We at Interesting Literature felt it was about time we saluted a truly modern man, Thomas Paine (1737-1809).
A story from the 1960s shows just how inflammatory this champion of freedom, equality, and independence still is, even in more recent times. In 1964 the mayor of Thetford in Norfolk (Paine’s hometown) said he would only approve a statue of Paine if it was stamped with the words ‘convicted traitor’.
Paine certainly remains a divisive figure, but that is because he was never afraid to speak his mind, even if he knew it would land him in hot water. He played an influential role in both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense argued for independence for America, and when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he drew heavily on Paine’s work (Paine was also the first person to use the phrase ‘United States of America’). John Adams would later say, ‘Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.’ Common Sense remains one of the bestselling books in American publishing history: in 1776 alone it is thought to have sold in excess of 100,000 copies.
Paine would go on to support the French Revolution, both before and after the storming of the Bastille in July 1789. His old ally in the American Revolution, the Irish Whig politician Edmund Burke, opposed the French Revolution and wrote a pamphlet, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), condemning the actions of the revolutionaries. In response, Paine wrote a pamphlet, Rights of Man (not ‘The Rights of Man‘), published in two volumes in 1791 and 1792, which supported the idea of abolishing the monarchical and aristocratic system in France. Paine did, however, oppose the execution of the king, Louis XVI, and was against capital punishment on principle. This was partly what landed him in trouble – and in prison – in 1793, when he was thrown into gaol and only released the following year. One story has it that he narrowly escaped execution himself: in the house where he was imprisoned, every day the gaolers would go around chalking the doors of those who had been condemned to die later that day, and the day came when it was Paine’s turn. However, since he was suffering from a fever, the guards had agreed to keep his door open to allow fresh air into his cell. As a result, the door was chalked – but on the inside. When it was later closed, the guards on duty at that time missed the chalk cross that had been marked on Paine’s cell door. He had narrowly escaped the guillotine.
Paine’s other great work was The Age of Reason (1793-4), in which he subjected the Bible to rigorous scrutiny and criticism. His aim was to show that it was not the word of God, but a man-made text, by highlighting the inconsistencies and incongruities within the Old and New Testaments. For instance, if Moses is supposed to be the author of certain early books of the Old Testament, then why is Moses always referred to in the third person? He also exposed the many historical inaccuracies in the Bible, and criticised the Christian doctrine of the Fall. Here he is on the Genesis story of Adam and Eve: ‘The Christian Mythologists, after having confined Satan in a pit, were obliged to let him out again to bring on the sequel of the fable. He is then introduced into the Garden of Eden, in the shape of a snake or a serpent, and in that shape he enters into familiar conversation with Eve, who is no way surprised to hear a snake talk; and the issue of this tête-à-tête is that he persuades her to eat an apple, and the eating of that apple damns all mankind.’
The book is also a very witty take on biblical scripture, leading some to condemn it for its excessive ridicule of the Bible. For instance, on the fact that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection, Paine writes: ‘she was a woman of a large acquaintance, and it was not an ill conjecture that she might be upon the stroll.’ Paine’s language at such moments was attacked by many for its ‘vulgarity’ – that is, for writing in a way that would appeal to both the middle and working classes. But this was very deliberate on his part, an aspect of his egalitarian nature and his desire to reach out to ‘the common man’.
He wrote the first volume of The Age of Reason in prison without the aid of books (or even a copy of the Bible), critiquing the Old Testament from memory. The Age of Reason appears to be the first place that the phrase ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’ appears, albeit not in so many words – a phrase which Napoleon (who according to some accounts slept with a copy of Paine’s Rights of Man under his pillow) would later popularise.
One of the most persistent ‘charges’ laid against Paine is that he was an atheist. In fact, as he makes repeatedly clear in The Age of Reason, he was a deist (that is, one who believes in a Creator but not an intervening God) whose aim was to defend God against the (mis)representations of him in the Old and New Testaments. In a letter of 1803, he wrote that ‘the people of France were running headlong into atheism, and I had the work translated and published in their own language to stop them in that career, and fix them to the first article (as I have before said) of every man’s creed who has any creed at all, I believe in God.’
But such intellectual nuances seemed to be beyond the grasp of most of his friends and associates. Only six people attended his funeral when he died in 1809. Many had abandoned him as an ‘atheist’ for his ridicule of the Bible and organised religion. To this day, nobody knows where Tom Paine’s bones lie, since it was rumoured they were removed from his grave in the States and returned to England. He remains a much more valued figure in America than he ever has been in his home country.
If you seek his monument, as the inscription to Sir Christopher Wren says in St Paul’s Cathedral, look around you: the signs of Paine’s influence are there for all to see. As he had remarked in a letter to George Washington in 1789, ‘A share in two revolutions is living to some purpose.’