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.’
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My favorite firebrand of the revolution! Where is that gravestone that you have pictured?
I believe it’s in New Rochelle Cemetery in New York, where Paine’s bones were originally buried before being removed to Britain. We’ll double-check that though…
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It is my opinion that Paine is a cornerstone of modern civilisation and your well-considered article was a pleasure to read.
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This post led me to get a biography of Thomas Paine. I am now reading “Rebel” by Samuel Edwards. One surprising thing from his early life: his education was pretty limited and his writing ability was mostly natural to him. He did not learn Latin; really deficient for that day and age. He did read my guru, Seneca, in translation. Next, I might take a look at Hitchins’s book on Paine. I really enjoyed his book, “God is not Great.”
Thanks for the comment, Laura! Glad my post inspired you to read more about Paine. I haven’t read Christopher Hitchens’s book on Paine – I want to, though. Mind you, I’ve read mixed reviews of it, but I agree, his ‘God Is Not Great’ is a superb book and his essays and reviews were always a joy to read. Let me know what his Paine book is like – I’d love to hear what you think of it!
Hmm, I don’t see it as a smirk (though I can see what you mean), more of an open and honest gaze, inviting the viewer to do likewise. I wonder what a focus group would make of it … hey! We are a focus group!
Seriously, an interesting and worthwhile post, and one I would have felt poorer for not reading.
Well thank you! Much appreciated, as ever. I think you’re right: we shouldn’t assume it’s a smirk, as Paine was a very serious, earnest, and open-minded man who sought the fairest way forward. Glad you liked the post – we appreciate your appreciation!
Thank you for a fantastic article. I really love Thomas Paine; I feel he cuts through all the bullshit and reminds us both pointedly and poignantly to stop kidding ourselves on issues which really should never be controversial. Especially issues of the self.
Your recognition of Thomas Paine as one of history’s great progressive reformers is a sentiment shared by our members across the United States. Thomas Paine Friends works to familiarize people in every society with Paine’s remarkable contributions to an understanding of our fundamental rights, as well as the entrenched privileges in every society that cause some to remain in poverty while others enjoy lives of great luxury. We invite you to visit the home of Thomas Paine Friends (www.thomas-paine-friends.org) and consider becoming a member.
Edward J. Dodson, President
Thanks very much Edward, will do so!
I haven’t thought about Paine since university, thanks for the reminder! I can’t help but notice that in his portrait he looks like he is smirking, just a little bit.
Thanks for the comment – much appreciated. I know – I chose that picture on purpose because of the wry smirk! And it’s also on the cover of my copy of The Age of Reason, so I always picture him like that…
Thank you so much for this, IL. I had never heard of Thomas Paine but now need to read his work.
He seems to have been a man very much ahead of his time … probably even ahead of our time!
He also sounds very readable unlike a lot of the literature of the time which can be far from accessible.
Absolutely, Angela – he remains a very readable writer, chiefly because of his desire to reach out to ‘the common man’ and write in an accessible style that would reach everyone. Next to his eighteenth-century contemporaries – even someone as readable as Dr Johnson – he comes across as breezy, funny, and decidedly modern, in this and many other ways…
Wow, if Napoleon sleeps with your book under his pillow, you must be doing something right. That only six people were at his funeral speaks volumes about the fate befalling such minds in a dim world. I will be sure to read more of his works. Thanks for posting this.
Thanks! I know, it seems that many great people in history had poorly attended funerals. Charles Babbage, ‘father of the computer’, is another who springs to mind. So many great men ended up as laughing stocks in their own lifetimes, but are now cherished as men ahead of their time.
very interesting article. enjoyed the read. thanks for sharing
Thanks for commenting! Much appreciated…
Thank you for stirring and refreshing my memory of this infamously famous historical figure, who inspires people to think even to this day.
Well said – and thanks!
What a fascinating life. I want to learn more about the father of liberalism. Where are the Thomas Paines of today!
That’s a very good question. I recall Christopher Hitchens saying that you couldn’t get a modern-day Thomas Paine, partly because the nature of politics is so much less simple than it was in Paine’s day. Still, we need people like Paine – people who aren’t afraid to ‘make a fuss’, as Mark Steel put it!
A marvellous insight into someone with courage enough to forego the acceptable to pen his observations and beliefs
Thanks, and very well said. He was a brave man, and those who published his work – notably The Age of Reason – ran the risk of imprisonment themselves, so controversial were his ideas and beliefs. A great man, not afraid to speak his mind. Everyone should know more about Thomas Paine!