This just in: the Arkansas legislature has voted to honor Common Sense author Thomas Paine, despite fears that Paine may have been an atheist. Paine, a Revolutionary War propagandist, penned the words: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” But his comments on religion alienated some Americans, then and now.
Ark. House passes bill honoring founding father
By JILL ZEMAN
Associated Press Writer
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Legislature’s biggest backer of Thomas Paine says she still hasn’t convinced all her colleagues that the 18th century writer wasn’t an atheist.
But Rep. Lindsley Smith, D-Fayetteville, did persuade a majority of them to vote for her bill that recognizes Jan. 29 as Thomas Paine Day in Arkansas.
That’s a big change from two years ago, when Smith’s bill was derailed over concerns about Paine’s writings on Christianity.
“I guess just fewer voted against him because of religious objections,” Smith said after the bill passed Thursday. “I mean, people were still saying, ’I didn’t like what he said about God.’ I heard ’atheist’ several times this morning, which isn’t true.”
The bill was approved in the House — with no debate — on a 66-21 vote, with 10 members not voting and 3 voting present.
If approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, Thomas Paine Day wouldn’t be a legal holiday. Instead, it would join 11 other commemorative days — including General Douglas MacArthur Day on Jan. 26, Arkansas Bird Day on April 26 and Jefferson Davis’ Birthday on June 3.
Thomas Paine is best known for his January 1776 pamphlet, “Common Sense,” which urged American independence from England. Smith said that, since her bill failed in 2007, she’s heard from Paine fans from around the globe.
“The idea of the day is because he’s been so forgotten,” Smith said. “And more people have learned about Paine. In the last two years I’ve heard from so many people. I would get handwritten letters from all over.”
Smith said she’s optimistic about her bill’s chances in the Senate, where it will be heard first by the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“I trust the strength of Paine. I really do,” Smith said. “I know that probably sounds corny, but I think people are seeing how valuable he was to us, and how we would not be what we were, if not for him.”
But not all members were convinced that Arkansas should be setting aside a day for Paine.
“If you study his life, you can see that he had a bias against religion,” said Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, who voted against the bill. “He was a great man and served his purpose, but he wasn’t in the mainstream in our founding fathers.”