Thomas Paine

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Paine, Thomas (9 February 1737 (O.S. 29 January 1736) - 8 June 1809)

Paine was a major American revolutionary and one of the country’s inspiring founders. Paine’s father was a Quaker and a staymaker (who manufactured women’s undergarments). He attended the local grammar school in Thetford, England, where, Paine recalled, “it was my good fortune to have an exceedingly good moral education, and a tolerable stock of learning.”

Just before arriving in America, he was felled by typhus and had to be carried off the ship on a stretcher, but he lived to fight against despotism and become one of the country’s best-known defenders. He infuriated Thetford citizens with his advocacy during the French Revolution of an invasion of Britain by France. However, Thetford today sports a statue by Sir Charles Wheeler of its famous citizen.

Thetford's Paine Statue

Paine's Feethought Views

Joseph Mazzinni Wheeler, approving of Paine’s views, wrote that Common Sense (1776) advocated absolute independence for America and “did more than anything else to precipitate the great events of that year. Each number of the Crisis, which appeared during the war, was read by Washington’s order to each regiment in the service. Paine subscribed largely to the army and served for a short time himself.”

Paine in 1787 went to London to sell his invention of an iron bridge. His Rights of Man (1791–1792), written as a reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, brought him a sentence of outlawry because it was a defense of the French Revolution. Paine then fled to Paris where, although he could not speak French, he was elected a member of the Convention. When he protested against the execution of King Louis XVI and the Terror, however, he was imprisoned for nearly a year and narrowly escaped the guillotine. While in jail, he wrote his deistic Age of Reason (1793–1794), a powerful attack on Christianity and the Bible.

In Age of Reason, he wrote,

  • The idea man can affix to the name of God is that of a first cause of all things.

This concept is basic to his belief in deism. He also wrote,

  • Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize.

Son of Quaker parents, he was called “a man steeped in sin” and a “hater of Christ” by his enemies, but his Common Sense still appeals to today's rationalists interested in deism.

Robert W. Morrell in the Encyclopedia of Unbelief details Paine’s religious views: Paine held Jesus in high regard. He disbelieved in revealed religion, believing instead in that which makes common sense and is in accord with science. Revealed religion, he reasoned, was harmful and needed to be rejected. His deism postulated a God that had created everything but then had left mankind to get on with things themselves. Not only refuting the divinity of Christ, he said of the four gospels, “It is, I believe, impossible to find so many and such glaring absurdities, contradictions, and falsehoods as are in these books.”

In England, notes J. M. Robertson, Paine’s views were much discussed. Paine was instrumental in “laying deep and wide the English foundations of a new democratic freethought; and the upper-class reaction in the nature of the case was doomed to impermanency, though it was to arrest English intellectual progress for over a generation. The French Revolution had re-introduced freethought as a vital issue, even in causing it to be banned as a danger.”

“I do not believe,” he wrote in The Age of Reason, “in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. . . . Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.” He further elaborated: “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit.”

(See a review by Tim Madigan of Paul Collins's The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine - Ethical Record: The Proceedings of the South Place Ethical Society, Vol. 111, No. 7, August 2006, “No Paine, No Gain”, pages 8-9)

Paine's Deism and Theophilanthropism

In 1797, Paine founded in Paris the little “Church of Theo-philanthropy,” beginning his inaugural discourse with these words: “Religion has two principal enemies, Fanaticism and Infidelity, or that which is called atheism. The first requires to be combated by reason and morality; the other by natural philosophy.” Paine was no scholar. As a result, and because champions of the “religion of Galilee” enjoy disparaging any unlearned person who meddles with religion, Paine was considered an antagonist. However, his astute Biblical criticism jarred them, and his approach became a forerunner of later scholastic research. Robertson laments the fact that Paine “lived to find himself shunned and vilified, in the name of religion, in the country whose freedom he had so puissantly wrought to win.” He received sympathy and fair play, ironically, “only from the atheists whom he distrusted and opposed, or from thinkers who no longer hold by deism.” J. M. Robertson adds, “There is reason to think that in his last years the deistic optimism which survived the deep disappointments of the French Revolution began to give way before deeper reflection on the cosmic problem [citing Conway’s Life of Paine], if not before the treatment he had undergone at the hands of Unitarians and Trinitarians alike.” Paine’s Discourse to the Society of Theo-philanthropists (1798), Berman found, discredits atheism and is clearly deistic.

Paine's Unitarian Connection

Wesley V. Hromatko, a Unitarian Universalist minister and scholar, has written that Paine "is commonly included as a Deist in most histories."

  • Paine is also noted with his name in bold with other Unitarians in A. Gordon's Heads of English Unitarian History, Section 29, p. 46. The original source was the Dictionary of National Biography. Paine also appears on p. 103.

{WAS, 24 April 2009}

"The Filthy Little Atheist"

However, President Theodore Roosevelt in an illogical outburst mistakenly called Paine a “filthy little atheist.” Paine was clearly not an atheist - he was a deist, believing in a God of moral truth, a Supreme Architect of the universe who had no further control over his creation and to whom petitionary prayers are redundant. “I believe,” he wrote,

  • that God is too good to kill his son when he couldn’t revenge himself in any other way, and also too mighty to be under any necessity of doing it. Any system of religion that has anything in it which shakes the mind of a child cannot be a true religion or system. . . . I do not believe in the creeds of any other church; my own mind is my own church.

He also wrote, “I believe in one God and no more: and I hope for happiness beyond this life.” In England, his effigy was burned, as were his books, and he was attacked in print by Bishop Richard Watson of Llandaff, among others. In 1802 he returned to America, where his views on religion and his opposition to Washington made him unpopular. His last years were saddened by ill health and neglect. In 1806, William Carver found him in such a bad state that he scrubbed Paine from head to toe: three times. Carver also cut his nails, some of which had grown around his toes “nearly as far under they extended on top,” and shaved him and cut his hair. Carver for five months took him to his own home but, after five months, found Paine was “not house-trained” and sometimes drank as much as a quart of brandy at a sitting. Meanwhile, Paine never earned money from his publications, requesting, for example, that the money be given to buy mittens for American soldiers.

His Enemies and Friends

When Paine demanded something for his “selfless” services, the State of New York gave him a 300-acre farm at New Rochelle and the Pennsylvania Assembly and the Continental Congress gave him some cash grants. But Paine was not a good manager, was always in need, and was attacked by Americans who believed his Age of Reason was anti-Christian, although in fact the tract affirmed Paine’s deism and his belief in an afterlife.

Paine, unlike the other Founding Fathers, was regarded as one with “no connections” but one who made the others uneasy because he wrote for ordinary people and his fiery language was easily able to stir them up. Two early works about him, better than most which have followed, are Crane Brinton’s bibliographical essay in The Dictionary of American Biography (1934) and Eric Foner’s Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976). They point out that Paine, who had participated in the major American and French revolutions, favored revolutions elsewhere. Although other revolutionaries had worked in their own countries, Paine favored Toussaint L’Ourverture’s black republic of revolutionary Haiti.

Jack Fruchtman Jr., in Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom, tells of Paine’s view on miracles: “The story of the whale swallowing Jonah, though a whale is large enough to do it, borders greatly on the marvelous but it would have approached nearer to the idea of a miracle if Jonah had swallowed the whale.” And which is more probable, Paine asked, “that a man should have swallowed a whale or told a lie?” Fruchtman repeats the story that “no one could stand to be in the same room with Paine for very long,” because he was unclean and had “the brimstone odour.” John Keane, however, takes exception to Fruchtman’s describing Paine as “something of a country bumpkin,” saying that Paine “found himself in familiar company. The men and women who attended the lectures of Ferguson and Martin were mainly self-educated shopkeepers and artisans, many of whom leaned towards unorthodox religious views, and religious Dissenters, with strong leanings towards political radicalism. . . . These audiences were decidedly modern in outlook.”

In 1995, John Keane in Tom Paine, estimated to be the fiftieth biography of the pamphleteer, wrote how - when forty-four and part of an American mission to France - Paine was described by an interpreter as of “dirty appearance and brimstone odor,” so smelly that he needed very hot water (bien bouiilli) to be bathed of his stench. Others have commented that Franklin was frequently unwashed and unshaven.

Although said to have been the first to call his country the United States of America, he was only one of the first, having written the phrase on 13 January 1777. On 21 June 1776 Thomas Jefferson asked Benjamin Franklin to review his draft of “A Declaration by the Representiaves on the United States of America.” John Dickinson on 17 June 1776 in a draft of some articles of confederation used “the United States of America.” Linguist William Safire concludes that eighteen on three committees, including Roger Sherman, were aware of the phrase but that Jefferson usually is credited. Paine was a popularizer of the phrase, not the coiner.

Biographer David Freeman Hawke compiled an extensive bibliography of Paine’s works, one which, however, has been criticized by Keane. Hawke described Paine’s final days. Although in great pain, he had a sense of humor and his mind was clear. His doctor referred one day to his distended abdomen saying, “Your belly diminishes.” “And yours augments,” replied Paine.

Paine's Final Years

Paine’s last years were full of pain, caused by an abscess in the side, which was brought on by his imprisonment in Paris. He expired, after intense suffering, on June 8, 1809, placidly and without a struggle. Pious visitors hoping to “save his immortal soul from the wrath of God,” however, disturbed even his last hours. George William Foote supplies some examples:

• One afternoon a very old lady, dressed in a large scarlet-hooded cloak, knocked at the door and inquired for Thomas Paine. Mr. Jarvis, with whom Mr. Paine resided, told her he was asleep. “I am very sorry,” she said, “for that, for I want to see him particularly.” Thinking it a pity to make an old woman call twice, Mr. Jarvis took her into Mr. Paine’s bedroom and awoke him. He rose upon one elbow; then, with an expression of eye that made the old woman stagger back a step or two, he asked, “What do you want?” “Is your name Paine?” “Yes.” “Well, then, I come from Almighty God to tell you, that if you do not repent of your sins, and believe in our blessed Savior Jesus Christ, you will be damned and . . . .” “Poh, poh, it is not true; you were not sent with any such impertinent message: Jarvis make her go away. Pshaw! he would not send such a foolish old woman about his messages; go away, go back, shut the door.”
• Two weeks before his death, his conversion was attempted by two Christian ministers, the Rev. Mr. Milledollar and the Rev. Mr. Cunningham. The latter said, “Mr. Paine, we visit you as friends and neighbors; you have now a full view of death, you cannot live long, and whoever does not believe in Jesus Christ will assuredly be damned.” “Let me,” said Mr. Paine, “have none of your popish stuff; get away with you, good morning, good morning.” The Rev. Mr. Milledollar attempted to address him, but he was interrupted in the same language. When they were gone he said to Mrs. Heddon, his housekeeper, “Do not let them come here again; they intrude upon me.” They soon renewed their visit, but Mrs. Heddon told them they could not be admitted, and that she thought the attempt useless, for if God did not change his mind, she was sure no human power could.
• Another of these busybodies was the Rev. Mr. Hargrove, a Swedenborgian or New Jerusalemite minister. This gentleman told Paine that his sect had found the key for interpreting the Scriptures, which had been lost for four thousand years. “Then,” said Paine, “it must have been very rusty.”
• Even his medical attendant did not scruple to assist in this pious enterprise. Dr. Manley’s letter to Cheetham, one of Paine’s biographers, says that he visited the dying skeptic at midnight, June 5–6, two days before he expired. After tormenting him with many questions, to which he made no answer, Dr. Manley proceeded as follows: “Mr. Paine, you have not answered my questions; will you answer them? Allow me to ask again, do you believe, or—let me qualify the question—do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?” After a pause of some minutes he answered, “I have no wish to believe on that subject.” I then left him, and know not whether he afterwards spoke to any person on the subject. Sherwin confirms this statement. He prints a letter from Mr. Clark, who spoke to Dr. Manley on the subject. “I asked him plainly,” said Mr. Clark. “Did Mr. Paine recant his religious sentiments? I would thank you for an explicit answer, sir.” He said, “No, he did not.”
• Mr. Willet Hicks, a Quaker gentleman who frequently called on Paine in his last illness, as a friend and not as a soul-snatcher, bears similar testimony. “In some serious conversation I had with him a short time before his death,” declared Mr. Hicks, “he said his sentiments respecting the Christian religion were precisely the same as they were when he wrote The Age of Reason.”
• Cheetham, who was compelled to apologize for libeling Paine during his life, confirmed that Paine “died as he had lived, an enemy to the Christian religion.”

Meanwhile, children in Sunday schools were told that, in what was published by the Religious Tract Society, Paine had recanted. According to William Cobbett, the source of the mischief was Mary Hinsdale, who had formerly been a servant to Mr. Willet Hicks. This gentleman sent Paine many little delicacies in his last illness, and Mary Hinsdale had conveyed them. According to her story, Paine made a recantation in her presence and assured her that if ever the Devil had an agent on earth, he who wrote The Age of Reason was undoubtedly that person. When Hinsdale was hunted out by Cobbett, however, “she shuffled, she evaded, she affected not to understand,” and finally said she had “no recollection of any person or thing she saw at Thomas Paine’s house.”

One of Paine’s intimate friends, Colonel Fellows, was met by Walt Whitman, the American poet, soon after 1840 in New York. Whitman became well acquainted with the Colonel, who was then about seventy-eight years of age, and described him as “a remarkably fine old man.” From conversations with him, Whitman became convinced that Paine had been greatly calumniated in respect to his views. Thirty-five years later, addressing a meeting at Lincoln Hall, Philadelphia, on Sunday, 28 January 1887, the democratic poet said, “Thomas Paine had a noble personality, as exhibited in presence, face, voice, dress, manner, and what may be called his atmosphere and magnetism, especially the later years of his life. I am sure of it. Of the foul and foolish fictions yet told about the circumstances of his decease, the absolute fact is that as he lived a good life, after its kind, he died calmly and philosophically, as became him.”

Where Paine Died

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Paine died in a small wood-framed house at 59 Grove Street in New York City's Greenwich Village. On the site a brick building was constructed later, and the plaque on the outside wall was installed in 1923 by the Greenwich Village Historical Society.

Upon his death, Paine was refused interment in a Quaker cemetery and was buried in a plot on a New Rochelle, New York, farm given him by New York State to reward him for his Revolutionary writings.

Few people attended the funeral of the person who was the first to use the expression, “the religion of humanity,” Robert W. Morrell reported. And of these “none represented the U.S. government. Ten years later William Cobbett removed Paine’s remains and took them to England, but their whereabouts are unknown.”

His death mask, however, is on display at the public library in Thetford, England.

Paine4.jpg Death Mask

The 200th Anniversary

On the 200th anniversary of Paine's death, a dedication in Manhattan was made of the Thomas Paine Park, which is directly across the U.S. Court House and the the New York County Court House in Foley Square.

See an account with pictures of the 2009 dedication.

(The Thomas Paine Foundation is an activist freethought group in Greater Philadelphia.)

(Paine was one of the first in Colonial America to extrapolate about the subject of extraterrestrial life.)

(In New Humanist (May-June 2009), Roger Davidson, on the 200th anniversary of the passing of "the self-educated drifter from rural England," described Paine to his English audience as "Freedom's Foghorn." See Eric Walther's "Could Thomas Paine Have Converted to Secularism?"]

When Janet Asimov was 14, her family moved to a house in New Rochelle that she has described in a 6 October 2011 e-mail, "that was on what had once been Paine's farm. Down the hill was, and I think still is, the Paine memorial and his little cottage."

(See Eric Walther's Thomas Paine's Deism}].

{BDF; CE; CL; ER; EU, Robert W. Morrell; FFRF; FUK; FUS; HAB; HNS2; JM; OEL; PA; RAT; RE; William Safire, The New York Times Magazine, 5 July 1998; TSV; TYD; UU; VI; TRI}