If Tom Cruise was Born on the Fourth of July, then he can thank Thomas Paine, who it can be said was born on January 10, 1776 with the publication of his incendiary essay, Common Sense, that argued for independence from England. He priced it cheaply (two shillings), argued passionately, and wrote in a direct style so that readers could understand him.
It was sold and distributed widely and read aloud at taverns and meeting places. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time (2.5 million), it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history. As of 2006, it remains the all-time best selling American title, and is still in print today. [Wikipedia]
Common Sense relieved the political constipation of the Second Continental Congress, which was stalled between reconciliation and independence. The 77-page pamphlet blasphemed the English king as a royal brute and obliterated the arguments opposing independence. Further, it presented the issues in a tone of utmost gravity:
The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected . . .
The stakes were high. Paine was calling on Americans to save the world, not only through arms but by repudiating their saintly icon, George III, who in truth was nothing but a “crowned ruffian,” as all monarchs were. John Locke had argued that states exist to protect man’s natural rights; Paine argued that they were instead born in “naked conquest and plunder.” [Conceived in Liberty, IV] Independence would also free America from Europe’s wars and quarrels, whereas the current colonial alliance would “set us at variance with nations . . . against whom we have neither anger nor complaint.”
Common Sense swept through all 13 colonies and established strong support for secession, enough, at least, to kick Congress into action. John Adams, who hated Paine, later conceded that “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” Murray Rothbard concluded that “Paine had, at a single blow, become the voice of the American Revolution and the greatest single force in propelling it to completion and independence.” [Conceived in Liberty, IV] “So gripping was Paine’s prose,” writes Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, “and so vast was its reach, that [John] Adams once complained to Jefferson, ‘History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine.’”
But of course almost no one does. He is listed as one of the less significant founders, when he’s listed at all. When Benjamin Franklin died in 1790 at age 84, some 20,000 people attended his funeral. When Paine died in 1809 at age 72, six people paid their respects, none of whom were dignitaries.
A mostly self-educated man, Paine went on to be the 18th century’s bestselling author, and one of the most reviled. He mercilessly pummeled the hypocrisy and abuses of government elites and their distain for commoners. As he wrote in a footnote to Rights of Man, “It is scarcely possible to touch on any subject, that will not suggest an allusion to some corruption in governments.”
Rights of Man II condemned English law and politics, for which he was tried in absentia for seditious libel while living in France and, ironically, arguing in the French Assembly for sparing the life of Louis XVI. During his trial the Crown’s prosecutor accused Paine of being a traitor and a drunken roisterer who had vilified Parliament and king. Among the evidence he cited was a letter Paine had written to the attorney general in which he stated, “the Government of England is [the greatest] perfection of fraud and corruption that ever took place since governments began.“
For four hours his defense argued that Paine was innocent by virtue of freedom of the press. It carried no weight with the Crown’s handpicked jury — all wealthy, plump, and respectable men filled with icy hostility toward the defendant.
Paine on Religion
One book, The Age of Reason — the first part written while he awaited execution in a French prison but was spared by a bureaucratic blunder — has served to relegate him unjustly to academic obscurity. In presenting his case for deism, he attacks organized religion, especially Christianity and the Bible. He rejects the creeds of all churches, and he rejects the national institutions of all churches, for they were no more “than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
What really bothered his critics was the manner in which Age was written. “By presenting [his arguments] in an engaging and irreverent style, he made deism appealing and accessible to a mass audience.” [Wikipedia] The low price of his pamphlet ensured a vibrant market, and the British government feared it might spark a revolution among the downtrodden. Printers were prosecuted for publishing or distributing it.
Among the educated his views were not regarded as radical. John Adams, for example, had privately written that the Bible was "full of whole cartloads of trumpery." James Madison said the fruits of Christianity were “pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity.… Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”
In 1787 Jefferson had advised his nephew, Peter Carr, to "Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.”
Adams, Madison. and Jefferson it should be remembered are forever entrenched as American founders.
For Paine the word of God is not found in any written work, but in nature, which he referred to as the Creation: “The Creation speaks a universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they be. It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other.”
There are elements in Paine’s political writings that appeal to statists of varying degrees. Was he merely a pen for hire? For the most part, at least, I would say no. Yet, though he bashed government throughout his writings, he was one of the first, in 1783, to call for a stronger central government. As I wrote earlier, “[H]is idea of strengthening the Articles of Confederation was to ‘add a Continental legislature to Congress, to be elected by the several States.’ When he was asked to propose his suggestion in a newspaper article, he declined, saying he ‘did not think the country was quite wrong enough to be put right.’”
His solidarity with liberty came in 1786 with his essay on paper money. “When an assembly undertakes to issue paper as money, the whole system of safety and certainty is overturned, and property set afloat. Paper notes given and taken between individuals as a promise of payment is one thing, but paper issued by an assembly as money is another thing. It is like putting an apparition in the place of a man; it vanishes with looking at it, and nothing remains but the air.” He went on to enumerate many of the evils of paper money.
There are excellent biographies of Thomas Paine, one my favorites being Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations by Craig Nelson. It has the page-turning quality of a good novel and is now available on Kindle.
I’ve also published a script about Paine, Eyes of Fire: Thomas Paine and the American Revolution.