Why did Romney quote Thomas Paine?

February 1, 2012

When White House seeker Mitt Romney told Obama to get out the way in his Florida primary victory speech on Tuesday, he evoked the words of Thomas Paine, an early American revolutionary who is in many ways a far cry from the archetypal role model for modern-day conservatives.

After beating his Republican rivals by a wide margin, an exuberant Romney told a crowd of cheering supporters: “In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way.’ Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!”

There is debate over whether the quote can accurately be attributed to Paine, but Romney’s intention is clear. Since the beginning of his campaign, Romney has been courting adherents of the grassroots conservative Tea Party movement, many of them constitutional purists who glorify the founding fathers. But Paine doesn’t fit in neatly with some of the other 18th century political leaders who pushed for American independence from England.

Paine, famous for his pamphlet Common Sense, repudiated Christianity, denounced concentrations of wealth and proposed an early form of social security. He left America after the American revolution and eventually became a French citizen. He returned to America after years of imprisonment in France and later died alone and poor in New York City after years of poverty, ailing health, and alcoholism.

Paine wrote the Age of Reason, a deist doctrine in which he argues against institutionalized religion and the idea that the Bible is the word of God. In another pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, he called for “a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling” and provisions for the poor.

Moreover, Paine could be interpreted as an early adherent to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society economic programs. In his Rights of Man, Paine writes, “No one man is capable, without the aid of society, of supplying his own wants, and those wants, acting upon every individual, impel the whole of them into society.”

Romney isn’t the only Republican to call on the spirit of Paine. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, quoting Common Sense, told the Republican National Convention, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Photo credit: Romney speaks to supporters after winning the Florida primary, REUTERS/Mike Carlson
Photo credit: Romney at his campaign headquarters in Florida, REUTERS/Bryan Snyder

One comment

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Analysis of the above broad strokes: Not a Romney fan at all. Ron Paul 2012. However, in looking at the above article, it seeks to do what many seek to do with such similar apathy to fine argument. In assailing a Single sentence that was quoted, the author brings up the Entire history of Thomas Paine, and obviously many of the darker points. I would put forth that the willingness to do so shows, quite starkly, the obtuseness of the author, and, indeed, the obtuseness of many inner mental responses that are a mere drop in the bucket of good argumentation. Not that this opinion argued anything but instead lightly suggested that…
My point being: Please put more effort into your opinion articles. It is bad enough that most folks barely gloss the media they use to form their shallow opinions they call facts, don’t encourage it with softer opinions. What did you really want to imply? That Romney quoted someone who opposes the audience he is courting? That it thereby implicates him in Thomas Payne dying a drunk? That you know they darker points of one man? I would state that it is wise to use the genius of other men, regardless of their moral or political character. Now that’s arguing something.

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