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No natural or religious reason can be assigned to this great distinction of men into Kings and subjects. Good and bad are the distinctions of heaven. Male and female the distinctions of nature. But how can a race of men come into the world so exalted above the rest and distinguished like some new species? In England a King has little more to do than to make war and give away land, which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation. A pretty business indeed for a man to be given 809 thousand sterling a year to do this, and to be worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth to society is one honest man than all the crowned clowns who ever lived! Thomas Paine: The Man Who Inspired the United States War of Liberation, Hans Peterson
Celebrating Tom Paine is a tradition at Think in the Morning. We are fascinated with the idea that an ordinary man could accomplish so much. You won’t find him on the Dollar Bill or on any American currency. He was adamantly opposed to paper money. While we disagree with citizen Paine on that (a subject worthy of another blog) and on a few other things our disagreements pale in comparison with all we agree upon.
Tom Paine’s first job in America was as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. The motto of the magazine was “ Juvat in sylvis habitare ” (Happy it is to live in the woods). The motto fit Paine to a tee. He was happy to be free of “a hereditary monarchy” which he considered “as an absurd a position as a hereditary doctor or mathematician.”
Common Sense (1776) was the most widely read pamphlet of the American Revolution. It was a clarion call for unity, against the corrupt British court, so as to realize America’s providential role in providing an asylum for liberty. Written in a direct and lively style, it denounced the decaying despotisms of Europe and pilloried hereditary monarchy as an absurdity. At a time when many still hoped for reconciliation with Britain, Common Sense demonstrated to many the inevitability of separation. (Thomas Paine, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
He traveled with the Continental Army and wasn’t a success as a soldier, but he produced The American Crisis (1776-83), which helped inspire the Army. This pamphlet was so popular that as a percentage of the population, it was read by or read to more people than today watch the Super Bowl.
Tom Paine’s “contribution to the public definition of the events as a revolutionary struggle for independence was to prove to be as great as that of George Washington on the battlefield and Benjamin Franklin on the diplomatic front.” (Tom Paine: A Political Life by John Keane)
Not only the message but also the modernist style of Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason ensured that they became the three most widely read political tracts of the eighteenth century. (Tom Paine: A Political Life by John Keane)
Paine’s political tracts are an early example of the pen being mightier than the sword. John Adams, jealous and no friend of Tom Paine, wrote: “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” (The Sharpened Quill, Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, October 16, 2006).
Yet, for all his contributions to the American Revolution, Paine died in obscurity. While there has been some resurgence in his popularity of late, he has received far less than his due. We at Think in the Morning hope to rectify that in our small way. What alienated Paine from many Americans was a later book he wrote on his disdain for organized religion, The Age of Reason.
“Soon after I had published the pamphlet ‘Common Sense,’ in America,” he explained, “I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.”
Just because Paine was wrong about the coming of that revolution doesn’t mean we ought to forget that he yearned for it. In 1805, John Adams railed that the latter part of the eighteenth century had come to be called “the Age of Reason”: “I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity . . . and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason.” Yet even Adams would not have wished that so much of Paine’s work—however much he disagreed with it—would be so willfully excised from memory. “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine,” Adams admitted, adding, with irony worthy of the author of “Common Sense,” “Call it then the Age of Paine.”
Adams wrote those words, in 1805, as if Paine were already dead. A few months later, a neighbor of Paine’s came across the old man in a tavern in New Rochelle, so drunk and disoriented and unkempt that his toenails had grown over his toes, like bird’s claws. While Adams, at his home in Quincy, busied himself reflecting on the Age of Paine, Paine hobbled to the polls in New Rochelle to cast his vote in a local election. He was told that he was not an American citizen and was turned away. So much for the rights of man. Three years later, as the seventy-two-year-old Paine lay dying in a house in Greenwich Village, his doctor pressed him, “Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?” Paine paused, then whispered, “I have no wish to believe on that subject.” (Jill Lepore, The Sharpened Quill, The New Yorker, October 16, 2006)
It was his book The Age of Reason where Paine wrote negatively about religion that got him into trouble and somehow cancelled his achievements in Common Sense and Rights of Man in the minds of powerful Christians who erroneously claim to this day superiority in morals and values. Every Fourth of July I spend part of the day reading from The Age of Reason in my personal celebration of Tom Paine’s life. This trilogy of books will forever solidify Tom Paine’s reputation in history.
In spite of the words of Teddy Roosevelt [“He was a filthy, rotten, little atheist!”] ,Thomas Paine was not an atheist. He was a deist, a person who believes in God, but who does not believe in organized religions and, most dramatically, does not believe that Jesus Christ was God.
In another cruel irony of Paine’s slide into the shadows of American history, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and many other early leaders of our country were also Deists. However, they chose not to discuss it publicly in books and “letters to the Editor.”
In Paine’s words, “I believe in God and I hope for happiness in a life beyond this one. I believe in the equality of man. I believe that religious duty consists of loving mercy, doing justice, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy. But, the bible is a fable, written by man in his language, which is always changing, always subject to mistakes, whether by translators or printers or copyists. The bible is filled with obscene stories, voluptuous debaucheries and unrelenting vindictiveness. It is cruel and I detest everything that is cruel. Ay, what say ye now of Thomas Paine, ye who would have fought with him at Valley Forge when he scribbled in frozen ink? Ye who would have rescued him from the Paris prison where he slept with the rats? What think ye now of Thomas Paine?” Thomas Paine: The Man Who Inspired the United States War of Liberation, Hans Peterson
Paine, who was reviled for his religious views by many who consider themselves Christians, lived his life in far greater harmony with Christian values than those who loudly proclaim the belief. That is especially true today where so-called Christians separate children from their parents and lock them up in cages, where lies and boasts and bullying have become commonplace, where the poor are ignored and left on the streets to freeze, where women are exploited by a President they admire, where greed is good and gross inequality is tolerated, and where “the other” is demonized. Paine was against capital punishment and in favor of women’s rights. He did not evade military service using a fabricated bone spur like today’s jingoistic President.
I am thus far a Quaker, that I would gladly agree with all the world to lay aside the use of arms, and settle matters by negotiation; but unless the whole will, the matter ends, and I take up my musket and thank heaven he has put it in my power. (Tom Paine: A Political Life, John Keane)
Paine saw what was happening to the Indians, and saw also that the theft of their land and the threat to their existence came largely from proselytising Christianity, which was used as a hypocritical cover for greed. After the New York Missionary Society had staged a meeting with the leaders of the Osage Indians in order, or so they said, to present them with a copy of the Bible, Paine asked sarcastically what good this was intended to do:
Will they [the Osage Indians] learn sobriety and decency from drunken Noah and beastly Lot; or will their daughters be edified by the examples of Lot’s daughter? Will not the shocking accounts of the destruction of the Canaanites when the Israelites invaded their country, suggest the idea that we may serve them in the same manner, or the accounts stir them up to do the like to our people on the frontiers, and then justify the assassination by the Bible the Missionaries have given them? Bones of Contention, Christopher Hitchens
The Big Concept man of his time, his deep ideas still resonate: An end to monarchies and dictatorships. American independence from England, of course. International federations to promote development and maintain peace. Rights and protections for laborers. An end to slavery. Equal rights for women. Redistribution of land. Organized religion was a cruel and corrupt hoax. Public education, public employment, assistance for the poor, pensions for the elderly. And above all, a fearless press that tells the truth, gives voice to individual citizens, tolerates opposing points of view, transcends provincialism, is accessible to the poor as well as the rich. (The Age of Paine, Jon Katz, Wired May 1, 1995)
Paine’s opposition to capital punishment and appreciation for the financial support French King Louis the 16thduring the American Revolutionary War had real consequences. These and other beliefs he held and also lies made up by his enemies led to his imprisonment in France and nearly to his execution.
On the evening that he awaited with dread, Thomas Paine received the word that he was scheduled to be executed.
As the guards approached his door, Tom braced himself for the end. The guards came slowly.
But kept going. Past his cell.
The next morning he was staring at a miracle. Or an accident. Call it what you may. The mark on his cell door, indicating that he was to be taken, had been put on the door while it was swung open, flat against the wall in the outside corridor.
When the door was closed, the mark faced him on the inside of the cell. When the executioner came, he saw no mark and passed him by. For ten months, Paine waited for America to come to his rescue. In vain. It would have taken only a brief note from George Washington, who was a hero to the French, to secure Paine’s freedom. But it was not forthcoming.
Historians explain that Washington received inaccurate and biased reports from his Minister to France, a man who hated and envied Tome Paine and was glad to see him in prison.
This was of little comfort to Paine, who nearly died from a bleeding ulcer.
When James Monroe became minister to France, he was shocked to learn of Paine’s incarceration. He wrote this letter to the French government: “Thomas Paine is one of America’s most distinguished patriots. The services he rendered his country in its struggle for freedom have implanted in the hearts of his fellow countrymen an eternal sense of gratitude. If there are no charges against him, please restore his liberty.”
Two days later, he was free. (Thomas Paine: The Man Who Inspired the United States War of Liberation, Hans Peterson)
President Washington’s inaction on Paine’s behalf led to the rift between them in spite of the fact that Paine’s stirring words at Valley Forge “these are the times that try men’s souls” were the catalyst that spurred the troops on to victory.
Paine felt enormous compassion for the unjustly treated, and he despised haughty powermongers who put themselves beyond question. Paine so disliked arrogance and venality that he not only championed citizens’ right to tell others what they do not want to hear.
He favored private property and market competition but fought for the principle of guaranteed citizens’ income and other tax-funded public measures to prevent society’s cruel subdivision into rich and poor.
In conversations with, for example, Benjamin Franklin and Oliver Goldsmith, Paine had often toyed with the idea of the “universal citizen” and sometimes even described himself as “a citizen of the world. (Thomas Paine: A Political Life, John Keane)
Paine neither owned slaves nor profited from the slave trade and, in 1774, wrote an impassioned anti-slavery essay.
As a polemicist Paine was unequalled during the Revolution. “In no time at all, there were more than 120,000 copies in circulation, some 25 editions in 1776 alone, and its ideas were the talk of the eastern seaboard.” Common Sense remains on the list of the top 100 nonfiction books even today. Needless to say, Paine did not think highly of the monarchy: “England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones; yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honourable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.”
Whether intended or not, Paine had succeeded in outflanking the very body that was supposed to be the mouthpiece of the American colonists. Its effects were not universal, but converts to Common Sense were to be found in all walks of life, among the literate and nonliterate of virtually every village, farm, and town of the thirteen colonies. Throughout the colonies, letters to newspapers quoted Common Sense, excerpts were reprinted from it, and hundreds of readers lauded its style and contents. “Who is the author of Common Sense? ” asked a Newport reader. “I can hardly refrain from adoring him. He deserves a statue of Gold.” (John Keane)
As if Common Sense were not enough to guarantee Paine a place in the gallery of American revolutionary heroes, he is also known for his Rights of Man written in part to counter Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Christopher Hitchens in his short book on Paine’s Rights of Man says: “This classic exchange between two masters of polemic is rightly considered to be the ancestor of all modern arguments between -Tories and radicals.”
Burke understood that the social contract was a complex thing. “The state,” he wrote, is “a partnership… between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” Paine saw only mystification and special pleading in such arguments, and was exercised by the problems of the day: “It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated.” Burke distrusted abstract formulas, dismissing France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man as “paltry and blurred sheets of paper.” Paine praised written constitutions “as a law of control to the government.” Burke mocked the declamatory style of radicals, comparing them to insects: “Half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink.” Europe’s aristocrats made Paine think of different insects: “the drones, a seraglio of males, who neither collect the honey nor form the hive, but exist only for lazy enjoyment.” (Christopher Hitchens on Paine’s Rights of Man, New York Times, Richard Brookhiser)
Journalist Jon Katz argues that Tom Paine should be resurrected as the moral father of the Internet, and why not?
Thomas Paine, professional revolutionary, was one of the first to use media as a powerful weapon against an entrenched array of monarchies, feudal lords, dictators, and repressive social structures.
… we owe Paine. He is our dead and silenced ancestor. He made us possible. We need to resurrect and hear him again, not for his sake but for ours. We need to know who he was, to understand his life and work, in order to comprehend our own revolutionary culture. Paine’s odyssey made him the greatest media figure of his time, one of the unseen but profound influencers of ours. He made more noise in the information world than any messenger or pilgrim before or since. His mark is now nearly invisible in the old culture, but his spirit is woven through and through this new one, his fingerprints on every Web site, his voice in every online thread … Asked about the reasons for new media, Paine would have answered in a flash: to advance human rights, spread democracy, ease suffering, pester government. (The Age of Paine, Jon Katz, Wired May 1, 1995)
His detractors were very thorough. For decades after his time, school boys in England and America would sing: “Poor Tom Paine, here he lies, nobody laughs and nobody cries. Where he’s gone, how he fares, nobody knows and nobody cares.”
Not only cruel, but very true. Today, nobody knows where his bones are. Several months after he died, his bones were dug up and taken back to England–and put on display–in a circus. When it turned out that people were not interested, Tom Paine’s bones–were thrown away.
His earthly remains may have been discarded, but his words, his books, his ideals will exist forever. Allow me to conclude with some of his words: Here then is the origin and rise of government, a thing rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.
“For no matter how our eyes may be dazzled by show, or our ears deceived by sound–no matter how prejudice may warp our wills, or vested interest darken our understanding, the simple voices of nature and reason will say–do what is right.”
Today on the Fourth of July 2019 we at Think in the Morning celebrate Tom Paine, a decent man, an American. We thank him for his uncompromising spirit. We can’t help but think of that old man hobbling to the polls only to be turned away, whispering in our ear these words from those fateful times so long ago.
These are the times that try men’s souls.
If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.
The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.
To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.
Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.
‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.
Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.
The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.