My New Friends, Thomas Paine
Most of my friends don’t know about Thomas Paine. A few know that Thomas Paine was somehow involved in the American Revolution. That’s not good enough.
Thomas Paine is terribly underrated. I would go so far as to say that he ranks with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in his influence on the success of the American Revolution.
I first got interested in Thomas Paine when I read Thomas Edison’s remark about Paine:
“I have always regarded Paine as one of the greatest of all Americans. Never have we had a sounder intelligence in this republic…. It was my good fortune to encounter Thomas Paine’s works in my boyhood… it was, indeed, a revelation to me to read that great thinker’s views on political and theological subjects. Paine educated me, then, about many matters of which I had never before thought. I remember, very vividly, the flash of enlightenment that from Paine’s writings, and I recall thinking, at that time, ‘What a pity these works are not today the schoolbooks for all chidren!’ My interest in Paine was not satisfied by my first reading of his works. I went back to them time and again, just as I have done since my boyhood days.”
This was enough to want to learn more about Paine. And what I learned is that this 18th century man had 21st century ideas. I had just published My Life as a Humanist. And now I discovered Paine to be my prototype Humanist. He wanted to make the world a better place for all.
Thomas Paine was born in England in 1737 into a Quaker family. He lived 72 years and passed away in 1809. During his life he was described by others as a political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary.
Paine had the good fortune to be introduced to Benjamin Franklin who was visiting London. Franklin suggested that Paine emigrate to British colonial America and even provided Paine with a letter of recommendation. In October, 1774, Paine emigrated and on November 30, 1774 he arrived in Philadelphia. He became a citizen of Pennsylvania and gained a position as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. Paine directed the magazine to educate a working class audience and discussed worker rights in production and other topics.
Paine had a first class mind as a writer. He observed the taxes that the American colonies had to pay to the British. He developed a deep dislike for governments run by a King and aristocrats. He put his ideas into Common Sense. Published in January 10, 1776, Common Sense was an immediate success in all 13 colonies, selling over 500,000 copies during the course of the American Revolution. It was read in taverns and homes and bolstered the enthusiasm of colonials to separate from Britain. It helped in recruiting citizens for the Continental Army.
Paine’s later writings included The American Crisis (1776), Public Good (1780), The Rights of Man (1791, 1792), The Age of Reason (1794, 1795, 1807) and Agrarian Justice (1797). All of his books were a treasure of ideas and causes. Many groups — liberals, libertarians, feminists, democratic socialists, social democrats, anarchists, free thinkers and progressives — claim him as an intellectual ancestor.
Paine’s Major Ideas
It is time to describe Thomas Paine’s major ideas.
· Paine believed in democracy where people decide on their government. He condemned monarchs and aristocrats as applying tyranny. He advocated the right of people to overthrow their government when it was no longer serving them. He applauded the French Revolution for establishing the human rights of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. He defended the French Revolution against its critics such as Edmund Burke. Paine argued against the execution of Louis XVI, saying the monarch should be exiled to the U.S. As a Quaker, Paine had a moral objection to capital punishment.
· Paine favored a representative government that offered social programs to alleviate the brutalizing poverty of many common citizens. He favored progressive tax measures to raise the money to provide for a state subsidy for poor people, state-financed universal public education, and state-sponsored prenatal care and postnatal care. He proposed state subsidies to families at childbirth. Paine proposed that everyone at age 21 receive an annual payment and at age 50 retire and continue to receive the payment.
· Paine wrote how land ownership separated the majority of people from their rightful, natural inheritance and means of independent survival. Paine held a libertarian concern with private ownership providing that it showed an egalitarian commitment to moral values.
· Paine held that the land west of the 13 colonies all the way to the Pacific, which belonged to the Virginia Company, be switched not to the states but to the Federal Government. He won even though it alienated a few powerful friends including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who had claimed huge wild tracts.
· Paine advocated Deism as his religion. Deism assumed One God who created the world but who did not intervene in human affairs. Deism embraces moral virtues in imitation of the moral character of God. Paine argued against institutionalized churches whether Protestant, Jewish, Greek or Turkish. He saw churches as human inventions aiming to terrify mankind, and monopolize power and profit. Paine saw the Bible as describing obscene stories, debaucheries, cruel executions, and vindictiveness. He saw the bible as corrupting mankind. Paine stated that “the Christian religion is a parody on the worship of the Sun, in which they put a man whom they call Christ, in the place of the Sun, and pay him the same adoration which was originally paid to the Sun.”
· Paine carried an expanded view of the rights of people. He attacked slavery as an “outrage against Humanity and Justice.” He believed in women’s right to vote and opposed the adoption of the new 1795 constitution because it eliminated universal suffrage. Paine believed in workers’ rights in their place of work.
· Paine worked as an internationalist and advocated for more peaceful relations between England and France for the sake of the citizens in both countries.
· Paine did not hesitate to criticize revered public personage if he thought they did wrong. Paine objected to General Washington’s proposal that Congress remunerate Washington for his services, for fear of setting “a bad precedent and an improper mode”. Paine sent a stinging letter to George Washington describing him as an incompetent commander and a vain and ungrateful person. Not surprisingly, Paine was hated for his attack on Washington. He was also hated for his stand against Christianity and the Bible.
· Eric Foner, a Paine biographer, identifies a utopian mindset in Paine’s ideas. “Through this new language he communicated a new vision — a utopian image of an egalitarian, republican society. Paine’s utopianism combined civic republicanism, belief in the inevitability of scientific and social progress and commitment to free markets and liberty generally. The multiple sources of Paine’s political theory all pointed to a society based on the common good and individualism.”
Thomas Paine held too many radical ideas to be accepted by his colonial compatriots. He did much good but also many said that he did much harm as well. On June 8, 1809, death came. Only six mourners came to his funeral, two of whom were black freedmen. There was no pomp, pageantry, civic procession, or military display.
Had Napoleon been at Thomas Paine’s funeral, he would have showered Paine with admiration. Paine reported that he had a meeting with Napoleon who claimed he slept with a copy of Rights of Man. Napoleon said to Paine: “A statue of gold should be erected to you in every city in the universe.”
Paine, later seeing Napoleon’s movement towards dictatorship, Paine condemned Napoleon as “the completest charlatan that ever existed”.
Lessons from Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine threw himself into the history of his times. The American colonies were paying taxes to a distant country run by a king and aristocrats. The 13 colonies could do better by separating from England, even if this meant going to war. Paine and other great men chose to go to war and stated their reasons in the Declaration of Independence. They raised the money and troops and narrowly won the war with determination and France’s help.
Now there was a new government to be formed, based on democratic principles and a viable Constitution. Paine saw government as an instrument that could help people live a better life. Government would take responsibility for providing education, health, roads and social services. Since many Americans owned no land (property), they needed more than employment and a wage. Paine was an early advocate of protecting workers by the government granting an initial sum of money when the worker comes of age and money for their comfortable retirement when work ends.
Paine believed in property rights but insisted they go along with moral responsibilities to those without property. This philosophy is in contradiction to the philosophy of individualism where persons and families act in their own self-interest. Today the U.S. is still in conflict over these two philosophies. Paine emerged out of the Enlightenment tradition and fought to bring this tradition to America. The fight for an enlightened America is still being fought.
*For more on Paine, see Thomas Paine in Wikipedia.