An Interview with Rep. Jamie Raskin on the Feminist and Abolitionist Founder Who Has Slipped into a Memory Hole

Drawing of Thomas Paine by Peter Kramer (1851). Image: Library of Congress

He named our country the “United States of America.” The failed corset maker sailed to the nation he would name at nearly 40 years old, with nothing but an introduction from Benjamin Franklin. He went on to write the sensational bestseller of the day, Common Sense, though he remained the poorest of the Founding Fathers. The runaway hit made money, but he donated all profits to the Continental Army to fight the War for America’s Independence. When Thomas Paine put ink on parchment, his words did more than anyone else’s to galvanize the colonies. His writings paved the way for the Declaration of Independence. 

Even John Adams, no fan of the man, admitted in a fit of pique, “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. … Call it then the Age of Paine.” Thomas Edison considered “Paine our greatest political thinker.” In his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn notes that “Tom Paine spoke out for the equal rights of women.”

And yet, there’s no memorial to Paine in our nation’s capital. 

In fact, there’s almost no trace of Paine in Washington, D.C. One small portrait occasionally hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. 

There’s no statue. There’s no memorial. There isn’t even a street or an elementary school in the federal district. It’s almost as if we slipped Paine into one of Orwell’s memory holes. 

His absence is both a mystery and a travesty. Thankfully, the travesty is being corrected. 

The Thomas Paine Memorial Association (TPMA) is quietly working to place just such a memorial in Washington, D.C. Already, the small group has convinced members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to pass the necessary legislation, which President Biden signed into law at the close of 2022. Leading the legislative charge is Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD), one of Paine’s biggest fans. 

At the Summit for Religious Freedom in DC on April 15, Rep. Raskin signed books and delivered a rousing speech on threats to the separation of church and state and our democracy. He quoted Paine, after noting that he was an early “feminist … suffragist … and abolitionist.” 

In our interview, Rep. Raskin talked about how influential Paine has been on his life and career, “I’ve just always loved Tom Paine. I Remember the very first time I read Common Sense and it was like the words were flying off the page. All of his writing is completely electric and way ahead of its time.” 

Paine’s writing wasn’t just ahead of its time, but relevant to the fight for self-government today: “The autocrats, the theocrats, the kleptocrats, and the plutocrats are on the march,” says Raskin. “There’s no more passionate spokesperson for the cause of democracy and humanity than Tom Paine,” giving the diminutive to his old friend, “so now’s a great time to honor him.”

One of the brilliant themes in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton—whose closing number is “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”—concerns the stories we as a nation tell about our Founders, something Raskin invokes. “The absence of a Paine memorial in Washington is a real problem in our political culture. So much of the pop culture debate today is a fight between the fans of Hamilton and Jefferson.” 

Hamilton’s “scrappy biography” has been so creatively and successfully popularized, he says, partly by playing Hamilton against Thomas Jefferson. “What’s missing in that Hamilton-Jefferson debate,” he tells me, “is Tom Paine, who reviled both of the monarchical pretensions of the Hamiltonian group, and the fateful compromise with slavery that the Jeffersonians forgive.” In other words, Paine embodied the best of both men and, remarkably, without the serious historical baggage nearly all in the founding generation carry.

Raskin speaks with his customary brilliance and fire, but there’s an undeniably genuine admiration that leads me to ask “How much do you love Thomas Paine?” “We named our son after him, Tommy,” Raskin begins and the conversation becomes deeply personal.

In his new book, Unthinkable, Raskin tells the story of the January 6th insurrection, the subsequent impeachment he managed, and his son Tommy’s suicide, which all occurred within days of one other. The book is a memoir to his son as much as a defense of our democracy. We discuss his two heroes. “Tommy Raskin embodied Tom Paine’s belief in humanity and his optimism about our ability to vindicate the rights and the welfare of all people,” Raskin tells me. He points out that Paine first floated the idea of social security at the end of Common Sense: “Paine was interested in building a society of decency and common provision and he wanted to appeal to people’s best moral sentiments. Our Tommy was very much like that too.”

Raskin received bi-partian support when he pushed the Paine Memorial through Congress—and these days, getting a bipartisan bill through Congress is an achievement all its own. But congressional approval is only the first step. 

When Margaret Downey, the stylish president of the Thomas Paine Memorial Association, sat down for our interview, she made it clear that the hard work is just beginning. Vivid and chic, Downey has been an activist, educator, and costumed historical reenactor for decades. She’s tenacious, and will have to continue to be if this memorial is to succeed.

Decades ago, a similar congressional authorization failed. Immense funding and organization is required. The process which, start to finish, could take 20 years, includes artists, consultants and the alphabet soup of government agencies with their own ideas for—and veto power over—the project. The memorial has to prove to be independently financially viable, with sufficient reserves for future upkeep. Downey has a long way to go. “We have hundreds of donors, some who are sending us just $5 here or there. Every little bit helps, every donation secures a piece of American history that we risk losing,” she explains. “We need perhaps $3 million depending on the scale, which depends on the sites available. If we get a tiny spot, it may only be a statue. If we get a bit more space, we could truly honor his legacy.”

Those who can’t contribute are sending letters to the TPMA endorsing the project and explaining why they think the monument is important, says Downey. Asked why she’s so passionate about Paine she replies: “We need heroes these days. Not statues to traitors, but statues of true heroes. Paine is a hero. He exemplifies democracy and equality and justice, so when we honor Paine, we are honoring those aspirational American values.” She pauses and adds, “[he was a] beautiful man who changed the world.”

So why don’t we remember him today? How could we forget such a man?

The answer is, we haven’t. We’ve erased him. 

Paine died in 1809 as he arrived on our shores in 1774: penniless and nearly friendless. Unlike every other Founder, we don’t even know where his remains are, as they were stolen. And so was his legacy. Paine was not forgotten, but wiped away. Erased. 

Paine’s willingness to challenge orthodoxy wasn’t limited to politics. He challenged it everywhere, including religion. And there’s a growing consensus that it was his vocal criticism of organized religion that led to the active suppression of his legacy.

Raskin called this Paine’s “precocious anti-clericalism.” Downey points to the “many horrible rumors about Paine that started after he wrote Rights of Man,” which were meant “to diminish his writing by diminishing his personal reputation … ad hominem attacks because they couldn’t argue with Paine at his level.”

Historians seem to agree. Paine was so far ahead of his time that he left the other Founders behind. Historian Jill Lepore writes in The New Yorker, “By the time Paine died, in 1809, all the surviving Founders had renounced him.” 

Historian and author of Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence, Harlow Giles Unger told an audience at the National Archives that “history books, especially high school and elementary school history books, have sought to make Thomas Paine a virtual non person . . . to avoid antagonizing church leaders, churchgoers, and public officials.” That’s why, added Unger, he wrote his biography of Paine. 

Downey sees the memorial as righting that wrong: “We as a nation have to atone for this attempt to diminish his legacy.”

When we do remember Paine, it’s often because of Common Sense, but it’s the opening of The Crisis which really grabs the reader:

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 his country but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hall, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

Gripping and relevant as the words still are today—this is the paragraph Rep. Raskin quoted at the Summit for Religious Freedom in April 2024—think of what it must have been like to read or hear those words in the bleak winter of December 1776. The American people needed a victory on which to pin the last shreds of their hope. They needed a win. General Washington had Paine’s words read aloud to his soldiers on Christmas night before they crossed the Delaware River and routed the British and Hessians at Trenton. Perhaps not a turning point militarily, but the victory boosted the morale of a nascent nation and lives on in our memory.

Thomas Paine did more for this country than many others we honor in our nation’s capital. His story is also uniquely American. Not in the “rags to riches” or “pulled himself up by the bootstraps” sense, but in the sense that he wanted a better world and a better life and set out to make that a reality in the country he would later name. 

“Tom Paine is the voice of radical democracy from the 18th century and that’s an important part of the American tradition that has been suppressed,” Rep. Raskin told me, “so we need a statue of Tom Paine. He was a visionary defender of democracy and freedom for the people.”

The Thomas Paine Memorial Association puts it more succinctly, “Thomas Paine helped create America. It’s time America honored his legacy.” Indeed, it is.