Monday, March 19, 2012

A Founding Paine

Very often when historians or commentators are making lists of the greatest founders, they do not include the name of Thomas Paine. Sometimes I haven't included him myself. Historian Joseph Ellis once suggested that a founder had to have signed both the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution, which, of course, is preposterous. But, even a lesser standard, signing one of them, makes little sense to me. In my little heeded book, if you were a soldier, sailor, politician, writer, spy or anyone else who contributed to independence or up through the first congress - we can call them a founder. Even some wives would probably qualify - like Martha Washington, who was at Valley Forge, or Abigail Adams, merely by virtue of her private letters to her husband and others, though I admit that might be stretching it.

Qualifying as one of the greatest founders is, of course, a different story. Very few can reach that rank, or we wouldn't call it a greatest list. Almost everyone includes Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton. It would be hard not to include those like John Marshall,  some James though his greatest contributions came later, and probably James Wilson, who is virtually unknown except to history buffs, and I would suggest Thomas Paine.

Not everyone was an admirer. John Adams, not surprisingly, can't give him much credit. "The third part of Common Sense which relates wholly to the Question of Independence, was clearly written and contained a tolerable Summary of the Arguments which I had been repeating again and again  in Congress for nine months. But I am bold to say there is not a Fact nor a Reason stated in it, which had not been frequently urged in congress." He also wrote to his wife, that he "appeared to . . . be mad, not drunk," and that he had "the Vanity of the Lunatic who believed himself to be Jupiter. . . . She herself had seemed pleased at false news of Paine's death, writing, "[h]e was an instrument of much mischief.

Gouverneur Morris, who also misses the greatest list, called him "a mere Adventurer from England, without Fortune, without Family or Connections, ignorant even of Grammar," and also, "Although he has an excellent Pen to write he has but an indifferent Head to think," "he seem[ed] to become every Hour more drunk with Self Conceit" as well as "[i]n the best of times, he had a larger share of every other sense than of common sense, and lately the intemperate use of ardent spirits has, I am told, considerably impaired the small stock, which he originally possessed."

But, I am not making that argument here, but another one. I have thought that of the founders that Jefferson and Franklin were the best writers, but if I include Paine as a founder, I realize that he would probably get the nod. Obviously, this is as subjective a question as there can be, but I have good company. Jefferson, who is usually considered to be the best writer among them by professionals (David McCullough aside), wrote in 1821 when many in the founding generation were dead, "No writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style, in perspicuity of expression, happiness of elucideantion, and in simple and unassuming language. In this he may be compared with Dr. Franklin . . . ."

Here are selections from Paine's own writings with which you can make your own judgment. I don't offer them as being right or wrong, but just as a smattering of support for my argument that he was a better writer than either Jefferson or Franklin. When you read him, it is hard to find a paragraph that doesn't sparkle, even in letters or involving subjects that would have called for dense prose if written by anyone else.

Common Sense, 2 14 76

SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

. . .

Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz., freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with snow, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and of reason will say, it is right.

. . .

There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgment is required. The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.

. . .

But where says some is the king of America? I'll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.

The American Crisis, Number I, 12 19 1776

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 their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER," and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

The American Crisis, Number III, 4 19 1777

IN THE progress of politics, as in the common occurrences of life, we are not only apt to forget the ground we have travelled over, but frequently neglect to gather up experience as we go. We expend, if I may so say, the knowledge of every day on the circumstances that produce it, and journey on in search of new matter and new refinements: but as it is pleasant and sometimes useful to look back, even to the first periods of infancy, and trace the turns and windings through which we have passed, so we may likewise derive many advantages by halting a while in our political career, and taking a review of the wondrous complicated labyrinth of little more than yesterday.

Truly may we say, that never did men grow old in so short a time! We have crowded the business of an age into the compass of a few months, and have been driven through such a rapid succession of things, that for the want of leisure to think, we unavoidably wasted knowledge as we came, and have left nearly as much behind us as we brought with us: but the road is yet rich with the fragments, and, before we finally lose sight of them, will repay us for the trouble of stopping to pick them up.

The Crisis, Number XI, 5 11 1782

In the situation of confusion and despair their present councils have no fixt character. It is now the hurricane months of British politics. Every day seems to have a storm of its own, and they are scudding under the bare poles of hope. Beaten, but not humbled; condemned, but not penitent, they act like men trembling at fate and catching at a straw.—From this convulsion in the entrails of their politics, it is more than probably that the mountain groaning in labour, will bring forth a mouse as to its size, and a monster in its make. They will try on America the same insidious arts they tried on France and Spain.

Letter to Samuel Adams, 1 1 1803

But all this war whoop of the pulpit has some concealed object. Religion is not the cause, but is the stalking hourse. They put it forward to conceal themselves behind it. It is not a secret that there has been a party composed of the leaders of the Federalists, for I do not include all Federalists with their leaders, who have been working by various means for several years past, to overturn the Federal constitution established on the representative system, and place government in the new world on the corrupt system of the old. To accomplish this a large standing army was necessary, and as a pretence for such an army, the danger of a foreign invasion must be bellowed forth, from the pulpit, from the press, and by their public orators.

The Rights of Man, Part One

The streets of Paris, being narrow, are favourable for defence; and the loftiness of the houses, consisting of many stories, from which great annoyance might be given, secured them against nocturnal enterprises; and the night was spent in providing themselves with every sort of weapon they could make or procure: Guns, swords, blacksmiths hammers, carpenters axes, iron crows, pikes, halberts, pitchforks, spits, clubs, &c. &c.

The Rights of Man, Part One, Conclusion

Reason and Ignorance, the opposites of each other, influence the great bulk of mankind. If either of these can be rendered sufficiently extensive in a country, the machinery of Government goes easily on. Reason obeys itself; and Ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.

Rights of Man, Part Two

But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. The sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness; and no sooner did the American governments display themselves to the world, than despotism felt a shock, and man began to contemplate redress.

The Age of Reason

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow creatures happy.

But lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise. They have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving: it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.


  1. Thomas Paine- First American Libertarian. I definitely he agree that is a founder; and one of the most philosophically important.

    It is my understanding (not confirmed) that his atheism might have been a reason that he wasnt't more prominent than he was.

  2. Thomas Paine- First American Libertarian. I definitely he agree that is a founder; and one of the most philosophically important.

    It is my understanding (not confirmed) that his atheism might have been a reason that he wasnt't more prominent than he was.

  3. You are definately correct that his religious beliefs affected his popularity. But, he did not write The Age of Reason until he was older and would have been quite unhappy with your calling him an atheist. He was a deist. In the letter to Sam Adams I quoted from above he also wrote: "In the second place, the people of France were running headlong into Atheism, and I had the work translated and published in their own language, to stop them in that career, and fix them to the first article . . . of every man's creed who has any creed at all, I believe in God. I endangered my own life . . . a second time by opposing Atheism, and yet some of your priests . . . cry out, in the war whoop of monarchical priestcraft, What an infidel! What a wicked man is Thomas Paine! They might as well add, for he believes in God, and is against shedding blood."

  4. I completely agree with you about Mr. Paine. He is a critically important founder. Good job, Frodo.

  5. Uhhh, thanks. Can't help but be a little disappointed when you don't stomp on me. Strange that.

    You know what else I realize. I forgot to name the post. Better do that - something witty (or what passes for witty on this blog) like The Paineful Founder.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .