National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

August 7, 2009 through
November 29, 2009

Words matter. The forthright words in an anonymous pamphlet called Common Sense, penned by a down-at-the-heels Englishman in January 1776, mattered a great deal. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” proclaimed Thomas Paine (1737–1809) in firing up Americans to get on with a declaration of independence. In December of that year, as George Washington’s disheartened army retreated across New Jersey, Paine began his series of Crisis essays with the words, “These are the times that try Men’s souls.” He went on to exhort, “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 and to repulse it.”

Ahead were turbulent times in England and France, where Paine hammered away at hereditary monarchy and preached that liberty and equality were the rights of man. Paine returned to America in 1802 only to find that The Age of Reason—his assault on traditional religion—had made him a pariah among his former friends and most of the public. He died in poverty and disrepute two hundred years ago, on June 8, 1809, but his words have never been forgotten, evoked, among many others, by Ronald Reagan as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and by Barack Obama in his 2009 inaugural address.


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