U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Barack Obama, George Washington….and Tom Paine

One of the things that most interested me about Barack Obama’s inaugural address was its peroration.

During the transition, the Obama team, its supporters, and its detractors, made a series of comparisons between our then-President Elect and past U.S. presidents. Probably the most discussed such comparison was with Abraham Lincoln, a parallel proposed by Obama, and then much-debated by press and public. “Obama’s Lincoln” made the cover of Newsweek. Even some historians got into the act.

But Lincoln was not the only past president who came up in discussions of Obama. Also prominently mentioned were FDR (largely because of his having come to office in the midst of the Great Depression) and JFK (glamor and youth, among other things).

Although Obama’s inaugural address certainly sounded some Rooseveltian and Kennedyesque notes–about seeing the country through a crisis and the need for public service respectively–neither FDR nor JFK nor Lincoln was directly invoked.

Indeed, the only past president who appeared in Obama’s speech was, somewhat surprisingly, George Washington. Here’s how the inaugural address concluded:

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 the moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to 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].”

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.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Although Washington is not mentioned by name, the epithet “the father of our nation” would be clear, I think, to any American listener. But Washington is an unusual political figure to invoke. More than FDR and JFK, even more than Lincoln, Washington is universally admired today. But the public’s admiration for Washington is, in a way, almost entirely devoid of real political content (hence, I think, its universality). Washington is known for being a great general and the first president, as well as for mythical feats like throwing a dollar across the Potomac. It’s somehow telling that the #1 hit on YouTube for “George Washington” is this hilarious (but definitely NSFW) video, which plays off the vague–and vaguely superheroic–qualities of Washington’s image in America today. At any rate, Washington is, on the face of it, a rather unlikely point of comparison: simultaneously uniquely accomplished (there can be only one “father of our nation,” after all) and politically strangely empty.

But in addition to directly invoking Washington, the conclusion of Obama’s speech directly quotes another great American revolutionary without mentioning his name. Although Obama’s speech almost makes it sound as if Washington composed the words he asked to be read to his troops, Washington’s request was, in fact, that a pamphlet by Tom Paine be read. And the words Obama quotes are from that pamphlet, the first in the series of sixteen that eventually became known collectively as The Crisis.

Even without his name being mentioned, Paine’s appearance in an inaugural address is yet more striking than Washington’s. If Washington is universally known and loved, while having an image oddly devoid of current political content, Paine is almost precisely the opposite. Paine is less well known today than many of his fellow founding fathers, but his reputation among those who know him is very specific. Paine is known as a great radical and pamphleteer. Little wonder that one of the most significant early progressive online journals named itself TomPaine.com. Even during his own lifetime, Tom Paine went from being a celebrated hero to a figure of scandal. In addition to The Crisis, Paine wrote Common Sense (1776), arguably the single most important pamphlet to make the case for American independence from Britain. But he later took part in the French Revolution and penned The Age of Reason (1793-94), which infamously argued for deism and against Christianity and destroyed his reputation in the U.S. Even a century later, Teddy Roosevelt could dismiss him as a “filthy little atheist.”

Yet Obama’s invocation of Paine has gone largely unremarked upon in the American media. The Times of London devoted an article to Paine following Obama’s speech, but to the best of my knowledge, no U.S. publication has done so.

Obama’s quoting Paine in the guise of Washington may soon become part of the right-wing conspiracy theory that our new president is a secret radical whose books were ghost written by former Weatherman Bill Ayers. Anyone tempted to conclude that Obama’s quoting Paine is somehow a sign of secret leftism would do well to remember the identity of the last president who liked to quote the author of Common Sense: Ronald Reagan.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    Your post accomplished one thing at least: I now know what NSFW means! Man am I decidedly not hip.

    By underscoring the Paine connection, your prophecy will now be self-fulfilling: it’ll feed right-wing fears that Obama is really not a Christian. Thanks. 😉

    But seriously, perhaps the bigger issue is this: Has Obama invoked Paine before? If so, when and in what context? Is Paine ~important~ to Obama? What can this connection tell us about his intellectual trajectory—since invoking Washington was a kind of political void?

    Oh, and on Reagan and “common sense,” well, I suspect that past reference was a misuse of both the term and Paine’s legacy. I’ll leave it to a political historian more familiar with Reagan to enlighten us on this point.

    – TL

  2. Sure enough, Bill Kristol, in his final NY Times column, which was published today, criticizes Obama in passing for using Washington as a front for Paine:

    For some reason, Obama didn’t identify the author of “these timeless words” — the only words quoted in the entire speech. He’s Thomas Paine, and the passage comes from the first in his series of Revolutionary War tracts, “The Crisis.” Obama chose to cloak his quotation from the sometimes intemperate Paine in the authority of the respectable George Washington.

    Though perhaps, coming from Kristol, this isn’t precisely a criticism. Straussians, after all, are deeply committed to cloaking the intemperate in the authority of the respectable.

  3. I think William Kristol and the right wing are fooling themselves if they criticize Obama for being a leftist radical by quoting Paine.

    It is no inconsistency that Ronald Reagan, who said in his first inaugural address “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem” liked to quote Thomas Paine who, reacting to King George’s tyranny, said “government is but a necessary evil” and several other statements that sound very Republican/small government/libertarian when read today.

    Sure, he was a radical who believed in overthrowing the status quo. But Paine was above all a champion of negative liberty. Obama, on the other hand, like any good New Deal Liberal, champions positive liberty which depends upon bold action from a strong central government. It was Washington, the only man who could unite the diverse colonies into the Continental Army– Washington the FEDERALIST– who brought America from the anti-government ideology of Tom Paine and 1776 to an acceptance of the benefits of a strong central government.

    As a New Deal Liberal myself, I am more than happy to see Obama recall in his inaugural address a Federalist President rather than a populist radical with libertarian tendencies. Kristol and friends should be mourning the obscuration of Paine, the father of their anti-government ideology.

  4. RivkaMA,

    Thanks for the comment!

    There’s clearly a gap between the cultural meanings attached to Washington and Paine and their actual politics. Should latter-day New Deal liberals simply declare, “Let Reagan have Paine, we’ll take the Federalists”? It’s an interesting thought, especially since to the extent that anyone has claimed the Federalists over the last century or so, it’s been the right, while liberals have usually claimed Paine (who is, in fact, all over New Deal culture). I think Joyce Appleby and Eric Foner had a disagreement over the usable Tom Paine back in the ’70s, with Foner seeing Paine as the voice of the radicalized downtrodden and Appleby seeing him as a tribune of the rising middle class.

    However, you may be wrong to see Kristol as a small-government conservative. He did his PhD with Harvey Mansfield at Harvard and is still very much a Straussian. And Straussians, whatever their other faults, have never had any problems with a strong state. Indeed, they see the very division between state and society as conceptual problematic, hence all the talk of regime (politeia) and the city (polis).

  5. I realize its really strange for a latter-day New Deal liberal to want to claim the Federalists, but I simply think that’s how the line of political thought flows: from the Federalists to the Progressives… straight through the Whigs, who are even less popular for today’s liberals to claim!

    But it was the Federalists who first argued that government should not only be feared but also trusted to promote the people’s welfare. It was Federalist/Whig John Quincy Adams who said “governments are invested with power, and to the attainment of the end– the progressive improvement of the condition of the governed– the exercise of delegated powers is a duty as sacred as the usurpation of powers not granted is odious.” The Whigs championed the progressive ideas of internal improvements, education reform, the tariff, and ending the expansion of slavery. This belief that government should pro-actively work to improve people’s lives is the foundation of Progressive/New Deal ideology. I think liberals have been reluctant to claim the Federalists and the Whigs simply because claiming the Federalists would involve to some extent rejecting Thomas Jefferson (not very politically viable!) and because the Whigs were somewhat on the losing side of history, obscured by all that hype about the “Age of Jackson.”

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. deserves the blame for New Deal liberals inappropriately claiming the mantle of the Jacksonian Democrats, rather than the Whigs. At the height of the New Deal, when he wrote The Age of Jackson, Schlesinger sought to promote FDR by comparing him to a successful and admired past politician. Unfortunately, Old Hickory served as a far better icon of an American hero than John Quincy Adams or Henry Clay. In fact, shortly before he died, Schlesinger admitted that his portrayal of Jackson was biased by his desire to give the New Deal a hero from the American past, and might not have been completely accurate.

    As for Kristol, I agree that he does believe in a strong state– at least he certainly believes in a strong U.S. military asserting its power abroad. However, he does not believe in big government like FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society (or Clay’s American System, I would argue!) taking an active role in promoting liberty and ensuring equality. On the contrary, Kristol and all those on the right today sound more like Thomas Paine, who could not think of government without thinking of King George III, or Andrew Jackson, who asserted that “congress has no right, under the Constitution, to take money from the people unless it is required to execute one of the specific powers entrusted to the government; and if they raise more than is necessary, it is an abuse of the power of taxation and unjust and oppressive.”

    I know this is just one interpretation of the history of American political ideology, and I know it gets complicated where Paine and Jackson attempt to speak for the economically down-trodden. But it seems there is enough evidence to support this interpretation– focusing essentially on who champions positive liberty and who champions negative liberty– that it should at least get as much attention as the opposing theory (that the Federalists and Whigs belong to the right and Paine and Jackson belong to the let), which has enjoyed a free pass for a long time…

  6. Schlesinger’s celebration of Jackson as a proto-FDR really hasn’t worn well, particularly because the less attractive aspects of Jackson’s presidency loom much larger these days (though maybe that’s just the view from Oklahoma).

    I remember reading The Age of Jackson for the first time in grad school and thinking that Schlesinger’s vision of Old Hickory, while clearly designed to invoke Roosevelt, felt disturbingly like Ronald Reagan.

    Of course, that may not have been accidental. While Reagan in many ways ran against New Deal liberalism, his sunny personal style was a page out of FDR’s playbook. The GOP even played “Happy Days Are Here Again” at their 1980 convention. Since both Schlesinger’s Jackson and Ronald Reagan-as-President were, in part, based on FDR, it’s no wonder there was a resemblance.

  7. Good point, and even though Reagan and Jackson didn’t believe philosophically in the power of government, they certainly were both,like FDR, strong, powerful executives. I guess on some level politics is just personality. Another good reason for Obama to invoke the resolute and honorable “father of our nation” rather than the lesser-known English radical…

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