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Paine's crisis and Obama's

Tom Griffin
20 January 2009

Tom Griffin (London, OK): In his inaugural address, America's new president turns to England's greatest republican:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have travelled. 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 a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words 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]."

The reference is to Tom Paine's Crisis No 1, which George Washington ordered read to his men in December 1776 before crossing the Delaware to attack George III's Hessian mercenaries, in a crucial turning point in the American revolutionary war.

The Nation's John Nichols notes that Obama frequently invokes Paine, and suggests he is a singularly appropriate choice:

When the Pennsylvania Assembly considered the formal abolition of slavery in 1779, it was Paine who authored the preamble to the proposal.

Paine's fervent objections to slavery led to his exclusion from the inner circles of American power in the first years of the republic. He died a pauper. Only history restored the man--and his vision.

And on this day, this remarkable day, Thomas Paine is fully redeemed.

Paine, to a greater extent than any of his peers, was the founder who imagined a truly United States that might offer a son of Africa and of America not merely citizenship but its presidency.

Nichols concludes:

When our new president says that his election proves "the dream of our founders is alive in our time," it is Paine's dream of which he speaks.

That dream may not be fully realized. But it is alive--more, indeed, today than at any time in the history of a land that might yet begin our world over again.

One can only hope that Paine's vision for England is also alive, and that he will not remain forever a prophet without honour in his own country.

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