In 1805 cantankerous old John Adams pondered what to call the wild and tumultuous age he had lived through. Perhaps, he said, it might be called “the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte…or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit.” Call it “anything,” he said, but don’t call it “the Age of Reason.” It couldn’t be the Age of Reason because it had been dominated by Thomas Paine. Adams doubted “whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine.” But this influence was far from a good thing. Indeed, said Adams,
there can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and 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.
Despite Adams’s bitter sarcasm, Paine would have loved the title: he was nothing if not vain. Why shouldn’t the age be named after him? Who deserved it more? “With all the inconvenience of early life against me,” Paine once wrote,
I am proud to say that with a perseverance undismayed by difficulties, a disinterestedness that compelled respect, I have not only contributed to raise a new empire in the world, founded on a new system of government, but I have arrived at an eminence in political literature, the most difficult of all lines to succeed and excel in, which aristocracy, with all its aids, has not been able to reach or to rival.
Paine thought he had as much claim to being a founder of the United States as Franklin, Adams, or Jefferson.
Can we honestly say he was wrong in this view? Didn’t Jefferson say in 1801 that Paine had labored on behalf of liberty and the American Revolution “with as much effort as any man living”? Paine was after all the author of Common Sense, the most important and influential pamphlet of the American Revolution and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language. It went through dozens of editions and sold at least dozens 150,000 copies, at a time when most pamphlets sold in the hundreds or a few thousand at best. Although the pamphlet, published in January 1776, probably did not cause Americans to think of declaring independence, it did express more boldly and eloquently than any other writing what many of them had come to feel about America’s tie to the British crown. There is no doubt, as his friend Benjamin Rush said, “its effects were sudden and extensive upon the American mind.” Nearly everyone knew it was a work of genius, and it immediately made Paine an American celebrity.
With his reputation established, Paine came to know nearly all of the political leaders of the United States, including Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, and he continued to write on behalf of the American cause. The most important of these writings was his American Crisis series, a number of essays that appeared throughout the war with Britain. The most famous was the first, published on December 19, 1776, which opens with the memorable lines:
These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
Washington had this essay read to his troops at Christmas 1776 on the eve of their first victory at Trenton.
If these important contributions were not sufficient to immortalize Paine as one of the founders of the United States, then we have his extraordinary book, the Rights of Man (1791–1792), which his biographer John Keane says became “the best-selling book in the history of publishing.” Although the book was written after Paine had left the United States in 1787 and was intended as a refutation of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), it actually sums up what he had learned about constitutionalism and political theory during his years in America. In fact, the Rights of Man is the best and most succinct expression of American Revolutionary political thinking ever written. Paine himself noted how “American” were his reactions to events in Europe.
In the Rights of Man Paine laid out the new assumptions about politics and society that the American Revolution had recently made manifest: that the age of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy was over; that people were citizens, not subjects, and were born with equal natural rights; that the people created written constitutions that defined and limited their governments; that these written constitutions could not be changed by the governments but only by the sovereign people themselves; that the rulers had no rights of their own but were only temporary agents of the people, who must continually watch and empower them through electoral consent; that because people are naturally sociable, society is practically autonomous and self-regulating; and that people were independent and free to pursue happiness in their own way. Indeed, if Jefferson had ever written out in any systematic way what he believed about politics, it would have resembled much of the Rights of Man. Despite these great intellectual contributions, however, Paine apparently has never quite had what it takes to get admitted to the sacred temple of American founders.
We can imagine “the age of Jefferson,” but despite Adams’s quirky comment, it is unlikely that we Americans will ever call the period of our Revolution “the age of Paine.” Most Americans have never been able to make Paine a central figure in even the American Revolution, let alone the age as a whole. Indeed, for most of our history we have tended to ignore him. He was allowed to die in obscurity in 1809, and ten years later William Cobbett took his bones away to England. Even the Revolutionary leaders eventually came to ignore him. Although they all knew him, none of them publicly eulogized him upon his death. Most who had known him were embarrassed by the connection and wanted only to forget him. His papers were scattered and destroyed, and memory of him was allowed to fade.
To this day Americans have never mounted any serious effort to publish a complete and authoritative collection of his writings, a collection that would match in aim if not in size those monumental multivolume editions of the Revolutionary leaders that are currently being published. The early biographies of Paine were muckraking diatribes that pictured him as an arrogant, drunken atheist. Despite a few feeble attempts in the nineteenth century to refute this image of Paine, not until the end of the nineteenth century, with Moncure Conway’s two-volume The Life of Thomas Paine (1892), was an authoritative and laudatory treatment of Paine finally written.
The place of Paine in the American pantheon of Revolutionaries has improved considerably since then, of course. But it was not until the 1970s that modern historians, as distinct from literary scholars, attempted a biography. Even with all the studies of Paine we have had over the past several decades, the man still does not quite fit in. Paine ranked himself “among the founders of a new Independent World,” but most Americans have not agreed. Everyone senses that he is not like the other Revolutionaries, not like Franklin, Washington, Adams, or Jefferson. We cannot quite bring ourselves to treat him as one of America’s founding fathers.
The two biographies of Paine under review and the single-volume edition of his writings in the Library of America are designed to help change this situation. John Keane, in his Tom Paine: A Political Life, calls Paine “the greatest public figure of his generation.” Paine, writes Keane, “made more noise in the world and excited more attention than such well-known European contemporaries as Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Madame de Stäel, Edmund Burke, and Pietro Verri.” His important works—Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason—“became the three most widely read political tracts of the eighteenth century.” Paine’s vision of a decent and happy life for ordinary people in this world is still “alive and universally relevant…undoubtedly more relevant than that of Marx, the figure most commonly identified with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century political project of bringing dignity and power to the wretched of the earth.” In fact, says Keane, “Not only is Paine’s bold rejection of tyranny and injustice as far-reaching as that of his nineteenth-century successor, but his practical proposals…are actually more radical than Marx’s, mainly because they managed to combine breathtaking vision, a humble respect for ordinary folk, and a sober recognition of the complexity of human affairs.”
To make clear all these points in a biography is a formidable task, but Keane certainly tries. His book is the fullest biography since Conway’s and is no doubt the most deeply researched that we have ever had. Keane, who is professor of politics at the University of Westminster in London and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, has avoided a direct and thorough analysis of Paine’s political thought. Instead, he has sought to bring together the details of Paine’s personal and public life with his social and political philosophy in order better to understand both. He has thus tried to situate Paine and his ideas in his time and place, and, in order to avoid “sermonizing,” offers “an ‘open’ rather than a ‘closed’ text,” which he hopes will encourage readers to figure out for themselves what his interpretation of Paine is about and “to formulate their own questions and doubts” about the “knottiness” of Paine’s life.
It is an interesting approach, but it requires much attention to the historical setting and a great many facts, and it can overwhelm both paine and the reader. Keane’s biography is the first to give a close account both of Thetford in Norfolk, where Paine was born, the son of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother, and of the first thirty-seven years of Paine’s life, before he left for America. His father made corsets, and Paine soon left his shop, working miserably as a tax collector while he read widely on his own. He was fired for publishing angry demands for better pay, and he had no evident prospects until he met Franklin, who was impressed by him and urged him to go to America, where he arrived in 1774. Later on the biography sometimes bogs down in detail, and the reader yearns for less of Paine’s life and its circumstances and more of Keane’s often insightful analysis of his political thought. Still, it is by far the best, if not the most readable, biography of Paine that we have.
Jack Fruchtman, Jr., who is professor of political science at Towson State University in Maryland, also has attempted, in his Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom, to connect Paine’s political thought with his life, something, he says, previous students of Paine have not done. He, too, wants to situate Paine’s thinking in its setting and show how that thinking evolved over time. Unfortunately, Keane has done it better. Not only is the historical context that Fruchtman presents often meager and sometimes wrong, but some of his descriptions, such as that of English society before 1774 as “calm and quiescent, a period still in the shadow of an age of stability,” reveal that he has a too pat and generalized understanding of the world he is writing about. Perhaps because he wanted to reach a broad audience, Fruchtman has written his book very simply and organized it rather mechanically. He has arranged Paine’s social and political ideas into “four stages of development.” First come Locke and some classical republicanism, expressed especially in Common Sense; then, when Paine goes to France, Rousseau’s ideas make themselves felt; a new spirituality arises when the Terror threatens Paine’s life; but during his last years this spirituality disappears and Paine collapses into darkness and unhappiness. When we get statements such as, “In 1792, the Revolution in France established itself as a highly complex phenomenon,” then we know we are not dealing with a very subtle historical account.
The new volume of some of Paine’s collected writings in the Library of America suggests that Paine may be at long last approaching acceptability as one of the nation’s founders. After all, among the founders only Franklin and Jefferson so far have volumes in the Library of America. Although the collection is expertly edited by Eric Foner, it is only two thirds the size of the Franklin and Jefferson volumes and is much less comprehensive than one would have liked, even with the inclusion of some of Paine’s hitherto uncollected newspaper pieces. It does not contain, for example, Paine’s important Letter to the Abbé Raynal on the Affairs of North America (1782), in which he pictured the American Revolution as a world-historical event and the harbinger of world citizenship and world peace, or his famous open letter of 1796 to George Washington, a diatribe against Washington’s allegedly highhanded ways of governing which, in Keane’s view, probably did more to damage Paine’s reputation in America than his attack on organized Christianity in The Age of Reason. If the distinguished literary scholar A. Owen Aldridge is correct in his well-argued attribution made over a decade ago, Paine also wrote in 1776 Four Letters on Interesting Subjects, one of the most important pamphlets on American constitutional thinking published during the Revolution. Obviously Foner does not believe in Aldridge’s attribution, for he chose not to include the piece in his Library of America volume. While Fruchtman unquestioningly accepts Paine’s authorship of this significant pamphlet. Keane does not even acknowledge its existence.
Eric Foner’s new edition is certainly much less comprehensive than the two-volume work edited by his late uncle, Philip S. Foner, originally published in 1945 and used by scholars for the past half-century. Yet not only is the full version of this older work difficult to obtain, but it had some serious flaws in attribution and editing. So the new Library of America volume is welcome, but it is probably not going to be enough to place Paine among the founders of the republic. He seems destined to remain a misfit, an outsider. What the Library of America volume does, however, is raise the question of why. What is it about Paine that gets him a volume in this prestigious series but still does not make him a full-fledged founding father?
His religious views have often been thought to be at fault. Everyone seems to recall that Theodore Roosevelt called him that “filthy little atheist,” a label that summed up the nineteenth-century fear of the man. The Age of Reason, which Paine published in 1794, was a vehement attack on Christianity, the Bible, and orthodox religion, but it was in no way atheistic; indeed, Paine went out of his way to set forth his deistic belief in God the creator and harmonizer of the world. But in the fearful times of the French Revolution most Americans could see only infidelity, and the label of atheist stuck.
Yet important as Paine’s religious views were in shaping America’s response to him, by themselves they do not seem to be what really distinguishes him from the other founding fathers. In fact, one would be hard put to demonstrate the ways his rationalistic religion, his deism, differed from the religious views of his contemporaries Franklin or Jefferson. Paine’s religious opinions were common among liberal-thinking gentlemen of the era. Yet no one calls the other founding fathers atheists. It is not just his religious views that account for Paine’s peculiar place in our Revolutionary tradition.
Perhaps it is because Paine was a recent immigrant to America. He spent the first thirty-seven years of his life in England and came to America in late 1774, only fourteen months before he burst upon the American mind with the January 1776 publication of Common Sense. Yet, of course, other important Revolutionary leaders were also recent immigrants. James Wilson arrived from Scotland in 1765, just at the beginning of the imperial crisis, and Alexander Hamilton came from the West Indies to New York only in 1772. As Paine himself said in 1778, “In a country where all men were once adventurers, the difference of a few years in their arrival” could not make them less American.
For some historians the explanation of Paine’s peculiarity lies in the fact that he was not born a gentleman. But of course most of the founding fathers were not born gentlemen either. They had to achieve that important eighteenth-century status, usually by getting a liberal-arts education at Harvard, Princeton, or some other college. Of the Revolutionary leaders, Franklin’s origins were most similar to Paine’s. Both were born of obscure parents, both were apprenticed as artisans, and both received only a few years of education; neither attended college. But Franklin became a very different person from Paine. Franklin made a great deal of money, and long before the Revolution he had become fully assimilated to gentlemanly status.
Because of Franklin’s literary legacy to us, his autobiography (which was never published in his lifetime), we have a very misleading image of him. We are too apt to think of Franklin as “Poor Richard,” the hard-working printer who made it. But after ostentatiously retiring from his printing business at the age of forty-two, Franklin never again worked a day in his life. He became a leisured gentleman, devoting all his time and energy to science, philanthropy, and public service. Although Franklin never achieved his hopes of becoming a member of the upper levels of the English government, he moved at ease in the highest aristocratic circles. Franklin in fact played the social game of courtier as well as anyone in Anglo-American society, and until the Revolution he built his career on cultivating the right people. While no doubt many in London and in Philadelphia could never hide their contempt for Franklin as a parvenu, he seldom let his origins show. He was a man superbly of the eighteenth century, wearing masks as that century taught men to do. So he always appeared the gentleman.
In this respect Paine was different from Franklin and all the other founding fathers. He was never quite able to shed his lowly origins as the son of a corset maker and the effects of all his years of living in poverty and obscurity, close to the bottom of English society. Paine never really became a gentleman in the way Franklin did. It is true that he moved among aristocrats and gentry, especially after his fame was established in 1776. His writings made it possible for him to enter liberal gentry society and to mingle with Washington, Jefferson, and Lafayette. Yet as much as he joined in their conversations, Paine was never fully accepted as a gentleman.
Something about Paine bothered members of America’s gentry, particularly those with aristocratic pretensions such as William Smith of Philadelphia and Gouverneur Morris of New York. These sorts of gentlemen called Paine many things, but one of the most common and opprobrious terms they could think of to abuse him with was to say that he lacked connections. Smith charged Paine in 1776 with having neither “character nor connections.” And Morris in 1779 called him a “mere adventurer from England, without fortune, without family or connections, ignorant even of grammar.”
To be “without connections” hardly strikes us today as much of an insult, but for the vertically organized and patronage-dominated social world of the eighteenth century it said a lot. Paine seemed to be someone floating loose in this hierarchical world, coming out of nowhere and tied to no one, a man without a home and even without a country. Paine’s initial response to this sort of criticism was defensive. In his debate in the press with Smith in 1776 he felt compelled to deny that he was a mere piece of debris that had washed up on America’s shores. The prevailing emphasis on connections forced Paine to emphasize that when he sailed from England to America in 1774 he had possessed a letter of introduction from Franklin, whom he had met in London.
But after the explosive success of Common Sense Paine had no further need for letters of introduction in America. Paine’s reputation was made at once, and no one needed to be told who he was. Of course, he continued to rely on patronage of one sort or another. In 1777 friends got him a position as secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the Continental Congress, which only drew him into one political dispute after another, culminating in his forced resignation in 1779. Increasingly, he seemed at odds with everyone and complained endlessly of his poverty and America’s neglect of him. Franklin’s daughter said in 1781 that Paine should have died “the instant he had finished his Common Sense, for he never again will have it in his power to leave the world with so much credit.”
Although friends eventually secured for him a three-hundred-acre farm in New Rochelle and a congressional grant of $3,000, Paine’s complaints of poverty and neglect continued. He felt unwanted and unattached, but soon he began to turn the criticism of himself as a person “without connections” into a positive attribute. As early as 1778, in No. 7 of The American Crisis, he declared that he wrote for no personal advantage, not even for America. “My principles are universal. My attachment is to all the world and not to any particular part, and if what I advance is right, [it is right] no matter where or who it comes from.”
The collected writings make it clear, however, that he became obsessed with his lack of connections. He boasted that he owned no property, had no residence, had never voted, and could “view the matter rather than the parties, and having no interests, connections with, or personal dislike to either, shall endeavor to serve all.” He talked of being “a citizen of the world,” one who “never had nor ever would have anything to do in private affairs.” Of course, much of this was conventional eighteenth-century liberal rhetoric. Most of the founding fathers at one time or another talked of being citizens of the world. All enlightened gentlemen were supposed to be members of the cosmopolitan “republic of letters” that transcended all national boundaries. But Paine gave this traditional notion a special emphasis. The other Revolutionary leaders may have considered themselves citizens of the world, but America was still home to them. But for Paine this was always much in doubt. Perhaps Americans did not know, he wrote in 1779 with some bitterness.
that it was neither the place nor the people but the Cause itself that irresistibly engaged me in its support; for I should have acted the same part in any other country could the same circumstances have arisen there which have happened here.
He saw himself as little better than a “refugee, and that of the most extraordinary kind, a refugee from the Country I have befriended.” He became a man without a home, without a country, and quite literally a citizen of the world.
Thus it was all but inevitable that sooner or later he would return to Europe. By 1787, when he returned, he had come to see himself as the intellectual catalyst of revolutions. After being hounded out of England for writing the Rights of Man, Paine fled to France and was granted French citizenship and a seat in the National Convention, where he made a plea for the life of Louis XVI and was shouted down by Marat. During the Terror he was held for ten months in prison, where he continued to work on his Age of Reason. Even after these harrowing experiences in France and his persistent inability to learn to speak French, he hesitated to leave France for the United States whose citizenship he had claimed while in prison. The United States was not home, but just a symbol for him; and from the time he returned to America in 1802 until his death in 1809, he was not happy.
By then one of Paine’s differences from the recognized founders had become clear. He was exclusively a writer, not a political leader, and he had spent, Keane writes, “much of his adult life as an opposition political writer.” In 1802 Paine described himself as having achieved “an established fame in the literary world,” which is presumably why he merits a volume in the Library of America. Today we might more accurately describe him as an “intellectual,” as someone who spent his life writing and criticizing his society. He was not simply someone who wrote for money, a hired pen. Although he did sometimes write on commission, he was not really like the Grub Street scribblers hired by English officials to turn out political propaganda. But as an “intellectual” neither was he a man of letters comparable to the novelist Charles Brockden Brown or the poet John Trumbull. He was America’s first modern intellectual, an unconnected social critic, who, as he said in 1779, knew “but one kind of life and that is a thinking one, and of course, a writing one.”
This goes to the heart of the important differences separating Paine from the other Revolutionary luminaries. As much as Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and others wrote, they do not resemble modern critical intellectuals in the way that Paine does. They were gentlemen attached in various ways to their society, and their writing was very different from Paine’s. They were not social critics; in fact, they were amateurs at writing—meaning that their writing was only a byproduct of their careers as lawyers, planters, or political leaders. Writing was only one of their many duties or accomplishments as gentlemen. They were amateur writers in the same way they were amateur politicians. For all the time and energy the Revolutionary leaders devoted to politics, most of them cannot accurately be described as professional politicians, at least not in any modern sense of that term. Their relationship to public life and their conception of public service were very different from those of today. Their political careers, like their literary careers, did not create but rather followed from their previously established social positions as important gentlemen. Paine’s status was very different from that of any of them.
Some of this difference between Paine and the other Revolutionary leaders is revealed in the different kinds of audiences they wrote for and in the different tone of their writings. Most of the Revolutionary leaders—Adams, Jefferson, John Dickinson—spoke and wrote for each other, for rational, enlightened, restricted audiences of educated men like themselves. Their speeches and writings were generally reasonable compositions that aimed to persuade or explain. Their works were often highly stylized by rhetorical rules and were usually very erudite, filled with Latin quotations and classical and esoteric citations to the literature of Western culture.
Paine’s writings were very different. Much of the consternation and awe they aroused came from Paine’s deliberate rejection of the traditional apparatus of persuasion in his determined effort to reach a wide audience and to express feelings—revulsions and visions—that the existing conventions of writing would not allow. Paine looked for readers everywhere, but especially in the taverns and artisan shops of city neighborhoods. He used simple, direct—some critics said coarse, barnyard—metaphors and relied on his readers’ knowing only the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. “As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand,” he wrote, “I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet.” He aimed to break through the usual niceties and forms of rhetoric and to reach people with what Keane calls “a thoroughly plebeian style.” What was frightening to authorities about Paine’s writings was not so much what he said but how he said it and to whom. He spoke to common, ordinary people about issues of government and religion as no one in previous history ever had. He sought to make political and religious criticism accessible to the common reader.
But, more important, he spoke with a rage and a fury that none of the founding fathers ever expressed. He spoke out of a deep anger shared by many common people in these years—artisans, shopkeepers, traders, petty merchants—people who were tired of being scorned and held in contempt by a monarchical and aristocratic world. The American Revolutionary gentryleaders, liberally educated graduates of Harvard or Princeton, could not really represent the indignation and rage of these ordinary people, and Paine could. He spoke out of a tradition of radical republicanism that ran deeper and was more bitter and yet more modern than the balanced and reasonable classical republicanism of most of the founders. Some of the Revolutionary leaders were uneasy over the anger that Paine was stirring up among ordinary folk, but because they themselves spoke in the name of the people, they were in no position to resist his fiery language. Only in the 1790s, when artisans and small farmers like Matthew Lyon and William Manning began voicing their own resentments and rage against the leisured aristocracy, did many of the founders come to realize what the Revolution and Paine’s rhetoric had released—a democratic revolution of common, ordinary folk that went well beyond what the Revolutionary leaders of 1776 had anticipated.
Unfortunately for Paine’s reputation, most of the common people whom he emotionally represented brought with their democratic revolution and their anti-aristocratic attitudes an intense religiosity and an evangelical Christianity that he never shared. Upon his return to America, Paine was attacked as a “lying, drunken, brutal infidel,” and sympathizers like the aged Samuel Adams grieved over what they took to be Paine’s efforts to “unchristianize the mass of our citizens.” Paine denied truthfully that he was ever an atheist, but it was to no avail. In every defense of his views, he only made matters worse, for he had no patience with traditional religion. Indeed it is hard to imagine any successful politician or public official putting forward similar views on religion in the US today. Unlike the other prominent American revolutionaries, he had lived by the pen, and in the end he died by the pen. He became, in Keane’s words, one of “the first modern public figures to suffer firsthand” from a scurrilous and powerful press. He was in this respect a man out of joint with his times, and he has remained so ever since.
June 8, 1995