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Doing right by Thomas Paine

Legislature will get another chance.

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Last year, the legislature refused to honor Thomas Paine, one of the founders of the American republic and among the most important of them. Evidently legislators felt that Paine's great services to his country, and to the cause of freedom everywhere, didn't offset his unorthodox religious views.

Paine was persistent, among his many virtues. So is an Arkansas admirer, Jack Makens of Fayetteville, who describes himself as “A believer in the continuing progress of both science and moral societal structuring for Peace and Justice.” Makens was the instigator of a bill introduced in the legislature last year that would have added “Thomas Paine Day” to a list of days that aren't legal holidays but are commemorated by gubernatorial proclamations. The 10 days on the list now include Arbor Day, Abraham Lincoln's Birthday, Arkansas Bird Day, Columbus Day and Jefferson Davis' Birthday.

Makens, 81 and retired, has also helped organize Thomas Paine dinners in Fayetteville. Thirty-two people attended one held Jan. 29; state Rep. Lindsley Smith of Fayetteville spoke. Smith was the chief sponsor of the Paine bill (HB 1317) in the legislature last year. Seven states have enacted similar legislation.

Paine was a writer and political theorist who came to America from England and quickly became a leader in the independence movement, writing pamphlets that inflamed and inspired. It was he who declared, in December 1776, “These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” He was the propagandist of the American Revolution, and without Paine's pen, John Adams wrote, “the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

American Independence was not the only issue that Thomas Paine was right about, ahead of his time. He championed every just cause, thundering against slavery and for the rights of women, denouncing those who were cruel to animals, even seeking mercy for a deposed king who was about to be executed.  

He also wrote about religion, and these writings brought him into disrepute with many readers. He was a deist (as were many of the founders), believing in God but not organized religion. He wrote at one point: “I believe in one God and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy. But … I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my church.”

The churches hated him, naturally, along with the slavers, the misogynists, the authoritarians and the people who like to set cats on fire. He died broke and largely forgotten.

HB 1317 failed last year, 46 to 20, with 51 votes needed for passage. An usually large number of representatives, 34, chose not to vote.

Smith says she'll introduce the bill again next year. Its chances might be improved if friends of liberty talk to their legislators in the meantime. Makens is encouraging that. Educational materials on Paine are available from Makens, who can be reached at (479) 444-8149 or b4ethics@yahoo.com.

Legislators might be embarrassed to again deny honor to one who fought slavery, while giving honor to one who championed it (Jefferson Davis). On the other hand, the lobby for animal cruelty — Farm Bureau, Poultry Federation et al — is very strong, and might oppose Paine for his kindness.     

 

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