I Don't Get the Praise for Thomas Paine
Beyond authoring Common Sense, what did he do?

It never fails. Whenever a discussion comes up about the faith of the founders of the country (the "Founding Fathers"), someone will point to that most famous of phantoms, common knowledge, to say that they were largely deists. Almost certainly, they will support that proposition by citing four things: 1) Thomas Jefferson's rather interesting views on religion, 2) James Madison's anti-Christian prattlings, 3) Benjamin Franklin's view and 4) Thomas Paine. Much can be said about each of these gentlemen and what they had to say, but I want to focus for a moment on Thomas Paine.

Thomas Paine, in his later years, wrote much which attacked Christianity or promoted his atheistic/deistic views. You can find links to much of his material on the Internet Infidels website's Thomas Paine page. But it wasn't for these materials he was considered a founding father.

What exactly did Thomas Paine do to put himself on that list of "Founding Fathers"? He didn't sign the Declaration of Independence. He wasn't a member of either of the Continental Congresses that wrote the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution. He was never a Congressman and had no input into the creation of the Bill of Rights. In all sincerity, he seems to have had little to do with any of the documents that serve as the organic founding documents of the United States. No, it appears that his designation as a founder lies on two documents he wrote during the American Revolution: Common Sense and the Crisis. He is described as follows on the ushistory.org website:

"These are the times that try men's souls." This simple quotation from Thomas Paine's The Crisis not only describes the beginnings of the American Revolution, but also the life of Paine himself. Throughout most of his life, he was a failure, living off the gratitude and generosity of others, but his writings helped inspire a nation. He communicated the ideas of the Revolution to common farmers as easily as to intellectuals, creating prose that stirred the hearts of the fledgling United States. He had a grand vision for society: he was staunchly anti-slavery, and he was one of the first to advocate a world peace organization and social security for the poor and elderly. But his radical views on religion would destroy his success, and by the end of his life, only a handful of people attended his funeral.

After describing his early life, the article speaks of his contribution to the American revolution:

In 1776, he published Common Sense, a strong defense of American Independence from England. He joined the Continental Army and wasn't a success as a soldier, but he produced The Crisis (1776-83), which helped inspire the Army. This pamphlet was so popular that as a percentage of the population, it was read by more people than today watch the Superbowl.

But, instead of continuing to help the Revolutionary cause, he returned to Europe and pursued other ventures, including working on a smokeless candle and an iron bridge.

Following this, the article reports that he did continue to write, but it does not appear that his writings had any further influence on the founding of the United States. In fact, according to the article, "Paine remained in France until 1802 when he returned to America on an invitation from Thomas Jefferson. Paine discovered that his contributions to the American Revolution had been all but eradicated due to his religious views. Derided by the public and abandoned by his friends, he died on June 8, 1809 at the age of 72 in New York City."
So, it appears that while Paine was a deist/atheist, such views were not incorporated into the founding documents. In fact, his later views were so disdained that his earlier works which were admittedly important were, as the article says, "eradicated."

Did his earlier writings reflect the same anti-Christian/anti-theistic views as his later works such as The Age of Reason? Fortunately, both Common Sense and The Crisis are available on-line, and both show an acceptance of the Christian view of God. Consider the following from Common Sense where Paine addresses how kings came to exist:

Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry. The Heathens paid divine honors to their deceased kings, and the Christian world hath improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones. How impious is the title of sacred majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling into dust!

As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings. All anti-monarchical parts of scripture have been very smoothly glossed over in monarchical governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries which have their governments yet to form. "Render unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar's" is the scripture doctrine of courts, yet it is no support of monarchical government, for the Jews at that time were without a king, and in a state of vassalage to the Romans.

Near three thousand years passed away from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases, where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of republic administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts. And when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of Kings, he need not wonder, that the Almighty ever jealous of his honor, should disapprove of a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven.
(Footnotes omitted from all quotes from these books.)

Later, still talking about the appointment of kings, Paine wonders how the first king became chosen such that his heirs should also automatically serve as kings, and says:
If the first king of any country was by election, that likewise establishes a precedent for the next; for to say, that the right of all future generations is taken away, by the act of the first electors, in their choice not only of a king, but of a family of kings for ever, hath no parrallel in or out of scripture but the doctrine of original sin, which supposes the free will of all men lost in Adam; and from such comparison, and it will admit of no other, hereditary succession can derive no glory. For as in Adam all sinned, and as in the first electors all men obeyed; as in the one all mankind were subjected to Satan, and in the other to Sovereignty; as our innocence was lost in the first, and our authority in the last; and as both disable us from reassuming some former state and privilege, it unanswerably follows that original sin and hereditary succession are parallels.

Consider his summary of his argument against the Divine Right of Kings:

In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. 'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.
(Emphasis added.)

The Crisis is not without its own underlying Christian language. Consider the following from Letter II:

If ever a nation was made and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain. There are such things as national sins, and though the punishment of individuals may be reserved to another world, national punishment can only be inflicted in this world. Britain, as a nation, is, in my inmost belief, the greatest and most ungrateful offender against God on the face of the whole earth. Blessed with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished, by a vast extension of dominion, with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own "thunder," and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get. Like Alexander, she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodigality's sake. The blood of India is not yet repaid, nor the wretchedness of Africa yet requited. Of late she has enlarged her list of national cruelties by her butcherly destruction of the Caribbs of St. Vincent's, and returning an answer by the sword to the meek prayer for "Peace, liberty and safety." These are serious things, and whatever a foolish tyrant, a debauched court, a trafficking legislature, or a blinded people may think, the national account with heaven must some day or other be settled: all countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.
(Emphasis added.)

There are many more such quotations in these two writings by Thomas Paine that reflect an underlying Christian worldview. It may be that Mr. Paine did not really hold that world view at the time of these writings, but his writings reflect that world view, and these documents were accepted by the masses because they could relate to them. It shows, at a minimum, that Paine knew that his readers would have that world view and wrote to them to reflect that world view. As such, there is simply no question that Thomas Paine's later, anti-Christian/anti-theistic writings were not influential in the founding of the country. Rather, his writings at the time which were heavy with language incorporating a Christian world view were the reason that he was considered one of the founding fathers.

Mr. Paine's later works will stand or fall on their own. I am not suggesting that just because the views weren't accepted in America does not mean that they may not be right (I have no reason to believe they are, but that is another argument altogether). What I am focusing on here is the fact that it is not appropriate to point to Thomas Paine's later writings and then say "See, the Founding Fathers were deists and their views were incorporated into the Constitution." Such a view can be responded to with three points:

1. Thomas Paine did not have a hand in writing the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights.

2. His writings that were important during the Revolutionary War had a Christian world view--not a deistic one.

3. The fact that he was later shunned in the United States due to his anti-Christian/anti-theist writings shows that such views were not only not part of the underlying beliefs that were incorporated, but shows that the majority of Americans believed such views to be counter to their views.


Layman said…
Long overdue, BK. Make sure to keep this one flagged. You've expressed my sentiments better than I could have about 1) his insignificance in shaping the form of our government (as opposed to his real contributions in encouraging Americans to revolution), and 2) even his influential writings were expressly Christian ones -- whether he believed in them or not he had to write that way to have any impact.

The second point is also somewhat true of Thomas Jefferson. In his presidential campaign the other side tried to paint him as an out-of-step diest who wasn't really a Christian. He spoke Jesus-talk for the rest of the campagin trying to convince everyone he was a good Christian man.

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