by Bob Johnson
“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 shone from Paine’s writings and I recall thinking at that time, ‘What a pity these works are not today the schoolbooks for all children!’ 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.”
Thomas Paine, the great writer and thinker praised by the above quote of Thomas A. Edison, was born in Thetford, England on January 29, 1737. His father, Joseph Pain, worked as a staymaker and belonged to the Society of Friends, or Quakers. His mother, Frances Cocke, was a member of the Church of England. As a boy Tom Paine was required to read and study the Bible, and was made a member of the Church of England.
Like most people in that time who belonged to the financial lower class, Thomas Paine worked in his father’s line of business as a staymaker. He opened his own shop in the village of Sandwich, and there he met and married Mary Lambert in September 1759. She died less than a year latter during premature childbirth.
His business failed and in 1764 he began working as an exciseman for the Crown. He kept that position until 1774 when he was discharged after taking up the unsuccessful struggle to win a pay raise for the excisemen. Between 1764 and 1774 he married Elizabeth Ollive, was divorced, operated a tobacco shop and watched as this business, too, failed. Years later he said, “trade I do not understand.”
This period of his life, though generally negative, was not completely so. A positive turning point took place when George Lewis Scott, who was a superior of his in the excise office, introduced him to Benjamin Franklin in December of 1772 while in London. They attended scientific lectures together, and it was here that Thomas Paine began to develop Deist ideas. He wrote of this time, “After I had made myself master of the use of the globes, and of the orrery, and conceived an idea of the infinity of space, and of the eternal divisibility of matter, and obtained, at least, a general knowledge of what was called natural philosophy, I began to compare, or confront, the internal evidence those things afford with the Christian system of faith.”
With a letter of introduction from his benefactor and mentor Ben Franklin in his possession, and repeated failures in England recently behind him, Thomas Paine sailed for America in late September 1774. He arrived in Philadelphia on November 30 stricken with typhus. While bedridden and receiving care from a doctor who was a friend of Mr. Franklin, he wrote an essay entitled “Dialogue Between General Wolfe and General Gage in a Wood near Boston” which, a year and a half before the U.S. Declaration of Independence was written, encouraged the separation of the Colonies from Britain.
After regaining his health, he worked at various jobs and eventually settled on one at a print shop owned by Robert Aitken. He ran the routine operations of the business and also wrote essays and poetry for the owner’s magazine, the Pennsylvania Magazine.
Thomas Paine was instrumental in getting the fence sitters off the fence on the side of revolution with his work, Common Sense.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, “Shouldering a musket, Paine joined the rank and file, and won reputation as a brave soldier.” But he made an even bigger contribution to the American Revolution when, in its darkest hours, he wrote The Crisis. The ideas in The Crisis, which is a total of fifteen separate essays each written when an obstacle arose which to weaker hearts and minds seemed insurmountable, strengthened the beleaguered Americans. They planted hope in the hearts of the active idealists even as thousands of Continental soldiers were deserting, those loyal to the legally established government were harassing the rebels whenever possible, and no other nation was willing to assist the radicals fighting and struggling against the most powerful government on earth to bring forth not only a new nation, but a new ideal and way of life. Thomas Paine’s writings were so successful and vitally important to the success of the American Revolution, John Adams wrote, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.” (Sign the petition to help educate people to the importance of Thomas Paine by asking the History Channel to produce and air a documentary about Thomas Paine and Deism. Click here to sign this important petition. Thanks!)
After the Revolution was finally won, the New York legislature, to show its appreciation, gave Tom Paine a 300 acre farm, which had been confiscated from a Tory, in New Rochelle, New York.
Working towards his goals and interests in science, inventing, designing, and writing, Thomas Paine invented the first iron bridge to be constructed in Europe. While in Europe he wrote Rights of Man which was directed against the anti-people writings of Edmund Burke of England, who blasted the French Revolution in order to insure his pension.
THE AGE OF REASON
Tom Paine wanted to write about religion for a long time. However, he wanted to save it for his last writing, believing that when a person is facing imminent death, they will be most honest about their beliefs concerning God and theology. He also felt his ideas would be attacked by revealed religion, which they were and still are, and the fact that he wrote them when he did would strengthen his arguments put forth in the work.
During the French Revolution he went against popular sentiment and publicly admonished the provisional government not to execute the King and Queen. He said to abolish the title and position, but to spare the lives of the persons who hold the positions. This didn’t sit well with those in power who were jealous of him. He was aware of his powerful enemies, as well as the guillotines they were making frequent use of on a daily basis. Believing he would soon meet the same fate as thousands of others the government didn’t approve of, he began writing The Age of Reason.
At about 4:00 a.m. on December 29, 1793 Thomas Paine was arrested by French authorities. The reluctant guards and interpreter went through his papers. After examining the manuscript of The Age of Reason, the interpreter said, “It is an interesting work; it will do much good.” Paine was then taken to the prison of the Luxembourg.
On page 58 of The Age of Reason, The Complete Edition (for the Kindle version click here) Mr. Paine writes concerning an illness he contracted while in prison. “. . . I was seized with a fever that in its progress had every symptom of becoming mortal, and from the effects of which I am not recovered. It was then that I remembered with renewed satisfaction, and congratulated myself most sincerely, on having written the former part of “The Age of Reason.” I had but little expectation of surviving, and those about me had less. I know, therefore, by experience, the conscientious trial of my own principles.”
After Paine spent ten months and nine days in the Luxembourg prison, James Monroe, who was the new American Minister to France, won the release of Thomas Paine. Paine was very ill due to the inhumane conditions he was subjected to in prison. James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth took him in and nursed him back to health. While a guest of the Monroes he wrote the second part of The Age of Reason. This time he had a Bible in his possession and used it most aptly against itself. Irate religious leaders tried, all in vain, to refute the solid and sound arguments Thomas Paine unleashed against superstition. It seems what upset that day’s System the most was his bringing Deism to the masses of people. After Thomas Paine, Deism was no longer just an intellectual parlor topic. However, the System prevailed by slanderous sermons of damnation against Mr. Paine and anyone who followed his demonic Deism. He was viciously and unreasonably attacked not only from pulpits around the world, but also from the press. In particular, the Federalist press attacked him as well as his good friend Thomas Jefferson, who was running for the presidency. He was hanged in effigy by good Christians the world over, and in England The Age of Reason was banned as blasphemy and the government prosecuted/persecuted a bookseller who carried the work.
When he returned to America Paine was vilified by almost everyone. People threatened him, mocked him, and some attempted to ostracize him. They did everything but successfully counter his arguments against “revealed” religion. Elihu Palmer, a blind ex-Presbyterian minister, published a Deist monthly called The Prospect, or View of the Moral World. He printed many essays written by Tom Paine in this journal, some of which came from works Mr. Paine intended for a third part of The Age of Reason. These essays are all included in their entirety in The Age of Reason, The Complete Edition.
After giving everything he had to America, France, and in fact to all humanity in the most altruistic way, Thomas Paine died . His friend Clio Rickman wrote concerning his death, “On the eighth of June, 1809, about nine in the morning, he placidly, and almost without a struggle, died, as he had lived, a Deist.” Because his public ideas regarding religion were so radical and in direct opposition to superstition (superstition equalling all man-made revealed religions), he died virtually alone. Only seven people attended his funeral, and the Quakers refused to allow his burial in a Quaker cemetery, so he was buried on his farm. Ten years later a one time adversary turned admirer, William Cobbett, dug up his earthly remains and brought them to England, where they were later lost.
The following is a list of major accomplishments of Thomas Paine taken largely from Life and Writings of Thomas Paine.
1. He was the first to advocate the end of slavery.
2. He was the first to say “the American nation,” and “the Free and Independent States of America.”
3. He was the first to propose constitutional government for the United States.
4. He was first to form a plan of international arbitration.
5. He was a pioneer in national and international copyright.
6. He was a pioneer in the fight for equal rights for women.
7. Had France heeded him the Reign of Terror never would have happened.
8. He proposed equitable, progressive, and workable land reforms, and industrial and wage systems.
9. He invented the first iron bridge used in Europe.
10. He inferred that the fixed stars were suns, twenty years before Herschel.
11. He correctly surmised the cause of, and thereby pointed to the remedy for yellow fever.
12. He, more than anyone else, presented Deism to all the people, thus breaking the old confines that had previously limited Deism to the few bold intellectuals who were primarily of the financial upper class.
Bob Johnson is a freelance writer in the Tampa area of Florida. He was raised Roman Catholic, but after a stint in Marine Corps infantry and reading Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason he became a Deist.
In 1993 he founded the World Union of Deists, and in 1996 he launched the first website devoted to Deism. He is the author of God Gave Us Reason, Not Religion, Deism: A Revolution in Religion, A Revolution in You and An Answer to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. He has also written the introduction to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, The Complete Edition and Principles of Nature by Elihu Palmer.