The Strange Career of Thomas Paine

I'm pleased today to guest post another contribution from Benjamin Park, a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh who normally blogs at Juvenile Instructor. Ben's post concerns material he had researched for his master's thesis, about reactions/responses to Thomas Paine from The Age of Reason to Christopher Hitchens to the Tea Party Movement. Ben's previous guest post for us may be found here.

Thomas Paine in American Memory
by Benjamin Park

I recently visited the American Philosophical Society’s library in Philadelphia, PA. Besides housing a treasure-trove of early American documents, and being housed in a beautiful building across the street from Independence hall, the APS Library also offers tourist-friendly exhibits in its front lobby. I was excited to see a showcase dedicated to Thomas Paine—the focus of my research trip and center figure of my master’s thesis. Further, I was intrigued to notice that while the display exhibited numerous items—first editions Common Sense, The Crisis, The Rights of Man, and several letters or cartoons exemplifying Paine as a heroic American revolutionary—it did not include the one pamphlet that is the focus of my study: his deistical, anti-institutional religion tract, The Age of Reason. Whether this was a conscious decision or not, it merely continues the long and ambiguous relationship between Thomas Paine and American culture.

The importance of Paine’s writings in influencing the creation of a new American persona in the 1770s would be difficult to overstate: his pamphlets and editorials forged a national identity based in opposition to the British monarchy and as a starting point for a worldwide democratic revolution; “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” he declared in Common Sense. Indeed, Paine became the prototype figure for the young republic as he continued his defense of radical democratic principles, later taking his show on the road to England and, when unsuccessful there, France, just in time for the boiling point of the French Revolution.

But it was his years in France that altered his position in the American pantheon. Not only did he become associated in the public mind as the face of an increasingly unpopular revolution—at least at the federal and elite level—but he had finally gained the gusto to publish on what he felt was the second of a two-part revolution for American society: that the political revolution would “be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.” “All national institutions of churches,” he declared in Age of Reason, “appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” Paine had confidence that, just as the American colonists embraced his message two decades before, the American citizens would now recognize the frailty of Christian logic, reject the oppression of organized religion, and welcome a society based on natural religion and anti-biblical morality.

Of course, Paine’s prediction proved not only to be wrong, but drastically wrong, and his reputation suffered deeply as a result. While the first edition of his Age of Reason sold remarkably well, the backlash against his deistic views were as numerous as they were vehement (and only increased after Paine published a second volume of diatribe). Pamphlets responding to Paine were published from every region of the young nation as well as every denomination of the increasingly competitive religious marketplace; respondents ranged from Congregationalist Timothy Dwight to Unitarian Joseph Priestley, and from Baptist Daniel Humphreys to Universalist Elhanan Winchester. These responses—the focus of my master’s thesis—number over one hundred and offer an important glimpse into 1790s America. However, while each individual text represented a different outlook for the future of America to the extent that they shatter the idea of a homogenous view of American society during the period, they unite in an important way: not only was Paine wrong, they argued, but his views were un-American. Paine, once at the crux of the American identity, was now the antitype for a nation increasingly drawn to morality based on revealed religion, an epistemology based on biblical common sense, and an exceptionalist culture pitted against Paine’s cosmopolitan milieu.

Paine’s reputation would only get worse over the next few decades, especially after a puzzling decision in 1796 to publish an open letter lashing out against then-President George Washington. Even the Jeffersonian Democrats who synthesized with Paine’s radical republican views felt a need to distance themselves from the perceived “atheist” who soon became the bogeyman for the Evangelical culture. Paine’s previous role in the revolution diminished as well: when Mercy Otis Warren wrote the popular history of the American Revolution—a job Thomas Paine was originally assigned to write—Paine’s influence was literally relegated to nothing more than a footnote. When monuments and plaques were raised in honor of the nation’s founders within the next century, anything remembering Paine was conspicuously absent, all because his deistical tracts overshadowed his revolutionary propaganda. “It took a brave man before the Civil War to confess he had read ‘The Age of Reason,’” Mark Twain fittingly wrote toward the end of the following century.

This does not mean that Paine has forever remained in the shadows, however; far from it. The controversial writer has had several resurgences in the twentieth century, from FDR’s use of The Crisis at the start of World War II to Ronald Reagan’s invoking of Paine to prophesy the greatness of America’s future. The largest—and perhaps most ironic—revival, though, has been the use of Paine by the Tea Party movement. Attracted to his views of limited government, Glenn Beck assigned a man identified as Thomas Paine to announce Beck’s 9/12 project last year; then, perceivably inspired by Paine, Beck published his own Common Sense as the manifesto for the right-wing movement, even republishing the entirety of Paine’s same-titled classic within its covers as a way to seemingly validate his message. Paine’s works are perhaps being printed in more editions today than ever before, and his simple yet powerful voice thunders throughout many Tea Party rallies.

Of course, what is absent is any mention of the other half of Paine’s revolutionary argument: the evolution away from Christianity. This is, of course, no surprise given the religious underpinnings of much of the movement. (Also amusingly missing is Paine’s critiques of the US Constitution.) Paine is only useful to today’s pundits for his political commentary, while the religious portion of his message is conveniently swept under the rug. Just as with any historic figure in modern times, though, it’s the pliability of his persona that makes Paine so relevant to today’s world—pliable enough to be used by Glenn Beck to critique big government on the one hand, and by Christopher Hitchens to critique modern-day society and religion on the other.

In the end, Glenn Beck, modern-day Tea Party Protestors, political commentators on both ends of the spectrum, cultural critics arguing from either side of many debates, and even the esteemed American Philosophical Society are only continuing a national tradition of choosing what parts of our history to emphasize and what parts to ignore. In a sense, many echo the resolution a New York Republican Society pronounced two centuries ago: “May [Paine’s] Right’s of Man be handed down to our latest posterity, but may his Age of Reason never live to see the rising generation.” Such is the malleable nature of national memory, especially when religion is predominantly involved. Perhaps, however, Paine would be pleased to receive any acknowledgement in today’s world, no matter how disjointedly it comes.


Christopher said…
Nice post, Ben, and an appropriate follow-up to Randall's post yesterday. I look forward to reading your thesis.
Mark Ashurst-McGee said…
Yeah, your thesis sounds fascinating. Thanks Ben.
Mark Ashurst-McGee said…
Go to the website of your favorite political talk show host and search for the words Paine or antiChrist. If you find anything, stop tuning in.
Adam Najarian, the Processing Archivist at the American Philosophical Society, wrote on the APS Facebook page:

"I don't accept the critique of the exhibit by the blogger. Age of Reason was not included not due to any ignorance or oversight, but due to the fact that the cartoons in the exhibit fit directly in time with the Rights of Man and Common Sense, not Age of Reason. If he had only asked, this could have been explained to him. That said, had there been unlimited exhibit space, it certainly would have been included."

Please become a Facebook fan of the APS and continue the discussion.
Ben said…
Thanks, Chris and Mark.

APS: I'll repeat what I wrote on your facebook link:

I really hope it didn't come off like I was critiquing the APS--I honestly and sincerely didn't mean it as a jab. I just thought it was an apt reflection of American society at large of how when we think of Paine nowadays, his Age of Reason does not immediately come to the forefront. I apologize if it at all came across as an accusation.

That said, I should also emphasize how great my few days were at the APS--one of the finest research institutions I've visited. Besides being in a beautiful setting, the staff was very friendly and helpful. I was able to find everything I was hoping to and more. I really hope to visit there again in the future, and I recommend it to anyone else whose interests align with the library's!

all the best,

ben park

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