“Paine’s The Age of Reason: I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity, as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Bonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs or the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.”
~ John Adams
The Age of Paine, out of which the modern world was born. And being reminded of this, my mind ever drifts back to the hope for a new Age of Paine. No one can doubt that Thomas Paine was ahead of his time. But it becomes ever more apparent that, all these centuries later, he is also ahead of our time. We need less John Adams, more Thomas Paine.
So, who exactly was Thomas Paine? What kind of person was he? What did he embody and express?
First of all, Paine was a working class bloke who aspired for something greater. But he didn’t start his life with grand visions. He would have been happy with a good job and a family, if life had worked out for him, if not for loss after loss. He sought family life years before self-improvement became a central focus. He sought self-improvement years before he turned to reform. And he sought reform years before revolution ever crossed his mind. It wasn’t until middle age that he found himself carried ashore to the American colonies, impoverished and near death. He was a sensitive soul in a harsh world. There was little justice to be found other than what one fought for. So, he finally decided to fight.
That is where his personality comes in. He was a kind and devoted friend, but also he could be a fierce critic and unrelenting enemy. He took betrayal as a personal attack, even if it was limited to betraying his principles. He was an ornery asshole with a bad attitude, having seen the dark side of life. In time, he would become a morally righteous troublemaker and rabble-rouser, a highly effective disturber of the peace and a serious threat to the status quo. To the targets of his sharp tongue, he was opinionated, arrogant, and haughty. He was tolerant of much but not of bullshit, no matter its source.
Paine was a social justice warrior with heavy emphasis on the latter part. He didn’t back down from fights and he was a physically capable man, not afraid to be in a literal battle. He considered a pen and sword to be equally powerful, depending on circumstances, and he took up both when necessary. If he were alive today, he would be punching Nazis and writing inspiring words for others to join him in the fight for freedom. The likes of Adams and Burke, for all their complaints, never suggested Paine was a coward or a hypocrite. He stated in no uncertain terms what he believed was worth fighting for and then, unlike Adams and Burke, he fought for it. Without the slightest doubt, he had the courage of his convictions.
Yet he was never a dogmatic ideologue. He was always focused on what would pragmatically improve the lives of average people. He didn’t allow himself to be carried away by ideological zeal — demonstrated by his offering a moderating voice for democratic principles and process even as the French Revolution took a dark turn, which landed him in prison awaiting the guillotine. Injustice from reactionaries posing as revolutionaries, to his mind, was as dangerous as injustice from monarchs, aristocrats, and plutocrats.
Most of all, Paine was a seeker and speaker of truth. He refused to be silenced, refused to back down, and refused to be kept in his place. He dared to question and doubt, even if it meant knocking over and slaughtering sacred cows. His first concern wasn’t in winning popularity contests. He had no aspiration to be like the self-styled noble aristocracy, much less a respectable leader of the ruling elite. He would befriend the powerful when they were willing to be allies and then attack the very same people when they proved themselves to be false and unworthy. His opinions didn’t sway with the wind, but his understanding did develop over time. He became ever more clear in what he saw as required to create and maintain a truly free society.
He is known for having been a writer. But he had a varied history before he became a newspaperman and a muckraking journalist which eventually led to his revolutionary pamphleteering. He held many normal jobs in the early decades of his life, a staymaker by training who was a privateer for a short period, then a tax collector, and did odd jobs. Like anyone else, he was simply trying to make his way in the world. No one is born a revolutionary. It took most of his life to become who he is now remembered for.
So what kind of person did he become? He was a populist no doubt, a man of the people, what some would unfairly dismiss as a demagogue. He was simply acting and speaking from what he personally experienced and understood about the world. That led him to develop into a freedom fighter — anti-elitist, anti-authoritarian, and anti-fundamentalist. More basically, he was a left-liberal, social democrat, economic progressive, and civil libertarian. His political commitments expressed themselves in many ways, from abolitionism to feminism, from universal suffrage to free speech rights, from fighting war profiteering to demanding a basic income.
Still, it doesn’t seem that Paine saw himself as a political being. He preferred to focus on other things, if world events had allowed him. This was explained by Edward G. Gray in Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge (pp. 3-5):
“OF THE MANY ESSAYS Thomas Paine wrote, among the least known is “The Construction of Iron Bridges.” This brief history of Paine’s architectural career, written in 1803, was of no particular interest to his political followers, nor has it been to his many subsequent biographers. The essay after all has little to do with the radical critique of hereditary monarchy or the cult of natural rights for which Paine has been so justly celebrated. But it is a window into his world. Many of the luminaries in Paine’s circle were inventors. Paine’s friend Benjamin Franklin devised bifocals, the lightning rod, the glass armonica, and countless other devices. Another friend, Thomas Jefferson, invented an improved plow and a mechanism for copying letters. Some revolutionary leaders not known for their inventions devoted time to building things. George Washington often seems to have lavished as much attention on his house at Mount Vernon as on matters of state. From this vantage, Paine seems no different.
“But Paine was different. Unlike so many of his American contemporaries, Paine had a narrow field of interests. He never showed any passion for art or philosophy. He claimed repeatedly to have learned little from books. He did have other mechanical interests. He attempted to invent a smokeless candle and later in life he contemplated a perpetual-motion machine driven by gunpowder. But neither of these consumed Paine in the way his bridge did. Indeed, far from a gentlemanly hobby, bridge architecture became a career for Paine. In his essay on iron bridges, he wrote that he had had every intention of devoting himself fully to architecture but was drawn away by events beyond his control.
“The most disruptive of these was the 1790 publication by the British politician, and former friend of Paine, Edmund Burke, of Reflections on the Revolution in France. For Paine, Burke’s fierce denunciation of the course of events across the English Channel was about much more than France and its revolution; it was an attack on the political ideals on which his adopted country had been founded and on which a just future would depend. “The publication of this work of Mr. Burke,” Paine explained, “absurd in its principles and outrageous in its manner, drew me . . . from my bridge operations, and my time became employed in defending a system then established and operating in America and which I wished to see peaceably adopted in Europe.” The refutation of Burke became “more necessary,” for the moment, than the construction of the bridge.”
The political situation couldn’t be ignored in the way it directly intruded upon the lives of individuals and impinged upon entire communities, often with real world impacts. And the scathing, cruel words of Burke hit Paine hard, for Burke was someone he had considered a friend. Even so, he remained a working class bloke in his attitude and concerns. That is why bridge-building had taken hold of his attention, as a practical endeavor in building public infrastructure in a young nation that had little public infrastructure. It wasn’t that he was an aspiring technocrat in the budding bureaucracy, as his concerns were on a human level. He was born to a father who was a skilled tradesman. As such, he was trained from a young age to think like a builder, with the concrete skills of constructing something to be used by people in their daily lives.
Still, he had a restless mind. As an endlessly curious and lifelong autodidact, his interests were wider than most. He surely read far more than he admitted to. His claims of being unlearned were more of a pose to give force to his arguments, a way of letting his principles stand on their own merit with no appeal to authority. He preferred to use concrete imagery and examples than to reference famous intellectuals and philosophical rhetoric. He didn’t value learning as a hobby, an attitude held by aristocrats. He had no desire to be a casual dilettante or Renaissance man.
He was above average in intelligence but no genius. He simply wanted to understand the world in order to make a difference. Mainly, he had talent for communicating and writing, which helped him stand out in a world that gave little respect to the working class. But what gave force to his words was his ability and willingness to imagine, dream, hope, and aspire. He was a visionary.
Sure, he was an imperfect person, as are we all. But knowing who he was, he didn’t try to be anything else. He felt driven toward something and his life was the following of that impulse, that daimonic inspiration. Such internal motivation was an anchor to his life, steadying his course amidst strong currents and troubling storms. Forced to make his own way, he had to figure it out step by step along a wandering path through the world. He was no Adams or Burke trying to position himself in the respectable social order by playing the role of paternalistic professional politician. Instead, he dedicated his entire life to the values and needs of the commoner, as inspired and envisioned by our common humanity.
Thomas Paine was born a nobody, spent his life poor, died forgotten, and departed this world with little left to his name, having given away everything he had to give. Some have maligned his life and work as a failure, judged his revolutionary dream as having gone wrong. Others would disagree and recent assessments have been more kind to him. His words remain and they still have much to offer us, reminding us of what kind of man he was and what kind of society we might yet become. May a new Age of Paine come to fulfill these promises.
“I speak an open and disinterested language, dictated by no passion but that of humanity. To me, who have not only refused offers, because I thought them improper, but have declined rewards I might with reputation have accepted, it is no wonder that meanness and imposition appear disgustful. 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. […]
“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness: When these things can be said, then may the country boast of its constitution and its government.”
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man