Thomas Paine and the Greatness of “Uncommon Sense”
Updated: Jul 5
These seem squalid and challenging times for the United States as I write on July 4th weekend: pandemic woes, rioting and social meltdown, and a disgraceful lack of stature in public servants.
So, amidst the idiotically undifferentiated toppling of statues of great, if imperfect people (who we cannot seem to fathom lift us up by virtue of their “greatness” and hence we study them, without needing to suggest they are “defect-free”), my gaze falls back to the controversially misunderstood Thomas Paine.
The story is told that his final years in America were spent in squalid bitterness (after a life of remarkable volatility and exhilarating or terrifying close calls with several national authorities), with a slide down the chute to obscurity, the eclipsing of a once grand reputation and a pauper’s grave. There is some truth here, but it is such a misleading summary and send-off.
Paine was isolated, he had alienated past friends, and had felt abandoned by his hero George Washington who he had wanted to intervene more decisively when Paine was so vulnerable at the whims of Robespierre’s terror in Paris. Incensed into then claiming that Washington was of little value in the original revolutionary war, he was derided and disdained for making statements so remote from the facts, or indeed by then, the national liturgy.
His book, The Age of Reason, was accused of being irreligious, which was unfair. But his critique of the Bible seemed to some, situationally shallow given how much he had brandished that same Bible as a textual prop in his glory days.
Rounding out the narrative of the aggrieved, the imbalanced Paine, was the physical aftermath of his confinement in the Luxembourg prison, a shattering experience. The physical “impact” evident from that led people to suggest he was a hopeless drunk to boot. And he may well have taken understandable refuge in a bottle or two, adding to the tale being spun.
And we can add to the icing on the cake of his controversial stances by admitting that he continued to hope Britain would lose to France in the Napoleonic wars, and as with Washington, he seemed to be less than impressed by even the seminal victory of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, which he accused the media of hyping. This did not endear him to the Brits, never his biggest fans, either.
Why We Still Need Paine’s Passion
Let us remember his pamphlet Common Sense helped lay the groundwork for the Revolutionary war in the United States, irrigated the field for much of what Jefferson and the others were to pen and inspire the world with, going forward. Paine was the embodiment of that fervor, one of the original trumpeters of the American Revolutionary ethos. He emboldened many who wished to reclaim and protect and nurture those convictions of the balancing act between liberty and equality, going forward.
He spoke out against the injustice being done to the Indians when that was far from fashionable, the theft of their land under the cover of a proselytizing Christianity, hypocritically being used as an advance guard for greed. When the Bible was suggested for their edification, Paine’s wit surged to the fore:
“Will they [the Osage Indians] learn sobriety and decency from drunken Noah and beastly Lot; or will their daughters be edified by the examples of Lot's daughter? Will not the shocking accounts of the destruction of the Canaanites when the Israelite's invaded their country, suggest the idea that we may serve them in the same manner, or the accounts stir them up to do the like to our people on the frontiers, and then justify the assassination by the Bible the Missionaries have given them?”
Though he was indignant that the Indians were being cheated, he did not exalt them or romanticize them either. Practicality had deep veins in his philosophy.
This was evidenced when he spied a huge opening for American diplomacy when Napoleon found himself besieged by financial woes. He wrote to then President Jefferson making the following case.
France, having had Louisiana ceded by Spain, had barred the US from navigation on the Mississippi and to access to New Orleans. As the French Treasury was beyond parched, if liquidity could be offered and claims against France settled, Paine suggested they would likely pounce. This echoed and affirmed Jefferson’s own evolving thinking and led to the greatest land deal in history, essentially doubling the size of the United States at the cost of 10 cents an acre, while also gaining control of the Mississippi! Paine would also silently cheer this symbolic resurgence of the American Revolution, and the demonstrated ineptitude and decadence of the French varietal.
With the US now assured in its role as a continental power, and through that in time, a world power, Paine was shocked and disappointed that instead of being a citadel for liberty and democracy, Jefferson was seemingly seeking to conduct “business as usual” by allowing for the continuing importation of slaves into the new territories. This would lead to the expansion of slave states and as Paine feared and warned against, cued up the virtual inevitability of an eventual civil war.
In the shorter run, Paine also was right in pointing out it was a glaring injustice and unnecessary. Paine and Joel Barlow attempted to change Jefferson's mind, urging him to settle thrifty German immigrants in the new lands and to permit African American families to travel from other states to acquire their own land there. It would not come to pass though, as corporate interests, then as now, were so frequently decisive. Then, sugar and cotton were formidable influencers, and those coffers ran very deep, and so the future had to reckon with the continuing sins of the past.
Paine’s Finale and Frequent Resurrection
Shabby and shattered as he became, literally subsisting on the charity of friends, when death came calling, and the priest arrived, seeking to bully him into a death-bed conversion, a desperate faux faith, he found Thomas Paine’s faith in reason, and consistency and moral clarity unshaken.
While frequently seeing shattered, sobbing people repent at the last, clearly energized some, Paine in ulcerated agony, shooed away two Presbyterian ministers, refusing to feign a belief he had, for whatever reason, not been visited with. Or perhaps because he kept faith with values that needed defending in those fickle times, he experienced peace in a different, yet still very palpable way.
While his body was buried, exhumed, and reburied, in an oddball tale for another time, his reputation had a resurgence in the 19th century. Parliamentary reform in England drew inspiration and content from his writings. The Calvinist John Brown, agitating against slavery, had Paine’s books ready at hand and referenced them often. Abraham Lincoln was a devotee of The Age of Reason and drew on its insights as he contested religious sectarians, and he publicly alluded to the inspiration from Paine to convert a ravaging, bloody civil war, into what became, under Lincoln’s leadership, tantamount to a “second American revolution.”
And Paine was not yet done, his ideas labored with the labor movement, his example was cited in the women’s suffrage movement. He provided, they found, such eloquent basis for intelligent, dedicated agitation. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, in FDR’s famous rallying of the American people and the American spirit against fascism, those famous revolutionary lines from Paine were quoted at length, beginning with, “These are the times that try men’s souls…”
Say what you will about the dubious historical gifts of Ronald Reagan, he (or perhaps his inspired speech-writer Peggy Noonan), also located Paine and conscripted him once more in the effort to reduce the size of government and close the chapter on the increasingly moribund Soviet empire. Paine’s quote rang out once more across the centuries, “We have it in our power, to begin the world over again.” Who can hear that, in these currently tortured times, and not pray that might be even partially true?
Like the Bible, akin to Shakespeare, Paine seems to find his words and ideas deployed and deputized, inescapably alluded to. This patriot, who was side-lined, ignored in part in his life-time, a tortured idealist, a prophet whose words too often fell on deaf ears, in the words of Paddy Chayefsky, “inveighing against the hypocrisies of his time,” still comes back to coax us and to challenge us afresh and anew.
When we are buffeted by stress, overwhelmed by need, and in search of joy, when rights and intelligence, and the very nature of the type of reason that undergirds civilization, seem to be under attack -- openly through ignorance, or covertly through venomous hypocrisy, we need to be reminded of the life and writings of Thomas Paine.
His vital convictions, his ideas, his dedication that “the world is my country,” contributed to the trove of what in times of acute crisis/opportunity, we must find the courage and wits to deploy and depend upon.
“When we are planning for posterity, we should remember virtue is not hereditary.”
So wrote Paine, and we need to give heed. We must consciously pass the torch on.
We can all be heartened, that finally in 1937, the Times of London at last gave him an apt and deserved epitaph as “America’s Voltaire.”
Yet he was a poor man, barely educated, largely self-taught, who wrote like nobody before or since, with a combination of clarity, authenticity, passion and practicality. Perhaps he came to show us as well, that if someone as haunted as Thomas Paine can leave such an indelible impact, perhaps all of us can become more than the sum of our programming, and throw off, at least in part, the chains that shackle our own humanity.
His example reminds us we are more than those chains, and to those chains, at least to a large extent, we ourselves hold the keys.