Giving just a few simplistic reasons as to why we should admire Thomas Paine, is in many ways as facile as writing “Twelve reasons why Napoleon was an important man.” The list of his experiences & influence are too numerous for one volume. Any well-known writer or politician in such an influential time will be packed with dates of significance or meetings of importance. Yet Paine isn’t afforded the same worthy praise or even discussion as his peers. I believe this is due to his secular views in a religiously dominated time.
I write this because, for some reason, Thomas Paine has seemed to vanish from the common lexicon – whereas many of his contemporaries, who may or may not be as deserving are still present in the zeitgeist. Names like Thomas Jefferson, William Pitt the younger, Benjamin Franklin & John Adams. I understand that one might say these men all held high office, but in terms of impact it could be argued quite easily that Paine held much more sway in the creation of the United States – and additionally – in revolutionary democracy around the world than the other four combined – and that doesn’t begin to touch his influence in regards to deism.
It is notable that on a Blue Plaque which hangs outside the White Hart Hotel in East Sussex, in honour of Mr Pain* (he didn’t add the “e” until his emigration to the British American colonies) it states;
“THOMAS PAINE 1737-1809
HERE EXPOUNDED HIS REVOLUTIONARY POLITICS. THIS INN IS REGARDED AS A CRADLE OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE WHICH HE HELPED TO FOUND WITH PEN AND SWORD.”
*Italics are my own.
The inclusion of “pen” is no small point, if any human can be given as evidence of the saying “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Let it be Paine.
Within two years of arriving in British America Paine had written “Common Sense – 1776” a best-selling – anonymous – pamphlet that carefully spread a positive, persuasive & most importantly brand new case to be made for not only a new way of political life in the colonies – but one of clear independence from the super power of Britain. Something which had been virtually unthinkable before then. Imagine for a second how astonishing it is, that this best-selling work of prose not only first created the idea of an independent United States; then gain swathes of popularity – but within less than six months – the declaration of independence would be signed. Has any writer changed the course of the world in such a short time?
The only other occasion, which is even by my account much less important & somewhat facetious, is the fact George Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1948. Within months The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea was “founded” – as Christopher Hitchens says:
George Orwell’s 1984 was published at about the time that Kim Il Sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint. (“Hmmm … good book. Let’s see if we can make it work.”)
Two major points from the early pages of Paine’s Common Sense, is a repudiation of the United Kingdom’s constitution; he claimed that the idea of a monarchical & aristocratic structure seemed the complete antithesis to human rights & fair governance. He only agreed to the idea of government at all by way of necessary evil. Understanding a fundamental system must be put in place to stop the carnal desires of men, but a system that is ruled by debate & reason with limited power – as not to fall into a new tyranny that is monarchical in all but name. This is one reason why he believed in a form of Deism also. If only he had more belief in his fellow man to be moral. Paine wrote in a vulgar form, or common tone. To the point that his work was easier to digest for the masses. At this point in history most could not read or comprehend intellectual literature. His writing used anger, humour & what could be described in the most respectful way as “tabloid”. He knew how to engage his wider audience & that was not by removing them from the debate by acting like he was addressing the intellectuals. He knew the power of the people – so address the people directly.
At the time of his writing, upward mobility was something of fairy tale – regardless of gains – a King was divine, his court less so but above all else; the poor were poor & all this was formed by hereditary lines. Paine argued that “all men are created equal”, which may not sound it now, but was such an incendiary statement at the time that he nearly lost his head for it whilst living in France – It’s a kin to claiming one is an atheist in Saudi Arabia today. Words like this, unspeakable to most, carry a death sentence. His books were in many ways a call for revolution in Both America & France, with a hope to influence as far as Germany & all other European states. The work, in time, led him to being arrested for Treason – The French took a hard line on faith at the time.
After his success shaping the American Revolution he moved to France to try & achieve similar goals in the French Revolution – but the tide turned against him. He began as an honorary citizen of France & soon become a prisoner. His incarceration in France for Treason is made only the more interesting when one notices that he only survived due to an unbelievable mistake. Prisoner’s cell doors were marked with chalk to denote execution by guillotine later that day, on Paine’s day, he had a visitor, so his door was left open. The official, marking cells, had accidentally marked the inside, not the outside of the cell door – therefore when Mr Paine shut his door it was clear. The chalk denoting execution could only be seen by Thomas on the inside. Luckiest man in history? Or most idiotic prison guard? You decide.
‘The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True & Fabulous Theology’ was another notable work of Paine. More controversial than his earlier book, but oddly, somehow not unique. Deism was well known in British society at the time. The book, written in three parts between 1794, 1795 & 1807, was in some ways a polemic & overall challenge to the claims of biblical mythology & organised religion. His attack on the “institution” of religion was most scathing; in essence calling out the rich & powerful faith leaders using their flock for personal gain – being “Christ like” in no true sense. One could say this was just an extension of his views of monarchical society & upper class hierarchy.
Paine’s argument that Christianity, was essentially an invention of man & not inspired by a deity, drew fierce opposition from nearly all corners. In shocking terms he basically laughed off biblical stories as childish & illogical myths, which may sound benign to us, but I would compare it to holding a “Draw a homosexual Prophet Mohammed” competition today. Let’s not forget he lived & died through the Spanish Inquisition, so The Catholic Church killing people for beliefs of the religious kind was par for the course.
The two main factors often debated about the backlash to this work are as follows:
– Due to his fame, and ability to be loved by the wider public, the powers that be saw his writing as a genuine attack & force for change against their concrete hold on the masses.
– His style of writing was so brash, vulgar & offensive that it added fuel to the flames of his opinions. Ironically it was his vulgar tone which drove him to success, as many cite (and as I have done previously) the style was well understood by the vast majority including the underclass of society. Whereas a public reading of Voltaire or Socrates, may have been far more confusing & harder to empathise with – in effect – wasted on an uneducated public.
In Britain a litany of replies to his biblical stance occurred. Most of them with the usual apologetics of the time; some with vicious personal attacks. In a similar vain that one would expect from evangelicals today claiming the validity of Noah’s Ark or that anyone who doesn’t believe in the Bible could not be a moral human. The very same bible that advocates slavery, torture, drowning of all but one family & much more. It still baffles me that we have these debates today – as Christopher Hitchens once said;
“Human decency isn’t derived from religion, it precedes it.”
The moral panic in Britain due to this book cannot be understated. Publishers were prosecuted just for printing the work. Richard Carlile, a publisher of the book, was put on trial in 1818. The trial in a sense backfired & led to an increase in sales to the tune of some 4000 copies. In a moment of sheer defiance & intellectual brilliance, Richard chose as his testimony to read the book, in its entirety on the stand – ensuring that if the book would be censored from this day forth – anyone reporting on the court case would have to in some sense also publish the work. Carlile failed in his case & was found guilty of blasphemy. His sentence of one year was extended to six as he would not accept any legal conditions on his release. What a man!
Common Sense – being a book to influence revolution in both The United States, France & then wider Europe – which failed in all but one instance. The Age of Reason however, was geared towards a French audience more specifically. Sadly these views were well known in France & had in most circles been ignored as a legitimate ideology for some time. To Paine’s dismay, the French had no interest in this anti-biblical stance.
Paine felt France’s revolutionary bent would lead them without his help, into atheism, something he feared greatly. As even the most secular of the time would believe a country without religious safe guarding would fall to a tyranny of vices. Paine attempted in vain to create his own ‘Church of Theophilanthropy’. As expected the Church had no priesthood hierarchy. Any sermon given would be a scientific lecture or philosophical reading – in this alone I feel Paine was at least 200-300 years ahead of his time. He saw to supplant the faith by fear tactics of old & implement a society of free thinkers. This had him branded an atheist, even against his own wishes. In an ironic act of hierarchical power grabbing, Paine’s Church was dissolved in a small sense by his minute corrugation & in a massive sense by the Concordat between The Vatican & Napoleon. This agreement found Napoleon with even more power & gave the Roman Catholic Church it’s place as the state faith once again. The Church was allowed to come out of hiding & Napoleon was allowed to not only select bishops but have a hand in church finances. It’s hard to figure who gained more from this Concordat. Many such agreements have been made since then but the most important I would argue was that of The Vatican & Adolf Hitler – being his first signing of legislation as Chancellor. A fact often ignored by those who believe Hitler an Atheist.
At the time of its publication in the US, The book, initially spoken of highly, quickly fell to attacks of the sort seen in Britain & then vanished from memory for most. It is noted that again, although Paine classed himself as a Deist, this book was so blasphemous in nature that his anti-god credentials lasted for longer than any could expect. He was known as;
“The filthy little atheist.”
By Theodore Roosevelt.
Over one hundred years later this work continued to tarnish his name.
Whenever the Age of Reason showed signs of popularity in the US it was countered by powerful reprisals. By 1796 every student at Harvard was given a copy of Bishop Watson’s rebuttal to The Age of Reason, regardless if the students had read Paine or not. The attacks against him led his popularity to decline, his name to be dragged through the mud, and part 3 of the work could not be published until 1807. Within just thirty years Paine went from a hero of the American revolution to one of the country’s first enemies. Named in the press as “The Scavenger of faction” a “loathsome reptile” a “demi-human archbeast” and more.
The backlash & eventual creation of Thomas Paine as a hateful & evil figure didn’t lessen his resolve – if anything he doubled down. His beliefs stuck with him, regardless of their popularity or consequences. He enjoyed being a hero for his work early in his career not for the status but because he believed in its inherent truth. In his later life he endured the toxicity of being an alienated & mostly hated figure for the same reasons – he would not go back on his word for riches or public acceptance – he stood for what he believed in, no matter the cost.
On his death bed, a woman came to visit him claiming that God himself had instructed her to save his soul. Paine is said to have dismissed her immediately with:
“pooh, pooh, it is not true. You were not sent with any such impertinent message … Pshaw, He would not send such a foolish ugly old woman as you about with His message.”
I’ve never felt closer to any man, than I do when reading this. His stance, dismissal & choice of attack is such like my own I find it uncanny to read – I would admit my English is usually not so, terse, or polite in such situations.
Not until Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 did Paine’s Age of Reason really flourish. Darwin also took a bullet for his beliefs & a widespread reading of Deism soon ensued in Britain.
Still to this day I believe the ideas within The Age of Reason should be prescribed reading for all teenagers or university students – or as I would call it, anyone over the “age of reason”.
Between the publication of these two works. Paine’s articles regarding the French Revolution & his political views regarding the rights of people, were compiled into maybe his most known work ‘Rights of Man: Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution’
It was a reply to Edmund Burke’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ from the year before. Burke being of the opposite, conservative side of the argument, to Paine, led to a fierce disagreement. Burke’s book appealed to the wealthy & sold upwards of 30,000 copies but Mr Paine knew how to entice his audience. Although the book was originally withdrawn from publication due to fear of prosecution. It eventually got published on 16th of March 1791. It is said that it sold as many as 1,000,000 copies utterly eclipsing that of his opponent. Rights of Man grew in readership among intellectual reformers; protestants, democrats, craftsman & factory workers of the new industrial North of England.
Oddly in this work Paine seems to distance himself from some of his anti monarchical views. He claimed the view that all should be united, even that of a king & his people. This could have been from fear of his life or much like his governmental beliefs of earlier works, he felt the King itself was not the problem but the disparity in wealth & power between the two factions of society – and the idea it was based upon parentage & not merit.
The book champions what he believes are inherent rights of humans to decide their own fate. He dismisses the current belief that the nobility had inherent wisdom passed down to them through hereditary lines. Claiming that nations have a right to form governments of the people by the people. The right to govern must not be inherited & the upper class is in no way more morally superior to the lower class. All they seemed to lack was the social standing & wealth to fit such a position.
It was dedicated to both George Washington of The United States of America & Marquis de Lafayette of France.
It is no coincidence that the self evident truths of Human Rights to which Paine consistently wrote of ended up not only influencing two revolutions, but became the back bone of both country’s revolutionary documents. The Declaration of Independence can see lines & in some cases entire paragraphs that are taken directly from his writings. The declaration of the Rights of Man & of the Citizen, set by France’s National Constituent Assembly, although written by Lafayette, Honore Mirabeau & in parts by the American Thomas Jefferson – was highly shaped by the writing of Paine & his contemporary enlightenment authors.
Paine’s Rights of Man like his other work caused havoc against the patriarchy in England most notably due to the affect it could have had on the Crown. His talks of a social welfare state where the poorest could be cared for by the wealthiest – was essentially a crime. For the reasons above & more, yet none with specificity, he was tried in absentia & convicted of seditious libel against the crown. Thankfully at the time he was in France & not able to attend his own hanging in London.
Again, it is silly of me to distill the work or life of Thomas Paine. This is just an overview of his most notable works & their shaping of modern history. I would urge all not only to read his writing but find time to study a man whom I feel is in some sense, a hero to us all. I don’t agree with everything he believed of course, but I do strongly feel that every human can find something within his books to truly inspire them. The courage to stand against the fear of execution in writing that humans are all created equal – is what every philosopher & political writer aspires to. To change the course of history in such a way without any sadness to his loss of fame, or lack of riches from his work – is the epitome of Kipling’s “If”. Thomas Paine is what it is to be good. Moral. Lionhearted and resolute, even when it’s easier to sell our “souls” for a safer life. A hero isn’t just someone who puts his life on the line for another, but someone who can put his life on the line for people who won’t even appreciate his sacrifice until long after it may have vanished from memory. Is it not the highest moral standing to do what is right, in the face of harm & without the expectation of praise? After all, how can one be moral if they only act morally in fear of a vengeful God or angry mob?
Thomas Paine died on the 8th of June, 1809 in New York. After a career of such repute & a legacy of fame & then infamy within his own years. He changed the course of the world from the creation of the United States of America due to his revolutionary pamphlets; to the deistic & enlightenment beliefs of the western world. He died penniless, hated & cursed for the most part. Only six people attended his funeral.
His ridicule of the supernatural claims of the Bible & Christianity on the whole led to being ostracized by a community that simply didn’t understand how valuable this man was to them – or how much the lives of themselves & their children would be shaped in the millennium that followed. However inconsequential & nationalistic it sounds, I am proud that Thomas Paine was born an Englishman; and however silly it may sound I am equally proud that he died an American – for without Thomas Paine, what even is it to be “an American?”