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Jill Lepore: Was Thomas Paine too much of a freethinker for the country he helped free?

Roundup: Talking About History




... Thomas Paine is, at best, a lesser Founder. In the comic-book version of history that serves as our national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like the Hanna-Barbera Super Friends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington's Superman and Jefferson's Batman; we never find out how he got his superpowers, and he only shows up when they need someone who can swim. For all that, Paine's contributions to the nation's founding would be hard to overstate. "Common Sense" made it possible to declare independence. "Without the pen of the author of 'Common Sense,' the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain," Adams himself wrote. But Paine lifted his sword, too, and emptied his purse. Despite his poverty-he was by far the poorest of the Founders-he donated his share of the profits from "Common Sense" to buy supplies for the Continental Army, in which he also served. His chief contribution to the war was a series of dispatches known as "The American Crisis," and printed in newspapers throughout the states. He wrote the first of them by the light of a campfire during Washington's desperate retreat across New Jersey, in December, 1776. Getting ready to cross the frozen Delaware River-at night, in a blizzard-to launch a surprise attack on Trenton, Washington ordered Paine's words read to his exhausted, frostbitten troops: "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. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." The next morning, the Continentals fought to a stunning, pivotal victory.

It's hard to believe that anyone thought Adams could have written such lines. Paine wrote like no one else: he wrote for everyone. "As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand," he explained, "I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet." As a journalist, Paine wrote vigorously, and he wrote often, penning, in 1776, a series of essays in the Pennsylvania Journal refuting critiques of "Common Sense." He also served as the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. "A magazine," Paine believed, "is the nursery of genius."

So gripping was Paine's prose, and so vast was its reach, that Adams once complained to Jefferson, "History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine." But history has not been kind to Paine, who forfeited his chance to glorify his role, or at least to document it: when, at the end of the war, Congress asked him to write the history of the Revolution, he declined. And the person who did write that history, Adams's friend the Massachusetts poet and playwright Mercy Otis Warren, relegated Paine to a footnote-literally-in her magisterial three-volume "History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution" (1805). By the time Paine died, in 1809, all the surviving Founders had renounced him. (Jefferson even refused to allow his correspondence with Paine to be printed. "No, my dear sir, not for this world," he told an inquirer. "Into what a hornet's nest would it thrust my head!") And almost no one showed up to see him buried. As Paul Collins observes in "The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine" (Bloomsbury; $24.95), "There were twenty thousand mourners at Franklin's funeral. Tom Paine's had six."...

[Why was he neglected? Because, explains Lepore, he dared to confess his contempt for religion in the book, The Age of Reason.]

... Admirers of Paine's political pamphlets have tried to ignore his religious convictions. In 1800, a New York Republican Society resolved, "May his Rights of Man be handed down to our latest posterity, but may his Age of Reason never live to see the rising generation." That's more or less how things have turned out. So wholly has "The Age of Reason" been forgotten that Paine's mantle has been claimed not only by Ronald Reagan but also by the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed, who has invoked him, and the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, who in 1992 supported a proposal to erect a Paine monument in Washington, D.C. Nor have liberals who embrace Paine, including the editors of TomPaine.com, had much interest in the latter years of his career. Maybe that's what it means to be a lesser Super Friend: No one cares about your secret identity. They just like your costume.

Historians, too, have tried to dismiss "The Age of Reason," writing it off as simplistic and suggesting either that Paine wrote it to please his French jailers or that, in prison, he went mad. This interpretation began with Mercy Otis Warren, who called "The Age of Reason" "jejune," and concluded that, in prison, Paine had "endeavoured to ingratiate himself." Nelson, too, makes much of "the Terror's devastation of Paine's psyche." (Only a miraculous if temporary recovery or the mania following depression, Nelson suggests, made it possible for Paine to write his last great work, "Agrarian Justice," the very next year.)

But Paine considered his lifelong views on religion inseparable from his thoughts on government: "It has been the scheme of the Christian Church, and of all the other invented systems of religion, to hold man in ignorance of the Creator, as it is of Governments to hold man in ignorance of his rights." Writing about kings and subjects in "Common Sense," he wondered "how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species." In "The Age of Reason," he used much the same language to write about priests and prophets: "The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike." He wrote "Common Sense," "Rights of Man," and "The Age of Reason" as a trilogy. "Soon after I had published the pamphlet 'Common Sense,' in America," he explained, "I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion."

Just because Paine was wrong about the coming of that revolution doesn't mean we ought to forget that he yearned for it. In 1805, John Adams railed that the latter part of the eighteenth century had come to be called "the Age of Reason": "I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity . . . 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." Yet even Adams would not have wished that so much of Paine's work-however much he disagreed with it-would be so willfully excised from memory. "I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine," Adams admitted, adding, with irony worthy of the author of "Common Sense," "Call it then the Age of Paine."

Adams wrote those words, in 1805, as if Paine were already dead. A few months later, a neighbor of Paine's came across the old man in a tavern in New Rochelle, so drunk and disoriented and unkempt that his toenails had grown over his toes, like bird's claws. While Adams, at his home in Quincy, busied himself reflecting on the Age of Paine, Paine hobbled to the polls in New Rochelle to cast his vote in a local election. He was told that he was not an American citizen and was turned away. So much for the rights of man. Three years later, as the seventy-two-year-old Paine lay dying in a house in Greenwich Village, his doctor pressed him, "Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?" Paine paused, then whispered, "I have no wish to believe on that subject."
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