Panning Paine: Arkansas Lawmakers Block Resolution Celebrating American Hero

Thomas Paine, the 18th-century writer and philosopher who played a significant role in the American Revolution, has been honored by nine states for his invaluable contributions to our nation's independence. But Arkansas will not be joining the list any time soon.

Rep. Lindsley Smith (D-Fayetteville) introduced a resolution that would have designated Jan. 29 as a memorial day for Paine. H.B. 1317 would not have created a state holiday, but rather would have added Paine to a list of other prominent figures with state recognition, including   General Douglas MacArthur, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln.

Paine, as Bertrand Russell once noted, "made the preaching of democracy democratic." What Russell meant was that unlike other lofty messengers of democratic principles of the day, Paine was able to reach all kinds of people. His various manifestos, including Common Sense, resonated with ordinary citizens.

Indeed, Paine's Common Sense was a runaway best seller. His writings were accessible and contained powerful arguments for the severance of the American colonies from the British monarchy.

Many historians have attested to the fact that Paine was one of the first persons to call for freedom for America. He was also way ahead of American's other Founding Fathers in calling forcefully for an end to the slave trade.

During some of the American Revolution's darkest days, Paine penned a missive called The Crisis, which begins, "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 their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

Paine's stirring words were later read by General George Washington to his troops.

But Paine's contributions to America's birth were not appreciated by enough Arkansas lawmakers. The Paine Day resolution was approved 46-20 last week, the Associated Press reported. But 51 votes are needed for such resolutions to pass.  

During lawmakers' consideration, Smith trumpeted Paine as an American figure who "needs to be remembered." But other representatives were troubled by Paine's criticism of organized religion. Rep. Sid Rosenbaum (R-Little Rock) attacked one of Paine's books as being "anti-Christian and anti-Jewish."

Rosenbaum was referring to Paine's The Age of Reason, a two-part dissertation that delved into the author's theological underpinnings, much of which he shared with another Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. At the time, the book was pilloried as anti-religion.

Apparently times have not changed much for some folks. But Russell pointed out in a 1925 article that, "Nowadays...there is very little that most clergymen would disagree with" in Paine's work.

In the first chapter of The Age of Reason, Paine, wrote, "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 endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy."

In fairness, a large part of Paine's book does contain attacks on parts of the Bible and questions the miracles. But many of those criticisms can be and are accepted by many mainstream religious believers today.

It's sad that too many Arkansas lawmakers are woefully unaware of the genius of Tom Paine.