Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thomas Paine Day 2009 - Celebrating a Revolutionary

Happy Birthday to Thomas Paine: an American Revolutionary and ABOLITIONIST.

In preparing for this day I have been reviewing several pieces written by and about Thomas Paine. Inevitably the Wikipedia article about him comes up as the top hit when submitting his name to the Google gods. Upon reading this entry I felt like I was wandering through a reader's digest version of the biography by Craig Nelson. But one passage about Mr. Paine puzzled me for days and has led me down a rabbit hole of hearsay and speculation. The passage includes the assertion that Thomas Paine's "fervent objections to slavery" led to his exclusion from power during the early years of the Republic. This assertion was made by the historian John Nichols and was questioned in the Wikipedia entry, saying it was "dubious" and needed to be discussed. Have historians tried to suppress the opinions of Thomas Paine regarding slavery? Why is the abolitionist article "African Slavery in America" which was first published in the Pennsylvania Magazine, no longer listed as being penned by Paine when it once was assigned to him? This article was published in the periodical during Paine's tenure there and is of content that echos his opinions expressed elsewhere. Where is the evidence that he did not author this article? These are some of the questions that still loom regarding Paine as an abolitionist. It is perplexing to me that a writer lauded for his clarity could be ambiguous regarding his opinions on an issue as monumental as slavery. The answer came to me as I was reading a collection of his writing last week. In a letter Paine sent to the medical guru among the founding father's (Benjamin Rush) Paine pronounces his opinions on the slave trade. The letter is dated March 16th 1790 and was sent from Paris.


"I wish most anxiously to see my much loved America - it is the country from whence all reformations must originally spring - I despair of seeing an Abolition of the infernal trafic in Negroes - we must push the matter further on your side the water - I wish that a few well instructed Negroes could be sent among their Brethren in Bondage, for until they are able to take their own part nothing will be done..."

Further, Paine authored the preamble to the 1779 Pennsylvania proposal to abolish slavery in that state. Tom Paine died alone and destitute with no money to his name and little respect amongst his contemporaries. He knew that his opinions about universal fairness and opposition to the stranglehold of organized religion over the minds of the masses would not make him popular, but he held his opinions without apologies until his death. Nearly 200 years have since passed, and nine days ago President Barack Obama vindicated this "better angel" of history by quoting Paine's words during his historic inauguration. I can think of no better way to celebrate the lives of those that forged the ideals that enable the "great experiment" that is the United States to continue evolving than by breathing life back into the words of people like Thomas Paine; forgotten by the writers of history but not by the makers of history.

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