Screw fat old Ben Franklin and his 300th birthday. This city should be celebrating a real revolutionary, the man without whom there’d be no America.
In Philadelphia,” babbles the radio, “everyone is reading about Benjamin Franklin … ”
The madness has been going on for months already, since the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation first started shilling Franklin’s 300th-birthday festivities last year.
The greatest event in this nation’s history has been reduced to a yearlong birthday party for a jolly, jocular cartoon Unka Ben. A kinda insurrectionary Kris Kringle. An avuncular saint, inventor and bootstrap capitalist-a PG-friendly, George Bush-approved, sanitized, shrink-wrapped, deboned and prechewed establishment revolutionary for the whole family to enjoy.
We say bollocks to that. It’s time for some Common Sense. It’s time this city celebrated working-class Philadelphia’s real revolutionary hero.
Thomas Paine was a founder of both the U.S.A. and the French Republic, the ideological father of democracy, the coiner of the phrase “United States of America,” the author of not one but two pamphlets that saved the United States, probably the original author of the Declaration of Independence and-on top of that-he was the original zinester, the first blogger and (according to Wired magazine) the moral father of the Internet.
Paine was Philadelphia’s first and greatest hero. Rocky in a periwig. His life was a swashbuckling Hollywood epic that makes Pirates of the Caribbean look like On Golden Pond on Valium. As a teenager Paine narrowly avoided sailing on a ship called Terrible with a Capt. William Death, who was promptly slaughtered along with 150 of his crew. He did, however, serve on a privateer (a state-sanctioned pirate ship) called (you won’t believe this) The King of Prussia.
In 1781-after he, according to George Washington, twice singlehandedly saved the American revolution-Paine even had an Errol Flynn-style sword duel with a British naval captain. Later, when he was imprisoned during the French revolution, he escaped the guillotine only because an X was scrawled on the wrong side of his death-cell door.
It’s Paine we should be celebrating when we name our schools, bridges and roads. Benjamin Franklin might have invented the lightning rod and the frigging glass armonica, but Tom Paine invented democracy.
It’s no contest. Without Tom Paine there would’ve been no American revolution-and no America. Yet there are only five statues of Paine in the entire world-and not one of them is in Philadelphia. And that is nothing short of a disgrace.
Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia on Oct. 30, 1744, sick to his guts with typhoid. He had a letter of introduction from Franklin, which he used to blag himself a job at the Colonial equivalent of PW.
America thrilled and shocked him. He saw artisan militiamen form themselves into a revolutionary “committee of privates.” And he could see the slave market from the window of his lodgings. The freshness and potential of America blew his mind, and the rebellion against the British fired him up to write a pamphlet that would change the world.
The rebellion was led by the rich, many of them slave owners. They dismissed the lower orders as “the grazing multitude” (Washington), “the common herd” (John Adams) and “poor reptiles” (Gouverneur Morris). And they clung to Britannia’s skirts like frightened children.
“Washington is still in his battle tent, toasting George III. What? Is he out of his fucking mind?” laughs Harvey J. Kaye, author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. “So what were they fighting for, these gentlemen? If they weren’t fighting for democracy? They were fighting for their rights as gentlemen to be recognized by the British crown.”
The working-class Paine changed all that. He turned their gentrified rebellion into a people’s war for democracy. In 1776 Paine wrote what would become the American manifesto of the revolution.
Common Sense-a demolition job on the very concept of monarchy-swept America like an ideological firestorm. The impact was phenomenal. It sold 600,000 copies among a population of 3 million. And like Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” 87 years later (Lincoln was a massive Paine fan), it turned a civil war into a righteous struggle for human freedom.
Without Tom Paine there would’ve been no revolution-and no America.
I’m standing on the corner of Front and Market streets. Rain batters the flapping Ben Franklin birthday banners. A historical marker says this was the site of the London Coffee House, where Philadelphians auctioned “black slaves recently arrived from Africa.”