Friday, July 3, 2009

The Sunshine Patriot

In the year leading up to the American Revolution there were many opinions among the people as to what the status of the colonies should be. A slowly growing number favored independence, but at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence it was far from unanimous. In fact loyalty to the English Crown was still high in many people's hearts. So many had been born there, or their parents had. To be loyal to the Crown was to be a patriot. To be disloyal was to be a traitor. And nobody wants to be a traitor.

And this was a religious land. To fight against the king whom God had placed over us was not only traitorous, many thought it blasphemous.

In order for the revolutionary conspirators to gain the public sympathy, and the public rifles, they had to wage a war of words before and during the Revolution. This war of words was not intended to defeat the Red Coats, but rather to win over the colonists themselves. Before you can win a war, you need to enlist an army. And to do that, they needed to convince the people that it was not treasonous or blasphemous to fight against the king. They had to flip the moral tables that existed in people's minds; they had to redefine everything: authority, rights, despotism, treason, Providence and liberty all had to be reworked in the people's minds.

In his famous series of pamphlets, The Crisis, Thomas Paine undertook this project. By the end of the series the American understanding of itself and its world and its God had radically changed. It has been said that Thomas Paine started the Revolution. It could also be said that he won it.

America won her independence. But what did she lose in the process? After the war we were never inclined to look back, to ask ourselves if freedom and liberty and brotherhood truly were what the propagandists had told us they were. We only knew we had won. Suddenly there were no more loyalists to the crown. Everyone was on the same side now. It was the winning side. We had the ball and we were going to run with it, no looking back.

I sometimes wonder how wise that was.

Below is the beginning of Thomas Paine's first pamphlet in the series, The Crisis. The first word he works to redefine in the public imagination is the word "Patriot."

"THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated."



Mary Rae said...

Interesting comments. But whatever you think about Thomas Paine, few realized that he died a pretty lonely death--many had pulled away from his ideas and he was almost forgotten. His bomes were later spirited away--an Englishman wanted to return them to England (I believe Paine had onlybeen in America for 18 months before he published Common Sense). Someone claims now to have his skull--which inspired me to write this poem some years ago.

When are the dead dead long enough that we
forget their human life and deem their bones
unearthable, a part of history
to be labeled like a tray of stones?
They say that you were once on crude display—
a revolutionary become meek—
and now your skull has somehow made its way
into a leather box like some antique.
Odd reverence for one whose words were meant
for freedom's sake. Your words could never spell
that you would die, your good name almost spent,
and be dug up from your sweet New Rochelle,
to have the history of your skull made plain
in copper-plated letters: Thos. Paine.

Doug P. Baker said...

Hey, that's an interesting story, and a cool poem! What a truly perverse way to honor someone! "Odd reverence!" Indeed!

But people do such things. I've heard that the Allied forces hid Hitler's bones to prevent just such adoration. But that may be just folklore. I don't know.

Paine will show up again in my 4th of July post tomorrow. Again I will question his approach. Still, he helped to give heart to the struggling army, to awaken a longing for a bigger fuller world. He accomplished truly remarkable things.

I would be interested to learn more about his life to understand why, after being led by him into the war, people turned away from him later. One would think that the favorable outcome of the war would have cemented their adoration. Intriguing!

Mary Rae said...

I believe that the turn taken by the French Revolution made his old supporters back away from the Paine and his"radical" ideals. He had gone to France to help foment the revolution, but fell out of favor when he objected to extremism and he was imprisoned during The Terror. I believe it was Monroe who intervened on his behalf.

His anti-Christianity views expressed in The Age of Reason also alienated many. He was buried in obscurity, and even without the stone fence around his grave that he had requested.