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The Paine of Thomas Paine

By Robert Meyer

January 31, 2006


January 29th marks the birthday of famous American thinker and essayist Thomas Paine. He is often thought of as a Founding Father, though he was not on the drafting committee of either The Declaration of Independence or The Constitution of the United States. It is certainly no exaggeration though, to say that Paine was highly influential in providing the philosophical support for the American Revolution. His work "Common Sense," provided a polemic that harnessed the willingness and zeal in the fight for independence from Britain.

 

In analyzing the life of Thomas Paine, we are treated to a mixed bag of the deplorable and the commendable. It is thus difficult to decide whether recalling his contributions are cause to celebrate or to experience disdain.

 

Paine was born to a Quaker family in England, but at an early age became skeptical about Christianity, because he couldn’t reconcile the belief in a loving God with the doctrine of eternal punishment.

 

He met Benjamin Franklin during one of Franklin’s trips to England. Franklin persuaded Paine to come to America. Soon afterward, Paine took up the cause for American independence. His pamphlet "Common Sense" invoked biblical language and illustration, to persuade Americans that Monarchy led to tyranny, and was against the will of Almighty God.

 

Probably those reading "Common Sense," would never have guessed Paine to be a nonbeliever, particularly after perusing the passages therein, effervescing with biblical language, especially the following: "But where says some is the king of America? I'll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king..." This statement is more "Lex Rex," than the ranting of a skeptic.

 

Sometime after the War of Independence was over, Paine found his way back to Europe, and eventually became embroiled in the French Revolution. His treatise, the "Rights of Man," was strongly criticized by British statesman Edmond Burke. Paine aligned himself with a more moderate faction in French polity, and during the "Reign of Terror" was himself imprisoned for opposing the Jacobins who wanted the King of France executed.

 

During his prison internment, he wrote his treatise against Christianity, "The Age of Reason." His life was eventually spared through American diplomacy, and Paine came back to America, were he published his book, allegedly, even against the advice of Franklin. Several prominent Americans condemned the work. Some such as Elias Boudinot, and Patrick Henry, wrote rebuttals. Paine found that his celebrity’s status had turned sour.

 

One can only imagine the reaction of someone who was inspired by "Common Sense," picking up the new book, thinking it would be a sequel or an encore. This is probably where he earned his false reputation as an infidel.

 

Of course, though Paine was never an atheist, he is something of a poster child darling for modern secularists. They like to use Paine to buttress their arguments that America was founded as a secular nation, as if this gambit made any sense. Since Paine was a Deist and not an atheist, why is the substituting of one form of theism for another one, of any value in that type of argument? The fact that Paine, used, or felt the need to use, Christian nomenclature in his appeal for revolt, tells you everything you need to know about the sentiment of the general population.

 

Paine made a statement in "Age of Reason"about miracles which was never very convincing. To paraphrase him, he said that if one should hear of a miracle, the veracity of the claim could be answered quite easily. Have we ever seen a miracle he asks? In the same space of time we have heard millions of lies. The odds are at least millions to one that someone who claims a miracle is a liar then, so he concludes.

 

The problem here is that Paine confuses the statical correlation of two unrelated events with the possibility that a given event can occur. As an example, I could say that nobody has ever been hit with a brick falling off the Empire State building, therefore the odds of it happening are virtually infinite. However, if a team of masons throws numerous bricks from the observation deck while a marching band performs on the street below, the odds become good that someone will be struck. Since Paine believed that the creation itself was miraculous, why would he have doubted the miraculous could happen again?

 

Paine suffered poor health in his last years, as he vanished into obscurity. When he died, he could not be buried in a church cemetery. His remains were eventually returned back to England, but were somehow lost in transit. There was a rumor, apparently an urban legend, that Paine made a death-bed recantation of his anti-Christian beliefs to an attendant. While it is doubtful that this is true, I find it humorous that so much effort is spent by skeptics in denying this story–as if their own system depended on Paine stubbornly holding on to his convictions to the bitter end.

 

I wish the story could have had a better ending–the pain of Thomas Paine.

 

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