Decades ago Ronald Reagan borrowed a phrase from a founding father often overlooked. He rallied his party at the Republican National Convention with these patriotic words: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Calling for a revolution, Reagan chose those words from the writings of America’s first great radical, and its first best selling writer. His name was Thomas Paine. Over two centuries ago this month, Paine’s most famous book, COMMON SENSE, sold what today would be fifty million copies. Farmers in the fields stopped to read it.
Other influential works followed including THE AMERICAN CRISIS which proclaimed, “These are times that try men’s souls.” George Washington took those words to heart when he ordered his troops to be read Paine’s passionate call for liberty as they went into battle.
Paine’s extraordinary life was both glorious and tragic. He was not always revered as some of our other founding fathers — and during his lifetime he was often feared and lampooned — and under threat of prison and even death. Harvey J. Kaye, who recently told his story in THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA, notes that Paine has again become currency in political debate because of a revolutionary idea that spread from the colonies to France and around the globe:
That the common people…that Americans could be citizens and not merely subjects. That people had it within themselves not only to listen to their superiors, but literally to speak to each other and deliberate and govern themselves.