Barack Obama is weaving the pamphleteer into the fabric of America's twenty-first century. On the eve of his inauguration, Obama declared his hope that "the dream of our founders will live on in our time." But which of the founders would be worthy of quotation in the inaugural address, to be heard by all the world as an affirmation of that dream's highest values? A slaveholder president? A drafter of the Constitution, which compromised the ideal that all men are created equal? No, Obama turned to the outlier who recognized not only what America was at its founding but what it might be. Speaking of a "return to these truths" of the American experiment, the new president invoked Paine as an inspiration for our times: "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." Obama quotes Paine frequently, recognizing--implicitly if not yet explicitly, as some of us hope he will--that no founder anticipated his presidency or the true meaning of the word "change" as well as the itinerant rebel who promised that "America ever is what she thinks herself to be."
As Nichols says, Paine 'condemned slavery, argued for the rights of women and imagined social democracy'. In an age when most accepted the divine right of kings, he 'objected to organised religion and championed freethinking'. In these days when the legacy of the Enlightenment is under threat from both the religious right and the reactionary left, we need him more than ever.