I started reading Paine in 2004, just after Bush won re-election and I was bouncing off the walls in rage. There are many reasons why I love Paine. For one thing, he was a declared atheist. Pretty remarkable in the eighteenth century.
Paine was not a politician, was not particularly diplomatic, was not a lawyer, either. He was English born, trained as a corset maker, and came here for the same reasons everybody comes here: a better, freer, corsetless life.
He wrote. That’s what he did.
Did you know that he was elected to office–in France, just as the Revolution was breaking out? And did you know he was tossed into the Bastille and came within hours–and a twist Dickens might have heard about and used in A Tale of Two Cities–of being guillotined?
For service to his country, America, he was awarded a homestead in New Rochelle, New York, where I grew up. (My friend Enid and I were recalling yesterday the time when we and a few other friends decided to visit the Paine Cottage (it was small) and were treated as dangerous rabble by the nasty doyenne who ran the place.
She threw us out.)
I’ve since learned that Paine didn’t appreciate the place either–it was too far from the action, in his case and mine New York City (this is why he’s my spiritual brother; we felt the same way about New Rochelle: “Let me out!”), and moved back to New York City.
He lived and died in the West Village, on Christopher Street, several blocks from where I lived until 2015.
I wrote all that from memory and I’m feeling a little bit too lazy to confirm my memory of his history by digging into the marvelous biography, Tom Paine: A Political Life, by John Keane (Grove Great Lives), where I got most of my knowledge about Paine’s life.
Below are the opening paragraphs of Kaye’s essay. They should bring tears to your eyes–especially now. And that can be said for the entire essay. Do read it, read those Paine quotes. They’ll make you feel fierce. They’ll make you a rebel.
In December 1776, during the darkest days of the Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote the first of his American Crisis papers. Following devastating defeats by British forces in Brooklyn and Manhattan, George Washington and the Continental Army were retreating across New Jersey to the Delaware River and Pennsylvania. Paine rode with them, determined to continue the fight and defiantly reaffirming his disgust for Great Britain’s King George III.
“Let them call me rebel and welcome,” Paine wrote, “I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.”