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Our Belittled Founding Father

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) is a figure from our revolutionary past who emerged from obscurity to upset the world with his popular writings.  “He wrote the three top-selling literary works of the eighteenth century, which inspired the American Revolution, issued a historic battle cry for individual rights, and challenged the corrupt power of government churches,”researcher Jim Powell tells us.

After enduring a long illness Paine, 72, died in Greenwich Village, New York City on June 8, 1809.  Though he was known throughout the world his friends, such as they were, were in short supply.  Wikipedia says only “six mourners came to his funeral, two of whom were black, most likely freedmen.”  The free world had abandoned Paine.  Why?

Politically, the US had changed since he published his explosive anti-government pamphlet, Common Sense, in January 1776.  The Federalists, under the intellectual leadership of Alexander Hamilton, were pushing for a United States of England, with all the corruption and taxes that came with it.  Paine, writing during Jefferson’s administration, fired back with a series of articles titled “To the Citizens of the United States and Particularly to the Leaders of the Federal Faction (p. 908).”  Referring to the Federalists as apostates who clung to the word while changing its meaning, Paine wrote that “federalism” now

served as a cloak for treason, a mask for tyranny. Scarcely were they placed in the seat of power and office, than federalism was to be destroyed, and the representative system of government, the pride and glory of America, and the palladium of her liberties, was to be over- thrown and abolished.  [p. 915]

Given his scathing attack on Jefferson’s political opponents, why didn’t Jefferson and friends pay their respects to Paine at his funeral?  Because he wrote a book, The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, in three parts, that broke an unwritten rule: It critiqued the Bible in language commoners could understand.

Citing Numbers 31:13–47 as an example, in which Moses orders the slaughter of thousands of boys and women, and sanctions the rape of thousands of girls, at God’s behest, Paine calls the Bible a “book of lies, wickedness, and blasphemy; for what can be greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty!” [Wikipedia]

For comments such as these Theodore Roosevelt libeled Paine a “filthy, little atheist,”

a phrase with as many errors in it as words, since Paine was fastidiously clean, stood taller than most of his contemporaries at five feet ten inches, and was a professed believer in God. [J. H. McKenna, Ph.D. ]

Double Standard at Work

Yet Jefferson is well-known today for a Bible he assembled in which he kept the words of Jesus and some of his deeds, but removed any mention of miracles or God.  There was no virgin birth, no resurrection, no Easter Sunday.  In a letter to John Adams in 1823, he wrote that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787, Jefferson advised, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

Our third president could pass for an atheist, could he not?

We’ve been told since childhood that Jefferson is one of the greatest US presidents.  He has his bust chiseled in stone on a mountain in South Dakota.  He’s been enshrined in the Jefferson Memorial — but with a twist: The famous inscription reads “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” which sounds like something a Christian might say.  But Jefferson wrote “god,” not “God,” in the letter from which this quote is extracted, and refers only to his impassioned opposition to a state religion.  And as the author of the Declaration of Independence he has a front-row seat among the Founding Fathers.

Paine, however, “is, at best, [considered] a lesser Founder,” writes Harvard history professor Jill Lepore.

[Yet] Paine’s contributions to the nation’s founding would be hard to overstate. “Common Sense” made it possible to declare independence. “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain,” Adams himself wrote. [Adams hated Paine.]  But Paine lifted his sword, too, and emptied his purse. Despite his poverty—he was by far the poorest of the Founders—he donated his share of the profits from “Common Sense” to buy supplies for the Continental Army, in which he also served. His chief contribution to the war was a series of dispatches known as “The American Crisis,” and printed in newspapers throughout the states.

The American Crisis essays lifted the flagging spirits of soldiers and citizens alike.

No Common Sense, no Declaration of Independence.  Yet Paine is not considered a Founder, and in some circles he’s only regarded as among “other notable people of the period.”

Paine has been dealt a cruel injustice.  A case could be made that he is the country’s greatest Founder, by far, yet as I’ve discovered many Americans only vaguely recall mention of his name somewhere.

For Paine, in his view of the world, there can be no separation of Church and State.  As he wrote in The Age of Reason,

It has been the scheme of the Christian church, and of all the other invented systems of religion, to hold man in ignorance of the Creator, as it is of government to hold him in ignorance of his rights. The systems of the one are as false as those of the other, and are calculated for mutual support.

For those who disagree, let them offer rebuttals, not vilifications.