Writer and philosopher extraordinaire, Thomas Paine rose to fame as one of the most effective proponents of democracy in history. He began his life of community service as one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. After this he became a leading voice for democratic reform in Great Britain, which was in turn followed by being one of the leading voices of the French Revolution. Then, in his twilight years, after a lifetime of service for the political freedom of humanity, he published what still stands today as the most famous and controversial book about religion ever written.
Paine’s meteoric rise to fame began with his first major work, titled Common Sense. This pamphlet, in favor of American independence and democracy, was published less than 6 months before the Colonies declared independence from Great Britain and promptly sold 500,000 copies, with a total of 10 printings in the first 5 months. To say this book was the manifesto of the American Revolution is almost an understatement… Consider the following: If you compare the book’s sales volume to the population of the country at that time, then Common Sense still stands as the single year bestselling book in history! And Paine donated every penny of the windfall profits to support the cause!
During the conflict, even when it appeared the Colonies might lose the war, Paine was the leading voice to continue the course, writing more than a dozen public letters in support of the cause, most of which began with the title: The American Crisis. One after another, each letter spread like wildfire throughout the Colonies as they were printed in every paper, and throughout England and France, too.
After the Colonies’ independence was won and the United States of America was officially recognized by England, Paine settled down to a more ordinary life for the next few years, his main passion now being an inventor. It was here that he worked to develop a smokeless candle, the forerunner to today’s central draft burner, and designed the first iron span bridge.
Unable to find the necessary funding for such an expensive construction project as an iron bridge in the fledgling United States, Paine set sail for his ancestral home in England, where he found backers to build his bridge there.
But the winds of democratic change in both England and France were overwhelming, inspired by the United States of America he helped create. Within a few months he was totally immersed in the English reform movement and became a leading champion for democracy there. It was here that he penned his next legendary work, Rights of Man, which immediately became the fastest selling book in the history of England. And this was despite the fact that the king banned its publication and kept sending the book’s printers to jail. Within a few decades the ideas enumerated in this visionary work would revolutionize the constitution of England, but Paine was rewarded for his effort by having to flee the country to avoid being hanged. The authorities showed up at his home to arrest him just a few hours after his ship set sail.
Escaping to France, Paine received a hero’s welcome everywhere he went for his democratic reform work in America and England. The French Revolution had blossomed with the overthrow of the Bastille and he was pressed to join the new French National Assembly, a congressional body largely inspired by the new American government that the French had helped make possible. Paine immediately became one of the leading voices on how to establish a democratic system, constantly encouraging the other members, publicly and privately, that changing to democratic government could be achieved.
Unfortunately, Paine was unable to speak much French and needed an interpreter. His detractors used this to paint him as an outsider, and when he argued that executing the deposed king was beneath the ideals that the Revolution sought to embody, some members of the Assembly accused him of treason. As rival factions developed, Paine’s group, with its focus on the rights of the common man, slowly lost ground in the Assembly over the next few years to more radical members. Indeed, by this time, several delegates and a number of civilians had been executed by the underhandedness of some of these extremists, and Paine, just four years earlier a national hero, was now treated as a foreign interloper by much of the Assembly. Tired of the growing anarchy in Paris and warned that some of his enemies were seeking his life, Paine left the city for safe haven in the countryside.
As the chaos in Paris spiraled out of control into the worst year in French history, later called “The Reign of Terror” for its multitude of politically motivated murders, Paine was becoming despondent over the miserable news that arrived at his cottage daily. By now, most of his friends and associates had fled the country, had been thrown in jail, or had gone to the gallows, perishing with thousands of other innocents for opposing the radical despots that had taken control of the country. Knowing his remaining days might be few, and having witnessed the new government officially declare itself atheist – and ban all religion – he was moved to write his most profound book, Age of Reason, which quickly became the most controversial book in history. And it may still be, with the exception of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Priestcrafters hate him for it.
In his book, Paine explains why he believes in God, but more importantly, why organized religions are a sham, subverting what can only be a personal matter between each of us and our maker. The day after he finished writing this masterpiece he was arrested for political sedition against the new French government, and then spent the next 10 months in jail. Thankfully, a friend picked up the manuscript the day he was arrested and took it straight to a publisher, who immediately published it in English, and French too, as he promptly created a French translation per Paine’s instructions.
Once incarcerated, Paine wrote a series of letters to the American President, George Washington, asking for assistance to free him, but to his astonishment, Washington never replied. No records exist to explain why that happened, but it may have been due to subterfuge by William Morris, the American ambassador to France, who was jealous of Paine’s enormous fame and was the President’s emissary. (Only three Americans were internationally famous at that time. Washington was the great general. Franklin was the great diplomat. And Paine was the great visionary.)
The disregard may also have been due to Washington’s fear of harming the nation’s budding economy, since a critical new trade agreement was in progress with England. Paine was vehemently opposed to the special preference it gave England, arguing it was treacherous to the French who had supported our revolution. So probably it was some combination of both Morris’s envy and Washington thinking Paine could not make waves in public from inside a prison. Whatever the reasons, Rights of Man was still wreaking havoc on the British political landscape and King George had ordered Paine’s execution in absentia.
As the weeks in jail turned into months, Paine’s detractors eventually had him convicted, without a trial, and arranged orders for him to be sent to the guillotine. It was also at this time that he began to write Age of Reason – Part II.
History is hazy as to what happened at this point, but the jailers and inmates all regarded Paine as a hero. It appears that the first time someone showed up to schedule Paine for the gallows, his new friends somehow misled them into overlooking the matter. Soldiers were eventually sent again to arrange his execution, but by now, Paine had developed several abscesses and was so sick from the squalor of his surroundings that he could barely stand, so his sentence was postponed again. For the next several months, his would be murderers sat by, expecting him to die on his own, but instead he began recovering. So again, new orders for the gallows were issued. When the executioners came this time, an abscess on Paine’s stomach had burst and he was suffering a relapse so severe that he was slipping in and out of consciousness and expected to die any day. Thus, his life was spared.
Soon thereafter, James Monroe replaced William Morris as American ambassador to France and quickly arranged Paine’s release, carrying him out of prison on a stretcher. The future American President nursed him back to health at his Paris residence, and within a few months, Paine had resumed work on Part II of Age of Reason. In fact, Paine was soon hurrying to finish the work, as Part I had created a furor on both sides of the Atlantic, so he wanted to say more about priestcraft and its practitioners, while the people were still listening. Within another year, throughout England and France, but especially in the United States, clergy of every denomination were publicly vilifying Paine, many leading their congregations to burn him in effigy. And virtually all of them forbid their flocks from reading his work, lest they lose their invented authority. Despite all their efforts, Part II was another best seller.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of his so-called friends stood silent, or worse, joined in the abuse, hoping for political gain. This was heartbreaking for Paine, their behavior all the more shameful since most of America’s founding fathers were Deists rather than Christians. (Note that Jefferson eventually publicly defended him, even hosting him at the White House when he returned to the United States several years later. Madison and Monroe were also among the few that did not abuse him.)
Unable to win any logical arguments with Paine, religious leaders fueled a vicious smear campaign that succeeded in having him shunned by most of society in the years that followed the book’s publications. Demonizing him with an endless stream of lies and slander, they cheered the day he finally died, then continued their rabid tirades against Age of Reason for decades after he passed. But it is Paine’s legacy that lives on, while his detractors are long since forgotten.
Time has eroded the lies that church leaders set in motion about Paine, and anyone who reads Age of Reason quickly realizes he was not the atheist the clergy portrayed him to be. In fact, to the contrary, Paine was an ardent Deist and wrote the first Age of Reason book in response to the French government’s official declaration of atheism.
Age of Reason should be required reading for anyone who would dare proselytize his beliefs on another. It is, in some ways, a more important book than the Bible – for anyone to whom the Bible is important. The same is true for the Koran, the Torah and Talmud, or any other man-made device which dares tell another person what “God says,” or dictates to another person how to interact with their God.
It’s a disgrace what happened to Paine at the hands of those he nurtured, but his legacy stands secure. His first books literally helped lay the foundations of nations, but Age of Reason, his last major work, will ultimately help lay the foundation of our world – a world which is coming to reject all religious fanaticism because of the pain and suffering it always causes, sooner or later.
Everyone knows that religion and politics are difficult subjects to discuss. History records more than a hundred million deaths due to one or the other, or both. But people like Thomas Paine build the bridges that stop such madness. Many generations have since benefitted greatly from his actions and sacrifices, so we should remember his honesty, courage and unselfishness.