Friday, August 23, 2019

A hero is as a hero does

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) is a figure from our revolutionary past who emerged from obscurity to upset the world with his popular writings.  “He wrote the three top-selling literary works of the eighteenth century, which inspired the American Revolution, issued a historic battle cry for individual rights, and challenged the corrupt power of government churches,”researcher Jim Powell tells us.  To the extent he is not ignored he is still upsetting the world.  

Paine placed a high value on human reason, and as such it is doubtful even he would agree with everything he wrote throughout his life, inasmuch as some of his ideas about government stood in flat opposition to others (e.g., see Rights of Man, Part II).  Yet in his last years his passion for human liberty burst forth once again as he slammed the Federalists for attempting to build a government as belligerent and corrupt as the one from which the American colonies had seceded. (See “To the Citizens of the United States and Particularly to the Leaders of the Federal Faction,” p. 908)

After enduring a long illness Paine, 72, died in Greenwich Village, New York City on June 8, 1809.  Though he was known throughout the world his friends, such as they were, were in short supply.  From Wikipedia:
At the time of his death, most American newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New York Evening Post that was in turn quoting from The American Citizen, which read in part: "He had lived long, did some good, and much harm". Only six mourners came to his funeral, two of whom were black, most likely freedmen. 
Why did the free world abandon Thomas Paine?

The US had changed since he published his explosive anti-government pamphlet, Common Sense, in January 1776.  The Federalists, under the intellectual leadership of Alexander Hamilton, were pushing for a United States of England, with all the corruption and taxes that came with it.  Where Paine crossed the line with Christians were his three books about deism and the Bible, published under the title Age of Reason, in 1794, 1795, and 1807.  His views were familiar to the educated elite of his day but they refrained from discussing them publicly.  

Paine’s great sin was putting his undaunted pen to work for all to read, including commoners.  Wikipedia:
Using methods that would not become common in Biblical scholarship until the nineteenth century, Paine tested the Bible for internal consistency and questioned its historical accuracy, concluding that it was not divinely inspired. 
Paine also argues that the Old Testament must be false because it depicts a tyrannical God. The "history of wickedness" pervading the Old Testament convinced Paine that it was simply another set of human-authored myths. He deplores people's credulity: "Brought up in habits of superstition," he wrote, "people in general know not how much wickedness there is in this pretended word of God." Citing Numbers 31:13–47 as an example, in which Moses orders the slaughter of thousands of boys and women, and sanctions the rape of thousands of girls, at God's behest, Paine calls the Bible a "book of lies, wickedness, and blasphemy; for what can be greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty!”
Theodore Roosevelt libeled Paine as a “filthy, little atheist,” though Paine's writings made it clear he was not godless.  Curiously, the same description has not been applied to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”  Was a future US president corrupting his nephew?  

From his Notes on the State of Virginia: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  

In a letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, three years before his death, he wrote:
And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.
Many of Jefferson’s comments would pass for Paine’s:  “My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest.” - (Letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, August 6, 1816);  “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” - (Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814)

Where do they differ?

Try this test.  Who is the author of the following passages, Jefferson or Paine?  
But the christian story of God the Father putting his son to death, or employing people to do it, (for that is the plain language of the story,) cannot be told by a parent to a child; and to tell him that it was done to make mankind happier and better, is making the story still worse; as if mankind could be improved by the example of murder; and to tell him that all this is a mystery, is only making an excuse for the incredibility of it. [Source, p. 498]
Accustom a people to believe that priests or any other class of men can forgive sins, and you will have sins in abundance. [Source]
They fit either writer.

In addition to the foregoing, why hasn't Jefferson been ostracized over his famous “Bible,” the second of two he assembled.  The first, created in 1804 while he was President of the United States, disappeared.  
In this book, he kept the words of Jesus and some of his deeds, but left out the miracles and any suggestion that Jesus is God. The virgin birth is gone. So is Jesus walking on water, multiplying the loaves and fishes, and raising Lazarus from the dead. Jefferson’s version ends with Jesus’ burial on Good Friday. There is no resurrection, no Easter Sunday. Jefferson called this version “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”
We’ve been told since childhood that Jefferson is one of the greatest US presidents.  He even has his bust chiseled in stone on a mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  He’s been enshrined in the Jefferson Memorial — but with a twist: The famous inscription reads “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Is this an affirmation of his Christian belief?  Not quite.  Jefferson wrote “god,” not “God,” in the letter from which this quote is extracted, and refers only to his impassioned opposition to a state religion.  That slightest of changes works wonders among the faithful.  And as the author of the Declaration of Independence he has a front-row seat among the Founding Fathers.

No Common Sense, No Declaration of Independence

Check your history books — without Paine’s Common Sense there would not have been a Declaration for Jefferson to write.  I’ll say it again: No Common Sense, No Declaration of Independence.  Yet Paine is almost never considered a Founder.  Wikipedia lists him among “other notable people of the period.”  In 2006 Harvard history professor Jill Lepore wrote:
Thomas Paine is, at best, [considered] a lesser Founder. . .  [Yet] Paine’s contributions to the nation’s founding would be hard to overstate. “Common Sense” made it possible to declare independence. “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain,” Adams himself wrote. [Adams hated Paine.]  But Paine lifted his sword, too, and emptied his purse. Despite his poverty—he was by far the poorest of the Founders—he donated his share of the profits from “Common Sense” to buy supplies for the Continental Army, in which he also served. His chief contribution to the war was a series of dispatches known as “The American Crisis,” and printed in newspapers throughout the states.
The American Crisis essays lifted the flagging spirits of soldiers and citizens alike. 

Paine not a Founder?

Have Paine’s contributions to American independence been downplayed or ignored because his dissection of the Bible and his affirmation of deism came into the hands of the unwashed, and thus left them exposed to arguments shaking the foundations of a profitable and controlling orthodoxy?  Is Paine another victim of politics?

Paine’s distrust of power in all its forms, especially as it exists in state and church, is the great lesson Americans need to learn and never forget.  One could compose a thick book of insightful Paine quotations, but I leave you with these to think about. 


It is scarcely possible to touch on any subject, that will not suggest an allusion to some corruption in governments.

To establish any mode to abolish war, however advantageous it might be to Nations, would be to take from such Government the most lucrative of its branches.

War involves in its progress such a train of unforeseen circumstances that no human wisdom can calculate the end; it has but one thing certain, and that is to increase taxes.

To say that any people are not fit for freedom, is to make poverty their choice, and to say they had rather be loaded with taxes than not.

The portion of liberty enjoyed in England, is just enough to enslave a country more productively than by despotism; and that as the real object of all despotism is revenue, a government so formed obtains more than it could do either by direct despotism, or in a full state of freedom, and is therefore, on the ground of interest, opposed to both.

The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act. A general association takes place, and common interest produces common security.  

Arms discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property... Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding deprived of the use of them.

The independence of America would have added but little to her own happiness, and been of no benefit to the world, if her government had been formed on the corrupt models of the old world. It was the opportunity of beginning the world anew, as it were; and of bringing forward a new system of government in which the rights of all men should be preserved that gave value to independence.

Foreign vices should they survive the voyage from Europe,
either expire on their arrival, or linger away in an incurable consumption. There is a happy something in the climate of America, which disarms them of all their power both of infection and attraction.  [An expression of Paine’s deep admiration for his adopted country]

A thousand years hence (for I must indulge in a few thoughts), perhaps in less, America may be what England now is! The innocence of her character that won the hearts of all nations in her favor may sound like a romance, and her inimitable virtue as if it had never been. The ruins of that liberty which thousands bled for, or suffered to obtain, may just furnish materials for a village tale or extort a sigh from rustic sensibility, while the fashionable of that day, enveloped in dissipation, shall deride the principle and deny the fact.

Religion & the Bible

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.  [Paine’s affirmation of deism.]

The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.  [Havelock Ellis, but often mistakenly attributed to Paine]

The Popish Councils of Nice and Laodicea, about 350 years after the time the person called Jesus Christ is said to have lived, voted the books that now compose what is called the New Testament to be the 'word of God.' This was done by yeas and nays, as we now vote a law. The pharisees of the second Temple, after the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, did the same by the books that now compose the Old Testament, and this is all the authority there is, which to me is no authority at all. I am as capable of judging for myself as they were, and I think more so, because, as they made a living by their religion, they had a self-interest in the vote they gave.

All our ideas of the justice and goodness of God revolt at the impious cruelty of the Bible. It is not a God, just and good, but a devil, under the name of God, that the Bible describes.

Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.

It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

George Ford Smith is the author of eight books, including The Flight of the Barbarous RelicEyes of Fire: Thomas Paine and the American Revolution, and The Fall of Tyranny, the Rise of Liberty.  He is also a filmmaker whose latest work is a five-minute documentary about the Christmas Truce of 1914, A Christmas to Remember.

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