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These are the times that try mens souls.

That phrase is a stark truth from the American Revolution, yet most people can’t tell you who said it and where.  It’s not as if it didn’t deserve better.

Even if you believe the Revolution was a bad idea, given the inflation that funded it and the Hamiltonian government that emerged from it, it would be hard to find words more influential in determining our history.

The argument in their favor goes something like this: In late 1776 Washington’s troops were chased from New York City and fled across New Jersey, finally settling across the Delaware River near Philadephia. Not only the British but many colonists were certain of their surrender, and only a Christmas break and snow were delaying the inevitable.  Legend has it that while the troops were camped out waiting for their enlistments to expire, one of them, Thomas Paine, a British expatriate who had arrived in the colonies only two years earlier, borrowed a fellow soldier’s drum to use as a desk so he could pen an essay that General Washington had his officers read to the men (December 23, 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 by 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.

Paine’s message got the troops standing tall again for an afternoon.  With Paine among them they crossed the ice-strewn Delaware, marched nine miles through the night in a blizzard to Trenton, and surprised a British detachment of hung-over German mercenaries on the morning of December 26, 1776.  The fight was over quickly, and the General had achieved his first victory in the war for independence.

A new thought suddenly emerged among the colonists: The war might not be futile.  Morale was temporarily restored among civilians and soldiers.  “The dramatic victory inspired soldiers to serve longer and attracted new recruits to the ranks.” (Wikipedia)

Paine had already achieved fame earlier that year for his pamphlet Common Sense, in which he argued persuasively that the colonies could govern themselves, and that George III was no more than the “Royal Brute of Britain” rather than some loving father who cares for his subjects.

“For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King,” Paine wrote.  In a Paine-style flourish he added:

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her.—Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

To attack the king in such manner was considered blasphemy and treason, but in the colonies it found a sympathetic audience.  Six months after publication the widespread popularity of Common Sense nudged the Continental Congress to draw up a Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Paine, in other words, ignited the drive for independence and kept it alive during its darkest hours.

Such deeds would overwhelmingly qualify a person as one of the country’s Founders, but in Paine’s case they haven’t.  Some historians regard him as an unfortunate footnote in the country’s creation and nothing more.

The Age of Reason

Among the reasons for his diminutive stature was a three-volume book he wrote much later, The Age of Reason, which was openly critical of organized religion and the Christian Bible in particular.  Paine’s attack was based on his personal biblical scholarship and as such called for scholarly counterarguments by those who disagreed.  While there were rebuttals, most people seemed to regard him as Teddy “Bully Boy” Roosevelt did many years later, as a “filthy little atheist.”

Is Roosevelt’s charge legitimate?  Age of Reason opens with the “author’s profession of faith,” as Paine described it, written while he was living in France during the Terror of the French Revolution:

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

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.

Is this is how a “filthy atheist” expresses himself?  As Jill LaPore has written,

Paine considered his lifelong views on religion inseparable from his thoughts on government: “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 Governments to hold man in ignorance of his rights.”

Paper Money

Paine had little in the way of formal education, yet his understanding of complex issues and his ability to articulate them clearly and passionately were without parallel in his lifetime.  One of his greatest essays addressed the nature of paper money (1786):

The pretense for paper money has been that there was not a sufficiency of gold and silver. This, so far from being a reason for paper emissions, is a reason against them. . . .

As to the assumed authority of any assembly in making paper money, or paper of any kind, a legal tender, or in other language, a compulsive payment, it is a most presumptuous attempt at arbitrary power. There can be no such power in a republican government: the people have no freedom — and property no security — where this practice can be acted . . . .

If anything had or could have a value equal to gold and silver, it would require no tender law; and if it had not that value it ought not to have such a law; and, therefore, all tender laws are tyrannical and unjust and calculated to support fraud and oppression. . . .

Such insights are sorely missing from today’s narratives about money.

It’s difficult to document Paine’s contributions to liberty in anything less than a book, but for more extended presentations please see “Thomas Paine: Liberty’s Hated Torchbearer” and “The Sharpened Quill.”  And for a script dramatizing his role in the nation’s founding, see Eyes of Fire: Thomas Paine and the American Revolution.