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September and Thomas Paine

November, 2003
By Roy Meador

September 11th made the news before 2001. A shootout with twenty killed occurred September 11, 1897 at Hazleton and Latimer, Pennsylvania between striking coal miners and deputy sheriffs. Friends of labor recognize that strike as one of the first victories for the United Mine Workers who won an eight-hour work day and the end to obligatory company stores.

September 11 is recorded as the date of a calamitious end due to pestilence for the 1227 Crusade under Frederick II. And the Revolutionary battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania took place September 11, 1777. In 1939, New York Times correspondent Otto Tolischus wrote: “September 11 – having hurled against Poland their mighty military machine, the Germans are today crushing Poland like a soft-boiled egg.”

History does offer pleasant September 11ths. Collectors of 19th century dime novels and even literary scholars may find it noteworthy that Erastus Beadle was born September 11, 1821. Erastus and his brother Irwin founded the Beadle’s Half-Dime Pocket Library for mass distribution of melodramatic fiction including thrillers. Stephen Jay Gould in I Have Landed (2002), reported that his maternal grandfather Joseph Arthur Rosenberg, Papa Joe, after arriving at Ellis Island as a teenager from Hungary bought a 5-cent English grammar book at a used book store in Brooklyn and wrote in it: “I have landed. Sept. 11th 1901.”

Ruminations for the Ages

On September 12, 2001 in a letter, while anxiously reaching for comprehension about the previous day’s holocaust in a neighborhood where for many years I worked, shopped, and prospected for books, I voiced a wish others expressed since, a shared wish for creation of a Memorial Park devoted to peace, tolerance, compassion, and justice at what has come to be called Ground Zero.

News releases indicate such a Memorial is indeed planned for the phoenix-like resurrection of the area. When the Memorial is designed, eloquent lines appropriate for display can be found in Stephen Gould’s “September 11, ’01,” the final chapter of his final book. I’d be delighted if they worked in Papa Joe’s “I have landed” followed by “We have landed. Lady Liberty still lifts her lamp beside the golden door.” Here’s hoping as well when inspirational maxims (if any) are selected for the Memorial there’s sufficient wisdom and courage to include apropos reflections by the controversial author who had a large role in creating America through his electrifying tracts that spoke the language of the people with shrewd and compelling insight. He gave the American Colonies the will for rebellion, yet he died in New York City traduced, vilified, and ignorantly despised. Indeed, without half trying he had a special knack for rubbing aristocrats and political leaders wrong. He knew the principal establishment figures of his time in America, England, and France; and by stubbornly insisting on the truth, he managed to incur the wrath of most, with Benjamin Franklin as the chief exception. Could it have been because he considered hereditary aristocracy a fungus growing out of the corruption of society and defined Nobility as “No-ability.” “He who dares not offend cannot be honest,” he warned, and repeatedly proved himself formidably offensive and dangerously honest.

Perennial thoughts from this crotchety crusader suitable for Memorial display pack his broadsides, pamphlets, and books: “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 women.” “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” “He, who would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression.” “How necessary it is at all times to watch against the attempted encroachment of power, and to prevent its running to excess.” “To elect, and to reject, is the prerogative of a free people.”

Courage is probably still needed in some places to post his famous declarations for the emancipation of humanity. The lines were penned by a long-time front-runner for the title of most despised American even though without his pen the United States of America (a name he was among the first to use) might never have emerged from history’s cocoon. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out, he also invented the name of the Age of Reason. While waiting to find out if terrorist zealots (9/11 slaughterers of the innocent, alas, had countless predecessors) were going to guillotine him during the French Revolution, deeply religious, he wrote The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and of Fabulous Theology (1794-95). The book advocated deism and criticized the Bible as a book of errors and contradictions, “scarcely anything but a history of the grossest vices, and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales. ” It was a PR calamity for his reputation even as an admired political theorist and made his name anathema for generations. “Insolent blasphemer of things sacred,” wheezed John Adams. The Bible’s devotees, past and present, have never appreciated hearing that their Book needs better proofreading both from above and below.

The Paine of Liberty

C. S. Lewis wrestled with a moral mystery in his 1940 book, The Problem of Pain. I’d have been more interested if the Oxford moralist (picture Anthony Hopkins) had tackled the problem of Thomas Pain (who added an “e” to become Paine after making himself a passionate advocate in print for American independence at 1770s Philadelphia). Paine was a thinker, writer, idealist, and firebrand with a never-wavering focus on human rights and freedom. He also had the strange distinction of becoming one of the most hated men of his era.

Near the time of 9/11/01 events, I read John Dos Passos excellent 1940 study of Thomas Paine in The Living Thoughts Library. Books about Tom Paine have always seized my attention since I devoured Howard Fast’s novel Citizen Tom Paine (1943) and The Selected Work of Tom Paine (1945) as a youth. I doubt that I’ll ever invest $125,000 for a 1776 first edition of Paine’s Common Sense, but I do enjoy owning first editions of the Howard Fast volumes. Both books had regrettable collisions with censoring watchdogs. The novel was removed from New York City public school libraries in 1946, and the U.S. State Department banned Paine’s Selected Work from Information Service libraries abroad in 1953. State Department banners stirred up opinion to the point where the American Library Association in The Freedom to Read stated, “The suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.” That ALS line also wouldn’t be a bad one for the 9/11 Memorial.

As he did others, and maybe does still, Paine helped me learn how to question venerable assumptions that are labeled unquestionable and to realize some rebellions are not evils but duties. A year after 9/11 it strikes me as appropriate again to consider the life and living thoughts of Thomas Paine. His humanitarianism and consistent devotion to the great, sometimes lost, causes of human liberation seem in harmony with and symbolic of 9/11 remembrances.

Considering Thomas Paine’s contributions through his pamphlets, Common Sense and The American Crisis, as a uniquely persuasive voice for the achievement of American freedom, I’ve always been intrigued that he could arouse such intense and belligerent anger among his contemporaries and later generations. For such hatred we must look to political rivals, establishment functionaries resenting opposition, greedy grabbers for power and position, and religious dogmatists indignant about challenges to their artifacts of reverence. Thomas Paine afflicted such enemies with extreme discomfort that triggered contempt. John Adams, who couldn’t condone the prospect of government by an unqualified rabble, called Paine “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.” “Adventurer from England, without fortune, without family or connections, ignorant even of grammar,” proclaimed Bronx New Yorker Gouverneur Morris whose distaste for popular democracy was never a secret.

Paine’s foes finding themselves weak in argument often sputtered that he used ordinary language, clumsy grammar, and split his infinitives. “Dirty little atheist,” was Theodore Roosevelt’s verdict, based apparently on rumor not reading. Anyway, leaving the Rough Rider Paine-fully misinformed, we note that Abraham Lincoln said, “I never tire of reading Paine.” Woodrow Wilson, Walt Whitman, and Thomas A. Edison appreciated and praised the man and many of us now openly dare to admire his works. It was reassuring in the July 2002 Harper’s that Lewis H. Lapham in his Notebook saluted Thomas Paine for his “Uncommon Sense.”

An “Ingenious, worthy young man”

The development of Thomas Paine as a professional revolutionary predominantly came from self-directed reading, tavern talk, coffee-house discussion, and living in the eighteenth century when threatening new ideas about human rights and individual freedom were in the air. To reactionary Tories of England and America the ideas were seditious, unpatriotic, traitorous to the way things were and of course should forever remain. For Thomas Paine the ideas of liberty, inalienable rights, and eradication of hereditary tyrannies became irresistible trumpet calls to action.

He was born January 29, 1737 at Thetford, England. His father was a corset maker, and the boy left school in 1750 to work in his father’s shop. Apparently he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of a life in corsets. In 1757 for six months he served aboard a privateer during the Seven Years War. Back on shore, he made corsets, taught school, served as an exciseman, and gradually realized his true destiny must be to acquire knowledge and write. “I know but one kind of life I am fit for, and that is a thinking one, and of course a writing one,” he stated years later in a letter seeking a loan. The thinking and writing life not surprisingly or unusually nearly always kept him a stranger to solvency.

Fate gave a hand at London in 1774 when he met Dr. Benjamin Franklin. They talked at length about conditions in England and the options for America from submission to conflict. Paine by then was fed up with the failure and frustration that dogged him in his home country. He was an attentive listener when Franklin suggested he might do better in Philadelphia. In September 1774 Franklin wrote him a generous letter of introduction. The 37-year old immigrant, tired, poor, and yearning to breathe free, landed at Philadelphia November 30, 1774. The Franklin introduction served him as a magical open sesame to meet leading Americans, make himself heard on the urgent questions of the day, and gain an influential position as writer and editor for printer Robert Aitken’s The Pennsylvania Magazine. During his tenure as the editor, who was also writing much of the contents under psudonyms, the magazine ran articles opposing slavery, cruelty to animals, and the subjugation of women. There were essays in favor of liberalizing divorce laws, and predictably, the growing merit of delivering final walking papers to the arrogant and oppressive British Crown.

Recently escaped from what Paine considered the prison of England, constricted by class and ruled by the “Royal Brute” (King George III), the English journalist brought flaming rhetorical fury to the cause of American union for independence. In September 1775 with precious few shillings to keep himself afloat, he left Pennsylvania Magazine to focus all his efforts on resistance to tyranny and releasing mankind from imposed shackles. The cause would largely consume the rest of his life with creation of an autonomous America as the first essential step with the world watching and hoping.

He set to work late in 1775 writing a pamphlet to help Americans better comprehend their situation and opportunity. He was skillful by then at writing swiftly and delivering his thoughts in plain, realistic, easy to understand language. Titled Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America and authorship identified as “Written by an Englishman,” the first printing of 1,000 copies dated January 10, 1776 by Robert Bell in Philadelphia sold in a fortnight.

Paine guaranteed Bell’s printing costs and instructed that any profits should buy mittens for American soldiers. An expanded second edition was rushed to print February 14. Results were astonishing. Further printings quickly followed as America’s first best seller ran from reader to reader throughout the Colonies. Thousands heard a call to arms in the plea, “O ye that love mankind. Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!…O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.” An estimated 150,000 copies circulated in 1776, and the pamphlet was a key factor in readying citizens for the July 4th Declaration. “His writings certainly have had a powerful effect upon the public mind,” understated George Washington to James Madison in 1784.

“I saw, or at least I thought I saw, a vast scene opening itself to the world in the affairs of America,” Paine reminisced in the 1790s. “I published the work known by the name of Common Sense, which is the first work I ever did publish, and so far as I can judge of myself, I believe I never should have been known in the world as an author on any subject whatever, had it not been for the affairs of America.” He followed up the amazingly successful pamphlet with a series of 1776 letters by “The Forester” vigorously espousing independence and lambasting critics of Common Sense. There was no backing away, he insisted, from the necessity of resistance; “It is not a time to trifle…the false light of reconciliation – There is no such thing.”

Soon after July 4th, he joined Pennsylvania militia volunteers to take part directly in the struggle. Then American defeats in New York and elsewhere made it clear that he was vastly more useful with a pen than a musket. The anti-tyranny propagandist initiated a fresh series of pamphlets still treasured and read as The American Crisis (1776-1783). American legend has it that he began the first, “These are the times that try men’s souls…,” writing on a drumhead in the company of chilled and despairing Continental troops. Thus came “drumhead journalism” which correspondents and reporters emulated in subsequent human conflicts. By the time of the Crisis Papers, Paine was known as the author of the Common Sense manifesto. Readers were primed to heed his new appeals. Crisis Paper, Number IV, dated the day after September 11, 1777 when Americans bravely fought and lost the Battle of Brandywine, opened with words to sustain them through the long haul ahead: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of Freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it. The event of yesterday is one of those kind of alarms, which is just sufficient to rouse us to duty, without being of consequence enough to depress our fortitude.”

On September 11, 1777, with the sound of cannon audible at Brandywine, Paine was preparing dispatches for Benjamin Franklin. Continuing the correspondence after the interruption of battle and retreat, he informed his friend about the resolution of Washington’s men at Valley Forge. He concluded, “Among other pleasures I feel in having uniformly done my duty, I feel that of not having discredited your friendship and patronage.” Franklin in time would respond, “You Thomas Paine, are more responsible than any other living person on this continent for the creation of what we call the United States of America.”

Thomas Paine & Posterity

With customary directness, Thomas Paine wrote on during and after the Revolution. His pamphlets, articles, and letters kept him involved in behind the scenes controversies that earned him wages of enmity more often than approval. This topical journalism now provides forceful footnotes to the times. His articles critical of Silas Deane, a businessman accused of using his position to buy war supplies in France for personal profits, brought wrath on Paine from Gouverneur Morris and other eminent Deane supporters. The 1770s-1780s meet 2002 as profits in all ages soar beyond taint! The aftermath of the Deane debacle was that Paine lost his position as the $70-a-month secretary to the Continental Congress Committee for Foreign Affairs.

He was back scrounging for a livelihood, dependent on occasional earnings from his pen. Luckily, in the 1780s he still had sympathetic friends who honored his wartime services. “Must the merits of Common Sense continue to glide down the stream of time unrewarded?” asked Washington. Paine’s rewards in 1784-85 included from New York a confiscated Tory farm at New Rochelle, a grant of 500 pounds by Pennsylvania, and a slightly larger money gift from Congress. Further signs of appreciation from American sources were few in number.

In a century of talented polymaths, Paine likewise was an inventor as well as writer. Best known of the many Paine inventions was an original design for a single-arch, pierless iron bridge, the idea for which came from studying a spider’s web. In 1787 to market his bridge, he traveled to Europe with letters from Franklin presenting him to French scientists and political leaders. In Paris he strengthened his friendship with the American minister Thomas Jefferson. From France he journeyed to England in quest of bridge investors. Without the recriminations due an apostate, he was honored in the land of his birth by eager admirers of his well-known writings including poet William Blake and statesman Edmund Burke. But smooth sailing in the social swim was never Paine’s lot for long.

In 1789, the American example a success across the Atlantic, revolution broke out in France, and a working-class uprising even seemed not impossible in England. These new causes of the poor versus the posh rearoused Paine’s restless, rebel spirit; and a burst of polemical, trouble-making writing followed. Shocked Edmund Burke, a sort of reactionary Scarlet Pimpernel, in November 1790 published Reflections on the Revolution in France praising the French aristocracy and attacking the people as a vicious mob. Weeks later after intense writing, Paine published an answer to Burke, Part One of Rights of Man, a milestone in the human struggle for rights. He dedicated the book to George Washington with a prayer “that you may enjoy the Happiness of seeing the New World regenerate the Old.” Washington’s vice-president John Adams said of the work, “I detest that book and its tendency from the bottom of my heart.”

Rights of Man, Part the Second, was published in February 1792. Sales of both parts were over 200,000 by the end of 1792, and the rapture with which workers in England received it caused a nervous government to fear a nationwide revolution. Paine as the author was indicted for sedition; printers and sellers of the book were prosecuted; and simply having a copy was so politically-incorrect it endangered the possessor. Ironically, most of the frightening reforms Paine advocated in Rights of Man are now in place and taken for granted in Great Britain and many other democratic countries including the one Thomas Paine godfathered.

To avoid being locked up or worse, Paine escaped to France before he was tried and convicted in absentia. His fate in France replicated his experiences in England. Initially he was honored as a hero of revolution, given a seat in the French Convention, and assigned to the committee to draft a new constitution. Then in the volatile, out-of-control climate of 1793, Paine speaking his mind stepped off the gangplank into hot water again. He had written earlier in favor of deposing the king. At the convention he opposed sending Louis XVI to the guillotine and counseled imprisonment followed by exile. Paine was sent to prison by Robespierre for this gesture of courage and conscience. When Robespierre fell in 1794, Paine was freed and reinstated in the convention. The experience had undermined his health but not his ability to think and write. During his time out of favor, he produced The Age of Reason, giving his enemies, both pious and political, a harvest of verbal ammunition they would use against him from then on.

He sailed for America in September 1802 and was met at Baltimore by an angry crowd with cries of infidel, heretic, drunk. He was bitterly attacked and slandered in the Federalist press on his own account and to oppose the incumbent president, Thomas Jefferson, who was still his friend. During his remaining years, the aging pamphleteer continued to write as he had always done against tyranny and for freedom. He knew well by then what it meant to have his past efforts dismissed and to be judged by the scandals and charges of immorality in the present, mostly invented by his enemies. The anti-Paine campaign was so widespread, mothers used the threat that “Mad Tom” would get them to frighten chidren. He died June 8, 1809 in Manhattan. With no fanfare, he was buried on his New Rochelle farm. Ten years later English writer William Cobbett took Paine’s remains to England planning a memorial. A series of bizarre events followed for the migratory remains, and they were somewhere, somehow irretrievably lost.

Posterity has somewhat restored Thomas Paine to the fame and respect he deserved. Ideas in The Rights of Man became facts of existence for some modern governments, and The Age of Reason doesn’t noticeably rock contemporary theological boats. The Library of America in an excellent volume published his collected writings in 1995. Unlike most venerated figures in the founding generation, Thomas Paine needed several tries before he was admitted to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. After falling short in four previous votes, Thomas Faine finally made the Hall in 1945. Better late than never.

Roy Meador, a free-lance technical writer, researches and writes extensively about books and authors. He was a frequent contributor to Biblio and currently to Book Source Magazine. After residing in Manhattan for many years, he writes and adds to his collection in Ann Arbor, Michigan.