Introducing Thomas Paine to Your Library

General Interest

By: Ellie Diaz

Ian Ruskin as Thomas Paine in "To Begin the World Over Again"
Photo credit: Tom Dempsey

Actor Ian Ruskin stands before a packed room of people at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood, decked out in authentic colonial garb. He is no longer himself; he has transformed into a man who inspired revolutions with his pen: Thomas Paine.

Thomas Paine’s To Begin the World Over Again began as a one-man play, which was later televised on PBS. The Office for Intellectual Freedom teamed up with Ruskin to offer a customized screening kit for libraries, complete with DVDs of the full-length play, screening rights, talking points, Facebook banners, press releases and colonial recipes. Ten percent of the proceeds from the library screening kit benefit the Office for Intellectual Freedom.

I sat down with Ruskin to talk about Paine’s controversial past, his history with book censorship and why libraries are the best places to host these discussions.

ED: You wrote and starred in the one-man play Thomas Paine’s To Begin the World Over Again, which aired on PBS and is now sold online. How did you get started with this project?

IR: I was performing an earlier play about labor leader Harry Bridges on the East Coast, and three people within the span of four days suggested I write a play about Thomas Paine. So I read one biography called Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations by Craig Nelson and was completely amazed by him; I just knew he had to be my next character.

ED: What was your researching process like?

IR: I read lots of different biographies chronologically, and then once I chose five scholars to collaborate with, I read anything they had written. My aim was to write a play about a human being and try to make him as real as I could. My scholars kept my writing accurate.

I also had to make decisions about, for instance, his love life. After his first wife died in childbirth, he married a second time, and it appears it was a marriage with affection but without sex. After that, I couldn’t find any love relationships in his life, except he did love his horse Button. So I made the most of Button in the play. I wanted to show that the man had a heart. He was heartbroken by his wife’s death but then he gave his heart to America and the world.

ED: Intellectual freedom is the right of every person to seek and receive information from all points of view — more simply put, it’s the free access to all ideas. How does Thomas Paine fit in with intellectual freedom?

Actor Ian Ruskin as Thomas Paine in "To Begin the World Over Again"
Photo credit: Tom Dempsey

IR: In lots of ways. He was the first whistleblower in American history. Paine leaked information that the French had been supplying the American Revolution before they signed official treaties with the colonies. And that was the end of his political career.

There’s the fact that Paine gave away all rights to Common Sense and announced anyone could publish it. Common Sense is what sparked the American Revolution. Just about everyone read it or had it read to them. He sabotaged the whole tradition of publishing. He was completely committed to getting information out there for people to read.

He also loved debating. He would be happy people debated today. Debating was sort of a practice art back then — people giving their points of view and listening to each other. He also wanted free public education for children, which was unheard of. He wanted people to read, think and have access to information. The idea of intellectual freedom, to him, would have been a kind of no-brainer.

ED: Why did you decide to collaborate with OIF to create a screening packet exclusively for libraries?

IR: Libraries are at the heart of American communities. I think there’s something particular about libraries — because libraries are about books, and Paine’s life was about writing. His weapon was a pen.

The play is an eye-opener to some of the misconceptions and myths about this country’s beginning. Libraries are places where people can have different opinions. That’s the best setting for this story and that’s why I wanted to work with you on this screening kit.

ED: Many may not know that Paine has a history of book censorship with the publishing of the Rights of Man: Part Second. Why was this book was so controversial?

IR: In Part Second, Paine called for the end of the British monarchy and budgets that would include no money for war; these were absolutely revolutionary things in the eyes of the British ruling class. It was the beginning of the New Deal in the 1790s, which when you think about it, is extraordinary. He called for social security, welfare, food stamps, free schools and veteran benefits. That, plus the call to end the monarchy, was sedition to the British government.

ED: How was he and the publishers punished?

IR: William Blake warned him to leave England, and he escaped to France. He was then put on trial in his absence, charged with the very serious crime of sedition. He was sentenced to be hung. The British Navy searched ships at sea for years, looking for him. If you sold his books or had one copy of Rights of Man in your window, you could be fined and jailed. Sometimes bookshops were burnt down. This went on for 15 years. It was a very clear attempt of suppression of ideas.

ED: On your website you state, “We need Thomas Paine’s voice now more than ever.” If Paine were around today, what do you think he would be writing about?

IR: For a start, I think he would be on the internet 18 hours a day, writing. I think he would be wiki-leaking anything he could find. He would be writing about voter suppression, poverty and endless war. He would be shocked that we have career politicians; he believed that politicians should constantly rotate in and out of government. He always said that the needs of the elected should never be different than the needs of the electors.

I think he would probably have no chance of being a politician today because he always spoke his mind. This is why this story is so important now. It’s important for people to hear these ideas from the 1770s and onward. This has always been part of the spirit of America, even if it gets crush sometimes, or lost, or forgotten, it’s still there.

This year, we really need Thomas Paine.

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