“Mobituaries”: Thomas Paine and the death of a forgotten founding father

How should a podcast honor a largely-unsung Founding Father, more than two centuries after his death? In the case of “Mobituaries with Mo Rocca,” a musical production number and comic roast seemed like the most fitting means of paying tribute to Thomas Paine.

Mo Rocca pulls out all the stops to honor the author whose pamphlets lit the fuse for the American Revolution but who remains little-remembered today. Library of Congress

The English-born Paine grew up in humble circumstances and arrived in Philadelphia on the eve of revolution. His pamphlet “Common Sense” became one of the bestselling publications in American history, inspiring colonists to cut ties with England.

Without him, there might not be a United States. Yet, when Paine died, only six people showed up at his funeral. The paltry obit that was published at the time summed up his life in this line: “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.”  

To add insult to injury, a crazed fan dug up his bones.

Today, there seems to be some confusion over Paine’s historical significance. “People may have known he said, ‘These are the times that try men’s souls’; they may know that he said, ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again,'” biographer Craig Nelson explained. “They may know that he wrote ‘Common Sense,’ but they don’t really know who he is.”

So, this past summer, visitors gathered for a memorial do-over at the very site of his death: what is now the popular Greenwich Village piano bar Marie’s Crisis. The title of the bar is a nod to Paine’s series of “American Crisis” pamphlets published during the Revolutionary War – a rallying cry for citizens and soldiers alike.

Paine also called for the end of hereditary monarchy, which was a treasonous act at the time.

He would go on to write “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason”; the latter publication became one of his most polarizing, since Paine attacked organized religion.

In this episode, Mo Rocca tries to understand why Paine isn’t as well-remembered as his fellow revolutionaries, and gives him the send-off he deserves with an original production number written by Tony-nominated composers Laurence O’Keefe (“Legally Blonde”) and Nell Benjamin (“Mean Girls”), and a roast from “The Daily Show” comedian Lewis Black. 

“Mobituaries”: “Drink to Thomas Paine!”

Other surprise guests include comedy legend Carl Reiner, and “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” judge and scorekeeper Bill Kurtis.

After all, make no mistake: No Paine … no gain of Independence!

You can download episodes of “Mobituaries with Mo Rocca” for free on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayiHeartRadioSpotifyStitcher or Tunein. New episodes will be available weekly. For RSS feed click here.       

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