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The Age of Paine
Posted on Jul 3, 2009
By Scott Tucker
“That filthy little atheist,” as Thomas Paine was called by Theodore Roosevelt (a man we might with more justice call that filthy little imperialist), has few monuments dedicated to his memory, and has sometimes had few readers beyond those students who are required to read his great revolutionary pamphlet “Common Sense.” This pamphlet was the firebrand Paine wielded to spread the flame of independence throughout the British colonies in America, with such success that John Adams claimed that “without the pen of Paine the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
Adams was honest enough to acknowledge the persuasive talents of Paine, but lost no time publishing his own pamphlet in 1776 opposing the more “democratical” politics of Paine, Jefferson and others. Many who had first hailed Paine as an archangel of light would later claim that he had become a son of Lucifer. The odor of sulfur always stuck to Paine after he wrote and published “The Age of Reason,” and yet all his infidelities to orthodox religion do not make him an outright infidel.
Paine began his public life by disavowing the divinity of kings; he proceeded to disavow the divinity of Jesus Christ; and during his last years he even disavowed the divinity of George Washington, which made most of his few remaining friends and comrades decide that the old iconoclast had finally gone too far.
Those ideas may not disturb the peace of many people today, at least not if taken one by one, or even all together. But in Paine’s time, such ideas carried great risks, and usually remained restricted to small circles of friends and readers. Paine deliberately stepped outside of those inner circles. He repeatedly made the decision to become Citizen Paine, a person in public life. If we assume Paine became a republican and a revolutionary all at once, we may as well assume that no larval stage precedes a butterfly and that no geological rift precedes an earthquake.
The habit of public life has to be cultivated to create citizens and to preserve democracy. If that much seems too plain for words, we forget that the plain language of people like Paine was one of the great advances toward personal liberty and social solidarity. Paine added greatly to our common store of common sense. The men and women who first invented (or, in the 18th century, reinvented) the republican tradition were flawed, all too human and brave. Their courage and their ideals will have died with them if we allow the big corporate political parties to undermine both democracy and the republic in our own time.
Paine advanced the causes of universal suffrage, equality for women, abolition of slavery, separation of church and state, public education, and progressive taxation. He made the first proposal for a guaranteed minimum income. He advised a system of public funding to give starting grants to young workers, and to aid the poor, the unemployed and the elderly. He believed that only well-informed and active citizens could defend democracy, and he roused the hostility of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others who were already a rising oligarchy of the wealthiest landowners and merchants.
Paine was an advocate of republican world revolution, and (if we consider his time and culture) he was a genuine social democrat. There are historians who claim he showed little originality of thought, only originality in his plain prose and telling turns of phrase. But the proof of his powerful mind was shown in his ability to survey and summarize a vast treasury of Enlightenment thinking; and his deliberate choice to address a wide audience of working people seemed original enough to the ruling classes of his time.
Most of Paine’s practical proposals of the social democratic kind appear in “The Rights of Man” (particularly part two), and in one of his last works, a long pamphlet titled “Agrarian Justice.” As historian Eric Foner noted in “Tom Paine and Revolutionary America,” “More than in any other essay, Paine seemed torn in Agrarian Justice between his customary desire to unite all classes in what he perceived as the common good, and his sympathy for the plight of the European poor.” Though there are utopian elements in these works, he took care to study and publish many relevant economic figures, so his criticism of existing conditions and his budget for reforms was not drawn from the clear blue sky. If we expect him to be as comprehensive as a modern economist (or indeed as a modern socialist), then we can easily prove how clever we are without ever acknowledging both the practical and prophetic dimensions of his thought.
Even so, the subject of public health is sketchy to a vanishing point in the works of Paine. Medicine was still emerging as an empirical field of knowledge, doctors were still shaking off a reputation for quackery, and the particular field of public medicine barely existed beyond the usual charity wards and hospitals. So Paine may have slighted this subject in real modesty. But he may have trusted his readers to fill in the gaps as well. This is suggested in one of the best studies of Paine’s work, a book by the British philosopher A.J. Ayer, titled simply “Thomas Paine.” Ayer drew a comparison between the social democratic proposals of Paine and the reforms introduced by the British Labour Party in the wake of World War II:
“This brings me to the end of Paine’s blueprint for what I have felt justified in calling his Welfare State. Its main difference from the package introduced in 1945 is the absence of a scheme of National Health Service. I suggest that the reason for this is that Paine’s principal aim was to abolish poverty. He may, therefore, have assumed that once this was achieved, there would be no need to make special provision for health. His measures would ensure that those who needed medical attention would be able to pay for it.”
We may get a better idea of Paine’s clarity and courage if we study how he anticipated public policies that would only be put into real practice under 20th century European social democrats, and in this country under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. But even if we limit our interest to the timeline of his own life, he stands out among revolutionaries who not only dared to think but also dared to act. The historical gap between Enlightenment in theory and Enlightenment in practice is clear enough in a celebrated essay which Immanuel Kant wrote in 1784, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Kant took care to drop a curtsey to the Prussian monarch when he claimed “this is the century of enlightenment, the century of Frederick.” Kant did not even propose a constitutional monarchy. Nor did he dare mention the American Revolution. He did make a plea for “the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters”:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [Dare to know!] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’—that is the motto of enlightenment.”
All well and good. But precisely the failure to act in common meant that much of the European public remained subject to the will of hereditary rulers. The advice of Kant remained in the realm of German idealism, and of slow diffusion through the educated public of Europe. To be on the same page only in ideals could lead to political quietism, and even to an open divorce between theory and practice.
The republicans of the 18th century were not above using the blunt instruments of worldly power, or the sharp silencer of the guillotine. But Paine can be remembered and honored as an early civil libertarian among the early republicans. Behind the polemical heat of the attacks Paine turned upon dogmatic religions, we will find a sentiment much cooler and much closer in spirit to these words of Gotthold Lessing: “Let each man say what he deems truth, and let truth itself be commended unto God!” If that seems to be an empty piety, consider all that is implied in those words—including the strong suggestion that no single mortal mind or religious doctrine could encompass the whole truth. The search for truth requires pluralism in public life. For many republicans this meant daring to create a public sphere of conflicting voices, and therefore of conflicting claims to truth.
The early republicans took great personal risks to speak their minds, and Paine in particular became a guiding spirit for later American radicals such as Walt Whitman, Robert Ingersoll, Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs. Abraham Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, claimed that Lincoln had written an essay defending the deism of Paine in 1835. Herndon also claimed that the manuscript was burned by Lincoln’s friend, Samuel Hill, to protect Lincoln’s political career. Thomas Edison admired Paine as a fellow inventor and free thinker, and stated, “I have always regarded Paine as one of the greatest of all Americans. Never have we had a sounder intelligence in this republic. … ”
Big round anniversary numbers often roll the dead back to life, and the 200th anniversary of Paine’s death has brought him a new round of public honors, a revival of interest among scholars, and a recent discussion of his life and work on PBS’ “Bill Moyers Journal.” In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the writings of Paine generated a kind of solar energy among republicans throughout the Americas and throughout Europe. Yet his reputation also suffered a lunar fortune, waxing whenever people searched the past for present inspiration, and waning whenever people accepted the propaganda about the godless and bloodthirsty Jacobin. Even in his own country and lifetime, Paine’s fame gave way to infamy and finally to mere forgetting.
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