Thomas Paine Fights for Freedom by Richard Gimbel


Lecture Opening the Exhibition at the Yale University Library, Commemorating the One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of Thomas Paine, Tuesday, October 27, 1959.

When Gifford Pinchot, Yale Class of 1889, was Governor of Pennsylvania many years ago, he honored me by requesting that I accept an appointment to a high position in his administration. Knowing nothing whatsoever about politics, I sought a conference with him. l inquired,” what makes one successful in politics”.

The astute Governor replied, “The main ingredient of success in politics is to restrict yourself to endorsing very few worthwhile projects. It would be best if you identified yourself with only one.” He explained, “for, no matter how beneficial a project may be to the general community, it nevertheless hurts quite a few persons, sometimes important in politics or in finance. If you succumb to espousing every good cause, you keep building up the number of your enemies. Soon they reach such proportions that you cannot possibly be re-elected, and become generally disliked.”

No one illustrates this form of committing political suicide better than Thomas Paine. Whether in the Old World, the New World, or the Next World, Thomas Paine never hesitated a moment to rush in and promote every good cause and expose every injustice. As a result, he was hated and despised by almost everyone. However he was not the first great man to suffer for doing good.

More than two centuries ago when Thomas Paine was born in England (Thetford, Norfolk), the Old World appeared to him rotten to the core. His parents were very poor. His father was by religion a Quaker and by profession a staymaker (if any of the females in the audience wear foundations they will know what this means). His mother was a strict member of the Anglican Church, and constantly argued with his father. Paine noted that the only thing his parents agreed on was that there was a God. At-the age of seven he had listened to a sermon in which the minister described God Almighty acting like a passionate man, killing his son. Paine felt that a man would be hanged who did such a thing and could see no reason why a sermon like this should be preached. If one did not believe in the religion of the State, it seemed easier to leave the country than perpetually to fight prejudice and persecution.

His family could afford only to send him through grammar school, and he resented having his education cut off in order to learn the distasteful art of staymaking. He excelled in mathematics and science, but was best remembered for his skill in political arguments. Local politics were crooked; representation in Parliament was a farce. Paine claimed that the only right possessed by the poor was the right to obey the law, which the rich had written.

As soon as he was able, he bought a pair of globes and attended lectures on astronomy given by Dr. Bevis of the Royal Society. He learned how to operate the orrery. As he looked at the Universe he contemplated the creator. No man or anything like a man could have created this. He kept notes on his religious views. He read constantly, and for relaxation wrote poetry. His memory was so good, it was uncanny.

Hardly married a year, Paine and his wife, Mary Lambert, were travelling for work a long distance from home when she suddenly died. Here he suffered a humiliation known only to the poor. He had no money, either to bring her remains home or give them decent burial. Her grave has never been discovered.

When he obtained a government job as an exciseman, whose task was hunting down smugglers of liquor and tobacco, he found the pay insufficient to include care for a horse, which was necessary. He organized the excisemen into a union, and wrote a plea for an increase in their pay, which he sent to each member of Parliament. The result could have been foretold: he was dismissed. But Paine learned that little attention was given a grievance, unless it could receive wide pub1icity.

Benjamin Franklin had at this same time been dismissed from his position as Postmaster for North America, and the two of them met in London at scientific lectures and became friends. Franklin must have been favorably impressed by Paine’s methods of reasoning, because he sent him to America with letters of introduction to his son-in-law Richard Bache, a prosperous wine merchant in Philadelphia, and apparently also to his natural son William Franklin, then Royal-Governor of New Jersey. (see letter from Paine to Franklin, March 4, 1775.)

The golden promise of the New World was quickly dissipated when Paine found opposite his lodgings in Philadelphia, an odious slave market. How could Americans complain of their enslavement by England when they kept slaves themselves? The pitiful plight of the Africans drove him to compose a powerful article against the practice of slavery. This time he gave it to a Philadelphia newspaper (Pennsylvania Journal, March 8, 1775). Although anonymous, it attracted Dr. Benjamin Rush enough for him to find out the author of such convincing arguments. Possibly it is only coincidental that the first association against slavery in America was organized in Philadelphia shortly after Paine’s article appeared. Paine’s fight for freedom in the New World had begun.

A month later he was appalled by the bloodshed in the Battle of Lexington (April 19, 1775). This outrage by the British Government called for something more than a mere revolt against taxation. Because his carefully worked-out arguments were too long for the space that could be spared for them in newspapers, Dr. Rush introduced Paine to a fearless liberal printer, Robert Bell, who was willing to publish the essay in pamphlet form. Entitled Common Sense, its clear portrayal of the valid reasons for independence spread like wildfire through the colonies. Everyone who was able to read, read it. Its effect cannot be overestimated. As a direct result the Declaration of Independence was signed, and Paine became famous.

Paine’s fighting went further than merely writing. He enlisted, shouldered a musket, and was prepared to give his life for the Cause. He marched in the disheartening retreat across the Jerseys. General despair seemed to strike all, except Paine: he picked up his pen, and on a drumhead by the light of a campfire, wrote the first American Crisis: “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.” The words, never to be forgotten, provided the needed immediate lift, with the result that Washington crossed the Delaware and the first American victory at Trenton followed. At each subsequent crisis Paine was called on for assistance, and he never failed to respond effectively with his pen, thirteen times in all.

His fiery arguments drove the Tories from positions of influence. He smashed profiteers, inflationists and counterfeiters as well. He revealed confidential data in order to expose crooked dealings of the influential Silas Deane (I am sorry to say, Yale, Class of 1758). When George Washington’s generalship of the troops was under fire, Paine rushed to his defense. When funds were needed to clothe and feed the soldiers, Paine founded the first bank in this country to accommodate their needs, and later on defended it from every attack. Not having Governor Pinchot as his advisor, Paine freely printed his opinion on every controversy. Soon he could write that “the greatest and completest revolution the world ever knew [had been] gloriously and happily accomplished.” Paine’s pen had contributed as much as Washington’s sword. Even his enemies admitted this much. His battle for political freedom in the New World was a success. He had been elected to the American Philosophical Society; the University of Pennsylvania gave him a MA degree.

Paine, approaching fifty years of age, wanted to retire and write a history, but was financially in straitened circumstances. To gain wider circulation, his patriotic articles had been sold by the hundreds of thousands, purposely without any compensation whatsoever coming to the author. His friends tried to secure a pension for him, but in his many bitter fights he had trod on so many toes that it was only with great difficulty that they secured from the State of New York a farm situated in New Rochelle; from the State of Pennsylvania, 500 pounds; and from Congress, $3,000; only a fraction of what he deserved. Paine was not selected as a delegate to the approaching Constitutional Convention; his well-known prejudice against slavery and his conviction that every adult should vote, landowner or not, undoubtedly prevented this. Perhaps the Civil War might have been avoided had Paine attended the convention. Paine used his small pension to invent the first bridge made of iron, but no one in America had the courage, to build it. He sought the advice of Franklin, who told him to go to Paris and get approval first from the French Academy of Science. So, armed again with letters of introduction from Franklin to important people in Paris, Paine left the New World for the Old.

Thomas Jefferson, then our ambassador in France, had much in common with Paine and they became close friends. Seeping into the minds of the downtrodden masses of the Old World was the success of the American Revolution. Could Paine’s dream of a world revolution become an actuality? Revolution in Paine’s mind meant solely a change from hereditary government to a representative democratic system, with universal suffrage and protection for the rights of the little people who own no land. A bloodless revolution - the kind that is usually given the name “reform” - would be ideal.

While he was in Paris the treacherous flight of Louis XVI, King of France, took place. Louis wanted to reach armed allies, with whom he hoped to reconquer France and restore himself as absolute monarch. Paine had expected the populace to dance in the streets with joy at the disappearance of the King. He felt that this was “good riddance to bad rubbish,” and could hardly believe they were so anxious for the King’s return that they were actually pursuing him. Just as Paine had been the very first to spark the fight for freedom in America, now he was the first to spark freedom for France. He daringly printed a Manifesto, demanding an immediate republic, and posted it all over the city of Paris (July l, 179I). Like the Theses of Martin Luther, he had it nailed to the very door of the National Assembly where it could not fail to command attention. But with the capture of the King and his return to Paris, Paine’s republican bubble burst, although not without having planted a seed in the minds of some fearless and dangerous men.

He now returned to England, where a large-scale model of his iron bridge was being built. He fomented republican clubs, which exchanged sentiments of friendship with those in Scotland and Ireland, as; well as those in France. Paine’s revolution seemed to be brewing in Great Britain. Edmund Burke, whose friendly actions during the American Revolution had endeared him to Paine, made Paine’s acquaintance. They visited together and corresponded. Suddenly’, Burke changed sides and assailed the principles of the French Revolution. Paine accused Burke of being a Pensioner in a fictitious name, and hinted this might have been the real reason he changed his mind. Paine gloried in the task of publicly answering him in his monumental work the Rights of Man. It first appeared on February 22, appropriately dedicated to George Washington. Praising Washington’s “exemplary virtue,” he prayed that he would see “the new world regenerate the old.” At this time Paine was at the height of his popularity, and he felt certain that Rights of Man would do for England what Common Sense had done for America. Unfortunately for his cause, it was at just this time that the most dreadful massacres of innocent in France took place. England, horrified at this kind of a revolution, took warning and went to the other extreme, and for a while England was the least free spot on earth. The National Guard was called out. A Royal Proclamation was issued for the purpose of suppressing Paine’s book, and by court action Paine was declared an outlaw. Publishers, printers and sellers of Paine’s work were jailed for libel as fast as they could be tried. Yet Paine’s book seems mild enough to us today. Paine said of the libel: “If to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy, and every species of hereditary government to lessen the oppression of taxes - to propose plans for the education of helpless infancy, and the comfortable support of the aged and distressed - to endeavor to conciliate nations to each other - to extirpate the horrid practice of war - to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce - and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libellous, let me live the life of a libeller, and let the name of LIBELLER be engraved on my tomb.”

Paine also would provide funds to defray the funeral expense of persons, who, travelling for work, die at a distance from their friends.

The polished rhetoric of Burke could not refute the blunt logic of Paine’s arguments. The government resorted to a smear campaign of unprecedented proportions. It had published a Life of Paine, which maliciously purported on its title page to be “A Defense of Paine’s Works” and then was filled With lies and slanders. According to this Life, the death of Paine’s first wife was due to ill usage and a premature birth; the cause of legal separation from his second wife was said to be his refusal to cohabit with her throughout the three and one-half years of their marriage; and the claim was made that he had swindled many, including his own mother.

In contradistinction, consider the. treatment Paine received when he went to France. Four Departments had vied with each other to elect Paine to the French National Convention. Paine accepted a seat from the Department of Calais and henceforth embraced and defended the French Revolution. He worked on a new democratic Constitution for France. Unfortuneately, it was never activated, and as a result chaos reigned. This proved to be disastrous to France. The murderous course now taken by the Revolution alienated the entire world, and Paine had to take full share of responsibility for all actions of a government established according to the form he had so strongly advocated. Yet Paine tried to prevent bloodshed and went further than anyone else to save Louis XVI from the guillotine. Paine, the hater of kings, cried, “Kill the King, but not the man,” for he remembered that this same French King had courageously given vital aid to the struggling American colonies in their darkest hour.

In these trying days he turned toward the notes he had made on religion. He saw how God in the Bible acted exactly like a man, having the same passions and revenges. The more he read the Bible the less sense it made. He was unwilling to worship a God who commanded man to commit crimes; for example: from First Samuel, XV, 3; “Slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” And worst of all, the only reason given for this butchery in the Bible was that 400 years before their ancestors had the courage to defend their homes from invasion. As for miracles, it did not seem to him unbelievable for a whale to swallow Jonah. It would have been far more miraculous had Jonah swallowed the whale! As Paine peered into the sky everything seemed perfect in the universe: night followed day; the seasons came and went regularly; the earth revolved; the planets kept to their orbits. There was no wickedness there. Nature was likewise magnificent and beautiful.

He had planned to wait until near the end of his life to publish his notes on religion, for then, being closer to the Next World, he would be more concerned. But this reign of terror in France so threatened his life with early extinction that Paine resolved to bring his work to a close and publish the result.

Robespierre, smashing all who opposed him, considered Paine’s humanitarian sentiments a drawback, and ordered this arch REBEL of England and America jailed, ironically, as a dangerous conservative. So well had Paine estimated his remaining freedom that only six hours after he had finished his writing, the dreaded knock came on the door; the police had arrived and he was arrested. He contrived by a subterfuge to stop on the way to prison at the lodgings of Joel Barlow (Yale, Class,o f 1776) who was doing the proofreading of his book. He handed to Barlow the remainder of his manuscript, called The Age of Reason, and asked him to publish it at once. He had dedicated it to his fellow citizens of America:

“I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinion upon religion. you will do me the justice to remember, that I have strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.

“The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used by any other, and I trust I never shall.”

Paine’s book was fiercely denounced in all other countries as the work of the devil. In England, Thomas Williams, who reprinted it, was thrown into jail and the work suppressed As blasphemous. Punishment as severe as fourteen years in a penal colony, like Botany Bay, was inflicted. Even speaking favorably of the work might earn one the pillory. Nevertheless, The Age of Reason continued to .circulate surreptitiously.

Paine, as an American citizen, expected President Washington to intercede at once and secure his release from jail, since no charge had been preferred against him. Month after month Paine waited in vain and became dangerously ill due to his unjust confinement in a damp cell. Robespierre finally condemned him to death, but before the busy guillotine had time to cut off Paine’s head, Robespierre had lost his own. Many months later our ambassador James Monroe, on his own responsibility, obtained Paine’s release, but Paine’s resentment against Washington’s neglect mounted.

He wrote Washington two identical letters, asking him to explain why he had ditched his old friend, and sent them by different vessels to guarantee their receipt. Washington got both. When a year passed without any reply, Paine, feeling betrayed, hotheadedly published in America a bitter attack on Washington. This accomplished little more than to complete Paine’s fall from public favor, particularly in his own country.

Paine’s next important work was Agrarian Justice. Here he outlined his plan for really ameliorating the conditions of the poor and aged. By levelling a tax on the landowners, he would create a national fund in every nation, to pay every person reaching twenty-one years of age a sum of money to enable him or her to make a beginning in the world. When one reached the age of 50 (then considered old) a sum would be given, annually, sufficient to enable him to go on living without wretchedness and to go decently out of the world. Paine’s excellently thought-out social security program was considered too advanced to receive the attention it deserved.

Now Paine became one of a group in Paris to organize a new religious society called The Theophilanthropists (a compound word meaning “Lovers of God and Man.”) Paine’s religion consisted only of belief in “one God” and “doing good.” The French government at first supported this religion and turned over to their use to Notre Dame church and three other church edifices in Paris, but after a few years’ growth, Napoleon, who had made peace with the Pope, crushed the society.

Paine’s battle for freedom in the Old World had come to a grinding halt. Paine, however, refused to give up. He now decided to return to the New World. He would go to his farm in New Rochelle, hoping to find freedom and tolerance there. Thomas Jefferson, the first real Democrat, who had steadfastly remained a friend of Paine, was President of the United States. He was bold enough to offer a frigate (today’s equivalent a battleship) to bring Paine safely through any British blockade back to America. However, Paine took an ordinary vessel.

Much to Paine’s dismay, from the moment of landing in Baltimore he was outrageously attacked as a blasphemer. This continued unrelentingly for the remaining five years of his life. The Federalists taking umbrage at Paine’s attack on their idol, Washington, pulled out all the stops in fiery denunciation of Paine the Infidel. Even on a stage coach, the driver, learning that Paine was a passenger refused to proceed until Paine got out, fearing that such a defiler of God would invite retribution by lightning, at least. So whipped up was this hatred, that the City of New Rochelle stopped him from voting when he went to cast his ballot, on the grounds that he was no longer a citizen. How ungrateful could this country be?

Many of Paine’s friends shunned him, except disciples like Elihu Palmer, or the fearless democrat, President Jefferson, and a few others. Paine, past seventy, still continued to publish powerful essays furthering both his religious and political principles and assailing his enemies. Since his name was no longer an asset, they were mostly anonymous.

All this controversy might have been expected to end in 1809 when Paine died at the age of seventy-two, one hundred and fifty years ago, but this was not to be the case. William Cobbett, an ultra-Tory during his first American sojourn, printed in the [Philadelphia] Political Censor, September, 1796, thirteen years before Paine died, this unfriendly prediction:

“He has done all the mischief he can in the world, and whether his carcass is at last to be suffered to rot on the earth, or to be dried in the air is of very little consequence. Whenever and wherever he breathes his last he will excite neither sorrow nor Compassion; no friendly hand will close his eyes, not a groan will be uttered, not a tear will be shed. Like Judas he will be remembered by posterity; men will learn to express all that is base, malignant, treacherous, unnatural and blasphemous by the single monosyllable, PAINE.”

Who would believe that only a few years after Paine’s death Cobbett would retract every vile word he had written about Paine? Having the opportunity to study Paine’s writings during a long confinement in Newgate Prison for expressing some liberal sentiments, Cobbett became a convert. Doing a complete about-face, he started to expound Paine’s principles to the British masses. Later he was forced to flee once more to America. After a two-year sojourn there, in an act of unusual penance he exhumed Paine’s bones from their resting place in New Rochelle and brought them to England in order to give them a new funeral worthy of so great a man. The British, however, now despising Cobbett almost as much as Paine, ruined the plan by ridicule. Paine’s bones have since disappeared, giving circulation to a weird tale used by a preacher, denouncing Paine. “Thomas Paine was so wicked that he could not be buried; his bones were thrown into a box which was bandied about the world until it came to a button manufacturer, and now Paine is traveling around in the form of buttons.”

Succeeding generations have seen the smoke screen of personal abuse around Paine gradually disappear, allowing him to stand forth as the greatest advocate of democracy, social security and freedom of thought the world has yet seen.

Public appreciation of Paine is mounting. In England, his birthplace at Thetford, Norfolk, is marked in bronze and at Lewes, Sussex, all places associated with him are marked. In London, his portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and there is another portrait and a bust in the South Place Ethical society. In France, a great statue by Gutzon Borglum of Paine pleading for the life of Louis XVI stands facing the dormitories of the university of Paris. In America, he has been elected to the Hall of Fame in New York, where his bust stands next to that of his great friend Thomas Jefferson. There is another bust in the New York Historical Society, and his last home in Greenwich village is marked by a bronze plaque. If you visit Jefferson’s home in Monticello, the guides will point out to you the miniature portrait of Paine painted from life by John Trumbull. In the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., there is a portrait painted from life by John Wesley Jarvis. In Philadelphia, his portrait hangs in Independence Hall. There is a small portrait in the American Antiquarian Society. In New Jersey, at Bordentown, his little house is marked with bronze, while in Morristown, there is a large statue which has been gold-plated, carrying out the suggestion once made by Napoleon that every city in the world should erect a statue of gold to Paine. Napoleon also said he never went to bed at night without a copy of Paine’s Rights of Man under his pillow. New Rochelle has also repented, for the original burial place is graced by an imposing monument; the home is preserved as a historic shrine; and there is a beautiful museum building nearby which is devoted to an exhibition of his works. They even gave him back his citizenship by an official act a few years ago. His works, which will always remain his real monument, can still be read to advantage. London has recently printed nine editions of the Rights of Man, and this year there has been printed in New York 100,000 copies of his Age of Reason. The Soviet Union, showing great interest, has translated into Russian all of Paine’s works this year. Paine’s disarmament plan, in which he spelled out all details, may have influenced Khrushchev’s recent proposals to the United Nations.

Paine summed up his philosophy in these words:

“Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”