The Age of Paine
by Scott Tucker
www.truthdig.com, July 3, 2009
"We have it in our power to begin
the world over again," wrote Thomas Paine in "Common
Sense," the revolutionary pamphlet published in January 1776.
Ronald Reagan quoted those words on July 17, 1980, when he addressed
the Republican National Convention and accepted his party's presidential
nomination. Reagan led a coalition of corporate oligarchs, imperial
crusaders and Christian fundamentalists to power, and to this
day Reaganism remains the official gospel of the old guard in
the Republican Party. The republican and social democratic ideals
of Paine are long lost to many modern partisan Republicans and
Democrats, but many memorable phrases of Paine still fill the
mouths of career politicians.
When the Iraq war, a broken health care
system and a plunging economy gave the Democratic Party a political
advantage, Barack Obama raised hopes and promised change. When
Obama gave his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2009, he too quoted
Paine, this time from the first of 13 articles collected in "The
American Crisis"-an article Gen. Washington ordered read
to his troops before crossing the Delaware River on Christmas
1776 to fight the Hessian mercenaries of King George III: "Let
it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when
nothing but hope and virtue could survive that the city and country,
alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it." Reagan
and Obama each lifted some good lines from Paine for their own
rhetorical purposes; but each likewise cared more for stagecraft
than for the original script.
Thomas Paine was born Jan. 29, 1737, in
Thetford, England, and died on June 8, 1809, in Greenwich Village,
New York. He was an active participant in the American and French
revolutions, and once said to George Washington, "a share
in two revolutions is living to some purpose." Through his
writings he also left a lasting legacy in the British working-class
movement. During his life, his books and pamphlets became instant
best-sellers, since he was a pioneer in addressing a wide public
in plain language. He is, in fact, sometimes described as a "pamphleteer,"
and it is true that even his books are written in the style of
pamphlets writ large. This is entirely to his credit. In 1943,
Orwell wrote a short piece titled "Pamphlet Literature,"
and claimed "that the pamphlet ought to be the literary form
of an age like our own. We live in a time when political passions
run high, channels of free expression are dwindling, and organized
lying exists on a scale never before known. For plugging the holes
in history the pamphlet is the ideal form." In the age of
Murdoch and Berlusconi, the traditional print and broadcast media
often serve as megaphones of phony populism. Nor does organized
lying cease to exist simply because the Internet carries a cacophony
of voices. In this sense, "plugging the holes in history"
is still the aim of political writers, and Paine is still good
for morale and instruction.
In the United States, Paine wrote "Common
Sense" and "The American Crisis," rallying citizens
to support independence, and then literally rallying the troops
for battle. When Paine went back to England to promote his own
design for a bridge, history had a bigger design for him. He had
become acquainted with Edmund Burke, who argued in the British
Parliament that lenience would preserve the loyalty of the colonists,
and who finally added his qualified support to the American Revolution.
In a famous speech Burke gave in the House of Commons on March
22, 1775, he said, "In this character of the Americans a
love of freedom is the predominating feature. This fierce spirit
of liberty is stronger in the English colonies, probably, than
in any other people of the earth."
So long as Burke and Paine had that much
common ground, Paine was even glad to visit Burke at his country
home. But in 1789 the French Revolution broke out, and by the
next year Burke was making deeply conservative arguments for hereditary
rule and property in his book "Reflections on the Revolution
in France." The leading British radicals and republicans,
whom Paine knew well, waged a literary war against Burke. William
Godwin wrote his "Inquiry Concerning Political Justice,"
and Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her "Vindication of the Rights
of Woman." But once again, the runaway best-seller proved
to be the first part of Thomas Paine's "The Rights of Man,"
published in 1791 and dedicated to George Washington. Paine defended
the French Revolution, and renewed his attacks against monarchy
and all hereditary privilege. Arguing pointedly against Burke,
"The vanity and presumption of governing
beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.
Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property
in the generations which are to follow."
William Pitt the younger, George III's
prime minister, led a campaign of repression against radicals
and republicans in the early and middle 1790s. Members of the
Church and King Society broke up radical meetings and burned down
their camps. On Nov. 22, 1792, a mob of royalist patriots burned
an effigy of Paine at Chelmsford, Essex. Two months earlier, Paine
had fled to France (at the strong advice of William Blake and
others) after he had been charged with sedition. The trial took
place in December, and he was found guilty in absentia, outlawed
from ever returning under penalty of imprisonment.
He remained in France 10 years, serving
as a deputy in the revolutionary National Convention in Paris
(though he knew little French), and he was even appointed in October
1792 to the Committee of Nine to write the new French Constitution.
He kept company with the Girondin faction in the Convention, which
already made him a marked man in the eyes of Robespierre and his
faction. He further alienated Robespierre and Marat when he argued
that the former king's life should be spared. Paine had fallen
afoul of government once again. In December 1793 Paine was arrested
and imprisoned, and the next year "the Angel of Death"
made a customary chalk mark on his open cell door. But when the
door was closed, Paine and his three cellmates were overlooked
as the next cartload of prisoners was taken to the guillotine.
During his 10 months in prison, when he
was not disabled by fever, Paine worked on "The Age of Reason."
Like all his other books, this became a best-seller; and though
he argued for deism, he would be branded as an atheist. The American
minister in France, Gouverneur Morris, ignored Paine's appeals
for help. Paine also grew convinced that Washington had abandoned
him, and he poured out his public grievances later in his "Letter
to Washington." Only when Morris was replaced by James Monroe
was Paine finally released, in the fall of 1794. By that time
Robespierre and most of his party had been guillotined, and the
Convention was now called the Assembly. Paine was elected to this
assembly in December 1794, and wrote his last major works: the
last parts of "The Age of Reason," "Dissertations
on the First Principles of Government" and, finally, in 1797,
"Agrarian Justice." In 1802, at the invitation of Thomas
Jefferson, Paine returned to the United States. As the political
struggle between the Jeffersonian and the Federalist factions
had sharpened, Paine contributed most often to the Jeffersonian
press and cause. Jefferson was among the very few people who still
Paine received a modest financial grant
for his services to the republic, and the state of New York gave
him a small farm in the town of New Rochelle. After he died in
1809 in Greenwich Village, his body was taken to be buried on
his farm in New Rochelle. Paine had requested burial in the cemetery
of the local Quaker meeting, but the elders had refused. Madame
Bonneville, who had been the wife of one of Paine's comrades in
France and who became Paine's housekeeper, made his final funeral
arrangements. By some accounts, only five or six people attended
his burial, including Bonneville and her son, two African men
who had walked many miles in gratitude for Paine's work against
slavery, and one man in Quaker garb who refused to disown the
free thinker. Madame Bonneville later gave an account of "an
obscure grave on an open and disregarded bit of land," writing:
"Looking round me, and beholding
the small group of spectators, I exclaimed, as the earth tumbled
into the grave, 'Oh! Mr. Paine! My son stands here as testimony
of the gratitude of America, and I, for France!' This was the
funeral ceremony of this great politician and philosopher!"
Though only a handful of people stood
by when his body was buried, his skull and bones are now claimed
as relics around the world. None of those bones have been proved
to be Paine's, though we do know his grave was robbed in 1819
by a journalist and publisher named William Cobbett. In Paine's
last years, Cobbett had been one of his rabid foes; but when Paine
was dead, Cobbett read the man's books in earnest and became such
a thorough convert that the two men had a long intertwined afterlife
in the culture of the British working class. Since the United
States had raised no proper memorial for Paine, Cobbett decided
to dig up the remains and take them to England. Cobbett's timing
was bad. The old wave of anti-Jacobin sentiment had given way
to a new wave of anti-Napoleonic, nationalist and royalist sentiment.
Cobbett was not able to raise a bronze and marble monument, though
he raised a chorus of ridicule from British journalists and cartoonists.
Paine's father was a Quaker and a master
stay-maker (a maker of the whale-bone corsets worn by fashionable
women at the time, not the usual line of work among Quaker artisans).
Paine's mother was a member of the Church of England, and must
have had a streak of independence to marry a Quaker of any trade
or social rank. As a boy and young man, Tom often went with his
father to the local Quaker meeting in Cage Lane, adjoining the
jail, the pillory and the gibbet. (In later life, Paine readily
claimed that he had received "an exceeding good moral education"
from the Quakers.) Twice in his late teens Paine ran away from
home to the London docks, seeking employment as a privateer. The
first time, he was found by his father at the docks and was persuaded
to come home. The second time he did go to sea and he came back
with 50 pounds, good wages at that time. He bought a set of clothes
fit for a gentleman, but was out of funds a few months later.
Paine married twice while living in England.
His first wife died in childbirth, and the child did not survive.
He obtained a legal separation from his second wife, and they
had no children. He tried several lines of work-as a stay-maker,
teacher, tobacco shop owner and tax collector. In 1772, he published
his first political article, "The Case of the Officers of
Excise," a petition for better wages and working conditions.
He moved to London, and there, in the clubs and coffeehouses where
artisans, merchants and aristocrats often mixed, he joined in
conversations about culture and politics. He also attended public
lectures on astronomy and other sciences. He took a practical
interest in engineering, and he got a British patent for his design
of a single-span iron bridge. In London he met the radical Unitarian
minister Joseph Priestley, one of the two discoverers of oxygen.
He met the Scottish astronomer James Ferguson. And, most important,
he met a man with whom Ferguson was collaborating on the design
of a new clock, Benjamin Franklin.
As Craig Nelson wrote in "Thomas
Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations,"
"Though the Enlightenment would sweep through every social
niche, its most ardent disciples would be workingmen or artisans-self-employed
master craftsmen and wage-earning journeymen who made, in that
pre-industrial era, pretty much everything money could buy. In
the 18th century they called themselves 'mechanics', and their
great hero was the world's most celebrated self-made mechanic,
Benjamin Franklin. "
Franklin's gospel of thrift, patience
and self-improvement may well have brought a new focus and resolve
to the life of Paine. This whole period in London encouraged Paine
to test his own powers and set himself new tasks. In Nelson's
view, "Those two years would make him a central figure in
the creation of the modern world." Franklin encouraged Paine
to make his future in the American colonies. In October 1774,
Paine sailed from London and he arrived in Philadelphia on Nov.
30. He was 37 years old. He spent his first weeks recovering his
health after being stricken by the typhus fever that swept through
crew and passengers during the ocean crossing. But he also held
several letters of recommendation from Franklin, and these served
as his key to the city.
Paine rented a room at the corner of Front
and Market, and in Robert Aitken's bookshop next door he soon
learned that Aitken owned a printing press. Aitken offered Paine
a job as chief editor of the new Pennsylvania Magazine, and Paine
readily accepted. With Paine both editing and writing for every
issue, the magazine soon became the most popular publication in
In March 1775, Paine (writing under the
pseudonym "Justice and Humanity") wrote and published
an article against slavery, arguing that the subject relationship
of the colonists to the British crown should have taught them
enough moral and practical lessons to renounce holding Africans
as property. According to Nelson, this essay brought Paine to
the attention of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent anti-slavery campaigner,
who introduced him to other prominent colonial citizens. In August
of the same year, he also published a plea for women's rights,
noting that "even with changes in attitudes and laws,"
women often remained "slaves of opinion which rules them
with absolute sway and construes the slightest appearances into
guilt; surrounded on all sides by judges who are at once tyrants
and their seducers. "
In Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn
had offered not only religious freedom, but also the most nearly
republican political culture of any of the colonies. In 1682,
Penn declared in his Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, "Any
government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame)
where laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws."
But by the time Paine arrived, an upper class of merchants and
landowners (including Penn's descendants) had consolidated so
much power that open class resentment had grown among hired workers
and tenant farmers. In his biography of Paine, Nelson estimates
that mechanics constituted nearly half the population of Philadelphia
on Paine's arrival, and held 30 to 40 percent of its wealth. By
background and by conviction, Franklin and Paine had close ties
with this working-class stratum of skilled artisans. Yet Franklin
fashioned a smooth social mask and was prosperous enough to find
a fixed place among the Founding Fathers, whereas Paine has always
been regarded as a much more prickly and plebeian outsider. Paine
joined with a band of Philadelphia radicals who not only pressed
for national independence but also spearheaded a revision of the
state constitution in 1776.
In 1780, An Act for the Gradual Abolition
of Slavery was passed in Pennsylvania, and carried Paine's signature
as clerk of the General Assembly. Though it was a legal milestone,
nothing like the later resolute Abolitionist spirit of John Brown
and Frederick Douglass is found in that document. On one side
of the scales of justice, this document weighed the fact that
God chose to create people with diverse complexions, "so
all are the work of an Almighty Hand." But the other side
of the scales was weighed down with a large concession to the
surrounding slave states, namely, a clause stating that the passage
of the act "shall not give any relief or shelter to any absconding
Negro or Mulatto slave or servant. " Slavery, as a daily
moral problem and as a daily material reality, had been exported
by the British to their colonies, including the West Indies and
southern Africa. And yet that very geographical distance is one
reason the British made decisive legal and political moves against
slavery well before the American Civil War and Lincoln's Emancipation
Proclamation. In England, after a long campaign in Parliament
led by William Wilberforce (and supported by some evangelical
Christians and secular republicans), the British finally passed
the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. In the United States, the home
ground was more deeply stained and entangled with slavery, so
the struggle against it passed in time from Quaker persuasion
to the more militant abolitionists.
Paine had argued with Aitken about his
wages at the Pennsylvania Magazine, and by summer of 1775 he was
determined to publish a new extended essay elsewhere. In September
he read the first draft aloud at Dr. Rush's house, and by December
he had passed out copies to astronomer David Rittenhouse, Boston
rebel Sam Adams and of course his benefactor Benjamin Franklin.
John and Samuel Adams, along with Franklin, had been among the
very few people who argued in private for an independent nation,
but Paine was the first to make these arguments in public print.
Paine's pamphlet of 96 pages, "Common Sense," was published
by Robert Bell on Jan. 9, 1776. (In the second edition of "Common
Sense," Paine appended an open letter to the Quakers, suggesting
that they should keep quiet if they wished to keep a consistent
witness of political quietism, or else they should make their
protest for peace directly to the king of England. In Pennsylvania,
the more prosperous Quakers, Presbyterians and Anglicans formed
an odd de facto coalition opposed to the agitation for independence.)
Competing publishers and pirate editions
soon made Paine's first serious work a best-seller. By the end
of January a German translation appeared in Pennsylvania, and
a French translation appeared in Quebec by the end of April. Other
editions soon appeared in London, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Rotterdam,
Copenhagen, Warsaw, Dubrovnik and Moscow. In his "History
of the American Revolution," George Trevelyan wrote, "It
would be difficult to name any human composition which has had
an effect at once so instant, so extended and so lasting. "
Nelson wrote, "In time, Thomas Paine's
first book would sell at least 500,000 copies domestically at
a time when the nation's population (including slaves) was a bare
three million-the equivalent of thirty-five million copies today.
Over half the citizens of the turbulent North American colonies
either read it, or had it read to them, and Paine's share of the
proceeds (which he donated to the American government, as he would
do with all his copyrights), were used to buy the nascent Continental
Army its mittens." Washington found "sound doctrine
and unanswerable reasoning" in "Common Sense,"
and noted that the pamphlet was "working a wonderful change
in the minds of many men." "Common Sense" was,
in the view of American historian Bernard Bailyn, "the most
brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution, and
one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English
Paine opens the argument of "Common
Sense" with a distinction between society and government:
"Society is produced by our wants, and government by our
wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting
our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices."
And the second paragraph begins with some of the most famous lines
Paine ever wrote: "Society is in every state a blessing,
but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil;
in its worst state an intolerable one. Government, like dress,
is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built
on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses
of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would
need no other lawgiver. "
This is memorable writing, but in his
later works Paine unmistakably changes his tone and reasoning
when he revisits the subject of the duties and limits of government.
Unfortunately, the famous early lines of Paine are framed and
frozen as his essential creed even by some scholars sympathetic
to the libertarian left and to democratic socialism. Indeed, when
political scientist Isaac Kramnick wrote an introduction to a
bicentennial Pelican edition of "Common Sense" in 1976
(later republished by Penguin Classics), Kramnick interpreted
Paine in this manner: "Government was not a positive agent
laying the foundation for a just or a good society, let alone
a welfare state. Its only role was to provide a stable and secure
setting for the operations of commercial society."
That is not just a minor misreading of
Paine, but a major distortion of the whole trajectory of his thought,
both early and late in his life. The philosopher A.J. Ayer noted
a tension between the arguments Paine made for natural rights,
and the arguments he made in a more utilitarian manner; but in
neither case did Paine ever abandon a distinctly moral view of
human relations. Paine's moral sense smolders and flares up on
almost every page, even when he is presenting economic facts and
figures. Paine's critique of government did change with time,
and he did finally find a larger role for both government and
taxation in providing basic social democracy. But Kramnick simply
portrays Paine as a lifelong exemplar of "bourgeois radicalism,"
and this might be historically true if he meant to argue that
many 18th century mechanics would join a rising middle class.
That argument would border upon my own
in this article, since Paine was among the most class-conscious
of the radical republicans. Kramnick's only argument for class
consciousness, however, would have to be an argument for a middle
class rising right up to the ruling class. For what would stop
them? Not "bourgeois radicalism," which Kramnick bluntly
defines as "the ideology of Tom Paine." Here we come
to the real reason Paine has never been a welcome figure in group
portraits of the Founding Fathers. In the person of Paine we do
behold an ideologically contradictory persona, but also a rapidly
evolving egalitarianism. Kramnick acknowledged "that Paine
pushed bourgeois radicalism to its outermost limits. " Kramnick's
bicentennial message, if not his class-conscious mission, becomes
plain in his own words:
"To emphasize the bourgeois Paine
is not to discount the Paine who later would become a hero for
the Chartists and early trade unionists. It is simply to insist
that his radicalism be seen as still within the bourgeois fold,
a line of interpretation receiving little stress in recent discussions
of his politics."
This is nothing less and nothing more
than the molding of a bicentennial wax-work figure of laissez-faire
ideology, the stamping of a "special edition" medallion
from the Franklin Mint, and, in short, the conjuration of a prophet
and precursor of Gerald Ford in the year 1976. Readers can be
pointed to Kramnick's text to decide whether he does or doesn't
discount the Paine who became an early hero for later labor radicals
and even for frank socialists.
In studying the works of Paine, we find
a man both daring and conflicted. Paine often draws back from
the brink of his own most advanced ideas. Sometimes we find Paine
surveying a social chasm wider than the Grand Canyon; and, with
all his good will and genius in the 18th century, he cannot draw
up a single-span iron bridge to cross over to the other side.
Paine was certainly a troubled man in some periods of his life,
and finally a quite lonely man as well. If we attribute this only
to personality and not also to class consciousness, then the anxiety
of Paine teaches us no more useful lesson than the anxiety of
various scholars seeking to keep him "within the bourgeois
"Tyranny, for Paine, was taxation."
So Kramnick wrote, and for proof he offered a quote from Paine's
"Anti-Monarchical Essay" (1792): " in a word,
whoever demands a king, demands an aristocracy, and thirty millions
in taxes." Yes, but it does not follow that whoever demands
millions in taxes to provide grants to young workers, solidarity
to the unemployed and aid for the elderly is thereby demanding
the restoration of monarchy. For these are precisely some of the
economic proposals Paine also makes in "The Rights of Man."
In that book Paine laid line after line of dynamite at the foundations
of the fortress built up with so many medieval towers and turrets
by Edmund Burke to defend hereditary peers, prejudice and property.
Here we will find Paine pushing the limits of 18th century social
democracy, and we will find him making class-conscious and materialist
"Why, then, does Mr. Burke talk of
his house of peers, as the pillar of the landed interest? Were
that pillar to sink into the earth, the same landed property would
continue, and the same ploughing, sowing, and reaping would go
on. The aristocracy are not the farmers who work the land, and
raise the produce, but are the consumers of the rent; and when
compared with the active world are the drones, a seraglio of males,
who neither collect the honey nor form the hive, but exist for
Paine was acquainted in England with William
Blake, who already mentioned the "dark Satanic mills"
of early industrialism in one of his poems. Had Paine lived to
observe British factories and working-class slums a century later,
he would have given that scene a similar survey.
In Paine's time, Adam Smith was considered
the Isaac Newton of economics, thus giving mercantile capitalism
the blessings of the laws of nature. Smith often stated that trade
monopolies undermined free trade, without giving any clear enforcement
plan beyond moral warnings to break up such monopolies. Many self-styled
disciples of Smith happily edit out the moral homilies, and then
read him as if he was simply an 18th century Ayn Rand. The same
liberties can be taken with Paine for the sake of the same libertarian
ideology. Paine was certainly influenced by doctrines of the free
market. In Paine's time, the free market already had both mechanical
and metaphysical properties, since the machinery of class domination
had been set in perpetual motion by some hidden hand. This was
an early version of the belief that the free market was free as
the birds and the bees, though also subject to a few natural disasters.
Capitalism, in the most optimistic view
(then and now), was naturalism. Adam Smith did not, of course,
have in mind Ayn Rand's Social Darwinism. No, but as the real
costs of the free market grew unmistakable, the naked Social Darwinist
doctrine became necessary. From the fountainhead of class struggle
emerged not only the trade unions and the socialists, but also
such "libertarian" class warriors as Mies, Rand and
Milton Friedman. Where do we locate Thomas Paine in this picture?
He studied economic documents, but he was not an economist. He
was not only a citizen of England, America and France, but also
a citizen of "the republic of letters." In "The
Rights of Man," Paine even took the utopian view (all too
much under the spell of Smith) that commerce tended to advance
world peace: "I have been an advocate for commerce, because
I am a friend of its effects. It is a pacific system, operating
to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals,
useful to each other. If commerce were permitted to act to the
universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system
of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments."
This was naive even in his own day, but we cannot blame him for
not forecasting the fierce imperial rivalries and world wars of
In England there were always links between
political and religious dissenters, so a good number of British
republicans, anti-slavery activists and working-class radicals
attended the chapels and meetinghouses of the Methodists, Baptists,
Quakers and other dissenting churches. By the time Thomas Paine
was born, the civil disobedience of the early Quakers was hardly
necessary. As E.P. Thompson wrote in "The Making of the English
Working Class," "They had prospered too much: had lost
some of their most energetic spirits in successive emigrations
to America: their hostility to State and authority had diminished.
" A sterner spirit of dissent existed among the Baptists
at that time, and found expression in John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's
Progress." "And it is above all in Bunyan," wrote
Thompson, "that we find the slumbering Radicalism which was
preserved through the 18th century and which breaks out again
and again in the 19th. Pilgrim's Progress is, with Rights of Man,
one of the two foundation texts of the English working-class movement:
Bunyan and Paine, with [William] Cobbett and [Robert] Owen, contributed
most to the stock of ideas and attitudes which make up the raw
material of the movement from 1790-1850."
Eighteenth century artisan work was often
highly skilled, and this stratum of the English working class
was both numerous and literate. (Nineteenth century industrial
production, by contrast, began with the immiseration and consequent
illiteracy of many workers drawn from the traditional artisan
class. The poorest rural and urban workers had, of course, always
had to struggle for both wages and literacy.) Artisan labor and
public association created relative independence from the ruling
ideas of the ruling class. So did the printing presses, which
published much of the news the ruling class saw fit to print,
but also published an ever increasing number of republican and
radical journals. Coffee, chocolate and tobacco, all part of the
"free trade" of empire (widely extracted from slave
labor), also kept the customers coming to the pubs, clubs and
coffeehouses that multiplied in London, Paris and Philadelphia.
Radicals, republicans and revolutionaries found much common ground
in these material circumstances and public places.
"That filthy little atheist,"
as Thomas Paine was called by Theodore Roosevelt (a man we might
with more justice call that filthy little imperialist), has few
monuments dedicated to his memory, and has sometimes had few readers
beyond those students who are required to read his great revolutionary
pamphlet "Common Sense." This pamphlet was the firebrand
Paine wielded to spread the flame of independence throughout the
British colonies in America, with such success that John Adams
claimed that "without the pen of Paine the sword of Washington
would have been wielded in vain."
Adams was honest enough to acknowledge
the persuasive talents of Paine, but lost no time publishing his
own pamphlet in 1776 opposing the more "democratical"
politics of Paine, Jefferson and others. Many who had first hailed
Paine as an archangel of light would later claim that he had become
a son of Lucifer. The odor of sulfur always stuck to Paine after
he wrote and published "The Age of Reason," and yet
all his infidelities to orthodox religion do not make him an outright
Paine began his public life by disavowing
the divinity of kings; he proceeded to disavow the divinity of
Jesus Christ; and during his last years he even disavowed the
divinity of George Washington, which made most of his few remaining
friends and comrades decide that the old iconoclast had finally
gone too far.
Those ideas may not disturb the peace
of many people today, at least not if taken one by one, or even
all together. But in Paine's time, such ideas carried great risks,
and usually remained restricted to small circles of friends and
readers. Paine deliberately stepped outside of those inner circles.
He repeatedly made the decision to become Citizen Paine, a person
in public life. If we assume Paine became a republican and a revolutionary
all at once, we may as well assume that no larval stage precedes
a butterfly and that no geological rift precedes an earthquake.
The habit of public life has to be cultivated
to create citizens and to preserve democracy. If that much seems
too plain for words, we forget that the plain language of people
like Paine was one of the great advances toward personal liberty
and social solidarity. Paine added greatly to our common store
of common sense. The men and women who first invented (or, in
the 18th century, reinvented) the republican tradition were flawed,
all too human and brave. Their courage and their ideals will have
died with them if we allow the big corporate political parties
to undermine both democracy and the republic in our own time.
Paine advanced the causes of universal
suffrage, equality for women, abolition of slavery, separation
of church and state, public education, and progressive taxation.
He made the first proposal for a guaranteed minimum income. He
advised a system of public funding to give starting grants to
young workers, and to aid the poor, the unemployed and the elderly.
He believed that only well-informed and active citizens could
defend democracy, and he roused the hostility of John Adams, Alexander
Hamilton and others who were already a rising oligarchy of the
wealthiest landowners and merchants.
Paine was an advocate of republican world
revolution, and (if we consider his time and culture) he was a
genuine social democrat. There are historians who claim he showed
little originality of thought, only originality in his plain prose
and telling turns of phrase. But the proof of his powerful mind
was shown in his ability to survey and summarize a vast treasury
of Enlightenment thinking; and his deliberate choice to address
a wide audience of working people seemed original enough to the
ruling classes of his time.
Most of Paine's practical proposals of
the social democratic kind appear in "The Rights of Man"
(particularly part two), and in one of his last works, a long
pamphlet titled "Agrarian Justice." As historian Eric
Foner noted in "Tom Paine and Revolutionary America,"
"More than in any other essay, Paine seemed torn in Agrarian
Justice between his customary desire to unite all classes in what
he perceived as the common good, and his sympathy for the plight
of the European poor." Though there are utopian elements
in these works, he took care to study and publish many relevant
economic figures, so his criticism of existing conditions and
his budget for reforms was not drawn from the clear blue sky.
If we expect him to be as comprehensive as a modern economist
(or indeed as a modern socialist), then we can easily prove how
clever we are without ever acknowledging both the practical and
prophetic dimensions of his thought.
Even so, the subject of public health
is sketchy to a vanishing point in the works of Paine. Medicine
was still emerging as an empirical field of knowledge, doctors
were still shaking off a reputation for quackery, and the particular
field of public medicine barely existed beyond the usual charity
wards and hospitals. So Paine may have slighted this subject in
real modesty. But he may have trusted his readers to fill in the
gaps as well. This is suggested in one of the best studies of
Paine's work, a book by the British philosopher A.J. Ayer, titled
simply "Thomas Paine." Ayer drew a comparison between
the social democratic proposals of Paine and the reforms introduced
by the British Labour Party in the wake of World War II:
"This brings me to the end of Paine's
blueprint for what I have felt justified in calling his Welfare
State. Its main difference from the package introduced in 1945
is the absence of a scheme of National Health Service. I suggest
that the reason for this is that Paine's principal aim was to
abolish poverty. He may, therefore, have assumed that once this
was achieved, there would be no need to make special provision
for health. His measures would ensure that those who needed medical
attention would be able to pay for it."
We may get a better idea of Paine's clarity
and courage if we study how he anticipated public policies that
would only be put into real practice under 20th century European
social democrats, and in this country under Franklin Roosevelt
and the New Deal. But even if we limit our interest to the timeline
of his own life, he stands out among revolutionaries who not only
dared to think but also dared to act. The historical gap between
Enlightenment in theory and Enlightenment in practice is clear
enough in a celebrated essay which Immanuel Kant wrote in 1784,
"An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?"
Kant took care to drop a curtsey to the Prussian monarch when
he claimed "this is the century of enlightenment, the century
of Frederick." Kant did not even propose a constitutional
monarchy. Nor did he dare mention the American Revolution. He
did make a plea for "the freedom to use reason publicly in
"Enlightenment is man's emergence
from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability
to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This
immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of
understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without
guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [Dare to know!] 'Have courage
to use your own understanding!'-that is the motto of enlightenment."
All well and good. But precisely the failure
to act in common meant that much of the European public remained
subject to the will of hereditary rulers. The advice of Kant remained
in the realm of German idealism, and of slow diffusion through
the educated public of Europe. To be on the same page only in
ideals could lead to political quietism, and even to an open divorce
between theory and practice.
The republicans of the 18th century were
not above using the blunt instruments of worldly power, or the
sharp silencer of the guillotine. But Paine can be remembered
and honored as an early civil libertarian among the early republicans.
Behind the polemical heat of the attacks Paine turned upon dogmatic
religions, we will find a sentiment much cooler and much closer
in spirit to these words of Gotthold Lessing: "Let each man
say what he deems truth, and let truth itself be commended unto
God!" If that seems to be an empty piety, consider all that
is implied in those words-including the strong suggestion that
no single mortal mind or religious doctrine could encompass the
whole truth. The search for truth requires pluralism in public
life. For many republicans this meant daring to create a public
sphere of conflicting voices, and therefore of conflicting claims
The early republicans took great personal
risks to speak their minds, and Paine in particular became a guiding
spirit for later American radicals such as Walt Whitman, Robert
Ingersoll, Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs. Abraham Lincoln's law
partner, William Herndon, claimed that Lincoln had written an
essay defending the deism of Paine in 1835. Herndon also claimed
that the manuscript was burned by Lincoln's friend, Samuel Hill,
to protect Lincoln's political career. Thomas Edison admired Paine
as a fellow inventor and free thinker, and stated, "I have
always regarded Paine as one of the greatest of all Americans.
Never have we had a sounder intelligence in this republic. "
Big round anniversary numbers often roll
the dead back to life, and the 200th anniversary of Paine's death
has brought him a new round of public honors, a revival of interest
among scholars, and a recent discussion of his life and work on
PBS' "Bill Moyers Journal." In the late 18th and early
19th centuries, the writings of Paine generated a kind of solar
energy among republicans throughout the Americas and throughout
Europe. Yet his reputation also suffered a lunar fortune, waxing
whenever people searched the past for present inspiration, and
waning whenever people accepted the propaganda about the godless
and bloodthirsty Jacobin. Even in his own country and lifetime,
Paine's fame gave way to infamy and finally to mere forgetting.
The works of Paine did not simply fall
out of fashion once he had been laid in his grave. No, he was
elbowed out of the inner circles of government even while he was
living. If we reduce the story of his life to a psychological
study, any fool could find evidence of a difficult character.
But the real difficulty many of his contemporaries had with this
man was not simply personal but political. And the real difficulty
so many liberals and conservatives have with Paine today is the
plain fact that he was both a radical republican and a social
democrat. We cannot claim Paine as a modern democratic socialist,
but he remains a prickly hedgehog if we place him in the company
of modern Republicans and Democrats. If Paine is to be taken seriously
today, he will still be a pain the neck of career politicians.
While Paine was still living, his worst
enemies either did not bother to read "The Age of Reason"
or they deliberately chose defamation above the evidence of his
own words. Why atheism should be considered defamatory is a fair
question, but it was not simply a philosophical question in the
18th century. Even bare-knuckle politics could be a gentleman's
sport, but the charge of atheism always took off the gloves and
brought brass knuckles into the boxing ring. In that respect little
has changed during the whole history of the United States of America
(a phrase Paine invented, and which was promptly adopted as the
name of the new republic). Paine was never tarred and feathered
for his religious and political beliefs, but in England his effigy
was hanged and burned by angry royalist mobs, and in the United
States a coach in which he was riding was pelted with stones by
angry Christians. Paine had the misfortune to return to the United
States during an evangelical revival now known as the Second Great
The 18th century democrats and republicans
did not create something from nothing, and they did not create
gold from lead. Paine (among others) did show real originality
in casting the available older materials into the crucible of
current events, and drawing out silver seven times refined. How
is it possible that the political philosopher Thomas Paine emerged
from his working-class English artisan background? How did he
dare put republican ideals to the test of common action? Asking
that question goes a long way toward answering it, because artisan
material production also helped to create a public sphere beyond
the Court of St. James's, the House of Lords and debates in Parliament.
Likewise, when British men and women broke
away from the Church of England, they often paid real penalties
in the long struggle for religious civil liberties. They were
slandered, beaten, jailed and sometimes put to death. The artisan-class
politics and the religious idealism in the background of Paine
can be studied almost as distinct cultural chemicals, but the
real chemistry is all in the mix. This spirit of religious and
political dissent was already the milk and honey of the Promised
Land for the young Tom Paine, and a true foretaste of earthly
freedom. For Paine, the horizon of faith was a mirage unless he
could plant his feet on the common ground of free citizens. His
moral and intellectual compass was never oriented toward an inward
paradise, but toward the worldly creation of liberty. All men
and women might be born free, but liberty would never be guaranteed
only by claiming natural rights. That claim had to be advanced
precisely through political struggle. Paine chose a journey far
beyond his island country and far beyond any orthodox faith.
Paine both drew upon and created the common
sense of his time. The very title of Paine's most infamous book
was later adopted as a general term for various kinds of rationalism
and empiricism, usually bearing the stamp of Europe and the 18th
century. Paine placed in the public square (and in plain language)
all of the most pointed opinions on "revealed religion"
which skeptics, scientists and philosophers had already addressed
to much smaller circles. Indeed, many of these opinions had become
the common sense of prominent Founding Fathers, including Washington,
Jefferson and Franklin.
Paine believed that whatever we deem truth
deserves a public hearing, not simply the audience of an inner
circle. He sinned against prudence and discretion, or at least
many of his old friends and comrades soon decided that was so.
Testing the public limits of tolerance, Paine also became one
of the practical civil libertarians of both Europe and the early
In Britain there are conservatives who
still grow irate at the mention of his name. In their own way,
they understand. Whereas in the United States there are liberals
who barely know his name at all, beyond a high school civics class
or a passage in a college text. They do not understand, and many
of them have not even forgotten because they never learned in
the first place. The lesson for liberals is that conservatives
sometimes remember what makes radicals truly radical, long after
liberals have forgotten. Conservatives still quote chapter and
verse from Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution
in France." Liberals, and indeed radicals, might quote in
turn and as often from "The Rights of Man," the book
Thomas Paine wrote in response to Burke. Paine and Burke carried
on an argument about politics and liberty that began long before
them, and has continued long after. But Burke is always an honored
guest among serious conservatives, whereas Paine is little more
than a ghost in the memory of many liberals. Beyond the circles
of scholars and historians, Paine deserves a much wider place
in public memory and in public conversation.
Paine had helped raise the tide of revolution,
but by the end of his life he had become stranded by his own advancing
ideas. And, yes, to a degree by his own sheer cussedness. As Paine
grew elderly and embittered, he turned more often to brandy. His
best thoughts no longer gained currency-on the contrary, he seemed
to gain increasing infamy. Paine did not tailor his convictions
to the more uniform fashions of the most prosperous leaders of
the republic. At least he did not break his heart wondering how
to win friends and influence people in our modern manner. His
moods of indignation alternated with spells of stoicism. He had
lived long enough to discover that every revolution is also a
wheel of fortune. Even his most bitter words have a natural taste
to this day, like fresh salt or strong vinegar. The author of
"Common Sense" rarely lost his own, though he lost his
temper often enough to pen and publish some lines he would have
done better to strike.
Paine lived in an age in which journalists
were still emerging as public figures, and indeed in which public
journals were still emerging as literary products. In that age,
many writers who were alert to current events and to public action
became journalists not by habit or by profession, but by writing
quite literally "for the day." Or, in French, "pour
le jour." "For the day" also implies for the general
public, and thereby journalism gained the name. If we compare
Paine's prose style with the rhetorical roulades of some of his
contemporary French revolutionaries, we find an equally strong
spirit but a more sober delivery. He must have known when he was
writing a great line, just as Verdi must have known when he had
spun out a great tune, but all his best work belongs in the tradition
of plain English political prose. There is the same effort to
think clearly and therefore to write clearly as we find in Orwell.
All of Paine's books open room by room like a house made with
honest craft and solid materials.
If we regard those founding republicans
as figures in a fairy tale, then we might as well bury the whole
republic and build a marble monument inscribed with these words:
Once Upon A Time. Today, in the United States, the highest ideal
of many members of the ruling class is to create a private paradise
of wealth, and they have no qualms if that goal can be achieved
by buying career politicians in Congress. These people know the
market value of "our two party-system," but they have
never known the value of democracy. Plainly, it serves the interests
of a small but immensely wealthy minority if we, the people, leave
politics to politicians except on election days. Plainly, it serves
the interests of the great majority of working people if we treat
politicians as public servants in our common household. Not as
kings, not as a new aristocracy, not as the winners in a cruel
game of social Darwinism, but simply as public servants. Building
a bronze and marble monument to Paine will never revive the republic,
but his words still carry an electric current of freedom. His
intellectual and political energy is always available for rediscovery.
In 1805 John Adams was 71 years old, and
Paine was living his last years in a somewhat outcast retirement.
Neither man had lost all his old powers of invective and satire,
a word Adams spelled as "satyr" in a letter he wrote
a friend in the same year:
"I am willing you should call this
the Age of Frivolity as you do, 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. I know not whether any
man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or
affairs in the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be
no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between a pig
and a puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before
in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind,
to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age
Scott Tucker is a writer and democratic
socialist. He lives in Los Angeles.