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Tom Paine—voice of revolution


In December of 1776 the cause of revolution was in serious trouble in Britain’s American colonies. The Rebel army, under the command of General George Washington, had suffered a string of defeats which left the troops demoralized. With many enlistments due to expire, there was the very real fear that, in the absence of a victory, the army would melt away like winter snows in a spring thaw and the cause of independence would be lost.

Bivouacked in Newark, New Jersey, General Nathan Greene’s aide-de-camp, crouched in the firelight and, using a drumhead as a table, began writing.

“THESE are the times that try men's souls.” he wrote. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

The words, the opening lines in the first of a series of pamphlets called “The American Crisis,” are those of Thomas Paine—an English immigrant and former excise officer, who had arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 with letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met in London, a little money, a ready wit and some skill as a writer. Within two years he had embraced the cause of American independence without reservation.

So taken was Washington with Paine’s words that he had Crisis I read at the head of every regiment. As the pamphlet’s author had intended, the troops were greatly heartened and their morale received a much needed boost just before Washington launched his daring raid across the Delaware on Trenton.

According to one of Paine’s biographers, William M. Van der Weyde, “The watchword at Trenton was ‘These are the times that try men's souls,’ and the men entered the conflict with Paine's words on their lips. There is no doubt whatever that Crisis I won the Battle of Trenton.”

Certainly, the point is arguable. What is not arguable is that the pamphleteer’s words had a profound impact on the men in Washington’s army. Had that been the only service Paine rendered to the cause of independence, his name would still deserve a place in the hall of heroes of the American Revolution. It was not.

Indeed, it can be fairly said that if the American Revolution had a voice, it was that of Thomas Paine.

Joel Barlow said of him, “Washington’s sword would have been wielded in vain had it not been supported by the pen of Paine.”

Robert Greene Ingersoll observed in a memorial to Paine in 1870, “With his name left out, the history of liberty cannot be written.”

Thomas Edison said that Paine “…was the equal of Washington in making liberty possible.”

Yet Paine is the least understood and the most maligned member of the brotherhood of men who played such a crucial role in the creation of the new nation forged out of the erstwhile British Colonies.

That’s true even though it was Paine, writing in Crisis II, who first used the phrase “United States of America” in print.

About one century after his death, Theodore Roosevelt called him, “That filthy little atheist.”

Around the Fourth of July, it’s customary to talk about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. And since the holiday celebrates the signing of the declaration authored by Jefferson, both subjects are appropriate.

But I want to spend some time remembering that other “Thomas” and his contribution to the cause of political and human rights, not just in the United States but around the world.

Certainly, his name deserves inclusion with the handful of men who were most instrumental in the events that led to the fashioning of a new republic out of the original 13 colonies. Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison each had important roles to play and each contributed greatly to the enterprise.

But of them all, it can be fairly argued that Tom Paine may have been the most indispensable. Without the spark his words ignited, the American Revolution might have been still-born.

Here’s his story.

I. Early years

Paine was born in Thetford, England on Jan. 29, 1737. His father, Joseph, was a staymaker (he made stays for corsets) and was of the Quaker persuasion. His mother, Frances, was the daughter of a Thetford attorney and a member of the Church of England.

Paine’s family was industrious but poor. He attended grammar school until the age of thirteen. His family could no longer afford to pay for his schooling, and Paine was taken from school and put to work in his father’s staymaking shop.

He went to sea in 1756, serving a brief stint on board a privateer after England had declared war on France. By 1759 he had established himself as a master staymaker and had married his first wife who died the following year.

Unhappy with his prospects as a staymaker, Paine secured employment as an exciseman in 1764 and was made excise officer at Lewes, in Sussex, in 1768, where he eventually met and married his second wife. While at Lewes he penned his first pamphlet, which was addressed to Parliament and not intended for general distribution. The Case of the Officers of Excise was a plea for better treatment and remuneration for excise officers.

Once the pamphlet was printed, Paine went to London to plead the case of the excise officers to members of the House of Commons. Unfortunately, his absence led to financial setbacks at home and his agitation on behalf of his fellow excise officers doubtless contributed to his dismissal in 1774. By summer of that year Paine’s asset’s had all been sold at auction to cover his debts, and he and his second wife had separated.

Paine returned to London and resumed a friendship with Benjamin Franklin, with whom he shared an interest in science and invention. Knowing that Paine’s prospects were limited in England, Franklin urged the younger man to migrate to America and gave him letters of introduction and recommendation to his friends in Philadelphia.

II. A revolutionary voice

If Paine had been struggling to find a vocation in England, he quickly established himself in Philadelphia. Hired by Robert Aitken to assist with his newly launched magazine, The Pennsylvania Magazine or American Museum, Paine edited the publication and contributed numerous articles to it as well.

His literary efforts were not limited to the pages of his own magazine, however. In March, 1775, the Postscript to the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser published an essay by Paine on the subject of slavery. Although others had argued against the slave trade, Paine’s “African Slavery in America” was the first to argue for the total abolition of slavery and the emancipation of all slaves in bondage. In print, at least, Paine was the first American abolitionist.

In April of that same year, Paine, along with 10 other Philadelphians, most of them Quakers, attended the first meeting of what would become the Pennsylvania Abolition Society—the first such group in the country.

Writing for Pennsylvania Magazine, Paine published articles against dueling, lampooning titles ( “The reasonable freeman sees through the magic of a title, and examines the man before he approves him,”), deploring cruelty to animals, and promoting the rights (though not the right to vote) of women. On these and many other subjects he was in the forefront as a reformer.

But it was with the publication of Common Sense that Thomas Paine became the voice of a revolution. It was the first American best-seller. Published in January, 1776, it sold 120,000 copies in the first three months and from 200,000 to a half-million copies within the year— estimates vary. This at a time when the total population was only about three million people.

John Quincy Adams would write, years later, “Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense, crystallized public opinion and was the first factor in bringing about the Revolution.”

It seemed everyone was reading the argument for independence. Rev. Theodore Parker, a Unitarian pastor and social reformer, said “Every living man in America in 1776 who could read, read Common Sense, by Thomas Paine. If he were a Tory he read it, at least a little, just to find out for himself how atrocious it was; and if he was a Whig he read it all to find the reasons why he was one. This book was the arsenal to which colonists went for their mental weapons.”

Paine called for immediate independence for the American colonies. Reconciliation with the British Crown was, he thought, a pipedream that would work to the detriment of those on this side of the Atlantic. Delay would only make the battle harder to fight.

He wrote: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. WHEREFORE, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever FORM thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.”

But Paine went beyond the call for independence. He also called for an end to monarchies around the world. He outlined a government that was republican and democratic. He suggested means for forming it, calling for a Continental Convention made up of representatives of the thirteen colonies, whose express purpose would be to prepare a continental charter—a Magna Carta for the colonies.

Finally, he called upon the colonies to make a formal declaration of independence, writing, “Were a manifesto to be published, and despatched (sic) to foreign courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured, and the peaceable methods we have ineffectually used for redress; declaring, at the same time, that not being able, any longer, to live happily or safely under the cruel disposition of the British court, we had been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections with her; at the same time, assuring all such courts of our peaceable disposition towards them, and of our desire of entering into trade with them: Such a memorial would produce more good effects to this Continent, than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain.”

Paine’s words sent a shock throughout the colonies. With a writing style that was clear and direct, he made the case for independence in terms that all could understand. The cause of America, he wrote, was the cause of humanity.

“O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

Within six months of the publication of Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence was being drafted. Within the year, the American Revolution was under way in earnest.

And though he had written America’s first best-seller, Paine ordered all profits from the sale of the tract should go to the struggle for independence.

But Paine put more than his pen in the service of his adopted country. Believing, as he did, that the cause of independence demanded more than lip-service, he enlisted in the Rebel army. And when his initial enlistment period was up, joined General Nathan Greene’s staff.

So it was that he began writing The American Crisis in December of 1776 and continued to write successive pamphlets throughout the war, there were 13 in all. Most Americans recall “These are the times that try men’s souls” as Paine’s words. But not many realize that in Crisis II, he was the first author anywhere to write the words “the United States of America.”

Paine served in a variety of capacities throughout the American Revolution. He was appointed secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs by the Continental Congress. Later he served as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly.

He had assisted in the drafting of the Pennsylvania state constitution in 1776, and as clerk of the state assembly one of his first acts was to write the preamble for an act abolishing slavery in Pennsylvania—the first such law to be passed in the states. The Act of Pennsylvania Abolishing Slavery was passed in March 1780.

In May, 1780, Washington wrote to the Pennsylvania Assembly lamenting the deplorable condition of his army and the lack of funds for supplies.

Paine immediately pledged his $500 clerk’s salary to the relief of the army. He accompanied the money with a letter urging the wealthy men of the city to donate funds in support of the Army. Paine’s letter had such a salutory effect that in a very short time $300,000 had been raised and was used to form the Bank of North America in Philadelphia to supply the army throughout the remainder of its campaign.

In 1781 Paine and Col. John Laurens were sent to France on a diplomatic mission to gain monetary support for the American revolutionaries from the French. Largely because of Paine’s effort (the mission had been his idea), the two men returned from France with 2,500,000 livres in silver (I dont’ know how much this represents in dollars) and a ship loaded with military stores and clothing. Sixteen teams of oxen were needed to transport the supplies from Boston to Philadelphia.

On April 18, 1783 — some eight years after the battle at Lexington — Washington announced the end of hostilities.

III. A private interlude

By then Paine, desiring a return to private life, had obtained a small house in Bordentown, N.J., where he hoped to pursue his interests in science and invention. Of particular interest was his plan for an iron bridge, which would be much stronger and more durable than conventional bridges made of wood and stone.

But Paine’s generous and unflinching support of the revolution had left him nearly destitute. At the urging of Washington and others he petitioned the Continental Congress for some consideration. Eventually he was awarded $3,000 for his efforts. The state of New York gave him a 300-acre farm near New Rochelle that had been confiscated from a British Loyalist.

Because of his strong views against slavery, his extreme republicanism and his desire to see the creation of a “more perfect union,” Paine was viewed with suspicion and dislike by many of those who had benefited from his efforts. Now that the war was over, partisan wrangling began to replace patriotism.

Over the next several years, Paine continued to work on his inventions, to write articles on various subjects and to plan for a return to Europe and to England to visit his aging parents. By 1787 he was in Paris, where he was warmly received by the American ambassador to France, and his old friend, Thomas Jefferson. Later that year, Paine returned to England where he learned his father had died. He spent several months with his mother, who by then had become a Quaker, and traveled back and forth between France and England.

During these years, Paine’s primary interest was in perfecting his design for an iron bridge made with a single arch that eliminated the need for piers and pylons and could cover a span of up to 400 feet. He submitted the plans to the French Academy of Science, which approved it, and obtained a patent for the design from the British Crown in 1788.

Chiefly during this period, Paine came up with a number of other inventions including a design for a hollow, smokeless candle, a device for planing wood and others. No less an authority than Thomas Edison has remarked that Paine’s inventions are often overlooked in assessing the man.

However, Paine’s political interests remained intact. He continued a lively correspondence with Jefferson, Franklin, Washington and numerous other friends and fellow revolutionaries in the United States. And he continued to publish articles on the issues of the day. Soon he would write his second “best-seller.”

IV. Paine and the French Revolution

By the latter half of 1789, the French Revolution was under way. The fall of the Bastille had occurred on July 14, 1789 and was generally regarded as the beginning of the revolution.

Paine visited Paris in 1790 and was given a key to the Bastille by the Marquis De Lafayette, who asked Paine to present the key to his old friend—and by now the first president of the United States—George Washington, along with a painting memorializing the fall of the Bastille. Upon his return to London, Paine sent the trophies to Washington.

Meanwhile, a 110-foot iron bridge, of Paine’s design, was erected and put on display in London. Unfortunately the owner of the ironworks where the bridge was made and who had become Paine’s business partner, went bankrupt and his creditors went after Paine’s scant resources as well. However, Paine weathered the storm with the help of some friends, and his bridge exhibition became a popular attraction in London, so it began to appear his financial woes might be over.

By November of that year, Edmund Burke had published his Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine began drafting a reply.

Paine’s Rights of Man, Part I, was initially published by a printer named Johnson. However, perhaps fearful of official reaction to the work, he only printed a few copies of the book before suspending publication. J.S. Jordan at 166 Fleet Street took over the work and published the first edition on March 13, 1791.

The book was dedicated to George Washington. A fact which caused the president some embarrassment, since he was engaged in negotiating a new commercial treaty with England and had no wish to be associated with the cause of revolution on the continent of Europe.

Professor John Belchem, writing for the BBC, describes Paine’s work this way:

“For citizen Paine the French Revolution represented a much-needed new beginning, an age of reason in which universal and natural rights (at least for men) were no longer denied by privilege and the past, by spurious argument premised on dubious history, bogus constitutionalism, invented tradition or inherited superstition. A talented writer, Paine deployed his ‘intellectual vernacular prose’ to render natural rights and rational republicanism accessible, uncompromising and all-embracing, including the ‘swinish multitude’ disparaged by Burke.”

By the time his book was out, Paine was back in Paris, having entrusted the oversight of the book’s publication to three friends: William Godwin, Thomas Brand Hollis and Thomas Holcroft.

Burke's book had been a defense of monarchy and hereditary succession based on the revolution of 1688, which he accepted as authoritative.

Writing in response to Burke’s invocation of tradition, Paine stated, “ There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the ‘end of time,’ or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void. Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it.”

Paine observed that Burke’s attack on the French Revolution was really a defense of monarchy in England and in the other nations of Europe. He laid out the case for elected, representative government based on the natural rights of man, rather than hereditary government by kings or an aristocracy.

Rights of Man, Part I was well received in England, especially among the working classes. Paine spoke their language and seemed to be speaking directly to them. When a French translation was published later that year, it too was well received.

It was not so well received among those who thought themselves members of an “upper class” or had a penchant for royalty.

Gouverneur Morris, in Paris on a secret financial mission for Washington, had always found Paine too radical for his taste and the author’s latest effort only reinforced that opinion.

John Adams, who had written that “History will ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine,” found the Rights of Man most distasteful.

Tobias Lear, Washington’s secretary, told the president he had heard Adams declare, with his hand placed upon his breast, “I detest that book, and its tendency, from the bottom of my heart.”

Thomas Jefferson, now back in the United States, wrote to Paine that he was glad the work was out and noted it had been the cause of some heated discussion.

Paine was in Paris in June of 1791 when the French royal family fled Paris and was captured and returned to the capital.

In the Paris Moniteur of July 8, Paine made his position on all monarchies crystal clear:

“I am not the personal enemy of Kings. Quite the contrary. No man wishes more heartily than myself to see them all in a happy and honorable state of private individuals; but I am the avowed, open, and intrepid enemy of what is called monarchy; and I am such by principles which nothing can either alter or corrupt -- by my attachment to humanity; by the anxiety which I feel within myself for the dignity and honor of the human race; by the disgust which I experience when I observe men directed by children and governed by brutes; by the horror which all the evils that monarchy has spread over the earth excite within my breast; and by those sentiments which make me shudder at the calamities, the exactions, the wars, and the massacres with which monarchy has crushed mankind: in short, it is against all the hell of monarchy that I have declared war."

Paine returned to London a few days after that quote appeared, where he stayed at the residence of a long-time friend, Thomas Clio Rickman. Rickman was an ardent republican and had first met Paine in Lewes years earlier. In fact, one of his sons was named Thomas Paine Rickman.

Clio Rickman wrote a biography of Paine in 1819, some ten years after his death. The following passage gives a picture of the man at that time.

“Mr. Paine in his person was about five feet ten inches high, and rather athletic; he was broad-shouldered, and latterly stooped a little. His eye, of which the painter could not convey the exquisite meaning, was full, brilliant and singularly piercing; it had in it the 'muse of fire.' In his dress and person he was generally very cleanly, and wore his hair cued, with side curls, and powdered, so that he looked altogether like a gentleman of the old French school. His manners were easy and gracious; his knowledge was universal and boundless; in private company and among his friends his conversation had every fascination that anecdote, novelty and truth could give it. In mixed company and among strangers he said little, and was no public speaker.”

While at Rickman’s house, Paine wrote Part II of Rights of Man. He noted Burke’s failure to answer the criticisms and arguments he had put forth in Part I. Paine then presented his own political philosophy which his biographer Van der Weyde summarizes as follows:

“1. Government is the organization of the aggregate of those natural rights which individuals are not competent to secure individually, and therefore surrender to the control of society in exchange for the protection of all rights.
2. Republican government is that in which the welfare of the whole nation is the object.
3. Monarchy is government, more or less arbitrary, in which the interests of an individual are paramount to those of the people generally.
4. Aristocracy is government, partially arbitrary, in which the interests of a class are paramount to those of the people generally.
5. Democracy is the whole people governing themselves without secondary means.
6. Representative government is the control of a nation by persons elected by the whole nation.
7. The Rights of Man mean the right of all to representation.”

Paine dedicated Part II to his good friend Lafayette. As soon as Part II became available, sales of it and Part I boomed, and storm clouds began to gather.

Within three months of the publication of Rights of Man, Part II, government prosecutions commenced. First, the book publisher, then Paine himself were the subject of legal actions. On the same day a summons was issued ordering Paine to appear before the Court of King’s Bench on June 8, a royal proclamation against “seditious writings” was issued.

Initially Paine intended to face his accusers in Court. But when he appeared on June 8, he learned, to his dismay, that the trial had been delayed until December. During the summer, Paine was named an honorary citizen of France, along with Washington, Madison, Hamilton and a number of others. In September Paine was elected a representative to French National Convention and was urged to come to France and help, as one appeal put it, “decide the destiny of a great people, perhaps of the human race.”

Meanwhile, Paine’s friends and supporters in England had become increasingly concerned about his insistence on facing the charges against him. Things came to a head on Sept. 12 when the poet William Blake told Paine directly, “You must not go home, or you are a dead man.”

The next day Paine went to the seacoast town of Dover and set sail for Calais. About 20 minutes after his departure an order arrived for his arrest. It was the last time he would set foot in England.

He was warmly received in France and, even though he did not speak the language, was appointed by the convention to the committee which would draft a new constitution.

However, Paine quickly incurred the enmity of powerful men in France as well. In his attempt to urge the Convention to spare the life of King Louis XIV and to imprison the deposed monarch until France was no longer at war and then banish him rather than sending him to the guillotine, he directly confronted Danton, Marat and Robespierre and other leaders of the revolution in France.

Paine argued the case from both humanitarian and political grounds. Executing the king, he thought, was an act of vengence unworthy of a great people and would only harm the cause of France in the capitals of Europe and the United States. Louis was beheaded in January of 1793.

In England, Paine was tried in absentia and found guilty of Libel, but not before his Letter to the Addressers had been published. The case against Paine and those who had published Rights of Man, Part II was expanded to include this document—a further attack on corrupt government and monarchy and a defense of his earlier work.

Here are a few quotes from the Letter to the Addressers.

"It is a dangerous attempt in any government to say to a Nation, Thou shalt not read."

"Thought, by some means or other, is got abroad in the world, and cannot be restrained, though reading may."

"Whatever the rights of the people are, they have a right to them, and none has a right either to withhold or to grant them."

"The project of hereditary governors and legislatures was a treasonable usurpation over the rights of posterity."

"Put a country right, and it will soon put government right."

"When the rich plunder the poor of his rights, it becomes an example to the poor to plunder the rich of his property."

"Who are those that are frightened at reform? Is the public afraid its taxes will be lessened too much? Are they afraid that sinecure places and pensions should be abolished too fast? Are the poor afraid that their condition should be rendered too comfortable?''

"A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be."

"If to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy, and every species of hereditary government -- to lessen the oppression of taxes -- to propose plans for the education of helpless infancy, and the comfortable support of the aged and distressed -- to endeavor to conciliate nations with each other -- to extirpate the horrid practice of war to promote universal peace, civilization and commerce and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank -- if these things be libellous, let me live the life of a Libeller, and let the name of Libeller be engraven on my tomb."

The jury at Paine’s trial had been hand-picked. The outcome was a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile the author’s critics had used his escape to France and continued absence to whip up popular sentiment against him. Paine’s defenders were beset on all sides and before the year was out, Paine would begin the work that gave his detractors their most powerful weapon to use against him.

By Spring of 1793, Paine’s hopes for a humanitarian, democratic republic in France were fast fading. Marat, who had made no secret of his desire to be dictator, was openly hostile to foreigners and seemed especially hostile toward Paine (possibly, according to Van der Weyde, because he feared the influence Paine might exert on the other members of the convention).

In a letter to Jefferson, written in April of that year, Paine spoke of his concerns for the turn the revolution had taken and his desire to return home - to the United States. However, he intended to wait until the convention had adopted a final constitution.

On June 7 Robespierre called for action against foreigners and soon after a law was passed ordering their imprisonment. It was understood the edict would not apply to Paine, but it was regarded as a warning nonetheless.

By October the terror was in full swing in Paris. Many of Paine’s erstwhile allies had either been sent to the guillotine or fled the country. He had stopped attending the Convention because of the turn events had taken. Marat had been assassinated, Robespierre (who would be sent to the guillotine himself in July 1794) was in full control and not at all hesitant about using his power. When many of the Girondins (at least those who had stayed), the party with whom Paine had been allied in France, were executed on October 31, he was prompted by the sense of his own peril to begin his last great work.

Paine spent November and most of December writing Part I of The Age of Reason in his apartments in Paris. He completed the work on December 27th. He was arrested that evening.

The work begins with these words:

"It has been my intention, for several years past," wrote Paine, "to publish my thoughts upon religion; I am well aware of the difficulties that attend the subject, and from that consideration had reserved it to a more advanced period of life. I intended it to be the last offering I should make to my fellow-citizens of all nations, and that at a time when the purity of the motive that induced me to it, could not admit of a question, even by those who might disapprove the work.

"The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of every thing appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest, in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true."

When he was arrested Paine asked to be taken to the apartment of his friend, Joel Barlow, at the Great Britain Hotel, before being taken to prison. The guards complied with the request. Paine gave his manuscript of The Age of Reason, Part I, to Barlow, with the request that he take it to the printer. The guards glanced at the first few pages, saw it was a work on theology and apparently dismissed it as being of no concern.

Paine was taken to the former Luxembourg Palace, now converted to a prison, where he would remain until Nov. 4, 1794. He was 57 years old and very ill. James Monroe, America’s new ambassador to France, had been instrumental in securing Paine’s release and now took the revolutionary author to his own home where he and his wife nursed Paine back to health.

The British press, which a year earlier had announced that Paine had been sent to the guillotine, now announced his death.

While convalescing at Monroe’s home, Paine would complete Part II of the Age of Reason. The work was published in Paris in 1795, and soon bound volumes of both parts together were being published.

V. The Age of Reason

It is hard to conceive how an author who wrote: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.” could be denounced as an atheist. But that statement is the fourth paragraph of “Chapter One: The Author’s Profession of Faith.”

Paine went on to write,

“I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”

“But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

“I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

“It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and, in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive anything more destructive to morality than this?”

Writing about the Old Testament, Paine had this to say, “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”

Paine’s work was an analysis of the Bible and an examination of the claims of Christianity. While acceding to the virtues of the moral system preached by Christ — a position very like that taken by Thomas Jefferson — Paine observed that all the information about him was second and third-hand.

Though it was well recieved and continued to be published in most of the languages of the world long after his more political tracts had been forgotten, The Age of Reason also gave his enemies an important weapon to use against him.

Although he himself had been one of its victims, Paine, because of his defense of the French Revolution, had also been associated with the excesses of the Reign of Terror. His radical republicanism, his abolitionist sentiments, his call—in Rights of Man, Part II—for education at public expense of poor children and care for the elderly and the disadvantaged marked him as an enemy to the propertied classes. Now he could be painted as “an enemy of religion” as well. It made things difficult for his supporters and added a new level of vitriol to his attackers.

VI. Paine’s last days

Paine had remained in France after the Monroe’s departed for home. He had been reinstated in the French National Convention after his release from prison and after the Reign of Terror had ended. The election of John Adams brought him no pleasure. He continued to write, continuing a voluminous correspondence with Jefferson and other friends and acquaintences, and produced A Maritime Compact, which included ten articles advocating neutral commerce among the nations who signed a compact he called the “Unarmed Association.”

But Paine’s enthusiasm for Paris was waning, his hopes for the emergence of a United States of Europe had all but vanished.

He returned to the United States in 1802.

Paine continued to correspond with Jefferson and a few other friends and was Jefferson’s guest at the White House on, at least, one occasion. But many of Paine’s former friends had been put off by his association with the French Revolution and the theological hornet’s nest he had stirred up with The Age of Reason.

His financial circumstances deteriorated and he was forced to sell the small house in Bordentown, which he still owned, and some of the acreage of his farm at New Rochelle. By 1809 he was seriously ill and living with friends in New York.

Thomas Paine died on June 8, 1809. The same year in which Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born.


Beginning a life in humble circumstances, Thomas Paine played a pivotal role in the great democratic revolutions that bracketed the Atlantic in the late 18th century. His role has been obscured and his character attacked over the years, but through his writings we hear the voice of a true champion of liberty, of reason, of humanity.

Writing in 1925, his biographer William Van der Weyde observed:

“Nevertheless Paine went on suffering from a form of ostracism at the hands of a society which, as Henry Adams states, had once courted him ‘as the greatest literary genius of his day.’ Nor was it due entirely to religious differences of opinion which were shared by leading statesmen in the young Republic. A lingering distrust, if not dislike, of the common people was in the air. Deism had been an aristocratic cult, and Paine was guilty of carrying heresy to the people. Moreover, he had handed it around as a religion’s divine fire from the heaven that orthodoxy had monopolized. The popularity of his early pamphlets and his earnestness in attacking dogmas common to all sects, were regarded as revolutionary; and while the bigoted mob was strapping him to the rock of ages, and stoning him with such missiles as were at hand, people of education and social prominence were too prudent to advertise their sympathy, if they felt any.

“We know now that there was very little difference between Paine's religious opinions and those of Washington or Jefferson or Franklin. These men, however, were too prudent to express their views, not wishing to subject their prestige, gained in the service of their country, to attack by religious fanatics. Franklin's attitude was shown when he advised a writer not to publish a certain unorthodox pamphlet. ‘He who spits against the wind,’ wrote Franklin, ‘spits in his own face.’”

Paine was lied about while he lived and after he had died. Indeed, he is lied about to this day.

Though I would not count it a mark against him if it were true, Paine was no atheist. He believed in a god and believed in divine providence. Given his scientific bent and his commitment to rationality, it’s entirely possible he might think differently if he were alive today—but that is speculation. What is true is that he was a Deist and believed in “God.”

It’s also a lie that he recanted on his death bed, renounced his theological opinions and proclaimed his belief in Christianity. That lie should have been put to rest in the 19th Century when Robert G. Ingersoll, who greatly admired Paine, thoroughly demolished the claim and showed beyond any possible doubt that it was a lie. Yet, when I was in college, I heard a retired preacher—a man whom I respected—proclaim before a group of young people that on his deathbed Thomas Paine had cried out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me.” It was a lie. Paine said no such thing. Those who were at his bedside at the time heard no such statements coming from his lips.

Another lie that I’ve become aware of recently is the claim that Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Paine warning him not to publish the Age of Reason in which he warned Paine against “unchaining the tiger” and urged him to “burn this piece before it is seen by any other.”

I’ve seen references made to this letter in several places. In fact, if you go to the Wallbuilders.com site, you’ll find a reference to this letter. On the site the letter is addressed to Thomas Paine and the date is uncertain.

The facts are otherwise. First, the letter was not addressed to Paine or anyone else. In fact, it’s not at all clear who it was intended for. Most historians now think the letter was written in 1757, long before Paine and Franklin had met and before Paine had launched his writing career.

Beyond that, Paine never showed his work around until it was completed, and Franklin could not possibly have seen the manuscript of The Age of Reason and written this letter about it because Franklin died in 1790 and the work was not started until the fall of 1793. So here is another lie about Paine. One that still gets bandied about today.

Finally, it is a lie that he spent his last years in a drunken stupor as some have claimed. Nothing in the recollections of his friends who were there supports that claim. In fact, the evidence suggests that though Paine was no teetotaler, he drank, when he drank at all, in moderation.

Thomas Paine wrote, “The world is my country, to do good my religion.”

To the cause of human liberty he truly devoted his life, fortune and honor.

And his is a life that should be remembered.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker
* Note: this is a revised version of a talk I gave on July 3, 2005 at the meeting of the Space Coast Freethought Association.


The Age of Paine - http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.05/paine_pr.html

Franklin’s “letter” http://www.wallbuilders.com/resources/search/detail.php?ResourceID=93

Thomas Paine: Citizen of the World — http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/protest_reform/paine_p…

Thomas Paine National Historical Association - http://www.thomaspaine.org/
(For those who are interested, this site contains online editions of all of Paine’s writings - not just the major works but his correspondence and various articles and tracts on a variety of subjects. I drew heavily on William Van der Weyde’s biography for this report.)

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