Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

EDITORIAL>>No honor for patriots

State Rep. Lindsley Smith’s only error was asking the Arkansas legislature to reflect upon philosophy and history because it almost inevitably will get it wrong. The legislature doesn’t do history and philosophy.

Smith introduced a resolution proposing to memorialize the patriot Thomas Paine one day a year, not an official holiday but a day on which people might reflect on the contributions that the great pamphleteer made to the republic. The resolution failed two years ago and Smith hoped that lawmakers might be wiser and more reflective in 2009. She seemed to be right because the House of Representatives adopted the resolution handily last week.

But in a Senate committee Monday two supporters who would move the resolution to a vote could not be found. Rep. Randy Laverty said he was troubled by some things that he had read indicating that Paine became an atheist. He did not think the state should be honoring an atheist.

That would be no reason not to honor a man if he made an important contribution to the nation’s founding, as Paine did, but is not quite accurate. Back in Europe after the American Revolution, Paine became increasingly disillusioned with the official church and indeed all organized religions, which he did not believe promoted universal virtues. Instead, he embraced deism, a philosophy if not a spiritual doctrine that was popular among the founding fathers in America, including Ben Franklin, James Monroe, John Adams and perhaps Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, all of whom uttered some deist thoughts from time to time. This is what Paine wrote in The Age of Reason about the beliefs that got him into so much trouble with monarchs and clerics:

“[T]he only true religion is Deism, by which I then meant, and mean now, the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues – and that it was upon this only (so far as religion is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness hereafter. So say I now – and so help me God.”

But Rep. Smith did not propose to canonize Paine anyway, only to recognize what he did for the universal cause of liberty and for the formation of this nation. Common Sense, a pamphlet circulated early in 1776, stirred the colonies into revolt and influenced the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Generations of youngsters studied Paine in American literature and, when such techniques were still in vogue, had to memorize the opening lines from Crisis, which was published in the first winter of the revolution:

“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 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.”

General Washington had Crisis read aloud to the enlisted men in the beleaguered Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge in hopes that it would stir them to fight on against the mounting odds in the war against the British.

After fighting in the revolution, Paine returned to Europe, where his writings against monarchies and tyranny inflamed the continent and propelled the revolution in France. Jailed by the tyrant Robespierre, Paine eventually won his freedom with the intervention of James Monroe. His old friend and admirer Jefferson, president by then, sent word that he should return to the country whose birth he had helped midwife.

He died in New York, never having achieved the stature and worth that would merit a salute by the Arkansas Senate.