Thomas Paine: Overappreciated Secularist
by Maximilian Longley

The famous American historical figure Thomas Paine continues to be cited in modern times as the epitome of everything an American should be. A few months ago, conducting a computer search for references to Paine in the media over the past few years, I found only one unfavorable reference to the old revolutionary (A Robert Bartley editorial in the Wall Street Journal).(1) Apart from this, references to Paine were quite favorable. References to Paine tend to associate him with the positive virtues of Americanism (as interpreted by the particular writer). The contrast between the Thomas Paine of myth, who is so frequently invoked today, and the Thomas Paine of reality, is worth examining.

Paine was a writer and revolutionary who came to Pennsylvania shortly before the American Revolution. After that Revolution began, he wrote a famous pamphlet, Common Sense, urging separation from England. He also spent time fighting with George Washington's army and serving in various clerical posts in government. A would-be inventor, Paine went to England after the American Revolution to promote a bridge he had designed. When the French Revolution broke out, he went to that country, served in the French legislature despite his lack of knowledge of French, and wrote a two-part tract (Rights of Man) defending what he deemed to be the principles of the French Revolution. Locked up during the Terror, Paine began work on Age of Reason, a work attacking Christianity and defending deism. After leaving France, Paine spent his last years in New York state.

Paine's modern followers are numerous. A pro-war group, The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, put out a White Paper, written by Ronald Radosh, accusing opponents of the American invasion of lacking the right kind of patriotism. The White Paper opened with a famous 1776 quote from Paine: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. [etc.]"(2) The American Legion uses the "summer soldiers" quotation in its handbook for speakers. This and another Paine quote are included in a list of quotations that speakers could use when explaining the Legion's principles to public gatherings.(3) A patriotic paean to the United States by Otto Whittaker, reprinted by Ann Landers in her widely-syndicated column, included Paine among a list of great American people, places and institutions.(4) Michael Kazin, in the Washington Post, gave Paine as an example of a patriotic left-wing dissenter.(5)

Invoking Paine as an exemplar of American patriotism is somewhat misguided. During his sojourn in France in the 1790s, Paine identified with France and its Revolution, rather than with the Federalist government of President John Adams. In 1798, France and the United States were fighting a naval war. Paine took the occasion of this war to publish an essay in the French newspaper le Bien informe. This essay gave advice to the French government on the best means of invading the United States. Paine recommended that a French invasion force go for American seaports: "The master blow would be to finish at Halifax [Nova Scotia], then move down to New Orleans, take possession of the port of Natchez, call on the friends of liberty in the back parts of the United States, from Kentucky to the southern limits of English America [modern Canada]." Paine biographer David Freeman Hawke comments: "Nothing can excuse or explain away the essay. Hatred of the Federalists [President Adams' party] had propelled Paine into sedition."(6) "Sedition" is not the strongest term that can be used of an American who, in time of war, gives advice to the enemy on how to invade his own country.

A New York Unitarian-Universalist minister, Jan Carlsson-Bull, delivered a sermon on July 7, 2002 which sounded the theme of Paine as a defender of liberty:

"Thomas Paine spoke to this over two hundred years ago in his 'Dissertation On First Principles of Government':

"'An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.'

"Paine's statement is not unlike that teaching that courses through so many faiths-what we do to others, we do to ourselves. . . ."(7)

Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice also cites Paine as a friend of civil liberties, and Hentoff recently won the Thomas Paine Civil Liberties Award from the Council for Secular Humanism.(8) The CSH claims to be in favor of "eliminating discrimination and intolerance" (9) and supporting "freedom of conscience and belief from those ecclesiastical, political, and economic interests that seek to repress them."(10) Presumably, the CSH, by establishing a Thomas Paine Award and giving it to a civil-libertarian journalist, is implying that Paine upholds the principles stated. The real Paine's commitment to civil liberties for all people is more dubious than his reputation may indicate.

In 1797, during his French phase, Paine wrote a pamphlet on religious freedom. (11) He was writing to oppose freedom for France's Roman Catholic faithful. The Revolutionary government had persecuted Roman Catholic clergy who refused to pledge loyalty to the regime, and the government had also passed laws against the ringing of church bells and the holding of religious processions. A moderate politician had proposed to improve the legal status of the church by legalizing the ringing of church bells.

In his pamphlet, Paine said that the Roman Catholic church was morally unfit to enjoy such rights as bell-ringing. Paine declared that the Roman Catholic priesthood were deceivers of the people. Praising the quiet worship of the Quakers, Paine said: "Religion does not unite itself to show and noise. True religion is without either. Where there is both there is no true religion. . . . We talk of true religion. Let us talk of truth; for that which is not truth is not worthy of the name of religion."(12)

Paine claimed that the right to ring church bells was inconsistent with France's Revolutionary Constitution, the most recent version of which had been adopted in 1795.(13) "The churches," said Paine, "are the common property of all the people," and ought to be sold off to benefit the poor. All religious groups could then build as many churches as they could afford, out of their own resources. But it should remain illegal to ring bells at these churches, because church bells were "a public nuisance," distressing sick people who were trying to get some rest. In addition, added Paine, the "[s]treets and highways" must be closed to religious processions, so that the public would not be inconvenienced by "the meeting of various and contradictory processions [which] would be tumultuous."(14) Finally, Paine said that agitating for the rights of the Roman Catholic Church aided England, with whom France was at war. England would try "to inundate France with a flood of emigrant priests. . . and the ringing of bells would be the tocsin of your downfall."(15)

How does all this comport with the Council for Secular Humanism's call for "eliminating discrimination and intolerance" and its professed support for "freedom of conscience and belief from those ecclesiastical, political, and economic interests that seek to repress them?" How does it comport with Nat Hentoff's strong support of civil liberties? How does it comport with the Unitarian-Universalist minister's call for respecting the rights of others?

Paine has some Jewish supporters, who probably like him because of his strong secularism and presumed love of freedom. Are these folks aware of the unflattering remarks Paine made about Jews? In The Age of Reason, Paine's famous attack on Christianity published in the 1790s, the only time he says anything good about Jews is when he describes how most of them rejected Christianity. When it comes to attacking the Old Testament, however, Paine shows his opinion of the Jews who wrote it. Paine even goes so far as to claim that the comparatively few parts of the Old Testament that he liked were written by gentiles and not by Jews. Here is a passage from Age of Reason:

"We know nothing of what the ancient Gentile world (as it is called) was before the time of the Jews, whose practice has been to calumniate and blacken the character of all other nations; and it is from the Jewish accounts that we have learned to call them heathens.

"But, as far as we know to the contrary, they were a just and moral people, and not addicted, like the Jews, to cruelty and revenge, but of whose profession of faith we are unacquainted. It appears to have been their custom to personify both virtue and vice by statues and images, as is done nowadays both by statuary and by paintings; but it does not follow from this that they worshipped them, any more than we do."(16)

Paine returned to his Jew-baiting in a reply to one of the critics of Age of Reason. He declared that the Jewish origin of the Old Testament was an argument against its divine origin:

"As to the Jews, there is not one single improvement in any science or in any scientific art that they ever produced. They were the most ignorant of all the illiterate world. If the word of the Lord had come to them, as they pretend. . . and that they were to be the harbingers of it to the rest of the world, the Lord would have taught them the use of letters, and the art of printing; for without the means of communicating the word, it could not be communicated; whereas letters were the invention of the Gentile world, and printing of the modern world."(17)

Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, wrote a piece about a speech he gave to the Thomas Paine Historical Association about their patron saint. Lapham thought he found parallels between the political establishment today and the political establishment of Paine's time: "The propertied gentlemen remembered that Paine was too much given to plain speaking, on too familiar terms with the lower orders of society, and therefore a man who might continue to make trouble."(18)

Paine's devotion to "plain speaking" may be doubted, in view of his concealment of his religious views during the American Revolution. By the time he left England to seek his fortune in America, Paine had become a deist-that is, he believed in God, but disbelieved in Christianity, regarding it as a tissue of lies and superstitions.(19) However, until the publication of Age of Reason in the 1790s, Paine kept his religious views secret from the readers of his works, and even pretended to be a Christian.

Some attribute to Paine a 1775 denunciation of the slave trade. The correctness of the attribution to Paine has been challenged, precisely because of its Christian language. For example, the article drew a comparison between the Jews of the Old Testament era, to whom slavery was permitted under limited conditions, and the Christians under the "Gospel light" of the New Testament, whose principles do not allow the slave trade.(20)

On the other hand, there is no dispute as to the authorship of Paine's most famous work, the 1776 pro-independence tract Common Sense. That pamphlet relies strongly on Christian rhetoric and Biblical citations to prove its points. For example, Paine argues that monarchy is contrary to the Old Testament, declaring that if God isn't against monarchy, "the scripture is false."(21)

In Common Sense, Paine recommended that America have a Constitution, not a king. "[L]et a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon [on the charter], by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king....[L]et the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is."(22)

"[W]e claim brotherhood," declared the Paine of Common Sense, "with every European Christian, and triumph in the generosity of the sentiment." (23) This was, indeed, a generous sentiment for Paine, who regarded Christianity as a lie. Paine's Christian rhetoric in Common Sense was clearly designed to deceive the readers as to his true religious opinions.

An article by Jim Washburn in the Orange County Weekly shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks griped about America's alliances with "unsavory characters," saying that such alliances would have made George Washington "vomit his teeth out" and led Paine to "start the revolution anew."(24) Whatever may be the case with George Washington (whom Paine hated), citing Paine as an opponent of foreign tyrants is quite misleading. Paine's support for the French revolutionaries should rebut the notion that he had a revulsion against unsavory characters.

The Paine of myth is a quite different person from the Paine of history. The mythical Paine tends to be invoked by those who share his radical ideas in politics and religion. At the same time, some people whose ideas are contrary to those of the real Paine are all too ready to embrace the Paine of myth for rhetorical effect. A more careful approach is called for before invoking a historical figure on behalf of contemporary causes.

Mr. Longley is a guest columnist, and author of What Measure Ye Mete: The Life and Times of Judge Halsted Ritter. A collection of his columns can be found in Discordant Sound. For source information on specific footnotes, please email Scott Schudy whose address link is found in the upper right corner.

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?