"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, June 13, 2016

Ronald Reagan's favorite Founding Father: Thomas Paine

Historian John Patrick Duggin's book on President Ronald Reagan is one of the better single-volume biographies of the late president and conservative icon. In Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History (2007, hardcover $24.51) Duggin brings up an interesting point that I hadn't realized, namely that Reagan was strongly influenced in his views by Thomas Paine. Paine is the Founding Father that Reagan quoted the most, and much of Paine's ideology (individual liberty, a suspicion of large institutions, hostility to taxation and government regulation) is evident in Reagan's general approach to conservatism & public policy.

In explaining Reagan's fondness for quoting Paine, Duggan notes that Reagan's brand of conservatism was remarkably untraditional in its rhetoric. In several different contexts, Reagan quoted Paine's stirring line, "We have the power to begin the world anew" -- a very untraditional sentiment. Reagan embraced Paine's idea that human beings can liberate themselves from corrupt and oppressive structures in order to create a new order of liberty and individualism. While Reagan appealed to voters of a more traditionalist perspective, he was no disciple of Russell Kirk & even less a disciple of Edmund Burke. Behind Reagan's conservativism was a streak of radicalism that is underappreciated both by many current conservatives who tend to be overly hagiographic when speaking of the former president & many modern progressives who ignorantly demonize him.

It is a fascinating twist of history that the most radical American revolutionary, Thomas Paine, serves as a primary philosophical influence on the most successful conservative president of the 20th century. Any attempt to understand Ronald Reagan must take into account the influence of Thomas Paine on his work. And any attempt to appreciate Thomas Paine's influence on America must look to the impact his work had on the ideas, rhetoric & program of Ronald Reagan.

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