Paine, Thomas a noted American speculative writer, and prominent political character in the colonial history of this country, whose influence upon his day and generation was unfavorable to Christianity, though. not altogether to civilization, deserves a place here for his repeated attempts to modify the religious thought of this country.
Life. — Paine was an Englishman by birth, and saw the light of this world Jan. 29,1737, at Thetford, in the county of Norfolk. His father, who was a Quaker, brought him up to his own business, that of a staymaker. At the age of twenty Thomas removed to London, where he worked some time at his business. He then went to Sandwich, in Kent, where, in 1760, he married the daughter of an exciseman, and obtained a place in the excise, but retained it only about a year, and then became an assistant at a school in the neighborhood of London. After leaving this situation he was again employed in the excise, and was situated at Lewes, in Sussex. Here he had gained some reputation by various pieces of poetry, and had been selected by the excisemen of the neighborhood. to draw up The Case of the Officers of Excise, with Remarks on the Qualifications of Officers, and on the numerous Evils arrising to the Revenue from the Insufficiency of the present Salaries (1772). The ability displayed in this his first prose composition induced one of the commissioners of excise to give him a letter of introduction to Benjamin Franklin, then in London as a deputy from the colonies of North America to the British government. Franklin was favorably impressed with Paine, and, hoping that his services might prove beneficial to the colonies, advised him to go to America. Paine took the advice, settled at Philadelphia in 1774, and devoted himself to literary works. He became a contributor to various periodical works, and in January, 1775, editor of the Philadelphia Magazine. In 1776, at the outbreak of our colonial conflict, he embraced the cause of the colonies, and enlisted as a volunteer in the army. He had previously influenced public opinion in favor of independence from the British throne by an article which he published in the Pennsylvania Journal (October, 1775), entitled "Serious Thoughts." In it he declared for political equality, and gave expression to the hope of the ultimate abolition of slavery. He now further encouraged the radical movers for separation by another publication of his, entitled Common Sense (Phila. 1776, 8vo). These writings made a profound impression, especially the latter, and contributed in an eminent degree to make the people of this country of one mind. The masses, who had reasoned but little on the subject, were stirred to activity, and thus thousands who would otherwise have been passive, if not opponents to the independence scheme, were brought to the aid of the Revolutionary movement. True, some of his political teachings could not have the endorsement of the moral and religious element; yet the truth cannot be withheld that Thomas Paine was one of the most powerful. actors in the Revolutionary drama, and that, whatever his failings, errors, or vices, his service to his adopted country should not be forgotten. Some writers have denied his political services, and have declared it impossible that, a stranger at the outbreak of the colonial struggle, he could have influenced public opinion in America; but such should remember that the contemporaries of Paine and worthy men many of them certainly were who associated with Paine-judged differently, and not only freely circulated his writings, but gave expression to their worth for political purposes by voting him £500 through their legislators, besides conferring on him the degree of M.A. (Pennsylvania University), and membership in their choicest literary association, the American Philosophical Society. Though in the army, Paine continued to employ his pen. In December, 1776, he published his first Crisis, which opened with the phrase, "These are the times that try men's souls." So well was it believed to meet the emergency of those times that it was, by order, read at the head of every regiment, and is pronounced to have done much to rouse the drooping ardor of the people. He continued such publications until the attainment of peace in 1783. In 1777 he was made secretary to the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs, but in 1779 he was obliged to resign this post, because he had in an excited encounter divulged the secrets of his office. In 1781 Paine Wyas sent to France with colonel Lawrence to negotiate a loan, in which he was more than successful; for the French government granted a subsidy of six millions of livres to the Americans, and also became guarantee for a loan of ten millions advanced by Holland. On his return to America he was rewarded for his services by being appointed, in 1785, clerk to the Assembly of Pennsylvania; he received from Congress a donation of $3000; and the state of New York bestowed on him the confiscated estate of Frederick Davoe, a royalist, near New Rochelle, in the state of New York, consisting of 500 acres of well-cultivated land, with a good stone house. After the peace between Great Britain and America, Paine employed himself chiefly in mechanical speculations. In 1787 he embarked for France, and, after visiting Paris, went to England, with a view to the prosecution of a project relative to the construction of an iron bridge, of his own invention, at Rotherham, in Yorkshire. This scheme involved him in considerable difficulties; but his writings; in which he foretold, or rather recommended, the change that was approaching in France, brought him a supply of money. On the appearance of Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution, Paine wrote the first part of his celebrated Rights of A Man, in answer to that work, the most famous of all the replies to Burke, and circulated in innumerable editions, not only in English, but also in foreign versions. The second part was published early in 1792; and on May 21 in that year a proclamation issued against wicked and seditious publications evidently alluded to, though it did not name, the Rights of Man. On the same day the attorney-general commenced a prosecution against Paine as the author of that work, because of his outcry against the English. aristocracy, and severe assaults on the British constitution. While the trial was pending he succeeded in making his escape. He set off for France, arriving there in September, 1792. The garrison of Calais were under arms to receive this "friend of liberty," the tricolored cockade was presented to him by the mayor, and the handsomest woman in the town was selected to place it in his hat. Meantime Paine had been declared in Paris worthy of the honors of citizenship, and being chosen member of the National Convention for the department of Calais, he proceeded to Paris, where he was received with every demonstration of extravagant joy. On the trial of Louis XVI he voted with the Girondists against the sentence of death, proposing his imprisonment during the war, and his banishment afterwards. This conduct offended the Jacobins, and towards the close of 1793 he was excluded from the convention on the ground of being a foreigner (though naturalized), and immediately after he was arrested and committed to the Luxembourg. Just before his confinement Paine had finished the first part of his work entitled the Age of Reason, and having confided it to the care of his friend Joel Barlow, it was published (see below). On the fall of Robespierre he was released. In 1795 he published the second part of his Age of Reason; and in May, 1796, he addressed to the Council of Five Hundred a work entitled Decline and Fall of the System of Finance in England, and also published his pamphlet entitled Agrarian Justice, being a plan for meliorating the condition of man. Fearful of being captured by English cruisers, he remained in France some years longer. He had, however, written to Mr. Jefferson, who had then but recently been elected president of the United States, and expressed a wish to be brought back to America in a government ship. Jefferson at last replied, offering Paine a passage in the Maryland sloop of war, which he had sent to France for a special purpose'. In his letter, dated March, 1801, Jefferson expresses his high estimate of Paine's services in the cause of American independence in the following words: "I am in hopes you will find us returned generally to sentiments worthy of former times. In these it will be your glory to have steadily labored, and with as much effect as any man living. That you may long live to continue your useful labors, and to reap their reward in the thankfulness of nations, is my sincere prayer." Paine did not embark for America, however, till August, 1802: he reached Baltimore in the following October. His first wife had died about a year after their marriage; he lived about three years with his second, whom he married soon after the death of his first, when they separated by mutual consent, it is said, on account of her physical disability. During his last residence in France he led a dissolute life, and one of the women he supported followed him to this country. He died in the city of New York, June 8, 1809, and, being refused burial by the Quakers, was interred in a field on his own estate near New Rochelle. Cobbett, some eight or nine years afterwards, disinterred Paine's bones and carried them to England, but instead of arousing, as he expected, the enthusiasm of the republican party in that country, Cobbett only drew upon himself universal contempt. Paine's political and religious admirers in America erected in 1839 a showy monument, with a medallion portrait, over his empty grave. There is now a hall in Boston, supported by freethinkers, which is called after him.
Works. — As a writer Paine has sometimes been compared with Gibbon (q.v.). Both wrote on religion, philosophy, and politics. But these two authors are so very unlike each other that they should be compared only as extremes of the same general school. The freethinker Paine is a character of a very different kind from the freethinker Gibbon. The latter is the polished scholar, the polite man of letters; the former an active man of the world, educated by men rather than books, of low tastes and vulgar tone. Gibbon's religious scepticism is that of high life, Paine's of low. In the treatment of religious topics, the one writer sneers, the other hates. The one is a philosopher, the other a politician. Schooled in the politico- philosophical doctrines of Rousseau, Paine became the exponent of this Frenchman among the lower orders of the Anglo-Saxon family, by combining in his teachings the doctrines of Rousseau with those of the English deists. The language in which he clothes his thoughts betrays, besides, great familiarity with the bitterness of Voltaire. An edition of Paine's Political Writings was published at Boston in 1856 (2 vols. 8vo), and at New York (1860, 12mo); and in the same year his so-called Theological Writings were issued. In London a complete edition of his works was published in 1861. The two great works of Thomas Paine are, as we have seen above, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. Of the former we have not place to treat here, as the religious views espoused therein reappear, only in a more objectionable form, in the second work. The Age of Reason was a pamphlet admitting of quick perusal. It was afterwards followed by a second part, in which a defence was offered against the replies made to the former part. The object of the two is to state reasons for rejecting the Bible (pt. 1, p. 319; pt. 2, p. 8, 83), and to explain the nature of the religion of deism (pt. 1, p. 3, 4, 21-50; pt. 2, p. 83-93), which was proposed as a substitute. A portion is devoted to an attack on the external evidence of revelation, or, as the author blasphemously calls it, "the three principal means of imposture" (p. 44), prophecy, miracles, and mystery; the latter of which he asserts may exist in the physical, but not by the nature of things in the moral world. A larger portion is devoted to a collection of the various internal difficulties of the books of the Old and New Testament, and of the schemes of religion, Jewish and Christian (pt. 2, p. 10-83). The great mass of these objections are those which had been suggested by English or French deists, but are stated with extreme bitterness. The most novel part of this work is the use which Paine makes of the discoveries of astronomy, in revealing the vastness of the universe and a plurality of globes, to discredit the idea of interference on behalf of this insignificant planet — an argument which he wields especially against the doctrine of incarnation (pt. 1, p. 37-44). But no part of his work manifests such bitterness, and at the same time such a specious mode of argument, as his attack on the doctrine of redemption and substitutional atonement (p. 20). The religion which Paine proposed to substitute for Christianity was the belief in one God as revealed by science; in immortality as the continuance of conscious existence; in the natural equality of man; and in the obligation of justice and mercy to one's neighbor (pt. 2, p. 3, 4, 50).
As a writer, Paine must be granted to possess a vigorous and clear style; though somewhat coarse and simple, it is enlivened with comparisons and illustrations which render it very popular and attractive. He saw clearly the weak points of any object against which he directed his attack, and accordingly he was a vigorous assailant; but he was unqualified, either by competent knowledge or by habits of patient investigation, for the examination of the diversified subjects he attempted; certainly not in all their bearings. He was truly a bold and original thinker, but he lacked the amount of knowledge necessary for inquiry and criticism; hence he proved but a feeble and ignorant foe of Christianity. He assailed it without understanding it, and condemned without careful examination. His own testimony must forever settle his incompetency. He declared his belief in the existence of a God and a future life, but decried the sacred Scriptures as contradictory, though he had not a copy of the Bible at his command while criticising. Thus while he stated some of the common difficulties which really exist in the Gospel history acutely, he frequently exposed himself for want of sound knowledge, when he thought that he was exposing the sacred writers. But, besides all this, the grossness and scurrility of his language-in his satire and blasphemous ribaldry he is a fit parallel to Voltaire-reasonably shock the religious feeling of all Christians. Yet all his failings may easily be accounted for, and his attacks on Christianity forgiven him, or should at least be covered with the mantle of charity, when we consider that Paine was soured by the incongruities of the English Establishment in which he had been reared; and then, influenced by the shallow infidelity of the French Revolutionists, quarreller with the Bible, when it was only a quarrel with bishops. Of what Christianity really is, in its highest and broadest catholic sense, we do not believe that he had the remotest idea; and so far has the world advanced in Bible knowledge that the Tribune (N. Y., March 25, 1876) says truly: "His best arguments, if they may be so called, would not, if first published today, attract the slightest attention, nor would anybody think them worthy of serious refutation. The opponents of Christianity are now men of larger calibre, greater knowledge, and more respectable method. They perhaps do less mischief than he did, because fewer people understand them. He was an infidel without science, erudition, or philosophy. He was simply a sharp debater, a caviller, and a technical disputant. As such he was immensely admired by minds of the same class, but it is a class for which we cannot entertain the highest respect, and to whose guidance methodical thinkers in these days will not resign themselves." A book so easily confuted as Paine's Age of Reason did not, of course, remain long unanswered. Bishop Watson's and Thomas Scott's responses are now the best known; but we may add to these names those of J. Achincloss, Elias Boudinot, John Disney, Samuel Drew, J. P. Estlin, David Levi, W. McNeil, Thomas Meek, Michael Nash, Uzal Ogden, John Padman, William Patten, J. Priestly, T. Shame, David Simpson, Thomas O. Summers, Robert Thompson, John Tytler, W. Wait, G. Wakefield, E. Wallace, and T. Williams, and still leave the list unexhausted. When Robert Hall was asked his opinion of the Age of Reason, he replied, "My opinion of it, sir? Why, sir, it is a mouse nibbling at the wing of an archangel." See, on Paine and his literary productions, Salmagunda (Lond. ed.), 1, 134; Dibdin, Sunday Library, 6:335; Lowndes, British Libr. p. 1761; Lond. Month. Rev. (1794), p. 96; Brit. Rev. June, 1811; Edinb. Month. Rev. 3, 434; Blackw. May. 10:701; 13:49; 17:198; 26:816, 866; 29:764; 30:637; 34:501; 35:406; 38:361, 366; Niles, Register, 30:397; Carey, Museum, 1, 20; 9:179; Spirit of the Pilgrims, 4:338; Living Age, 16:169; Hist. Mag. (N.Y.), July, 1857, p. 206; Lond. Quar. Rev. July, 1858; Atlantic Monthly, July, 1859: Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Authors, vol. 2, s.v.; Watson, Men and Times; Randall, Jefferson; Memoirs of S. Grellet; Address on Paine, by W. A. Stokes (1859, 8vo). The principal biographies of Paine are: Francis Oldys's (George Chalmers) (Lond. 1791, 8vo); James Cheetham's (N. Y. 1809, 8vo); Sherwin's (1819, 8vo); G.Valse's (N. Y.
1841, 8vo); by the editor of the National (Lond. 1850, 12mo); by the editor of Paine's Political Writings (Bost. 1850, 2 vols. 8vo); by the author of The Religion of Science (N. Y. 1860,12mo). We hardly know whether to name in this connection the recent publication entitled Light from the Spirit World: the Pilgrimage of Thomas Paine and Others to the Seventh Circle in the Spirit World,. by Rev. C. Hammond (Medina, N. Y., 1852, post 8vo).