History of Literature

American literature



Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, (b. January 29, 1737, Thetford, Norfolk, England—d. June 8, 1809, New York, N.Y., U.S.), English-American writer and political pamphleteer whose “Common Sense” and “Crisis” papers were important influences on the American Revolution. Other works that contributed to his reputation as one of the greatest political propagandists in history were Rights of Man, a defense of the French Revolution and of republican principles; and The Age of Reason, an exposition of the place of religion in society.

Life in England and America
Paine was born of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother. His formal education was meagre, just enough to enable him to master reading, writing, and arithmetic. At 13 he began work with his father as a corset maker and then tried various other occupations unsuccessfully, finally becoming an officer of the excise. His duties were to hunt for smugglers and collect the excise taxes on liquor and tobacco. The pay was insufficient to cover living costs, but he used part of his earnings to purchase books and scientific apparatus.

Paine’s life in England was marked by repeated failures. He had two brief marriages. He was unsuccessful or unhappy in every job he tried. He was dismissed from the excise office after he published a strong argument in 1772 for a raise in pay as the only way to end corruption in the service. Just when his situation appeared hopeless, he met Benjamin Franklin in London, who advised him to seek his fortune in America and gave him letters of introduction.

Paine arrived in Philadelphia on Nov. 30, 1774. His first regular employment was helping to edit the Pennsylvania Magazine. In addition Paine published numerous articles and some poetry, anonymously or under pseudonyms. One such article was “African Slavery in America,” a scathing denunciation of the African slave trade, which he signed “Justice and Humanity.”

Paine had arrived in America when the conflict between the colonists and England was reaching its height. After blood was spilled at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775, Paine argued that the cause of America should not be just a revolt against taxation but a demand for independence. He put this idea into “Common Sense,” which came off the press on Jan. 10, 1776. The 50-page pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies within a few months. More than any other single publication, “Common Sense” paved the way for the Declaration of Independence, unanimously ratified July 4, 1776.

During the war that followed, Paine served as volunteer aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene. His great contribution to the patriot cause was the 16 “Crisis” papers issued between 1776 and 1783, each one signed “Common Sense.” “The American Crisis. Number I,” published on Dec. 19, 1776, when George Washington’s army was on the verge of disintegration, opened with the flaming words: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Washington ordered the pamphlet read to all the troops at Valley Forge.

In 1777 Congress appointed Paine secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. He held the post until early in 1779, when he became involved in a controversy with Silas Deane, a member of the Continental Congress, whom Paine accused of seeking to profit personally from French aid to the United States. But in revealing Deane’s machinations, Paine was forced to quote from secret documents to which he had access as secretary of the Committee for Foreign Affairs. As a result, despite the truth of his accusations, he was forced to resign his post.

Paine’s desperate need of employment was relieved when he was appointed clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania on Nov. 2, 1779. In this capacity he had frequent opportunity to observe that American troops were at the end of their patience because of lack of pay and scarcity of supplies. Paine took $500 from his salary and started a subscription for the relief of the soldiers. In 1781, pursuing the same goal, he accompanied John Laurens to France. The money, clothing, and ammunition they brought back with them were important to the final success of the Revolution. Paine also appealed to the separate states to cooperate for the well-being of the entire nation. In “Public Good” (1780) he included a call for a national convention to remedy the ineffectual Articles of Confederation and establish a strong central government under “a continental constitution.”

At the end of the American Revolution, Paine again found himself poverty-stricken. His patriotic writings had sold by the hundreds of thousands, but he had refused to accept any profits in order that cheap editions might be widely circulated. In a petition to Congress endorsed by Washington, he pleaded for financial assistance. It was buried by Paine’s opponents in Congress, but Pennsylvania gave him 500 and New York a farm in New Rochelle. Here Paine devoted his time to inventions, concentrating on an iron bridge without piers and a smokeless candle.

In Europe: “Rights of Man”
In April 1787 Paine left for Europe to promote his plan to build a single-arch bridge across the wide Schuylkill River near Philadelphia. But in England he was soon diverted from his engineering project. In December 1789 he published anonymously a warning against the attempt of Prime Minister William Pitt to involve England in a war with France over Holland, reminding the British people that war had “but one thing certain and that is increase of taxes.” But it was the French Revolution that now filled Paine’s thoughts. He was enraged by Edmund Burke’s attack on the uprising of the French people in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, and, though Paine admired Burke’s stand in favour of the American Revolution, he rushed into print with his celebrated answer, Rights of Man (March 13, 1791). The book immediately created a sensation. At least eight editions were published in 1791, and the work was quickly reprinted in the U.S., where it was widely distributed by the Jeffersonian societies. When Burke replied, Paine came back with Rights of Man, Part II, published on Feb. 17, 1792.

What began as a defense of the French Revolution evolved into an analysis of the basic reasons for discontent in European society and a remedy for the evils of arbitrary government, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and war. Paine spoke out effectively in favour of republicanism as against monarchy and went on to outline a plan for popular education, relief of the poor, pensions for aged people, and public works for the unemployed, all to be financed by the levying of a progressive income tax. To the ruling class Paine’s proposals spelled “bloody revolution,” and the government ordered the book banned and the publisher jailed. Paine himself was indicted for treason, and an order went out for his arrest. But he was en route to France, having been elected to a seat in the National Convention, before the order for his arrest could be delivered. Paine was tried in absentia, found guilty of seditious libel, and declared an outlaw, and Rights of Man was ordered permanently suppressed.

In France Paine hailed the abolition of the monarchy but deplored the terror against the royalists and fought unsuccessfully to save the life of King Louis XVI, favouring banishment rather than execution. He was to pay for his efforts to save the King’s life when the radicals under Robespierre took power. Paine was imprisoned from Dec. 28, 1793, to Nov. 4, 1794, when, with the fall of Robespierre, he was released and, though seriously ill, readmitted to the National Convention.

While in prison, the first part of Paine’s Age of Reason was published (1794), and it was followed by Part II after his release (1796). Although Paine made it clear that he believed in a Supreme Being and as a deist opposed only organized religion, the work won him a reputation as an atheist among the orthodox. The publication of his last great pamphlet, “Agrarian Justice” (1797), with its attack on inequalities in property ownership, added to his many enemies in establishment circles.

Paine remained in France until Sept. 1, 1802, when he sailed for the United States. He quickly discovered that his services to the country had been all but forgotten and that he was widely regarded only as the world’s greatest infidel. Despite his poverty and his physical condition, worsened by occasional drunkenness, Paine continued his attacks on privilege and religious superstitions. He died in New York City in 1809 and was buried in New Rochelle on the farm given to him by the state of New York as a reward for his Revolutionary writings. Ten years later, William Cobbett, the political journalist, exhumed the bones and took them to England, where he hoped to give Paine a funeral worthy of his great contributions to humanity. But the plan misfired, and the bones were lost, never to be recovered.

At Paine’s death most U.S. newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New York Citizen, which read in part: “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.” This remained the verdict of history for more than a century following his death, but in recent years the tide has turned: on Jan. 30, 1937, The Times of London referred to him as “the English Voltaire,” and on May 18, 1952, Paine’s bust was placed in the New York University Hall of Fame.

Philip S. Foner



Type of work: Theological study
Author: Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
First published: Part I, 1794; Part II, 1796

Thomas Paine earned lasting fame as one of history's most powerful and persuasive writers. Born in England as the son of an artisan, largely self-educated, he wrote robust, plain, emotionally intense English that crystallized thought and galvanized into action the common people of America, Great Britain, and France. Paine, a young English immigrant sponsored by Benjamin Franklin, became beloved in his adopted country after he wrote Common Sense (1776), an impelling force in persuading Americans to break their remaining ties with England. His Crisis papers, written during the American Revolution, buoyed American spirits, and his The Rights of Man (1791-1792), pleading for natural rights and republican principles, won for him admirers throughout the Western world.
Paine placed before the common people the Enlightenment ideas of intellectual circles. He possessed an uncanny ability to translate the abstractions of the well-educated elite into living ideas that moved the masses. He believed that just as Sir Isaac Newton revealed the natural laws governing the universe, he and others could use reason to uncover the natural rights of individuals, republican principles in politics, or the laws of the marketplace.
While millions of people responded positively to Paine's early writings calling for independence and individual liberty, The Age of Reason made him a hated and reviled figure. The once-beloved advocate of humane and gentle treatment of all God's creatures was now presented as a drunkard and moral degenerate—a "filthy little atheist," in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, almost a century after Paine's death.
Although thousands of ministers denounced Paine as an atheist, he clearly stated on the first page of The Age of Reason that "I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life." He described his moral principles, those taught by many religious figures: "I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy."
Paine wrote The Age of Reason in 1793 in Paris during the French Revolution, which he had promoted and defended. Deeply troubled by the cruel excesses of a minority of revolutionaries, expecting arrest any day, he had seen reason overthrown and monarchy replaced with new despots. Similarly, in religion he saw the spread of atheism as a by-product of attacks on the established church. The Age of Reason was a blow against institutionalized religion on the one hand and an antidote to what Paine regarded as the poison of atheism on the other. As his fellow revolutionaries executed the French king and abolished the established church, Paine cautioned them not to dethrone reason, "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."
Paine outraged many former admirers not because he rejected God, which he did not do, but because he attacked the Christian church: "I do not believe in the creed professed ... by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church." Anticipating Karl Marx, Paine wrote: "All national institutions of churches . . . appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit." Government officials propped up the church for the benefit of greedy priests, and in return the church lent legitimacy to government, Paine said. He understood the danger of excess as the church-state edifice toppled, but he believed that reason would free humanity from the despotism of the clerics and protect it from the abyss of amoral anarchism.
Before Paine could present a theology appropriate to an age of reason, he had to strip away the false doctrine of Christianity. All existing religions claimed to be based on revelations from gods, but Paine argued that revelations could only occur between God and those to whom he directly revealed himself. After that, revelations, in the unlikely event that they had occurred, became mere hearsay and had been distorted to protect the position of the clerics.
The Bible was composed of hearsay, not revelation, Paine argued; using what would later be called biblical criticism, he found that many of the Old Testament stories were mere reworkings of ancient pagan tales. God's victory over Satan and the latter's confinement in the pit of fire reminded him of the tale of Jupiter's defeating a giant and confining him under Mount Etna, where he still belches fire. Christian mythologists did not settle the Satan problem so easily, Paine asserted:

. . . they could not do without him; and after being at the trouble of making him, they bribed him to stay. They promised him all the Jews, all the Turks by anticipation, nine-tenths of the world beside, and Mahomet into the bargain.

Christian mythologists deified Satan, Paine charged, even forcing God to capitulate to him by surrendering His Son on the cross.
The Old Testament degraded God by having Him order His people to engage in treachery, murder, and genocide, Paine wrote. It was full of confused chronology and fragments of non-Jewish writing. The books ascribed to Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and others could not have been written by them. That which was not absurd was an obscene history of wickedness. The Book of Job was interesting but was not Hebrew in origin; some of the Psalms properly exalted God but were not superior to other such writings before or since; the bits of wisdom in the Proverbs were not any wiser than those of Ben Franklin.
Paine then turned to the New Testament. It was not as full of brutality and blood as the Old Testament, but it was even more absurd, he believed. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not revelations but anecdotal hearsay written by unknown figures long after the events they described. The biblical story of Jesus, a modest and humane man whose message was distorted by church mythologists, was an absurdity. The story of his birth was an obscene tale of the violation of a virgin by a ghost. Jesus' death, God dying on a cross, was even more ridiculous: "His historians, having brought him into the world in a supernatural manner, were obliged to take him out again in the same manner, or the first part of the story must have fallen to the ground."
Jesus was a good man, a reformer and revolutionist, who was killed because he posed a threat to greedy priests and power-hungry Romans. Subsequently, the church built myths about him to support and justify a priestly religion of pomp and revenue. It created a false concept of redemption to obscure the fact that all humans at all times occupy the same relation to God, needing no mediation by churches or ministers. The doctrine of redemption served the clerics by turning humans into outcasts living in a dunghill and needing the church to regain the kingdom. The Bible, books of hearsay written centuries after the events they described, was shaped to fit the needs of the church. Church leaders settled by majority vote what would make up the Bible. If the vote had been different, Paine said, then Christian belief would be different.
Reason taught a very clear lesson to Paine. All human languages were ambiguous, easily miscopied, or even forged. The word of God would never have been revealed in a human language, a changeable and varying vehicle. The word of God would be revealed in a way that could never be changed or distorted or misunderstood, and it would be revealed to all people in every generation.
"The Word of God IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man." In God's creation of the earth and all the universe, we see His wisdom, power, munificence, and mercy, Paine said. The absurdities and creations of the Bible paled beside the workings of the universe in which God placed humanity. The Bible was so inferior to the glory and power of God revealed in His creation that the church had to suppress philosophy and science that would reveal the true theology revealed in the creation. Christianity so offended reason that in order to survive the church had to suppress freedom of thought.
There was a religious creed suitable for an age of reason, Paine believed, the deistic creed of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as well as Voltaire and other European Enlightenment leaders. Paine made his deistic beliefs clear:

The only idea man can affix to the name of God is that of a first cause, the cause of all things. And incomprehensible and difficult as it is for a man to conceive what a first cause is. he arrives at the belief of it from the tenfold greater difficulty of disbelieving it.

People did not need the church and ministers to have access to the mind of God: "It is only by the exercise of reason that man can discover God." The Bible served only to diminish God and to make Him appear cruel and angry.
So Paine ended the first part of The Age of Reason. He did not have the leisure to worry about its reception. Maximilien Robespierre and his radical comrades imprisoned Paine and kept him locked up through most of 1794. They probably did not intend to execute him but wanted to keep his pen from being turned against their excesses. He nearly died of illness before James Monroe helped free him. As Paine recovered, he read attacks on the first part of The Age of Reason. He had not had access to a Bible in anticlerical France when he wrote the first part. Now he had a Bible at hand and, he wrote, found that it was worse than he remembered.
Paine did not develop new themes in part 2 of The Age of Reason but provided more details of biblical criticism to support his argument that Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and others could not have written the books ascribed to them, thus removing any authority that they had as revelation. Paine again hammered at the theme that the Bible reduced God and His holy disciples to barbaric evildoers. Only the Book of Job could be read without indignation and disgust, he said. The New Testament began with the debauchery of Mary and ended with the absurdity of men placing God on a cross. The heart of the New Testament was the often-conflicting Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, each of whom seemed to have known a different Jesus.
Paine reiterated his central message. God's glory and benevolence were not found in the Bible or in churches or in ministers' sermons. Humans did not need mediating institutions to reach God. All people could find God's revelation by looking at his creation, using reason.
Although The Age of Reason was a book of profound morality and ethics and a paean to the glories of God, it gained for Paine undying hatred throughout the Christian world. His message was derived from the thought of Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes. He did not add anything to the deistic thought of Voltaire, Franklin, and Jefferson. Paine's unforgivable sin was to take deistic theology out of the gentlefolk's drawing rooms and to place it in the plain language of the people. His book horrified many of the common people by its seeming blasphemy and frightened the elite by its threat of freeing the masses from religious control. The Age of Reason came at the close of the Enlightenment, as reason was being dethroned. A century would pass before Paine's message of political, religious, and economic freedom could again be clearly heard.



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