Today is the birthday of one of our greatest—and least well-known—founding fathers, Thomas Paine. Although one of the best-selling authors in history, whose Common Sense largely persuaded the public to endorse American independence, Paine is often overlooked in the roll-call of American founders. That’s in part because of his notoriety as a religious free-thinker later in life, and it’s in part because his variety of classical liberalism led him to endorse early forms of wealth redistribution which gained disrepute among many of those who would otherwise be expected to keep his memory alive. It’s really a shame. Paine was a great genius and a brilliant spokesman for liberty, who deserves to be mentioned alongside Jefferson and Adams in every evocation of our founding.
For a very nice brief introduction to Paine, I recommend Christopher Hitchens’ little book about Paine’s Rights of Man. For a more in-depth, extraordinarily objective and fair discussion of Paine’s ideas, I recommend Yuval Levin’s recent book The Great Debate. But I want especially to endorse Craig Nelson’s superb biography, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, which is one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. Given how few materials are left to the biographer of Paine, Nelson does an astonishingly good job of detailing Paine’s life and influences—and yet does it all with an elegant, smooth, often humorous writing style that makes his book compulsive reading. It’s a great tribute for a writer of Paine’s great skill to be memorialized by a writer who has similar facility with the pen.
Incidentally, for those of us who cherish economic liberty, check out this passage from Rights of Man, in which Paine—making the case for the superiority of the revolutionary French constitution over the mish-mash of corruption and rent-seeking that was Edmund Burke’s prized British “constitution”—emphasizes that the former protects the right to earn a living, while the latter does not:
The French Constitution says there shall be…no monopolies of any kind—that all trades shall be free and every man free to follow any occupation by which he can procure an honest livelihood, and in any place, town, or city throughout the nation. What will Mr. Burke say to this? In England…with respect to monopolies, the country is cut up into monopolies. Every chartered town is an aristocratical monopoly in itself, and the qualification of electors proceeds out of those chartered monopolies. Is this freedom? Is this what Mr. Burke means by a constitution?
In these chartered monopolies, a man coming from another part of the country is hunted from them as if he were a foreign enemy. An Englishman is not free of his own country; every one of those places presents a barrier in his way, and tells him he is not a freeman—that he has no rights. Within these monopolies are other monopolies. In a city, such for instance as Bath, which contains between twenty and thirty thousand inhabitants, the right of electing representatives to Parliament is monopolised by about thirty-one persons. And within these monopolies are still others. A man even of the same town, whose parents were not in circumstances to give him an occupation, is debarred, in many cases, from the natural right of acquiring one, be his genius or industry what it may.
How sad that much of the same can be said of the United States today.