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The Age of Paine
Posted on Jul 3, 2009
By Scott Tucker
The works of Paine did not simply fall out of fashion once he had been laid in his grave. No, he was elbowed out of the inner circles of government even while he was living. If we reduce the story of his life to a psychological study, any fool could find evidence of a difficult character. But the real difficulty many of his contemporaries had with this man was not simply personal but political. And the real difficulty so many liberals and conservatives have with Paine today is the plain fact that he was both a radical republican and a social democrat. We cannot claim Paine as a modern democratic socialist, but he remains a prickly hedgehog if we place him in the company of modern Republicans and Democrats. If Paine is to be taken seriously today, he will still be a pain the neck of career politicians.
While Paine was still living, his worst enemies either did not bother to read “The Age of Reason” or they deliberately chose defamation above the evidence of his own words. Why atheism should be considered defamatory is a fair question, but it was not simply a philosophical question in the 18th century. Even bare-knuckle politics could be a gentleman’s sport, but the charge of atheism always took off the gloves and brought brass knuckles into the boxing ring. In that respect little has changed during the whole history of the United States of America (a phrase Paine invented, and which was promptly adopted as the name of the new republic). Paine was never tarred and feathered for his religious and political beliefs, but in England his effigy was hanged and burned by angry royalist mobs, and in the United States a coach in which he was riding was pelted with stones by angry Christians. Paine had the misfortune to return to the United States during an evangelical revival now known as the Second Great Awakening.
The 18th century democrats and republicans did not create something from nothing, and they did not create gold from lead. Paine (among others) did show real originality in casting the available older materials into the crucible of current events, and drawing out silver seven times refined. How is it possible that the political philosopher Thomas Paine emerged from his working-class English artisan background? How did he dare put republican ideals to the test of common action? Asking that question goes a long way toward answering it, because artisan material production also helped to create a public sphere beyond the Court of St. James’s, the House of Lords and debates in Parliament.
Likewise, when British men and women broke away from the Church of England, they often paid real penalties in the long struggle for religious civil liberties. They were slandered, beaten, jailed and sometimes put to death. The artisan-class politics and the religious idealism in the background of Paine can be studied almost as distinct cultural chemicals, but the real chemistry is all in the mix. This spirit of religious and political dissent was already the milk and honey of the Promised Land for the young Tom Paine, and a true foretaste of earthly freedom. For Paine, the horizon of faith was a mirage unless he could plant his feet on the common ground of free citizens. His moral and intellectual compass was never oriented toward an inward paradise, but toward the worldly creation of liberty. All men and women might be born free, but liberty would never be guaranteed only by claiming natural rights. That claim had to be advanced precisely through political struggle. Paine chose a journey far beyond his island country and far beyond any orthodox faith.
Paine both drew upon and created the common sense of his time. The very title of Paine’s most infamous book was later adopted as a general term for various kinds of rationalism and empiricism, usually bearing the stamp of Europe and the 18th century. Paine placed in the public square (and in plain language) all of the most pointed opinions on “revealed religion” which skeptics, scientists and philosophers had already addressed to much smaller circles. Indeed, many of these opinions had become the common sense of prominent Founding Fathers, including Washington, Jefferson and Franklin.
Paine believed that whatever we deem truth deserves a public hearing, not simply the audience of an inner circle. He sinned against prudence and discretion, or at least many of his old friends and comrades soon decided that was so. Testing the public limits of tolerance, Paine also became one of the practical civil libertarians of both Europe and the early American republic.
In Britain there are conservatives who still grow irate at the mention of his name. In their own way, they understand. Whereas in the United States there are liberals who barely know his name at all, beyond a high school civics class or a passage in a college text. They do not understand, and many of them have not even forgotten because they never learned in the first place. The lesson for liberals is that conservatives sometimes remember what makes radicals truly radical, long after liberals have forgotten. Conservatives still quote chapter and verse from Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Liberals, and indeed radicals, might quote in turn and as often from “The Rights of Man,” the book Thomas Paine wrote in response to Burke. Paine and Burke carried on an argument about politics and liberty that began long before them, and has continued long after. But Burke is always an honored guest among serious conservatives, whereas Paine is little more than a ghost in the memory of many liberals. Beyond the circles of scholars and historians, Paine deserves a much wider place in public memory and in public conversation.
Paine had helped raise the tide of revolution, but by the end of his life he had become stranded by his own advancing ideas. And, yes, to a degree by his own sheer cussedness. As Paine grew elderly and embittered, he turned more often to brandy. His best thoughts no longer gained currency—on the contrary, he seemed to gain increasing infamy. Paine did not tailor his convictions to the more uniform fashions of the most prosperous leaders of the republic. At least he did not break his heart wondering how to win friends and influence people in our modern manner. His moods of indignation alternated with spells of stoicism. He had lived long enough to discover that every revolution is also a wheel of fortune. Even his most bitter words have a natural taste to this day, like fresh salt or strong vinegar. The author of “Common Sense” rarely lost his own, though he lost his temper often enough to pen and publish some lines he would have done better to strike.
Paine lived in an age in which journalists were still emerging as public figures, and indeed in which public journals were still emerging as literary products. In that age, many writers who were alert to current events and to public action became journalists not by habit or by profession, but by writing quite literally “for the day.” Or, in French, “pour le jour.” “For the day” also implies for the general public, and thereby journalism gained the name. If we compare Paine’s prose style with the rhetorical roulades of some of his contemporary French revolutionaries, we find an equally strong spirit but a more sober delivery. He must have known when he was writing a great line, just as Verdi must have known when he had spun out a great tune, but all his best work belongs in the tradition of plain English political prose. There is the same effort to think clearly and therefore to write clearly as we find in Orwell. All of Paine’s books open room by room like a house made with honest craft and solid materials.
If we regard those founding republicans as figures in a fairy tale, then we might as well bury the whole republic and build a marble monument inscribed with these words: Once Upon A Time. Today, in the United States, the highest ideal of many members of the ruling class is to create a private paradise of wealth, and they have no qualms if that goal can be achieved by buying career politicians in Congress. These people know the market value of “our two party-system,” but they have never known the value of democracy. Plainly, it serves the interests of a small but immensely wealthy minority if we, the people, leave politics to politicians except on election days. Plainly, it serves the interests of the great majority of working people if we treat politicians as public servants in our common household. Not as kings, not as a new aristocracy, not as the winners in a cruel game of social Darwinism, but simply as public servants. Building a bronze and marble monument to Paine will never revive the republic, but his words still carry an electric current of freedom. His intellectual and political energy is always available for rediscovery.
In 1805 John Adams was 71 years old, and Paine was living his last years in a somewhat outcast retirement. Neither man had lost all his old powers of invective and satire, a word Adams spelled as “satyr” in a letter he wrote a friend in the same year:
“I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs in the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between a pig and a puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.”
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