October 12, 2006


THE SHARPENED QUILL: Was Thomas Paine too much of a freethinker for the country he helped free? (JILL LEPORE, 2006-10-16, The New Yorker)

Thomas Paine is, at best, a lesser Founder. In the comic-book version of history that serves as our national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like the Hanna-Barbera Super Friends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington’s Superman and Jefferson’s Batman; we never find out how he got his superpowers, and he only shows up when they need someone who can swim. For all that, Paine’s contributions to the nation’s founding would be hard to overstate. “Common Sense” made it possible to declare independence. “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain,” Adams himself wrote. But Paine lifted his sword, too, and emptied his purse. Despite his poverty—he was by far the poorest of the Founders—he donated his share of the profits from “Common Sense” to buy supplies for the Continental Army, in which he also served. His chief contribution to the war was a series of dispatches known as “The American Crisis,” and printed in newspapers throughout the states. He wrote the first of them by the light of a campfire during Washington’s desperate retreat across New Jersey, in December, 1776. Getting ready to cross the frozen Delaware River—at night, in a blizzard—to launch a surprise attack on Trenton, Washington ordered Paine’s words read to his exhausted, frostbitten troops: “These are the times that try men’s souls. 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.” The next morning, the Continentals fought to a stunning, pivotal victory. [...]

[“T]he Age of Reason” cost Paine dearly. He lost, among other things, the friendship of Samuel Adams, who seethed, “Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens?” Even before Paine returned to the United States, in 1802, Federalists used him as a weapon against Jefferson, damning the “two Toms” as infidels while calling Paine a “loathsome reptile.” Ministers and their congregants, caught up in the early stages of a religious revival now known as the Second Great Awakening, gloried in news of Paine’s physical and mental decline, conjuring up a drunk, unshaven, and decrepit Paine, writhing in agony, begging, “Oh, Lord, help me! Oh, Christ, help me!”

Some of that fantasy was founded in fact. Even at his best, Paine was rough and unpolished—and a mean drunk. In his tortured final years, living in New Rochelle and New York City, he displayed signs of dementia. (Scurrilous rumors about cats aside, Paine’s behavior throughout his life appears erratic enough that Eric Foner wondered if he suffered from crippling bouts of depression; Nelson offers a tentative diagnosis of bipolar disorder.) At home, he was besieged by visitors who came either to save his soul or to damn it. He told all of them to go to hell. When an old woman announced, “I come from Almighty God to tell you that if you do not repent of your sins and believe in our blessed Savior Jesus Christ, you will be damned,” Paine replied, “Pshaw. God would not send such a foolish ugly old woman as you.”

Admirers of Paine’s political pamphlets have tried to ignore his religious convictions. In 1800, a New York Republican Society resolved, “May his Rights of Man be handed down to our latest posterity, but may his Age of Reason never live to see the rising generation.” That’s more or less how things have turned out. So wholly has “The Age of Reason” been forgotten that Paine’s mantle has been claimed not only by Ronald Reagan but also by the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed, who has invoked him, and the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, who in 1992 supported a proposal to erect a Paine monument in Washington, D.C. Nor have liberals who embrace Paine, including the editors of TomPaine.com, had much interest in the latter years of his career. Maybe that’s what it means to be a lesser Super Friend: No one cares about your secret identity. They just like your costume.

Historians, too, have tried to dismiss “The Age of Reason,” writing it off as simplistic and suggesting either that Paine wrote it to please his French jailers or that, in prison, he went mad. This interpretation began with Mercy Otis Warren, who called “The Age of Reason” “jejune,” and concluded that, in prison, Paine had “endeavoured to ingratiate himself.” Nelson, too, makes much of “the Terror’s devastation of Paine’s psyche.” (Only a miraculous if temporary recovery or the mania following depression, Nelson suggests, made it possible for Paine to write his last great work, “Agrarian Justice,” the very next year.)

But Paine considered his lifelong views on religion inseparable from his thoughts on government: “It has been the scheme of the Christian Church, and of all the other invented systems of religion, to hold man in ignorance of the Creator, as it is of Governments to hold man in ignorance of his rights.” Writing about kings and subjects in “Common Sense,” he wondered “how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species.” In “The Age of Reason,” he used much the same language to write about priests and prophets: “The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.” He wrote “Common Sense,” “Rights of Man,” and “The Age of Reason” as a trilogy. “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.”

It is precisely because Reason failed so spectacularly when it was tried on the Continent and that he so devoutly wished the Anglosphere to embrace it too that Paine is ultimately a third-rate Founder.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2006 5:35 PM

Yes, with the exception of his fellow Jacobin Jefferson, most of the founders had more in common with Paine's rival Burke.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 12, 2006 6:34 PM

Paine was not really much of a founder. He didn't participate in the formation of the government. He was more of a public relations man for the revolution.

Posted by: Brandon at October 12, 2006 6:48 PM

Jefferson was only intermittently an exception, as in his foolish initial support for the French Revolution, but should that count any more than a Churchill's initial enthusiasm for fascism?:


Posted by: oj at October 12, 2006 7:02 PM

As far as Churchill is concerned, even he was temporarily entranced by the 'progressive' ideas of his time (the prototype is Clement Atlee). History was a science, after all. He repented quickly enough. Paine was a confused, highly effective and timely propagandist. A romantic and a drunk.

Posted by: T at October 12, 2006 7:36 PM

Indeed. And he even looks like Christopher Hitchens, too.

Posted by: Pontius at October 13, 2006 2:20 AM

What is the reference to cats? I tried to look it up but couldn't find anything on it.

Posted by: RC at October 13, 2006 8:58 AM