If you have ever been a student of history or literature of the United States you have probably heard of the author Thomas Paine. Hailed as a genius by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine published the pamphlet Common Sense in 1776. One of the most incendiary and revolutionary pieces ever written, selling over a half a million copies at the time of its release, Common Sense remains the all-time best selling piece of American literature (Kaye, 37). This was followed by The Crisis, a series of pamphlets about the ongoing revolution in America meant to restore the spirits of the American people. Your U.S. History class may remember Thomas Paine well and speak highly of how his writings inspired the colonists to take this country, and rightfully so. That’s something natural for any country, to dutifully remember the patriots who founded it. What those history books won’t so readily admit is that almost twenty years after the revolution people hated Thomas Paine; he couldn’t even get a decent burial. Turning on our heroes and making sure they die alone and penniless is certainly more American today than anything else – making Thomas Paine the first patriot and martyr to American entitlement.
What makes Common Sense one of the most memorable pieces of revolutionary literature is its simple prose and use of easy logic to speak to the common citizen. Added to this is the fiery passion Paine used to help ignite the revolutionary spirit. “O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe” (Paine, Common Sense, 637). While other authors of the time were careful to express their feelings about Britain’s handling of the American colonies, for fear of being labeled as a traitor, Paine held nothing back. “Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families” (Paine, Common Sense, 633). Through pointing out all the cruelty inflicted on the colonists by the then oppressive British government, Paine called for revolution and a natural, human right to self-governance. “A government of our own is our natural right: and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own” (Paine, Common Sense, 636).
The Crisis, written after war had already begun, speaks even more violently about the British as a means to stimulate the spirit of the American people. “Let them call me rebel, and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man” (Paine, The Crisis, 641). Throughout The Crisis Paine uses strong emotional appeals such as this, making it a kind of violent and bloody pep talk. Paine highlights the dead or suffering American people in order to call for vengeance and revolution. One of the best lines I’ve seen about the nature of revolution is in The Crisis:
“A noted one, who kept a tavern at Amboy, was standing in his door, what as pretty a child in his hand, about eight or nine years old, as I ever saw, and after speaking his mind as freely as he thought was prudent, finished with this unfatherly expression: ‘Well! Give me peace in my day.’ Not a man lives on the continent but fully believes that a separation must some time or other finally take place, and a generous parent should have said ‘If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace’” (Paine, The Crisis, 640, emphasis added).
It’s easy to see from those two works why the America of today remembers Thomas Paine so fondly. His impassioned words helped to bring about the Revolution that created the country we live in today. The “American Spirit,” if one wants to envision such a thing, is encapsulated so perfectly in Paine’s words. The Revolutionary War did bring bloodshed and violence, but those rebels were able to found a country which, in its time, became a pillar of democracy, inspiring other countries to break out from the tyranny of monarchy. The justification for any future war or action Americans have done can be justified with that last phrase of Paine’s “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”
However, in 1794 Paine published The Age of Reason and America turned on him. Even George Washington had unkind things to say about this patriot that so passionately helped to found America. The Age of Reason is Thomas Paine’s revolutionary views on organized religion. He does not proclaim atheism, in fact he states “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life” (Paine, The Age of Reason, 643). The same way he so passionately assaulted the British monarchy in his cry for the Revolutionary War, so does he assault the oppression of organized religion. They are the same thing: “a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion. The adulterous connection of church and state” (Paine, The Age of Reason, 644).
There are several important points that Paine makes in his critique of organized religion. He first points out that The Bible, The Koran, and any religious text was written by man. Certainly the original author claimed divine inspiration, but what we have now (in 1794 and 2016) is generation after generation of hearsay – there is no empirical evidence that God had a hand in its construction. He brings up Greek and Roman mythology, where Gods regularly impregnated women, and shows its equivalence to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. He compares the pantheon of mythical Gods to the countless number of saints worshipped by Christians.
Essentially, Paine believes that God does exist, and that he created this perfect universe, which can be described by science. The beauty of nature, the perfection of celestial bodies in orbit, all these are evidence of a divine power. Organized religion, however, is the work of man. “As to the theology that is now studied in its place, it is the study of human opinions and of human fancies concerning God. It is not the study of God Himself in the works that He has made, but in the works or writings that man has made” (Paine, The Age of Reason, 646). What Paine says is that instead of seeing the things around us, in nature and science, that God has created, organized religion seeks to worship The Bible and related texts which are merely other men’s perception of God; instead of seeking what God has created, religions seek only what other people have said about the divine.
Of course The Age of Reason was hated by the American people because Thomas Paine dared to attack the Christian faith of the American people. Thomas Paine found out the hard way that, although the Bill of Rights guarantees a freedom of religion and an absolute separation of church and state, Americans believe this is a Christian nation and should only be inhabited by Christians. When he died in 1804, Paine was buried on his own farm as no church-owned cemetery wanted to house that “heathen.” Ten years later, an enthusiastic admirer of Paine’s sought to give him a proper burial. This fan exhumed Paine’s body but was then unable to find any cemetery to place him in, the same situation as before. In 1814, twenty years after The Age of Reason, the hatred of a man who dared disagree with Christianity was still strong. It’s still unknown to this day whatever happened to Thomas Paine’s body.
Many generations later, our history texts speak highly of the Thomas Paine that wrote Common Sense and helped bring forth the American Revolution. They do not point out that this was the same Thomas Paine that wrote The Age of Reason and was condemned by the religious majority of Americans. Today, us Americans do that quite frequently. We chose only to remember the good things our dead celebrities and heroes did as we memorialize them, choosing to forever forget any negative aspect of their life.
American patriotism, strongly motivated by religious ideals, is blind and cruel. This is what Thomas Paine learned and continues through today. Remember the musician Arianna Grande who was beloved by her fans? She one day dared to say she hated America, suddenly the whole country turned on her – how dare this woman not love this country as much as us! The same holds with Christianity and only a brief glance at any debate of key topics such same-sex marriage or abortion shows the shame people with norms outside of Christianity face. Public humiliation seems to be the norm for anyone who dares criticize Christian values or America, not matter who that person is or what they’ve done with their life. The ad hominem attack of “un-american” arose during the era of McCarthyism and continues to this day. It does not matter what an individual accomplishes in their life, unless they 100% prescribe to certain American (Christian) values, they are a degenerate. Of course, after they die the American people will rewrite that person’s history to focus on certain American values, whiting out that perceived degeneracy; their “humanity” is restored by removing those very elements that made them human in the first place.
After their death of a disgraced hero, however, the American people forget that they hated that person and praise the good thing they remember. The life of Helen Keller remembered by Americans today focuses on her childhood, as dramatized in The Miracle Worker, and the struggle of a deaf and blind girl who overcame such odds. What America has chosen to forget is that she was a dedicated Communist, absolutely hated by the American people during her adult life. As one historian phrased it, when discussing the narrative of the deaf and blind girl, “To draw such a bland maxim from the life of Helen Keller, historians and filmmakers have disregarded her actual biography and left out the lessons she specifically asked us to learn. Keller, who struggled so valiantly to learn to speak, has been made mute by history” (Loewen, 12).
Thomas Paine was a revolutionary and a patriot. The same fiery spirit that called for the Revolutionary War in Common Sense, is the same one that called for religious revolution in The Age of Reason. He died hated by the same American people whose freedoms he fought for – but history forgets that part. How many heroes from history were villains in their time; how many of our historic villains were heroes in their day? How many heroes today will be painted as villains generations from now; how many villains will be deified when our grandchildren study history? To have a selective memory of historic individuals robs them of humanity. To only remember part of the patriotism of an author like Thomas Paine completely silences the spirit of his revolutionary voice.
What I’m really trying to say here is that the next time you see a person on Twitter or Facebook attacking someone for their perceived lack of American values, remember Thomas Paine. The same freedom of speech that Paine fought for was later used to condemn him; after his death he was robbed of that human right of free thought and painted how others wanted him to be. Remember that your speech for or against heroes and villains today will later be the discourse taught to history students generations from now. How do you want your children and their children to remember the people and events of 2016?
Kaye, Harvey. Thomas Paine And The Promise of America New York: Hill and Wang (2005). Print ISBN 0-8090-9344-8, 43.
Loewen, James W. Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. The New Press, 2008.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Edited by Nina Baym. The Norton Anthology of American Literature (7th Ed). New York. WW Norton & Company. Print. pp 630-637
Paine, Thomas. The Crisis. Edited by Nina Baym. The Norton Anthology of American Literature (7th Ed). New York. WW Norton & Company. Print. pp 637-643
Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Edited by Nina Baym. The Norton Anthology of American Literature (7th Ed). New York. WW Norton & Company. Print. pp 643-649