Thomas Paine, Pathfinder by Norman Thomas

by Norman Thomas

A Summary of the address given at the Paine Celebration of the Opening of the Thomas Paine Memorial House in New Rochelle, NY on Memorial Day, May 30, 1925.

In his recent essay on Thomas Paine, Gamaliel Bradford acknowledges that the man whom we honor today “anticipated the abolition of slavery, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, old age pensions, the Shepard-Towner Bill (providing for a federal department of education), and ardently resented the inferior status of women.” In other passages Mr. Bradford recalls Paine’s efforts to conquer yellow fever, his success as an inventor of the iron bridge, his arguments for the abolition of war, and his devotion to the ideal of a Republic of the World. In addition to all this Mr. Bradford, of course, recognizes Paine’s inestimable services to American independence, and to a rational view of religion. If these services do not constitute a great man, a pathfinder, it would be hard to imagine what claims could deserve such an honor. It is a singular commentary on the persistence of obloquy arising out of misrepresentation due primarily to theological bigotry that even Mr. Bradford feels obliged to discuss this pioneer in so many fields of thought and action as a “damaged soul” along with Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr.

It might not be profitable, even if time did permit, for me to dwell upon Paine’s particular services under the heads I have enumerated. The great men of the past live less in the accomplished work which they and their generation handed down to posterity than in the impetus they give succeeding generations to press on along the paths they began to explore. We do not honor great and prophetic spirits by treating even the most majestic of their utterances as infallible truth once and for all handed down for our obedience. Rather do we honor them when we ourselves become part of the army of truth-seekers. For all who are engaged in the discovery and application of truth, Thomas Paine’s life and work have a special significance.

First, he believed in reason and made his appeal to reason. Reason in man may be weak, but if it is so weak that an appeal to it is useless, then indeed is all hope vain.

Second, he believed to a surprising degree in tolerance. Tolerance is an easy virtue for the indifferent, the skeptical, the mere lookers on in Venice. It is an almost impossible virtue for the flaming champion of deep convictions. Yet Paine rose to that height when in the French Convention he pleaded for the life of Louis XVI at the risk of his own. Let them “kill the king but save the man.”

Third, he worked out an almost perfect method of “humanizing knowledge”. He directed his remarkable skill with words to popularizing without debasing great ideas. If more of our modern scientists had had a like zeal and capacity for humanizing knowledge we might perhaps have been spared the ludicrous yet humiliating spectacle of Tennessee’s anti-evolution law.

Robert Ingersoll in an oration on Paine attributed his own freedom of speech to the man who in three nations against the powers of both state and church upheld the ideal of freedom. The Tennessee law is but one of many evidences that the greatest men can not hand down freedom to the future. Each generation must struggle for its own. We cannot even stand securely on the shoulders of past generations except by a struggle to climb higher. In our day and generation the appeal to reason and tolerance must be made by those who hope for progress. War has not been conquered. It today presents more dangers than Paine ever could foresee. The progress of science and invention in which Paine was so deeply interested has not of itself brought social peace or justice. We have got rid of chattel slavery against which he preached, but not of slavery to a profit mad economic system which he could not foresee. In knowledge and understanding of the conditions of material progress we have made giant strides. In the practice of the fellowship of free men we have but crept. Yet if ever our social achievements match our mechanical powers it will be because we have learned in sincerity and humility to say with Thomas Paine: “The world is my country and to do good is my religion.”