Jeff Biggers on Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine’s Truth-to-Power Message in 1776
by Jeff Biggers

“Without the pen of the author of Common Sense,” John Adams begrudgingly admitted, “the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Rarely in history has the extraordinary power of writing galvanized such an armed resistance. Paine was a living icon in his own age, an 18th-century romantic figure as reviled and revered as Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the 1960s; Paine would go on to play a key role in the French Revolution. While he was tried in absentia for treason in Britain, his Rights of Man book on the natural rights of people over monarchy would become a global literary phenomenon and upend England’s social order.

Intentional or not, the conviction of Paine’s writing underscored the role of writers in the resistance. He was a truth-teller, contentious and bold, and adamant about holding accountable the brokers of authorized versions of history, calling out their hypocrisy, omissions, and mistruths—and the betrayal of an American credo of “we the people.”

Paine had not cornered the market on this literary tradition, of course. And his own select vision, especially in recognizing a more perfect vision of “we the people,” would be challenged in the process.

The Literary Instigator of the American Resistance
by Jeff Biggers

His letter to the abbé sought to define the transformative impact of the resistance movement on Americans in the aftershock of their triumph. “Our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution more extraordinary than the political revolution of the country,” he explained to the French. “We see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used. We can look back on our own prejudices, as if they had been the prejudices of other people. We now see and know they were prejudices and nothing else; and, relieved from their shackles, enjoy a freedom of mind, we felt not before.”

High-minded perhaps, but hardly delusional, Paine claimed this new way of thinking had “opened itself toward the world” and brought Americans into the world of nations. He didn’t trumpet the military triumph of Washington and his French allies; nor did Paine make an inventory of the natural resources and wealth now at American disposal. The future of the United States of America—and consequently the world—rested in the hands of “science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all,” which served as the great “temple where all may meet.”

Paine’s message to the abbé reflected the ongoing negotiations in Paris—and a clear admonition to its leaders. Instead of pursuing that “temper of arrogance,” he warned, “which serves only to sink” a country in esteem and to “entail the dislike of all nations,” Paine called on all leaders to find a way for the world to live in peace.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

Letters, the tongue of the world, have in some measure brought all mankind acquainted, and by an extension of their uses are every day promoting some new friendship. Through them distant nations became capable of conversation, and losing by degrees the awkwardness of strangers, and the moroseness of suspicion, they learn to know and understand each other. Science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple where all may meet. Her influence on the mind, like the sun on the chilled earth, has long been preparing it for higher cultivation and further improvement. The philosopher of one country sees not an enemy in the philosopher of another: he takes his seat in the temple of science, and asks not who sits beside him.

2 thoughts on “Jeff Biggers on Thomas Paine

  1. Paine’s interest in science is a good counterpoint to any assertions about him being a rabid radical– which he certainly was, but not with the anti-intellectual and uncultured side that even the more sane conservatives charge him with. He was a remarkable figure for how fluently he moved in such elite circles, absorbing ideas and refining his own, without losing the radical vision that fueled his pamphlets. If Paine were alive today I think he’d be somewhat like the late Mark E. Smith of British band The Fall — spewing eloquent invective over relentless riffs.

    • It’s not as if Paine spent his life trying to be a radical, although he maybe always was a bit of a malcontent and wanderer. He tried to settle down in a decent life, but it never quite worked out for him. His first wife died in giving birth to their child. And following that he became a tax collector and was part of the town’s debating club, until he lost that job because he petitioned for a living wage (a job that paid so little that most taxpayers were forced to accept bribes to earn enough to live on). That led to the ending of his second marriage.

      So, he ended up destitute in London where the working class (largely the landless peasantry) was organizing and educating themselves, such as buying books and paying for lectures. Paine joined in to educate and better himself when he met Benjamin Franklin who sent him to the colonies. Even once in the colonies, he tried to be respectable by tutoring and then, following in Franklin’s footsteps, printing. That led him to his radical calling, but at that point he was well into middle age. He was no young rebel looking for a fight.

      With Franklin’s introductory letter, Paine was able to make connections among the intellectuals. He befriended many respectable people, including among aristocrats like Washington and Jefferson, remaining friends with the latter for the rest of his life. He was a guest at Washington’s estate. This social group included a number of heavyweight thinkers and all of them were interested in science with a number of them being inventors. Paine himself developed a smokeless candle and he designed an iron bridge that might have been built at full-scale if not for the turmoil of the French Revolution.

      I’m sure Paine would have been happy and contented to had a nice job that paid a living wage, a family life, and intellectually stimulating activities to keep him preoccupied. Instead, he found himself in the middle of a fight that he didn’t start but that he helped to finish. If not for all the shittiness of the times, he could have had a far different life. None of us chooses the time or place we are born into.

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