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Thomas Paine threw caution to the wind

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Being first won’t automatically make you a leader. For that, you need followers.

Thomas Paine wasn’t the first American to advocate for independence from the British crown. That honor went to John Adams and others. What Paine did was rabble-rouse in a pamphlet called “Common Sense,” published in 1776, in which he appealed directly to regular people and touched off the American Revolution.

“As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand,” he wrote, “I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet.”

Paine also stood out for his boldness. Advised to avoid two words— “independence” and “republicanism” —Paine featured them prominently. He didn’t care about his own safety, and he didn’t profit one penny from the thousands of copies sold. In fact, he paid for the first edition himself and later died poor.

Paine declared that liberty wasn’t a gift from the British but a natural right. He also argued that Americans’ new freedoms would last, serving as the seeds for a union that would span the continent.

Paine was first in many things: (1) he proposed the name “the United States of America”; (2) he objected vehemently to George Washington owning slaves; and (3) he put forward one of the first proposals for a progressive income tax. But his ideas often were so controversial that only six people showed up at his funeral. It took Thomas Edison a century later to restore Paine’s place in history.

What ultimately made Paine a hero was that he spoke plainly and eloquently, so his fellow citizens listened to him and followed. His brashness heartened them. “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” he wrote, “yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

—Adapted from “Founding Father Thomas Paine,” Jed Graham, Investor’s Business Daily.

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