Times that Try Men’s Souls

Thomas Paine  died on June 8, 1809. He was one of the great intellectual leaders and founders of the modern world, a friend to the Founding Fathers, influential beyond imagination.  “These are the times that try men’s souls.” This simple quotation from Founding Father Thomas Paine’s The Crisis not only describes the beginnings of the American Revolution, but also the life of Paine himself.

Throughout most of his life, his writings inspired passion, but also brought him great criticism. He communicated the ideas of the Revolution to common farmers as easily as to intellectuals, creating prose that stirred the hearts of the fledgling United States. He had a grand vision for society: he was staunchly anti-slavery, and he was one of the first to advocate a world peace organization and social security for the poor and elderly. But his radical views on religion would destroy his success, and by the end of his life, only a handful of people attended his funeral.

Without Thomas Paine, the United States of America would not be the strong and independent country it is today. In 1776 Paine insightfully argued that it would only be a short time before the colonies would break with England. Within the first three months of its publication, Common Sense sold 120,000 copies and became the foundation for American political literature. Paine’s vision and quotable slogans defined the United States at its most critical point in history and remains relevant for today’s citizens.

Tom Paine’s revolutionary writings continue to be an inspiration, even turning up in some unexpected right-wing quarters. Christopher Hitchens lauds the author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason Here are two reviews of Hitchen’s 2006 biography:  Bones of Contention in The Guardian; and Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Paine’s  Rights Of Man in the New York Times.

The article in Wikipedia gives a thorough report on all of Paine’s accomplishments. I first read about Paine in the novel by Howard Fast… published in 1943 and well worth your time if you can find a copy. It is a compelling story of a great leader and communicator who helped change the course of world events, but died intragedy and ignomy because of his stubborn and outspoken personality and his suspect religious opinions.

It always surprises me that we do not hear more about Paine on the 4th of July and other patriotic occasions in the US media. Perhaps his uncomfortably challenging ideas are still challenging the comfortable!

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