Obama's Vindication of Thomas Paine

"I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure, that it will prevail, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time."

Barack Obama, 18 January 2009

President Barack Obama swore on Tuesday to protect and defend a Constitution that was not written in anticipation of his presidency--that was not, in fact, written in anticipation of his citizenship.

And that is where we should begin to measure the historic turning that has taken place this day.

The American experiment began with its promise constricted by the narrow vision of Virginia plantation owners who saw an African-American as three-fifths of a human being--and that scant measure only for the purpose of granting the South a greater share of the seats in a Congress that would for the better part of a century be all white, all male and all of the propertied class.

America was founded on the original sins of human bondage and violent discrimination.

Barack Obama's inauguration does not erase that history. As W.E.B. Du Bois told us, "One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over...We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner... and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect man and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth."

Obama's inauguration turns the tables on the founders.

Those who proposed and accepted the Constitution's initial compromises, have been put in their place--not dismissed, but confirmed, finally and unequivocally, as having possessed a vision insufficient for the America that would be.

That goes for Jefferson, Madison, even for Washington (Obama's "man who led a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against the army of an Empire")--all the "good guys" who were not good enough to reject the crude calculus that in the words of Du Bois "classed the black man and the ox together."

Yet Obama speaks, often and favorably, of the founders, describing them in Philadelphia just days before his inauguration as "that first band of patriots... who somehow believed that they had the power to make the world anew."

The reference to making the world anew was borrowed--imprecisely-- from one of founders. Thomas Paine called his comrades to the revolutionary cause with the cry: "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, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months."

Obama quoted frequently from Paine, and particularly from Common Sense, during his campaign for the presidency. And he did so, again, on Tuesday, referencing Paine in a speech that spoke of a "return to these truths" of the American experiment.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: "Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

That line is from Paine's The Crisis, which George Washington did, in fact, have read to the troops in the most difficult days of the revolutionary struggle.

From that reference, on Tuesday, Obama continued:

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

It was right that Obama turned to Paine.

When the Pennsylvania Assembly considered the formal abolition of slavery in 1779, it was Paine who authored the preamble to the proposal.

Paine's fervent objections to slavery led to his exclusion from the inner circles of American power in the first years of the republic. He died a pauper. Only history restored the man--and his vision.

And on this day, this remarkable day, Thomas Paine is fully redeemed.

Paine, to a greater extent than any of his peers, was the founder who imagined a truly United States that might offer a son of Africa and of America not merely citizenship but its presidency.

Barack Obama is wise to associate himself with the better angels of our history, including the architects of our republic who, for all their imperfections, issued--as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. noted on another crowded day in Washington--"wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence" and in so doing "(signed) a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the 'unalienable Rights' of 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"

"But," concluded King, "we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."

The bank of justice, unlike those of Wall Street, has proven to be solvent.

Our new president--and we the people--do well to recognize those who signed the promissory note.

But that does not mean that we should presume that the founders were all equally wise, or equally good.

It was Paine, the most revolutionary of their number, who proved to be the wisest, and the best, of that band of patriots--for his time, and for this time.

Today belongs to Barack Obama.

But it also belongs to Thomas Paine.

When our new president says that his election proves "the dream of our founders is alive in our time," it is Paine's dream of which he speaks.

That dream may not be fully realized. But it is alive--more, indeed, today than at any time in the history of a land that might yet begin our world over again.

[Source: By John Nichols, The Nation, NY, 20Jan09]

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