This past weekend, while most people near Indianapolis were getting ready for the race, I packed up my road bags and sped south to the little city of Vincennes to participate in the Spirit of Vincennes Rendezvous for the second year in a row. Just like last year, I would be portraying American Revolutionary Thomas Paine.
I wanted to take a different approach to the character; most other historical reenactors take a purely factual approach, memorizing volumes of stories, facts, and tidbits about whatever character they’re portraying. The guys we had portraying George Washington and Daniel Boone had taken said approach. And while it’s admirable, I wanted to get into the mindset of Paine, find the poetry in his incendiary pamphlets, do a little historical time travel in a sense and become the embodiment of Paine.
That’s not as hard as it may sound. There’s a reason Jesse Coomer a.k.a. Cornelius the Town Crier, the entertainment coordinator for the event, hired me for the gig. He knows that in a weird sense, I’m very similar to Paine in my approach to pamphlets. Now while I won’t sit here and claim I’ve written anything approaching the greatness of Common Sense, The American Crisis or The Rights of Man, we both have the approach of finding a target and absolutely burning it down without remorse. Go back and read some of my many articles about the LGBT movement; I take a torch to Governor Pence just as fiercely as Paine did to old George III.
Or, as I told an old friend when he asked me what the difference was between this gig and any other time I’m running hot-blooded and on my soapbox was, “The difference is the tyrant I’m railing against is a long dead monarch instead of a still living asshole Governor.”
Putting this approach in action on Saturday, I got up after our General Washington (and he’s a hard act to follow), gave the crowd a bit of background on Paine’s life, started reading some excerpts from Common Sense, and then started improvising, calling out other reenactors in the crowd, asking them what their grievances with the Crown were, and running with it. I remember Cornelius said his uncle fought for the Crown in the French & Indian War, lost a leg, and lost his pension to boot. I took that and ran, barking “See! Our own Town Crier’s family gave their flesh & blood to the Crown and was robbed of everything as their reward! That is the sort of tyranny we are fighting against!” After fifteen or twenty minutes of spitting fire, I slammed my book on the table and walked off. I don’t know if the crowd dug it or was expecting what they saw. I think they were expecting a quiet presentation and instead, they got an 18th-century firebrand.
For the second show on Sunday, I had to up the ante a bit, so about halfway through my spiel railing against the Crown and speaking on behalf of liberty a group of Scottish Redcoats appeared, told me I was being arrested for treasonous speech. As I attempted to run off, they knocked me out and hauled me away with the crowd standing stunned and a chant going on in the back, “Hang the King! Hang the King! Hang the King!”
Even though I was Thomas Paine for the weekend, I did wonder how many in the crowd would be so supportive of my act if they saw what it was when I wasn’t wearing a tri-corner hat and breeches. Historical re-enactment, as a rule, doesn’t tend to be bastions of leftist thought, either amongst the spectators or participants.
What would they think if they saw me defying gender norms? What would they think if they saw me demanding the right of my brothers and sisters to use the bathroom without fear of getting the shit kicked out of them? What would they think if they saw my support for radical Industrial Unionism and demanding a living wage? What would they think if they saw me openly denouncing the influence of religion in American politics?
Many of them would probably denounce me as un-American, a traitor, a socialist (that accusation would be true), an atheist, etc.
And that is the line for me, in my mind I was asked to take the role of Thomas Paine because the ideas he wrote are still living ideas to me, they are not sealed under glass to glance at and think “Well, that’s nice.”
They are ideas that still live today, the idea that we should be free to live by our happiness and be secure in our liberties as people.
The Revolution is still alive and well, take the torch and run with it.
Featured image credit courtesy of visitindiana.com.