Thomas Paine may be the most maligned, and certainly the most under-rated, of all the men who impacted and played a role in the American Revolution. If alive today he would likely be accepted at best as a pseudo intellectual; rejected equally by conservatives for not passing the mystic litmus test, and by the left for his views on limited government and, interestingly, individual liberty.
Yet, in the words of Thomas Edison:
“We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic. He was the equal of Washington in making American liberty possible. Where Washington performed Paine devised and wrote. The deeds of one in the weld were matched by the deeds of the other with his pen. Washington himself appreciated Paine at his true worth. Franklin knew him for a great patriot and clear thinker. He was a friend and confidant of Jefferson, and the two must often have debated the academic and practical phases of liberty.
I consider Paine our greatest political thinker.”
In the words of Abraham Lincoln:
“I never tire of reading Paine.”
In the words of Thomas Jefferson:
“You ask my opinion of Lord Bolingbroke and Thomas Paine. They were alike in making bitter enemies of the priests and Pharisees of their day. Both were honest men; both advocates for human liberty.” (Letter to Francis Eppes)
Paine, along with a very few others, was one of the intellectuals behind The Revolution. Intellectuals are not just found on college campuses; institutions where one is ineligible to be a serious thinker without a doctor of philosophy degree. In fact, there are intellectuals of tremendous import and impact with little or no formal education beyond high school. Considering the humble, by modern standards, opportunities for formal education in the 1700’s, what marked the great thinkers of the revolutionary period, in my view, was not the institution from which they obtained a formal education, but rather their insatiable appetite for knowledge and their willingness to obtain it and apply it.
When it comes to the minds who drove this nation to freedom, the key feature they all shared was self-education beyond any formal schooling, and discourse. Reading, writing, thinking, discussing, and then engaging in the application of their mind’s work those universal truths so discovered, particularly the nature of man. In short, what it is that a free man really needs and what constraints must not be placed upon him in order to live free in the present and to secure such for generations to come. To suggest this mind work was something other than intellectual is beyond ignorance.
Where Washington was the shiny external of an Indy race car it was, from an intellectual perspective, men such as T. Jefferson, T. Paine, B. Franklin, P. Henry, and S. Adams (several others I could mention here, including G. Mason, E. Gerry, and R. H. Lee), that were more the activist thinkers or, in fact, varied measures of action and intellectual thought. These men knew deeply of the ancient Greeks, the follies and fortunes of the Romans, were clearly intimate with Christian theology and its irrationality, read and were often fluent in Latin (and other languages), studied and were fascinated with the science of their day (they lived within a 100 year distance from Rene Descartes’ seminal treatise, from which the French phrase “Je pense, donc je suis” comes) , having lived within one genration’s memory of the outrageous treatment of Galileo by the Catholic Church – a mere 144 years prior to Jefferson penning the Declaration of Independence. These guys were, thinkers and social application engineers. Their life’s work was to create not just a working model of freedom, but a nation premised upon the individual liberty of the person from any government.
These men also clearly understood the liberal traditions that had sprung up and taken root in their homeland (England) – at the time, the freest monarchy on earth. Three men in particular stand out in my mind: Jefferson, Paine, and Henry. These three, aided and abetted by the likes of Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty in Massachusetts, were part gasoline, part piston, in the Indy car of ideas that ran the 500 mile race to revolution and independence.
Make no mistake about it, were it not for Thomas Paine there most likely would not have been a successful Revolution. At a moment in history where starving minds desperately needed to be fed, Paine offered up a banquet in Common Sense (published anonymously on January 10, 1776). But often you will see in history books, or in online encyclopedias, that, for instance, Thomas Paine is not considered one of the top ten Founders; why? Why would such a brilliant, principally self-educated intellectual, who saw our individual freedom and liberty as primary, be shunned? The man who, more than any other, communicated the distilled abstrations of Aristotle, Locke, Descartes, Galileo, and others in a way the common man could understand and provided the much needed spirit for independence when it was most needed. Clearly, his authorship of Rights of Man, Age of Reason, Common Sense, and The American Crisis reserve to him the status of an intellectual standing shoulder to shoulder with the best and brightest of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Below is a passage written by Mr. Paine while imprisoned in Luxembourg which stands out as heresy to the religious fundamentalists and is, in my humble view, part and parcel of the ostracizing of him by contemporary historians.
If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me; but if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed; moral Justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty, even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose Justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself; it is then no longer Justice, it is indiscriminate revenge.
This single reflection will show, that the doctrine of redemption is founded on a mere pecuniary idea corresponding to that of a debt which another person might pay; and as this pecuniary idea corresponds again with the system of second redemption, obtained through the means of money given to the Church for pardons, the probability is that the same persons fabricated both the one and the other of those theories; and that, in truth there is no such thing as redemption, that it is fabulous, and that man stands in the same relative condition with his Maker as he ever did stand since man existed, and that it is his greatest consolation to think so.
I believe it was because of those words (and thoughts) Thomas Paine was shunned, ridiculed, and swept under into the rough… He was challenging morality by conscensus, he was challenging the church and everything it stood for. Yet for these following words, the fight for our freedom went from a brush fire to a continent-wide blaze of glory:
Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each Other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.
I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence; I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be so; that every thing short of that is mere patchwork, that it can afford no lasting felicity, that it is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when, a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.
Thus Minds were fed, leaders were mentally reinvigorated, the revolution was then won.
If alive today, Thomas Paine would not be a electable to public office in any corner of this country, particularly as a member of the Republican party. This is so because he was not a conservative as we have now come to understand that concept(Christians first, militant pro-lifers, interventionists by expedience or practical benefit). Perhaps electable as a Democrat, his views on limited government would probably preclude him there too. Thomas Paine should be considered in all corners as one of the principal Founding Fathers equal to Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Henry and Franklin. The revelation that it was his mind, and not his mouth or sword, that was principally his contributing force is aparently anathema to the guardians of Founder-ship. Such is a lousy reason to exclude this great man from his rightful place. Indeed, I suspect that if one could poll those whom are considered as Founders asking who not among them ought to be, Mr. Paine would be highest upon their list…