Mitt Romney was wrong in his victory speech after the Florida primary Tuesday night when he attributed to Tom Paine the quote, “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” Although widely attributed to Paine, it appears nowhere in his written works.
First of all, the quote is reprehensible on its face. It is flatly anti-democratic, a brutal repudiation of the right to dissent, quite the opposite of Paine’s core sentiment.
But it is ironic for someone like Romney to be quoting Paine, who was notorious for being the most passionately critical of organized religion of any of the “founding fathers” of the U.S.
It is symptomatic of the wild revisionist distortions that rightwingers superimpose on the American revolution and the founding of the republic, including the fraudulent notions that America was founded as a “Christian nation,” that the Constitution is effectively an anarchist manifesto, or that the social paradigm of male dominion was reinforced.
Paine, himself, is the best example of this. Without a doubt, one of the most important of the founders of our republic, Paine (1737-1809) was particularly dangerous because of his potent combination of a superior intellect, an uncompromising resolve, a deep compassion for humanity, and a particularly persuasive way with words.
Let this be a caution to my readers: if these are the combined qualities you wish to bear forth in the world, be prepared that only six people will attend your funeral, too (as was the case with Paine). The blend of these attributes, and their tireless exercise, is no ticket to celebrity and fame. You’re bound to piss off too many powerful people, and your contributions won’t be recognized until everyone you’ve angered has gone and cooler heads assess your work.
But John Adams said of Paine, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Indeed, Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, authored in February 1776, argued for the American colonies, already in a state of ferment, to undertake a revolution against the British without delay. Over 400,000 copies were circulated, and it is the spark that set off the war.
His impassioned appeal was not based on the mere expediency of freedom from British tyranny, but said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.
“O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!,” he intoned, revealing his passion for the liberation of all humanity, viewing the American revolution as an important starting point. He went on to become deeply involved in the French revolution and got in hot water with other American founders because of his strident advocacy of immediate, full equality for all, and especially for arguing that every citizen, and not just property-owners, should have the right to vote.
His influence had a profound impact on, among many others, the British proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), who in 1792 wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.”
Paine and others among of the “radical Enlightenment” that fueled the ferment in the American colonies and in Europe, especially stood against the notion of the hereditary succession of kings. In that stand, he implicitly challenged the core tenant of male-dominated society, a cornerstone of feminism and the enfranchisement of women and minorities.
The justification of kings and their claim to hereditary succession lay in the notion that the most brutish male gets to rule the roost, and use women to perpetuate his seed, no matter what kinds of idiots his male offspring may come to be. “Virtue is not hereditary,” Paine insisted.
But in overthrowing this male-dominion paradigm, Paine does not espouse a radical lawlessness or anarchy. On the contrary, as he wrote in Common Sense, “Can we but leave posterity with a settled form of government, an independent constitution of its own,” he wrote. “We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth.”