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.