One Way To Celebrate America’s 250th Birthday: Erect a Statue of Thomas Paine

Biden signs a law to memorialize a founder beloved by radicals and Reagan alike.

Laurent Dabos via Wikimedia Commons
Detail of a portrait of Thomas Paine, circa 1792. Laurent Dabos via Wikimedia Commons

America is taking a step closer toward marking the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution by erecting a new monument to Thomas Paine in the nation’s capital.

The omnibus spending bill President Biden signed into law on December 29 includes language authorizing the Thomas Paine Memorial Association “to establish a commemorative work on Federal land in the District of Columbia and its environs to honor the United States patriot, Thomas Paine.” 

Paine, a pamphleteer influential in the movement to win American independence, was born in England in 1737 and died in New York in 1809. His intellectual legacy is complicated enough that the news of the planned memorial might cause people to wonder: Which Thomas Paine, exactly, is being memorialized?

Would the statue be of the Paine who is a hero of the far left, the one whom a favorite of  Hillary Clinton, Saul Alinsky, quoted in “Rules for Radicals”? Paine was an enthusiastic initial supporter of the French Revolution, though later he was jailed because of it. A critic of organized religion, he was the author of “The Age of Reason.” A conservative intellectual, Yuval Levin, set up Paine as the forefather of “progressive liberalism” in the 2013 book “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.”

Or would the memorial depict the Paine who is more attractive to the American right? In the 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense,” Paine relied on biblical arguments to make the case against the British monarchy’s rule of the North American colonies. Later in 1776, in “The Crisis,” Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Ronald Reagan quoted Paine admiringly in his 1983 “evil empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. Reagan also quoted Paine in his closing statement in a 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale. The American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, identifies Paine as the author of the “earliest known fully-fledged” proposal for education vouchers, a Founding Father not only of America but of school choice.

In search of an answer, I rang the president of the Thomas Paine Memorial Association, Margaret Downey, a volunteer activist at West Chester, Pennsylvania. Her group has raised half a million dollars for the Paine memorial project. She notes that the effort is being championed legislatively not only by Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat of Maryland, but also by Victoria Spartz, a Republican of Indiana. Another backer of the Paine memorial effort is Peter Kuo, the vice chairman of the Republican Party in California.

Paine is a figure who “can unify the country with the call of liberty and justice and equality,” Ms. Downey said. Paine’s principled and consistent opposition to slavery could help to answer against the contemporary tendency to reject the entire American Revolution as irredeemably racist.

Changes to the National Mall area can take a long time to get off the drawing board. The Washington National Monument Society was founded in 1833; the monument opened to the public more than a half-century later, in 1888. In Paine’s case, President George H.W. Bush approved a 1992 law authorizing the memorial, and in 1994, President Clinton approved a law setting aside a site. Sculptor Zenos Frudakis has been working on a design. “Our goal is to get something up by 2026,” Ms. Downey said. The address would be approximately 1776 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 

Whether a Paine memorial will be something to help unify Americans or another thing for us to fight about would be something to check in on sometime in the future. What American, if any, from the early 21st century will be honored with a statue in preparation for the country’s 500th birthday? Remembering Paine’s passion for freedom may incrementally increase the chances that the nation lasts another 250 years.

Mr. Stoll, the author of ‘Samuel Adams: A Life,’ knew Thomas Paine personally.

The New York Sun

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