BILL MOYERS: Back in mid-January of 1980, another race for the presidency was underway. As it is now, many Americans were worried about the economy and a failed policy in the Middle East. They hungered for change and hope.
Along came a former California governor named Ronald Reagan. He rallied his party at the Republican National Convention with these patriotic words: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
Calling for a revolution, Reagan chose those words from the writings of America's first great radical, and our first best-selling writer. His name was Thomas Paine. Over two centuries ago this month, Paine's most famous book, Common Sense, sold what today would be fifty million copies. Farmers in the fields stopped to read it.
Other influential works followed including The American Crisis which proclaimed, "These are times that try men's souls." George Washington took those words to heart when he ordered his troops to read Paine's passionate call for liberty as they went into battle.
Thomas Paine's extraordinary life was both glorious and tragic. He was not always revered by some of our other founding fathers. You can read the story in this book by Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Harvey Kaye teaches history and social change at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He has dedicated much of his life arguing for Paine's decisive influence on the American experiment in democracy. Harvey J. Kaye was in town this week lecturing on Tom Paine. And he's with us now. Welcome.
HARVEY J. KAYE: Thank you. It's great to be here.
BILL MOYERS: Harvey, I have never met a historian more enthusiastic about his subject than you are about Thomas Paine. You seem obsessed with him. Why?
HARVEY J. KAYE: Well, I met Paine when I was a child at my grandfather's apartment in Brooklyn, New York. And my grandfather who was a trial lawyer, if he felt that way about Paine, I figured I ought to feel that way too. So, I adopted him. And I didn't—I wasn't an American historian to begin with. I started out in Latin American studies. I moved into British studies. But I came to the conclusion that the only way to make a difference was to speak "American." And the way to do that was to embrace my hero, Thomas Paine, in a public way. So, in the nineties, it was time to start talking Paine-ized language. And I did so. Because, sorry, there was no other writer from the past who spoke to Americans—it struck me—in the way he did. And spoke to Americans in every generation. And still does.
BILL MOYERS: How do you mean spoke to Americans?
HARVEY J. KAYE: Well, when Paine came to America, he came at the age of 37. When he came to America—
BILL MOYERS: Poor and—
HARVEY J. KAYE: Poor.
BILL MOYERS: Uneducated.
HARVEY J. KAYE: He had been fired by the British government as having been a tax collector. Franklin had encouraged him to come but they probably expected little to come of it. But who knows what goes on in the mind of someone like Franklin. But Paine came to America. And almost overnight, he fell in love with the country. He saw incredible possibilities, incredible prospects. And I think even with the contradictions of slavery and the developing inequality, he saw that Americans had it indeed to make the world over again. Or Americans had it to become Americans. I think that's what he said to America—
BILL MOYERS: Now, that sounds like a cliché. What do you mean to become an American?
HARVEY J. KAYE: Americans were in the middle of a rebellion. They were already fighting a war. But meanwhile, Washington, when he had his officers together as late as January '76 was still toasting the king. Jefferson, Adams, they all said, look, we're part of one nation with the British. And Paine looked out and he said, my goodness. These people can govern themselves. They were already doing so by way of committees in Philadelphia and up in Boston. And he believed that they needed to be made aware of what they were doing. So, it's as if Paine saw what Americans hadn't yet seen, but were already themselves doing.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, who knows him today? I mean, he's not on Mount Rushmore. There's no swell monument to him on the mall. Ask a hundred kids in school to name our founding fathers and they name Washington and Jefferson and Adams. And not one of them is likely to name Paine.
HARVEY J. KAYE: You know, this is interesting. That's what I thought. But when I meet people, you know, I ride in a cab or I walk or even my students. And somehow, they hear a line out of Thomas Paine. And they say, "Oh, I know that." Or they—and then they realize, oh, that's somebody my father used to talk about. In other words, Paine is the kind of figure from the American Revolution who was passed down. And every generation passed it on in their own fashion. You know, the powerful and the properties and the privileged, the pious, they all tried to suppress Paine's memory. They often talked about him so much, it probably excited young people to read him. And over and over again, whenever they tried to suppress his memory, a new generation of liberals and progressives and radicals in America reclaimed Thomas Paine to lay claim to America's purpose and promise. Because he spoke of democratic America.
BILL MOYERS: Democratic America being the, bringing the common people—
HARVEY J. KAYE: Yeah. That this was a—that the common people, that Americans could be citizens and not merely subjects. That people had it within themselves not only to listen to their superiors, but literally to speak to each other and deliberate and govern themselves.
BILL MOYERS: And to overthrow their superiors.
HARVEY J. KAYE: And to overthrow their superiors. Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: And you say he was—you say he turned Americans into radicals. And, quoting you, "We have remained radicals at heart ever since." What do you mean by that?
HARVEY J. KAYE: You know, I hesitated to say that when I wrote it. And there was a friend of mine who was visiting with his wife. And his wife read the little bit of the book that I'd written. And she said, "Why don't you say what you really want to say." I said, "What do you mean?" She goes, "You know what you really want to say is that Paine made us all into radicals." And I said, "That's right. That's what I want to say." And I stuck that in and I felt comfortable with it. And what I meant is that, look, working men's parties, free thinkers, abolitionists, suffragists, populists, socialists, progressives, peace activists, Paine's memory was never forgotten, even though we didn't always find him on the mall in Washington, in monuments elsewhere. But you know, Andrew Jackson-- I think it was Jackson made the remark. He said, "Paine doesn't need a monument, you know? His words will forever be his monument." And I bet if everyone tonight gets themselves a copy of Common Sense and at bed time starts to read it, they'll feel like they're reading a friend. Someone who's speaking directly to them.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, as you say and as you heard in that film clip, it's conservatives today from whom you hear more about Paine, right?
HARVEY J. KAYE: Right. Well, for 200 years, conservatives went out of their way to suppress his memory, to speak scornfully of him. And then—
BILL MOYERS: Because he wanted to overthrow his superiors.
HARVEY J. KAYE: And he wanted America to—for Paine, it wasn't just they didn't make a democracy. For Paine and for Whitman and for others like them, the idea was America was about always experimenting at the limits, extending freedom, deepening equality, making democracy all the more a part of everyday life. We find that from Paine all the way through even to the likes of Franklin Roosevelt. These kinds of aspirations—Reagan began as a Roosevelt democrat, okay?
BILL MOYERS: Four times he voted for Franklin Roosevelt.
HARVEY J. KAYE: And in fact, campaigned for Truman, I understand. So imagine this. Here's Reagan, okay? He comes. He admires this man tremendously. He hears Roosevelt quote Thomas Paine in 1942 to rally Americans. By the way, he was the first President, Roosevelt, to quote Thomas Paine and use his name since Jefferson. And Reagan hears it. That was one possibility. I've always wondered where Reagan got Paine. One way possibly was Roosevelt. The second possibility was, Reagan was on the left. The bestseller of the day was Howard Fast's Citizen Paine. One can't help but imagine Reagan, who loved reading popular history, probably read Citizen Paine.
BILL MOYERS: You write in here that liberals today seem to have all but abandoned the belief that democratic transformation remains both imperative and possible. And that Paine had confidence in working people that Democrats today don't have. Even though they try to get working people's votes.
HARVEY J. KAYE: I think it's interesting that just when Reagan is—conservatives, because of Reagan, decided they would try to appropriate Thomas Paine in the same way he, Reagan tried to appropriate Roosevelt. In fact, in his campaign accept—in his Republican National Convention acceptance speech, he quotes Roosevelt and Paine.
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
HARVEY J. KAYE: So, Republicans now feel good about it. And they take a little piece of Thomas Paine. They take the piece of Thomas Paine where Paine in the beginning of Common Sense talks about how government is an evil. You know, it's a necessary evil. They don't read that statement in the context of Paine's argument. And that is that—that people have a kind of inherent democratic instinct. And it's the government of the day that may be evil. That monarchical, aristocratic regime. But that Americans have it in themselves to create a government that's democratic and set a model for the world.
BILL MOYERS: Well, Paine—
HARVEY J. KAYE: Now, liberals—I'm sorry.
BILL MOYERS: No, go ahead. Go ahead.
HARVEY J. KAYE: And what—and something happened in the Seventies. The liberals and radicals divided themselves, okay? It was breaking up post '68. I mean, this is my generation we're talking about. Conservatives were utterly worried that the vast progressive cohorts were going to create some singular movement. Meanwhile, liberal and leftists are falling apart. They're going at each other like cats and dogs. And liberal politicians watching the rise of the new right pulled back. They run scared. We saw it with, I mean, Carter was the first of the conservative Democrats to my mind.
The Clinton years. I mean, Clinton gave people hope when he ran. He talked about change. What did we get? We got a Democratic party or at least we got a Democratic administration that put more of its political capital into getting NAFTA passed which was a Republican initiative than they did to pass the national health care. So, one can imagine that Americans themselves are wondering, wait a minute. Why do I need—why do I need to lean liberal and democratic? I mean, what's going on here?
And you know, we see candidates today, each bringing themselves before the people, presenting themselves. They each present themselves in particular ways. I'm waiting for that candidate who's going to capture that Paine-ized spirit, in some ways, as bizarrely as Reagan did and said, this is—this country is a democracy. We can do great things. And lay them out... I mean, here are three smart candidates, if we think Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama and John Edwards, okay?
And I ask myself, why amongst the Democratic cohorts, say in the Congress and in the Senate, we're not seeing people come forth and saying, okay—We may not be able to get a time table for withdrawal from Iraq. Let's get a time table for national health care. Let's ask our Congress, congressional comrades, the Republicans, are they willing to support national health care? We don't even have to lay out a plan. We just want to have a time table for how we're going to go about doing it. I ask myself why we don't hear Democratic candidates say, "We're Americans. We have nothing to be afraid of with immigration. In fact, why not a new deal on immigration? Why aren't we investing heavily in incorporating, if you like, people don't like to use this word, on assimilating all these new immigrants. Why do we view them as a threat? Why are we afraid of the very people who remind us of what we're about?
BILL MOYERS: One of your peers who I admire very much, Joseph Ellis, wrote a very good review of your book, a very favorable review of your book. He's a historian himself. And he said, "Bringing Paine's words and ideas into our world would be like trying to plant cut flowers."
HARVEY J. KAYE: I actually feared his review before I got to read it because I had no idea he'd actually like anything I had to say. But then, I got to the end and I thought, how sad. The loss of hope, the loss of aspiration. How un-American, I almost said. I'm not calling him an un-American man. But how—it didn't seem to Americans should always be trying to plant flowers, okay? To—there are ways of sprouting things anew. And that's what America's about. We have no reason to fear. We have no reason to be cynical. No reason to be desperate.
BILL MOYERS: But what's happened to the Democratic impulse and aspiration that were the heart of Thomas Paine?
HARVEY J. KAYE: I think it's there. I mean, back in the Nineties, there were some very interesting studies done that showed Americans still subscribe to those very things. That they were looking for some kind of leadership. Not a leadership that was demagogic. And not a leadership that would necessarily exploit their aspirations. But a leadership that would speak to them. You know, there were those figures since Paine who did that kind of thing. One can think about, I mean, the poetry of Walt Whitman. One can think about Eugene Debbs.
And even before that, you can hear in Roosevelt this confidence in his fellow Americans. You could even hear it—you could even hear it when LBJ spoke of the civil rights and voting rights acts. There were those moments when democratic politicians did grab hold of that kind of spirit. But you know what's funny. When Reagan quoted Paine, once he was in Pres—in the presidency, he went before the National Association of Evangelicals at Disneyworld and quoted Thomas Paine. Ralph Reed in his first book praised Thomas Paine for having harnessed ideas out of the Bible for Common Sense. Why is it that conservative and Republican types, they ask the right questions?
See, that's the thing. The conservatives have been asking the right questions. They get at the wrong answers. We know—we need to start asking the right questions. We need to have this kind of confidence in our fellow citizens that they somehow are able to—they take advantage of that confidence, okay? It's our job to join with our fellow citizens and join them in the courage that we have.
BILL MOYERS: The book is Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Harvey J. Kaye, thanks for being with us. It's good to see you.
HARVEY J. KAYE: Oh, thank you.
BILL MOYERS: That's it for the Journal this week. I'll see you again this time next week. I'm Bill Moyers.