionary propagandist, Paine turned to architecture. A little further reading made it clear that for Paine, this interest was not just a typical enlightenment-era gentlemanly divergence. I began to wonder what this iron bridge business was all about? I didn’t find a satisfactory answer in any of the many Paine biographies or other studies of his life and thought. After a few summers fishing for clues in British archives, I concluded that there was a book to be written. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?

EG: Thomas Paine is not generally thought of as a state builder. But his iron bridge demonstrates that that is exactly what he was. 

JF: Why do we need to read Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?

EG: I think the book has a great deal of contemporary resonance. Politicians are constantly trumpeting the need for improved infrastructure. In general, they defend that need as an economic one: without adequate transportation infrastructure, America’s commercial primacy will suffer. What they don’t talk about, but what seems very much the case, and what obsessed Paine and most of his revolutionary contemporaries, is the fact that infrastructure has a political function as well. Insofar as the fractious United States constitutes a political community, it does so as a function of its capacity to draw together its distant and diverse parts. Whether Paine’s iron bridges or modern high-speed rail, functional and efficient infrastructure makes this possible.  

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EG: It happened in college. I tried out a bunch of different majors, but history appealed to me. Its best practitioners achieved a combination of literary ambition and empirical rigor that I found captivating. Initially, I was interested in French history. I wrote a few papers about Jews and Judaism in nineteenth-century France and then I got interested in the French Revolution. When I raised the possibility of going to grad school, one of my professors urged me to avoid all things French. This was in 1986 or 1987; the eve of the French Revolution’s bicentennial. Everybody, it seemed, was doing something on the French Revolution. Over the course of the next few years, I started reading books about the American Revolution. I discovered, in particular, Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic and that was that. 

JF: What is your next project?

 EG: I’m working on a history of the Mason-Dixon Line, from the seventeenth century through the Civil War Era. I’ve also been working on a smaller project about Henry Laurens’s 1780 imprisonment in the Tower of London. 

JF: Thanks, Edward!


Juntocast on Thomas Paine

I finally got a chance to listen to the recent Juntocast on Thomas Paine. These guys do a great job and I always learn something from their conversations. I did notice that there was a bit more humor in this episode, particularly by host Ken Owen in the opening.  Listen to Ken’s jokes and learn more about Paine here.

Has Tom Paine Been Neglected by Historians ?

No way, says J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.  Here is his list of recent books on Paine:

  • Kenneth W. Burchell, Thomas Paine and America, 1776-1809 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009).
  • Joyce Chumbley and Leo Zonneveld, Thomas Paine: In Search of the Common Good (Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 2009).
  • Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (London: Routledge, 2003).
  • Paul Collins, The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005).
  • Seth Cotlar, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011).
  • Jack Fruchtman, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
  • Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).
  • Jane Hodson, Language and Revolution in Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine, and Godwin (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).
  • John P Kaminski, Citizen Paine: Thomas Paine’s Thoughts on Man, Government, Society, and Religion (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
  • Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005).
  • Ronald Frederick King and Elsie Begler, Thomas Paine: Common Sense for the Modern Era (San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 2007).
  • Edward Larkin, Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  • Scott Liell, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2004).
  • Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Viking Press, 2006).
  • Mark Philp, Thomas Paine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • Sophia A. Rosenfeld, Common Sense: A Political History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  • Vikki J. Vickers, “My pen and my soul have ever gone together”: Thomas Paine and the American Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2006).
  • Bernard Vincent, The Transatlantic Republican: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005). 

Hopefully many of these authors will be in attendance at Iona College in October for the upcoming  “International Conference of Thomas Paine Studies.”

According to Bell, if there is one founder who has been neglected it is John Dickinson.  It seems that the only person doing any major work on Dickinson these days is Jane Calvert of the University of Kentucky.  Anyone know of any other Dickinson scholarship in the pipeline?

Great post.

Books That Shaped America

Over at U.S. Intellectual History, Tim Lacy reflects on the Library Congress exhibit: “Books That Shaped America.”  The exhibit includes 88 books that have been important to Americans.  It is based on an online survey in which participants are asked to choose three books “written in America by Americans, and had a profound impact on our nation.”

Check out the survey and get back to us.  Which books did you choose?  

I picked Common Sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Private Life of Benjamin Franklin (also known as Franklin’s Autobiography.

This Week’s Patheos Column: "Message to Mitt: Stop Using the Bogus Thomas Paine Quote"

Mitt Romney is sounding very presidential of late. In fact, as I listened to his speech in Las Vegas on Saturday night, I thought for the first time that he might have a chance of beating Barack Obama. Romney’s recent rhetorical strategy (as opposed to his campaign ad strategy) has been to target the president and ignore the other GOP contenders. So far it seems to be working. 

In the last couple of weeks, Romney has been using a quote which he says is “reported” to have been uttered by the eighteenth-century revolutionary Thomas Paine. His punch line goes like this (italics mine): “In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way.’ Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!” This attack on Obama gets an uproarious response from the Romney faithful. 

There is one problem with Romney’s latest applause line: Thomas Paine never said “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” (The line was probably uttered by George Patton.) A representative from the Yale Book of Quotations, published by Yale University Press, has said that “the notion that Thomas Paine said this is extremely ridiculous.” Scholars have stated that this quote is not found anywhere in Paine’s writings.

Read the rest here.

Romney’s Thomas Paine Quote

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.

Frances Fox Piven at Messiah College

I don’t seem to remember last year’s Messiah College American Democracy lecture being like this.

The speaker was Emory University historian Patrick Allitt and the venue was a large tiered classroom on campus that held 110 people.  The hallways outside the campus were not swarming with campus police, high-level campus administrators, and college public relations staff.  I did not have to sit in an “overflow” classroom where the lecture was shown on closed-circuit television.

Things were different this year because the speaker was Francis Fox Piven, a political scientist and activist who back in January was attacked by radio and television host Glenn Beck for her liberal views on a host of issues related to the voters rights, the alleviation of poverty, corporate America, health care, and civil disobedience.  Her most significant article, written with her late husband Richard Cloward in 1966, proposed that, to quote the New York Times, “if people overwhelmed the welfare rolls, fiscal and political stress on the system could force reform and give rise to changes like guaranteed income.”  Beck was also not happy with a January article in The Nation that encouraged unemployed people to stage mass protests. 

Messiah College took a lot of heat for inviting Piven to speak. Conservative alumni could not understand why a Christian college would invite her to campus.  Those who represent the college’s historic commitment to peace and non-violence could not understand why Messiah was inviting someone to campus who favors violent protest as a form of social change.  And then, on the day before the event, which also happened to be an admissions open-house day in which the college was filled with hundreds of prospective students and their families, the college administration removed posters advertising Piven’s talk.  This decision drew criticism from liberal students on campus and was featured on the front page of the local newspaper.

Frankly, I thought Piven’s lecture last night had some historical problems, but it was generally OK.  Some of the things she said were controversial, and her gratuitous swipes at the Tea Party (she called them racist, susceptible to propaganda, and unable to cope with change) took something away from her argument, but in general she was trying to channel a vision of American life that has been around for a long time.  If Glenn Beck had not made a big deal about her views, and if she did not get death threats from Beck’s followers, this event would have been similar to last year’s talk by Allitt.

Let’s look more deeply at what Piven said last night.  She began by defining democracy.  Democracy, she argued, requires universal suffrage, the right to organize and defend individual rights, a government that must respond to the voice of the people, and a commitment to all votes being equal regardless of race, class, gender, wealth, etc…  I am not sure how anyone could understand this theoretical definition of democracy to be controversial.

Democracy, Piven said, is about “personhood.”  For my Messiah College readers, this idea of “personhood” is quite compatible with the notion that we are all created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  In fact, Catholic social teaching uses very similar language to describe the “human person.” (Although they do not advocate violence to defend such personhood).

Piven then took us on a journey through American history, arguing that democracy has always been contested and has always posed a threat to propertied elites in power.  While I don’t buy her progressive view of the American Revolution as an economic civil war (there were a few times where I thought I had gone back in time and was listening to Charles Beard giving a lecture on The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States), she is right to state that many propertied elites at the time of the American Revolution feared democracy and did what they could to limit it.  This is why John Adams called Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (which called for a democratic-republic) a “poor, ignorant, malicious short-sighted, crapulous mass.”  In fact, Piven sounded a lot like Paine–America’s first true “radical.”  (Pedagogically, her talk was wonderful!  I had just taught Common Sense the day before!)

Piven’s interpretation of the relationship between the newly created states and the United States Constitution was lifted directly from Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic.  (In fact, she cited Wood on at least one occasion).  She mentioned the radical, democratic nature of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (although she failed to mention that this so-called “radical Constitution” also limited office-holding to those who were Protestant and believed in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament–a problem that progressive historians who sing the praises of the Constitution have yet to confront) and then showed how the framers of the United States Constitution attempted to squash the democratic fervor of the states by limiting the role that the “people” would play in electing Senators, choosing a president, and selecting Supreme Court justices.  At times I thought Piven was stealing lines from my United States History survey course in which I make the exact the same argument.  (I trust my job is still secure, although I hope that Glenn Beck is not reading this post).

She then argued that the election of 1896 was the turning point when the Republican Party joined the robber barons and leaders of industry to disenfranchise African-Americans and working-class ethnics.  Echoing historians like Philip Foner, she suggested this unholy alliance between Republicans and industry was the reason why the United States was never able to establish a strong democratic-socialist or labor party.  (Just before publishing this piece a colleague reminded me that it was actually the progressives themselves who did the disenfranchising).

In conclusion, Piven railed against corporate interests and the Tea Party.  She challenged her audience not to be taken in by media propaganda.  And she endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement, of which she has participated.  During the Q&A session she called for the elimination of the Electoral College, talked about the Tea Party’s “uneasiness” with demographic changes taking place in America, and claimed that she believed in non-violence but sympathized with mass movements that responded to the “violence” of losing their homes and being hungry.

At times she sounded like Thomas Jefferson, especially when she said that democracy required “eternal vigilance.”  There were even some indirect references to Jefferson’s statement that every generation needs to engage in periodic revolution as a “medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

In the end, Piven may be a “radical,” but there is nothing that she said last night that we cannot find somewhere in the American tradition.  In fact, her talk was pretty predictable. In this sense, her ideas were not very new or radical at all. 

You can agree or disagree with Piven’s politics, but a college campus–even a college campus like Messiah College–should be a place where her ideas should be discussed and engaged.  I enjoyed being part of that process and I look forward to today’s “talk back session.”

Thomas Paine, the First Pennsylvania Constitution, and Egypt

Check out this great post by William Hogeland on the democratic revolution in Egypt.  If the Egyptians want democracy, Hogeland argues, they should not be looking to folks like George Washington or John Adams, but rather to folks like Tom Paine, Herman Husband, Benjamin Rush (at least for part of his career), and the framers of the only truly democratic constitution in eighteenth-century America, the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution.

Here is a snippet:

There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.

That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.

Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine.

Paine wrote “Common Sense,” and along with its bold characterization of all monarchs as tyrants, that pamphlet called for a hyper-democratic republic, when the better-known founder John Adams was calling for a republic in which democratic impulses would be sharply checked. Paine and Adams had a shouting match over it. Later Adams became President of the United States, and Paine became persona non grata in the United States, to whose independence he’d contributed everything he had. So be careful.

With Paine were less well-known radical American democrats. Herman Husband. Christopher Marshall. James Cannon. Thomas Young. Timothy Matlack. Benjamin Rush (he later became unradicalized, went the John Adams way — so we’ve actually heard of him). Hardly names to conjure with today, but these are our revolutionary democrats. What they wanted was to sever the ancient Whig connection between property and rights (a connection beloved by Adams, Madison, etc.), and to use government to restrain wealth, regulate business, and promote economic equality. Some lately have said that without a focus on what’s nowadays called “social justice,” there can be no real democracy in Egypt. If so, I’d love to commend Paine, Husband, Young, and the others to the Egyptian revolutionaries’ attention. History has obscured them, but it’s worth the effort to seek them out.

That crew led the radically democratic revolution that took over Pennsylvania in 1776. They did it in a way that reflects strangely on Egypt’s revolution. “The army is with the people!” some of the Cairo protestors exulted, and we hope it’s true. In 1776 Pennsylvania, however, the army was the people. Militia service was required of all able-bodied adult men. The genius of James Cannon was to organize the unenfranchised, propertyless militia privates throughout the state as a hugely powerful force on which security depended, and then have them seize the franchise simply by declining to take orders from a legislative body, the Pennsylvania Assembly, that had never allowed representation to the propertyless. With that, a new government was instituted in Pennsylvania, which for the first meaningful time anywhere allowed people with no property not only to vote but also to hold office.

While it can be debated whether or not radicals like Paine are what Egypt needs, Hogeland’s history is solid.  Indeed, most of the founders were suspicious of democracy and did their best to tame it.

Damon Linker: Founding Father

John Adams had little good to say about Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

I know not whether any Man in the World has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no Severer Satyr on the Age. For Such a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf, never before in any Age of the World was Suffered by the Poltroonery of mankind, to run through Such a Career of Mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.

Adams described Common Sense as “a poor, ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted Crapulous Mass.” He feared the egalitarian and populist dimension of Paine’s support of democratic republicanism. Though he and Paine would agree that the colonies should declare independence from England, Adams thought Paine’s ideas about government were just too radical. Adams represented the thinking of many of our so-called “Founding Fathers.” They distrusted the masses. Even great defenders of the common farmer such as Thomas Jefferson believed that the country should be run by a natural aristocracy–men with education and wealth who could make virtuous and disinterested decisions for the good of the country rather than for the good of themselves. Paine’s version of “Common Sense” was too close to the notorious (at least by 18th century standards) “D word”–democracy. Are people who are permitted to participate in the political process based solely on their “common sense” really capable of making wise decisions for the republic?

Damon Linker is not as graphic as John Adams, but his recent article in The New Republic, “Against Common Sense,” sounds a lot like Adams’s thoughts on Paine. I doubt Linker would say that Glenn Beck was “a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf.” After all, we are supposedly much more civil in today’s day and age. But he certainly has little patience for those who manipulate common sense for political purposes.

Linker offers a quick history of “common sense” in American politics, from Paine to Princeton Seminary (impressive) to William Jennings Bryan to Protestant fundamentalism to Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. Move over Richard Hofstadter, Damon Linker is in town and he has his own jeremiad on the “paranoid style.”

While I agree with Linker’s disgust over the way in which Beck, O’Rielly, and Limbaugh use the airwaves to promote their “common sense” agenda, and I admit that it is hard to defend the racism of Wallace, the paranoia of McCarthy, or the corruption of Nixon (neither do I have any desire to do so), I do think he misses some of the virtues inherent within this kind of common sense populism. Paine may not have liked big government, but workers found solidarity in his name well into the nineteenth century. William Jennings Bryan appealed to the ordinary farmers who possessed a local knowledge of the land, cultivated a sense of place, and promoted a religious critique of corporate capitalism that is often under appreciated today. (As Michael Lind has recently argued in Salon, there is the potential of an old-fashioned populism that is not tied to savage capitalism and consumerism). And whatever one says about Reagan, Bush, and Palin, they did (and do, in Palin’s case) seem to get more Americans involved in the political process, even if they happen to be the kinds of Americans that Linker does not like.

I want to give Linker the benefit of the doubt. It seems that his gripe is more with folks like Beck, O’Reilly, and Limbaugh than it is with the hard-working producer classes who own small businesses, work with their hands, and tend to the field. I do wonder, however, if these radio and television pundits are leading these ordinary folks astray with their pompous rhetoric, or if they are simply representing or channeling a populism that is alive and well on Main Street. If the later is true, Linker sounds a lot like some of those old Federalists who wanted no part of the masses.

In the end, I think Linker is right when he concludes that conservative pundits do not have a corner on the “common sense” market. We all have common sense and as a result it should not be manipulated as a political tool. Yet I can’t help but think that Linker, like many of our Founding Fathers, believes that some have more of it than others.


Historiann has nailed it again. In today’s post she takes on Newt Gingrich and anyone else who has used the phrase “the Founding Fathers believed….” or “What Would the Founding Fathers Think” (WWTFFT). As Historiann shows, the early republic was a politically contentious period. These so-called “Founders” did not speak with one voice.

While it is ahistorical and somewhat irresponsible to try to compare the Obama administration to the political beliefs of any eighteenth-century statesman, it is not out of the question that some of the founders would have been pleased to see government playing an active role in the economy. Fiscal conservatives like Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists favored big government. Thomas Jefferson, the great defender of individual rights and separation of church and state, was a libertarian. (At least Jefferson was a consistent libertarian. He believed that government should stay out of people’s lives, including their religious and moral lives. Today’s conservatives tend to be libertarian on fiscal matters, but pro-government on moral issues).

Many of my students are shocked to find that two revolutionaries–John Adams and Thomas Paine–had such different views on the role the people should play in government. Wait a minute, weren’t Adams and Paine both “Founding Fathers?” Yes, I guess you could say that. But this did not stop Adams from having a few choice words for Paine.

I know not whether any Man in the World has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no Severer Satyr on the Age. For Such a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf, never before in any Age of the World was Suffered by the Poltroonery of mankind, to run through Such a Career of Mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.

Adams described Paine’s Common Sense as “a poor, ignorant. Malicious, short-sighted Crapulous Mass.” (Modern translation: it was a piece of crap).

Such quotes should cause us to think twice the next time we clump the Founders together in some sort of homogeneous mass and try to announce what they would have believed on any given contemporary political issue. This kind of consensus approach to the founding is bad history.

Check out Historiann’s post and the insightful remarks from her regular cast of commentators.

The Republic in Print

About ten years ago, during my stint as a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, I met Trish Loughran. Though we both spent the 1998-1999 academic year together in residence at Penn, I did not get to know her that well. (We did occasionally chat about our New Jersey roots). I was, however, very impressed with her research project–a study of print culture and nationalism in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War. I was thus pleased to see that her book, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870, appeared a couple of years ago with Columbia University Press. It is due out in paperback later this month.

Well, I have finally gotten around to reading it. In this forcefully argued book, Loughran concludes that print culture is overrated as a way of explaining the emergence of American nationalism. In doing so, she challenges scholars such as Michael Warner and Benedict Anderson who have argued that print culture was the key to the development of national identity. Instead, Loughran focuses on the weaknesses of the print/communication infrastructure in early 19th century America. Without this strong infrastructure, print culture could not play a prominent role in Americans’ understanding of their national identity until, ironically, just before the Civil War.

My favorite section of the book deals with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Loughran concludes that Paine’s influence on the American Revolution was not as strong as historians make it out to be. In fact, there is no way possible, she argues, that Common Sense sold as many copies (over 100,ooo) as Paine claimed that it did. The communication networks throughout the British colonies were far too weak and fragile for this to happen. (Loughran’s argument here has been challenged by Robert G. Parkinson in his review of the book in the recent Common-Place, but I would encourage you to read the book and decide for yourself. In my opinion, Loughran seems pretty convincing. I actually made a similar argument about print and the spread of the First Great Awakening here).

I wish Loughran would have explored religious print culture a bit more. Nathan Hatch, for example, has argued that religious print played a powerful role in what he calls The Democratization of American Christianity. What role did religious print play in the construction of American nationalism and, particularly, the sense of providential or Christian nationalism that permeated early 19th life. I also wonder how the appearance of Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, with its focus on the development of a communication infrastructure, may have influenced Loughran’s interpretation? I suspect it may have confirmed many of her conclusions.

Read this book.