Beyond Good and Evil

Dr. Ronnie J. Hastings

For Your Consideration, I Give You…….Tom Paine

The U.S. Presidential election of 2012 was believed to be won by the candidate receiving the greater amount of money, not by the candidate better qualified to be the next President. A price has been placed upon public office. One political party blatantly tries to reduce the number of voters, not expand it. Part of that same group has usurped the good title of the Boston Tea Party and besmirched that good name by behaving like the British political merchants against whom the historical Party was held; instead of champions of freedom and liberty, they are champions of limited citizenry and of disfranchisement, especially of those of differing skin color and/or culture.

Most of our Founding Fathers must be “spinning in their graves.” One such “spinner” is not commonly recognized in the illustrious group that includes George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. This is a call to add the name of Thomas Paine to the list of Founding Fathers in our common discourse.  He has been needed as an addition since the beginning of our marvelous republic.

Tom Paine is the author of Common Sense, the pamphlet whose reading, according to Washington “worked a powerful change in the minds of many men” during the dark days for the colonists in the American Revolution.  During America’s struggle for independence, he was a volunteer aide-de-camp for Gen. Nathanael Greene.  From The Crisis, a series of inspiring tracts by Paine, came the immortal words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  For his service in the American Revolution he was awarded a 300-acre farm in New Rochelle, New York.  He was one of the first to call for a national convention to remedy the ineffectual Articles of Confederation.  Unlike his friend Thomas Jefferson, Paine leaned in his later political philosophy toward a strong union rather than the primacy of states’ rights.  But he was no Alexander Hamilton; his views evolved from advocating minimal government to government mandated as a beneficent agent to the people executing a program of positive humanitarianism.  He helped pioneer political ideas such as a progressive income tax and provisions for the helpless and the aged.

His human foibles were no worse than those of the other Founding Fathers, in fact to me more forgivable than the indiscretions of Ben Franklin, George Washington, or Alexander Hamilton.  Paine’s ideals were as lofty as those of Franklin’s and Jefferson’s, but he was not as patient as he probably should have been dealing these ideals to his fellow human beings; he spoke and wrote out when Franklin and Jefferson held their tongues and pens in discretion.  He was not willing to “fight another day.”

He was a missionary in the best tradition of the Apostle Paul.  In 1787 he went to England, and then to France, to work toward both places becoming a United States-like republic!  He was an apostle of liberty, freedom, human dignity, and humanitarianism — a true child of the Enlightenment.  His “missionary journey” is the stuff of legend; it transcends the legendary stories of the other Founding Fathers, in that it is one of lethal adventure as well as of penning great words, and, apparently, all true.  At the very least, it is “right up there” with Founding Father stories such as chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a dollar across the Potomac, or flying a kite-with-key during a thunderstorm.

In England he wrote Rights of Man, a hard-hitting rebuttal of Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Paine not only defended the early events of the French Revolution, he promoted the principles of republicanism so well Pitt’s government had him indicted for treason against England, fearing French-style rebellion erupting there.  Paine fled to France to a hero’s welcome — Rights of Man was a natural big “hit” among the French revolutionaries — and was immediately elected to the French revolutionary Convention.  But, he gravitated toward the more moderate revolutionaries, the Girondins, rather than to the more radical revolutionaries, Robespierre’s Jacobins.  He was among those who advocated not executing King Louis XVI; he favored exile instead.  This put him at odds with the Jacobins, and when the Terror ensued, he was imprisoned and scheduled for execution via “Madame Guillotine.”  Those to be guillotined for a given day had notices nailed to or marked upon their cell doors the night before.  On Paine’s scheduled day of execution, he was ill with typhoid and a physician was summoned to attend him in his cell, whose door was left open, hiding the deadly notice against the wall of the hall of cells, or hiding the deadly mark on the door facing when the door was closed for the night.  Those who gathered the unfortunates with a notice or mark on the door to the carts for the public be-headings the next day passed by Paine’s cell, whose notice was hidden from them either by an open or a closed door.  The bureaucracy of the Terror apparently was such that if you missed your day of execution, it was a long time until your re-processing cycle was completed.  A few days later,  when Paine’s cycle was completed, if it ever was, Robespierre was out of power, and Paine was released and readmitted to the Convention.  However Tom Paine’s notice of death was hidden (He was so sick he knew no details of how he was overlooked.), his head was salvaged by a doctor’s “house call!”

Why, then, is there any need for my appeal?  Why, by the time he died back in America in 1809 was he not “ushered into the ranks” alongside Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams?  I think the answer is linked with the problems of our nation today, with the reasons he is sorely needed today in the ranks of the Founding Fathers (FF).  And the link is summed up in one word — religion.

Born in England (Country of birth no barrier to being listed with the FF; Hamilton was born in the British West Indies.) a Quaker, Tom Paine became, like Gen. Greene, a patriot who renounced his pacifism, a “fallen Quaker,” if you will.  Like so many of the FF, he was a deist and falsely accused, especially by the clergy and by the Federalist political party, of being an atheist (The atheist charge was a political action executed as part of a similar attack by the Federalists on his friend Thomas Jefferson).  Only decades after his death, many of his religious principles and beliefs had profoundly changed the religious landscape of the United States, in the form of the Unitarian movement.  A major part of his enlightened humanitarianism was and is individual freedom from political and religious bigotry.  Such freedom as it exists today is indebted in no small measure to Tom Paine. Yet, ironically, what set him at cross purposes with the orthodox Christian Church at large proved he was more familiar with Christian Scripture than most believers!

About the time he was going into prison at the hands of the Jacobins, he wrote Part i of Age of Reason, a scathing critique of Christian theology and of the Church in general, using the Scriptures themselves as his argumentative tool.  The accuracy of Part i referencing the Bible is nothing short of remarkable; not many had the familiarity of God’s Word to write Part i.  Two years later, after he was released, he wrote Part ii of Age of Reason.  Part ii was a wonderful continuation and supplement to Part i.  Together, both parts make up what I would call a “must read” for every believer and non-believer alike.  Age of Reason and Thomas Jefferson’s The Jefferson Bible together make the most disturbing case by Americans against Christianity as passed down to us by the Apostle Paul as I’ve ever run across.  If it were up to me, I would make these two publications required reading for every public, parochial, and private high school graduate in the nation.  (Also, see my Sorting Out the Apostle Paul [April, 2012] and The United States of America — A Christian Nation? [June, 2012] on this website Beyond Good and Evil, .)

Through politics, then, the same kind of religiously-motivated power struggles we see today in big-moneyed, Tea Party, fundamentalist conservatism, Tom Paine was made an anathema and died in obscurity in New York City, his enormous contributions to the birth of our nation conveniently forgotten by most of the nation.  He was not helped by the fact he ad hominum criticized George Washington for not doing more for him while he was in the French prison, admittedly, but that seems small potatoes compared to Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Age of Reason.  Nor was he helped by his tactlessness and drunkenness during bouts with depression in the last seven years of his life, but these foibles seem forgivable in light of how he stirred the hearts and minds of the American cause during the dark days of Valley Forge.

On MSNBC Chris Matthews quotes Tom Paine regarding a people’s power to “change the world” by changing their government, and President Obama quoted Tom Paine in his first inaugural address.  Paine’s words still stir what Jefferson and Adams called the “spirit of 1776.”  We need his words again in our hearts and minds; we need Tom Paine’s courage to stand up for the revolutionary principles upon which our country was founded.

Moreover, we need Tom Paine to remind us of Franklin’s observation — if the Founding Fathers had lost, they would have been hung as treasonous criminals.  We need Tom Paine to remind us that in the day of the Founding Fathers, the group to which he rightfully belongs, the conservatives of the day wore red military coats and spoke with a British accent.  We need a Paine Memorial comparable to that of Jefferson’s.



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