By Alan Caruba
A friend of mine sent a birthday gift, Christopher Hitchens’ “Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man”, part of a series, “Books That Changed the World”, published by Atlantic Monthly Press. Hitchins, of course, is most famed of late for writing “God is Not Great”, a book about his (and others) atheism that has sold rather well.
I don’t know what, if anything, they teach these days about the Founding Fathers, but I'm told the current politically correct garbage that children are learning is that they were all horrible slave owners and unworthy of any other attention except for that business about fighting the American Revolution and later writing the oldest living Constitution in the world.
Parenthetically, I have frankly wondered why we didn’t just hand the Iraqis a copy of our Constitution and suggest they write in the words “The Republic of Iraq” and get on with the business of democracy. But no, that would have been too easy. Instead Iraq has a constitution that requires it be governed by Islamic sharia law, something that means Islam is the state religion and God help you if you’re not a Muslim. Just ask the Christians who have lived there forever. They are being subjected to all kinds of depredations. This is so common where Muslims are in charge that it hardly seems worth mentioning except for the fact that most Americans are totally unaware of it.
As it was in my youth, Paine gets shunted aside when it comes to famous Founding Fathers. I don’t believe there’s even a statue in Washington, D.C. for the man. Yet this was the brilliant pamphleteer whose Common Sense sold an astounding half a million copies in the course of the American Revolution. It was truly a bestseller, but more importantly, it argued the cause for a break with England and did so assuming the intelligence of his readers. A copy of it can be had from Penguin Books “Great Ideas” series. It runs to just over 103 pages in a small, handheld edition. And it is brilliant.
Hitchens does an excellent job of bringing the legendary Paine alive in a portrait of a very real man with all the flaws that attain to being brilliant, far ahead of his time, seriously mistaken about the French Revolution, and, to his credit, utterly opposed to monarchy and aristocracy, a form of feudalism that had been the standard of government for hundreds of years in Europe.
Born in England, Paine would find a true home in America and especially an America composed of colonies whose people had decided to break free of the taxation and other abuses of the Crown.
If all this sounds like something from “long ago”, I would remind you that monarchies are still the order of the day in the Middle East. The Saudis are ruled by a royal family as are the people in Yemen, Qatar, the United Arabic Emirates and similar entities. The king of Morocco still mostly calls the shots. And, of course, though they do not rule as in former times, there is still a British royal family. Why, I do not know.
It’s always a good idea to reacquaint oneself with an important figure from the past through a really good biography. It’s also a good idea to remember that America is a relatively young nation despite its ascendancy to superpower status. It wasn’t that long ago—my youth actually—when it was desperately trying to climb out of a calamitous Depression and then plunged into World War II to save the world from despotism.
Americans, now our aging parents and grandparents, had the courage and resiliency to wait out the Soviet Union from 1945 to the early 90s, resisting Communist tyranny and giving hope to all those in its grip.
There’s an old threat to the world that has become a new threat and it’s called Islam. I have no doubt Thomas Paine would be warning us of it were he alive today.