The Thomas Paine Reader [A Review]

If you were to choose figures from history to support the argument that the pen is mightier than the sword, Thomas Paine should be among the first picked. Collected here are his incendiary writings, which have never been out of print, and changed the course of history.

Cover image of The Thomas Paine Reader

There is no doubt that Thomas Paine is a person who had an enormous impact, who, through a little bit of work, changed the course of history. He was a pretty wayward young man and showed little talent or work ethic for business and failed at several ventures. He did have a curious mind and, fortunately, grew up in an era (mid-18th century) where lack of wealth did not necessarily mean a lack of education. In Paine’s time, people of moderate means could at least read and write and get a hold of books and Paine embarked on a lot of self-education. He soon knew what he was about and could speak his mind with force and powerful turns of phrase. He was known to be found down at the pub, willing to get into debates with others after a few drinks. All he needed now was a cause to put his words to.

The Thomas Paine Reader is a Penguin Classics book that includes Paine’s major writings. Most of them are edited down or are only included in parts thereof in this edition. This is because some of his works had several parts – Part One, Part Two, etc – but after Part One, they went off topic or have lost relevance to modern readers.

The first cause Paine put his pen towards, and that is included in the collection, was the issue of raising salaries for excise officers. Paine fought for the cause, writing and publishing pamphlets. It did not succeed, but he made a lot of useful contacts. Then, after 37 unimpressive years he tries to start over in the American colonies.

Then came Paine’s startling (because this is 1775) African Slavery in America, where Paine makes several pointed arguments, from different perspectives, against slavery. He shows the legal inconsistency in treating people who buy slaves as innocent of the crime of the enslavers – an argument that does not stand up in analogy to the way other crimes are treated. He then discredits several biblical arguments for slavery, pointing out for example that the bible does not give permission to enslave people who have done no wrong or harm against you and that slavery contradicts the Golden Rule which has been given increasing importance. He also makes political and practical arguments by asking Americans to consider the hypocrisy of complaining about unfair treatment by Britain while keeping slaves; the hypocrisy of denouncing other social evils while keeping slaves; and that the practice of keeping slaves is antithetical to the Christian Mission and puts people off Christianity.

By this time, animosity between the American Colonists and their British masters was escalating. But even after the Boston Tea Party, most Americans were still not in favour of war or independence. They thought it was futile or that their best option was continued negotiation with Britain for improved conditions. Then Paine got his pen out. Even modern historians credit Paine with providing the turning point. His pamphlet, Common Sense, laid out the case for independence from Britain even with war and the risk of losing. For Americans, the arguments laid out by Paine swung the issue decisively in favour of independence.

The plea for independence boldly urged in Common Sense caught the public imagination. The pamphlet ‘struck a string which required but a touch to make it vibrate’, a contemporary noted. ‘The country was ripe for independence, and only needed somebody to tell the people so, with decision, boldness and plausibility.’ Edmund Randolf of Virginia later noted that ‘the public sentiment which a few weeks before [the publication of Common Sense] had shuddered at the tremendous obstacles, with which independence was environed, overleaped every barrier’. General Washington commented that increased hostilities, ‘added to the sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning contained in the pamphlet Common Sense, will not leave numbers at a loss to decide upon the propriety of a separation’. In Massachusetts a citizen noted that he believed ‘no pages was ever more eagerly read, no more generally approved. People speak of it in rapturous praise.’ In Philadelphia the book made numerous converts.

From the Introduction

In Common Sense (1776), he starts with making several arguments against monarchy and hereditary succession, first with the scriptural arguments, then with the non-scriptural. He then turns to America’s situation and makes his case against reconciliation with Britain. He’s pretty harsh in his words, but amongst his arguments are that the King is unfit and Americans will be unable to pass laws of their own and Britain cannot provide a functioning government, only guardianship at best. He speculates about what sort of home government would best suit America’s interests and what the best path to independence would be – for example he suggests they need a declaration of independence to show they are respectable and not simply rebels or outlaws.

Did [hereditary succession] ensure a race of good and wise men it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.

Also included is an appendix where he responds to criticism after the first edition came out, arguing that America will never achieve prosperity while it is a dependent; that independence is in America’s best interests, it may be the only thing that can unite the colonies, but will only get more difficult the longer it is delayed. He also writes a very effective takedown of the Quaker arguments against taking up arms or deposing kings.

After this, the collection includes Paine’s published writings during and after the American revolutionary war. With revolution underway in America and France, he had hoped the same might happen in Britain. The strongest pushback against him came from the writings of Edmund Burke, who defended hereditary rule by a monarchy and aristocracy. Several people argued against Burke – Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women being a notable example – but the biggest impact came from Paine’s second major work, The Rights of Man (1791-2); a point-by-point rebuttal of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Once again the uncomplicated, unscholarly and unsophisticated rhetoric of Paine brough him unprecedented popular success. Paine was an instant hero in England, not only to the intellectual radicals among whom he moved, such as Blake, Holcroft, Horne Tooke, Godwin and Wollstonecraft, but to hundreds of thousands of artisans and journeymen who bought Rights of Man for sixpence or read it reprinted by their provincial radical association. Paine’s book was more than a simple defence of the French from the obloquy heaped upon them by Burke; it was also a call to the British to replace the aristocratic institutions so praised by Burke with new liberal institutions, to replace the principle of privilege and hereditary with the new ideals of talent and merit.

From the Introduction

In Part One, Paine attacks Burke’s assertion that people have previously given up their right (if they ever had one) to form a government and Burke’s interpretations of the French Revolution. Then he moves on to develop his own case for human rights and a government based on society and reason as the natural progression from previous ones based on superstition/religion and power/conquest. He lays out the articles of the French Constitution – abolishing aristocratic titles and the monarchy, establishing free trade, etc – and dares Burke to say he opposes them. 

Mr Burke will not, I presume, deny the position I have already advanced; namely, that governments arise, either out of the people, or over the people. The English government is one of those which arose out of a conquest, and not out of society, and, consequently it arose over the people; and though it has been much modified from the opportunity of circumstances since the time of William the Conqueror, the country has never yet regenerated itself, and is therefore without a constitution.

In Part Two, he covers the origins and vices of previous and current forms of government and compares them to virtues of the sort of government he favours for the future – small, representative, constitutional. As Part Two goes on, he digresses into other topics, as he tends to do – what branches the government should have; commerce and its role in promoting peace and prosperity; uses for tax money – supporting the poor, pensions, unemployment benefits, etc.

Nothing can appear more contradictory than the principles on which the old governments began, and the condition to which society, civilisation, and commerce are capable of carrying mankind. Government on the old system, is an assumption of power, for the aggrandisement of itself; on the new, a delegation of power, for the common benefit of society. The former supports itself by keeping up a system of war; the latter promotes a system of peace, as the true means of enriching a nation. The one encourages national prejudices; the other promotes universal society, as the means of universal commerce. The one measures prosperity, by the quantity of revenue it extorts; the other proves its excellence, by the small quantity of taxes it requires.

The response was pretty ferocious. Burke, supported by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, sued for libel and Paine fled Britain for revolutionary France. On the cover of this Penguin Classics edition is a cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank of Paine writing The Rights of Man. Floating around his head, are his apparent inspirations including ‘Treason’, ‘Rebellion’, ‘Ingratitude’ and ‘Equality Madness’. At his feet he is shown trampling on ‘Obedience to the Law’, ‘Morality’, ‘Religion’.

It is a dangerous attempt in any government to say to a nation ‘thou shalt not read.’ […] If Rights of Man were a book that deserved the vile description which promoters of the addresses have given of it, why did not these men prove their charge, and satisfy the people, by producing it and reading it publicly? This most certainly ought to have been done, and would also have been done, had they believed it would have answered their purpose. But the fact is, that the book contains truths which those time-servers dreaded to hear, and dreaded that the people should know; and it is now following up the addresses in every part of the nation, and convicting them of falsehoods.

The next few essays in this collection were written during the fallout of The Rights of Man and Paine fleeing to France. They cover more attacks on hereditary systems of government and monarchy; he argues for a governance system based on elected representatives and – something fairly new and radical – a legal system based on universal basic rights; he argues that Louis XVI should be put on trial but exiled instead of being sentenced to death, which turns into his arguments against the death penalty in general.

Paine’s idea of universal rights started putting him at odds with his allies. For example, the same reasoning led him to reiterate his arguments that slavery was immoral as was the death penalty. American and French revolutionaries were distancing themselves. His argument for exiling Louis XVI instead of executing him made the increasingly paranoid French revolutionaries put him in prison.

Paine does not know when to back down. His thoughts on tyranny and oppression by those in power had been building for some time towards a new target and while in prison he put his thoughts to paper in his last major work – The Age of Reason, his attack on the bible and the church. Though staunchly maintaining that he is a deist and is a strong believer in the teachings of Jesus and that his fight was against the absurdities, contradictions and immorality of the Old Testament and the hypocrisies and tyrannies of churches, he was nevertheless branded a heretic and an atheist. Loss of support of the common man made it easier for the powerful to turn their back on him too and say they never really liked him even though they owed their new positions of power to him.

He begins The Age of Reason (1794) by professing his own faith and deism and then he gets started. He makes the interesting point that revelation is only revelation if you’ve received it yourself in the first person; someone else telling you they received revelation is not revelation – it is only hearsay. He defends the story and character of Jesus inasmuch as it is moral and reasonable, but he dismisses the supernatural aspects unless, like Thomas, he can be shown proof. But he attacks the fundamental bases of Christianity – Satan and Original Sin, the irrationality of God’s/Jesus’ sacrifice/self-sacrifice.

The Old Testament he finds too dubious – too much uncertainty about its origins and accuracy, about which books were included or excluded; too much that is anecdotal. In a way, he argues that the bible was not meant to be taken as the moral authority later Christians took it to be – that the original meaning of ‘prophet’ was closer to our ‘poet’ – they were people who combined anecdote, poetry and devotion. This, according to Paine, explain much about where the bible is lacking in moral clarity– that it contains too much that is obscene and wicked and even the parts with good ethics are not specific.

Did the book called the Bible excel in purity of ideas and expression all of the books that are now extant in the world, I would not take it for my rule of faith, as being the Word of God, because the possibility would nevertheless exist of my being imposed upon. But when I see throughout the greater part of this book scarcely anything but a history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptable tales, I cannot dishonour my Creator by calling it by His name.

The New Testament he also finds too anecdotal. He thinks some aspects of Jesus’ story do not make sense if he was divine and its messages about living, dying and suffering are inconsistent. On the matter of the existence of God, he finds little support in scripture. He instead advocates a naturalist view of God – that the evidence of God is to be found in nature and the study of nature is the true theology. He discusses Christianity’s negative impact on education – the pointless study of dead languages, the suppression of other ancient wisdom and modern breakthroughs. He credits the Reformation with opening the doors of science and liberalism though it was not its intent and it did a lot of harm as well. After this he points out other inconsistencies – the conflict between mystery and moral truth; how do you ‘serve’ an omnipotence?; why would God use miracles, or for that matter, prophecy? And he ends The Age of Reason with a really good summary.

One thing, however, is much less equivocal, which is, that out of the matters contained in those books, together with the assistance of some old stories, the Church has set up a system of religion very contradictory to the character of the person whose name it bears. It has set up a religion of pomp and of revenue, in pretended imitation of a person whose life was humility and poverty.

Released from prison he returned to a very different America. Now a democracy, but power very much in the hands of the wealthy. He wrote scathing attacks on the policies of the first few Presidents, especially Washington who he blamed for not getting him out of French prison sooner. He became a very bitter, isolated and increasingly ignored heavy drinker and died almost forgotten.

As well as his writing on politics and religion, Paine maintained an interest in keeping up with the latest technological developments. The Industrial revolution was on the doorstep and Paine enthusiastically championed the virtues of new ideas – especially iron bridges – over the superstitions of those trying to resist change. He was also among the few, if not the only person, of the time who argued that among society’s goals should be reducing poverty and crime, improving education and was an early critic of Britain’s ravaging of India.

The collection finishes with a few more post-Age of Reason writings. I liked his Dissertation on the First Principles of Government. It continues in his antagonism towards hereditary rule, his support of human rights as a foundation of democracy, but is more succinct, showing how his writing improved over time. The collection ends with a couple of angry letters to Washington and Adams and a bit on his advocacy for iron bridges.

I’ve had this book for a very long time but kept putting off reading it, in part because I expected it to be provocative. I imagined reading it a paragraph at a time, getting too worked up to continue, having to pace the room, finally sitting down, before getting up again a few minutes later. I expected it to be full of ‘give me liberty or give me death’, type stuff. But it was not like any of this at all. His style of writing, his turns of phrase, have certainly endured. You are likely to find its complement in a lot of patriotic, pro-democracy, pro-revolution writing of the time including the American Declaration of Independence. Also included in this collection is his poem Liberty Tree – a metaphor that is still in frequent use. The impact of his work, especially his big three pieces, cannot be understated.

That being said, he is often given to exaggeration, hyperbola and melodrama.

Never was a subject, simple and easy in itself (and which needed nothing but plain and temperate argument, if it needed any) more hideously tortured, and wilfully misrepresented, than by those who have wrote against the five per cent duty.

But he does not seem to think so.

In offering the foregoing remarks, and those contained in my former letters, I have kept strictly to the point in question, without involving it with subjects foreign to the purpose, or treating it with wild and overheated language.

Sometimes I found his prescriptions over-optimistic, his ideas over-simplistic. He’s no economist, so some of his ideas about national economies, national debt, inflation, taxes, etc, I found to be well-intentioned, radical for its time, but naïve and lacking.

I found The Rights of Man to be a bit flawed or, at least, not as tightly argued as I would have liked. He declares his principles quite loosely. I would have preferred to hear the logic behind them, to see his conclusions build up step-by-step axiomatically, like you might for a philosophical essay. Or, at least, for him to provide examples and evidence for some of his points. He does provide examples for his tax arguments but not for some of his more fundamental points. But his appeal to the common person may be partly due to this lack of intellectual rigour and the abundance of inspirational polemic.

The writing of Common Sense is a little difficult for the modern reader. Some of the essays included in the collection between Common Sense and The Rights of Man aren’t terribly relevant for the modern reader. I also think the normally rigorous Penguin Classics could have done more to explain the context for the modern reader, for example to explain who were the Tories and Whigs Paine was criticising in terms of the period and issues. However, his writing style improves quickly and some of the essays written after The Rights of Man, responding to critics, were quite good and I enjoyed them.

The Age of Reason was a clear highlight for me. Its arguments have stood the test of time, and its introduction is still frequently cited for its defence of free speech.

To My Fellow-Citizens of the United States of America

I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinion upon religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of ever changing it.

The more formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Paine was probably just too radical for his time but his major writings have never been out of print. Though he was no pioneer of socialism or capitalism his ideas and arguments have been inspired people on both sides – unionists, land reformers, pro-democracy revolutionaries, free market economists and small government advocates.

Almost a century before Lincoln, Paine sought to write into the American Constitution a clause against slavery. He was among the very first of English writers to espouse the cause of Indian freedom. Well ahead of social reformers on both sides of the Atlantic, he had a good plan for old-age pensions. And how men and women in all our modern parties might tremble at his proposals for land nationalisation. He wanted new laws for marriage and divorce. International arbitration, family allowances, maternity benefits, free education, prison reform, full employment;

From the Introduction

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