Tom Paine, A Professional Revolutionary

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August 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 


Alaine Lowell lived through the revolutionary ’60s — a young woman born of the counterculture and intent on experiencing the time-honored odyssey of finding one’s self.

Lowell was a product of those more free-thinking and open-minded times and still firmly held onto those values by the late 1970s, which made her budding friendship at that time with George Holtz, a Republican real estate entrepreneur more than 35 years her senior, somewhat uncommon.

The two met while Lowell was living in Castle Green and Holtz was a member of the historic structure’s board of directors. Their relationship was “never romantic,” Lowell explains. They were friends and business associates through the Old Pasadena landmark she lived in and he helped oversee.

What neither Lowell nor Holtz could have ever imagined at that time was the lifelong love affair both people — the ex-hippie and the Republican businessman — would develop with American Founding Father Thomas Paine.

Holtz was an old brand Republican, one not like today’s fascist-tinged variety. He didn’t like paying taxes. However, he also did not deny science or reason or intelligence or education or knowledge, as do those in the outer reaches of today’s political right.

It turned out Holtz, a native of Paine’s hometown of Philadelphia, and Lowell discovered they shared a deeper than average appreciation of this polemicist and pamphleteer who probably was the actual writer of the Declaration of Independence. Paine also penned “Common Sense” and “The Age of Reason,” in which he railed against monarchs and tyrants and proclaimed the rights of man.

Anyone who ever took a typing class might remember Paine for the line, “These are times that try men’s souls,” written in “The American Crisis” in 1776. It was his writings that kept Washington’s troops going against the much better equipped British army and its Hessian mercenary allies.

Paine was also a free thinker, which makes ex-FOX News blowhard Glenn Beck’s supposed love of the man ironic, if not also misleading and a little insulting to those who know Paine’s real life story.

It’s hard to imagine that Beck somehow missed some of Paine’s more famous remarks, such as, “It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine and murder; for the belief of a cruel God make a cruel man,” and, “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and craft.”

Paine also pointedly noted, “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing: it is founded on nothing; it rests on nothing; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing and admits of no conclusion.” And lastly, Paine observed, “No falsehood is so fatal as that which is made an article of faith.”
Paine was a bit like another great free thinker, Mark Twain, who came along some decades later. Neither could abide organized religion, with both men serving as preachers of Enlightenment against the forces of superstition and darkness.

Paine believed in a God, but it was a quiet and personal relationship. Like his friends Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Paine was a deist. But if he openly worshipped anything, it was science and reason. Though he made it clear he was not an atheist, Paine found the Christian Bible absurd and indefensible. That, perhaps, explains why people either loved or hated him. He offended fundamentalist Christian sensibilities, and Paine, in turn, was condemned for his uncommon beliefs.

Progressive Pasadena

Although her parents were political progressives, Lowell had never heard of Paine until Holtz introduced her to his writings at the Castle. After that, Paine developed into their mutual obsession.

Holtz became intent on endowing a nonprofit Thomas Paine Society that would make its home in Castle Green. And as chairman of the Castle’s board of directors, that was easily done. Holtz owned a significant number of units in the Old Pasadena landmark.

It was not a coincidence that Holtz started a Thomas Paine Society in Pasadena, a city founded by eastern millionaires as a refuge from humid summers and freezing winters. Many of these wealthy people gave the city a certain noblesse oblige that few other towns in Southern California possessed, attracting the great artists, thinkers and authors of their times.

One of those writers was Upton Sinclair, a muckraker cut from the Tom Paine mold. Sinclair had a Dickensian childhood of poverty, much as Paine did, although he also had a ruling-class side of his family, which no doubt formed his own particular ideas about social change. In 1909, Sinclair moved from New York to Pasadena and then spent most of the rest of his life here. He had written “The Jungle” three years previously and was invited to move here by Henry Gaylord Wilshire, the millionaire socialist and real estate developer who created Wilshire Boulevard.

One of the great moments in Sinclair’s life was when he finally got to meet Wilshire, who had made and lost fortunes in LA real estate. Others in high society with whom Sinclair socialized included actor Charlie Chaplin, Kate Crane Gartz of the Crane plumbing fortune, Bobby Scripps of the newspaper chain, and land and oil heiress Aline Barnsdall.

Sinclair also edited “The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest — The Writings of Philosophers, Poets, Novelists, Social Reformers, and Others Who Have Voice in the Struggle Against Social Injustice.” Of course, that book included a selection by Thomas Paine.

Sinclair owned several connected cottages in the 1500 block of Sunset Avenue (long since torn down) on the Rose Bowl side of town. He used to go walking with automaker Henry Ford in the San Gabriel Mountains behind Pasadena and discuss with him politics and economics.

Sinclair made thousands and spent thousands — usually on his crusades. He published his own books in California because New York publishers had proven fickle and unreliable. But Sinclair did not always run his publishing business like a business. He distributed thousands of copies of “The Flivver King” at no cost to auto workers organizing in Detroit.

Although the men were acquaintances, there was no mistaking Sinclair’s feelings about the dehumanizing mechanization of labor Ford had pioneered, judging by the words appearing on the cover of the 1937 book:

“What is Henry Ford? What have the years done to him? What has his billion dollars made of him? Here is the man, and the story of his life. Here also are his workers, a family of them over a period of three generations. What has the billion dollars done to them? A dramatic labor struggle is under way. Will Ford recognize the union? Will there be a ‘sit-down’ in his plants? Here, in story form, are the facts needed to understand events.”

In this and other ways, Sinclair was very similar to Paine. He wrote to convince people, not necessarily to make money. Sinclair was the carrier of the Tom Paine torch for the soul and conscience of the next American Revolution. Just as Paine had spoken in plain terms about the common man’s right to be free of kings and plutocrats, Sinclair also rejected such types as parasites on working people.

But in as much as Sinclair was quite a bit like Paine, Paine was also much like Twain — a wandering newspaperman. Perhaps more than anything, however, Paine was a professional revolutionary and pamphleteer. He was committed to a vision of government by the people, not just for America, but the world. He gave America the name United States of America, but he also wanted a United States of Europe. After America’s war was settled, he went off to France to fight in that country’s revolution.

In some ways, Paine was a divine discontent. The American Revolution had not gone far enough in his view. He was angered by his old comrades, Presidents Washington and Jefferson, who did not attempt to end slavery. Although it took many decades until Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War resolved the issue, Paine was an abolitionist throughout his life.

American birthright
Holtz died in 2001 at the age of 87, Lowell recalls. He was one of the many military veterans who mustered out of World War II in the West and stayed, making his fortune in the post-war real estate boom. Although Holtz was a Republican, he grew up in Paine’s hometown and was imbued with the  great man’s revolutionary spirit. Holtz was also fond of another infamous freethinker, Col. Robert Ingersoll, who inveighed against organized religion, very much in the spirit of Paine’s “Age of Reason.”

The Thomas Paine Society is loosely allied with an organization by the same name in Paine’s native England, in the town where he grew up. There’s also the Thomas Paine National Historical Association in New Rochelle, NY, near the site of Paine’s farmhouse.

One would be quite right in saying that Thomas Paine was a great revolutionary on the left side of the political continuum. His quotes adorn the nation’s official Social Security Web site, where he puts forth the notion that all the abundance of Earth —  its air, water, plants, forests, deserts, coasts — really belong to everybody. Further, Paine believed human beings are entitled to financial support, in birth as well as old age, as a way to compensate those not born into property. He proposed an inheritance tax of 10 percent to finance his idea.

“To Paine, this was not charity; this was your birthright,” Lowell explains. “He believed that the planet Earth belongs to everybody. It is everyone’s birthright. You belong to this planet, and this planet belongs to you.”

Lowell marvels at how Glenn Beck has tried to put Paine’s mantle on, “Especially considering that Beck is such a Christian,” she says.

The Thomas Paine Society’s mission is to show how relevant its namesake is today. “Paine,” Lowell says, “wasn’t a politician. He just spoke the truth.

Paine, she said, “is the ideal that we have of a founder … he spoke the truth in spite of the consequences.”

Beginning again
Holtz left an endowment consisting, in part, of his interests in Castle Green to develop a society that told the story of Paine. Along with a Web site, a newsletter, an executive director (Lowell) and a five-person board of directors, the society has about 400 supporters.

One of the things Lowell wants to do is sponsor an essay contest about Paine that includes prizes for winning students. Although Paine is possibly the most important intellectual figure of the American Revolution, most of his modern admirers must discover him on their own. Professional “educators” have avoided the subject because Paine remains controversial to this day.

Lowell said Paine’s thoughts are for people with young minds, because “Paine is someone who opens the world up.”
In 2010, the society constructed the Thomas Pain Research Library at the Castle to house books by and about Paine and people with alternative views on American history. Toward the end of August, Castle Green will become a theater when Ian Ruskin, an actor who specializes in recreating Paine, will perform “To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Tom Paine.”

The Society is also producing a series of YouTube videos called “Tom Talks,” a takeoff on “Ted Talks,” one of which features Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s Magazine.

In addition, on Jan. 29, Paine’s birthday, the Society holds the Headstrong Evening Club, recreating the debating society that Paine belonged to in England. One previous topic was the question, “Are Corporations the New Monarchy?”
What would Thomas Paine have said?


Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin & Willa Cather,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and co-author of “Bread and Hyacinths,” available on Amazon’s Kindlestore.


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