The 'Case' Against Thomas Paine

Column by George F. Smith.

Exclusive to STR

Thomas Paine died on the overcast morning of June 8, 1809, in New York City.  Libertarians have long savored his unabashed attacks on government and the many evils of paper money, and the fact that he not only ignited the drive for American independence but kept it alive during its darkest moments.  He played an important role in history, both here and abroad, yet is not given the respect he deserves.

If you extend the list of “Founding Fathers of the United States” far enough you find “Thomas Paine” included on it.  Historians for the most part consider a Founder as one who signed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution; Paine signed neither, nor was he invited to sign them.  Joseph Lewis published a reasoned and well-documented case that Paine might have authored the first draft of the Declaration. 

If a Founder can be considered someone who helped change the united colonies to the United States, then Paine should be at the top of the list.  It could even be argued that Paine was the founder, and all the others were supporters but only after Paine took the lead.

Of all the nominal Founders, he was perhaps the only one who publicly condemned slavery, cruelty to animals, dueling, and war.  As editor of Pennsylvania Magazine he published “An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex,” one of the first essays for women’s rights in the West.   

If we think of the Founders - Washington, Jefferson, the two Adams, Franklin - what do we have for support?  With the exception of Washington, they all favored independence but none of them attempted to rally support for it among the general population.  Without that support, independence was a futile wish.  Congress chose Washington to lead the troops against the British in 1775, but without a clear aim.  As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bernard Bailyn has written,

A group of influential and articulate leaders, especially those from Massachusetts, were convinced that only independence from England could properly serve American needs, and Benjamin Franklin . . . had reached the same conclusion and had found like-minded people in Philadelphia.  But that was not the common opinion of the Congress, and it was not the general view of the population at large.  Not a single colony had instructed its delegates to work for independence . . . All the most powerful unspoken assumptions of the time -- indeed, common sense -- ran counter to the notion of independence. [Bernard Bailyn, Faces of the Revolution, p. 69, emphasis in original]

Paine, unlike most Founders, unlike most people, was not afraid to take great risks. Six months after the publication of Common Sense, in which he referred to the king of England as a "hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh" and "the Royal Brute of Great Britain," Congress announced the colonies’ independence as thirteen sovereign states.   Later that summer, he joined the Continental army as General Nathaniel Greene’s aide-de-camp.  Paine proved to be a willing but mostly incapable soldier, and senior officers decided he would serve the cause better with his writing.

During the fall of 1776 Washington had suffered defeats in New York and had retreated across New Jersey to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, nine miles north of Trenton.  The British were convinced the war’s end was imminent, and British General William Howe, rather than pursue the rebels and capture Philadelphia, retreated to New York, leaving contingents at various New Jersey outposts, including Trenton.  Howe had a mistress, Mrs. Elizabeth Loring, whom he had brought from Boston to New York, and he favored spending winter with her instead of subduing a ragtag army of farmers.

In mid-December, Paine, carrying a draft of a new essay, trudged 35 miles from the army’s campsite to Philadelphia, finding the city in chaos.  Congress had fled to Baltimore, and Tory Americans were posting welcome signs to General Howe on the windows of their shops, anticipating his arrival.  Paine Biographer Craig Nelson:

News of defeat after defeat had frightened the vast majority of residents into flight, and morale had collapsed. . .  British troops were just across the Delaware River, ready at any moment to march into the city and force the American capital to surrender. . .  It was, Paine said, “the very blackest of times . . . when our affairs were at their lowest ebb and things in the most gloomy state.”

He frantically began writing the first of what would eventually number a series of thirteen pieces, one in honor of each colony.  [In American Crisis - Number One] Paine used every weapon in his propagandist’s arsenal to upend the great advantage Britain held in its favor -- fear.  In the America of 1776, everywhere they looked, Americans saw reasons to be profoundly afraid -- afraid of what the redcoats would do to them, their families, and their property; afraid of losing their British empire and their British citizenship; afraid of what this new homemade government would do, and what it would require.  Paine answered all of these vague and paralyzing terrors in a mere eight pages.  [Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, pp. 107-108]

The Philadelphia Journal published the Crisis pamphlet a week before Christmas, with Paine once again waiving any profits from the publication, as he had done with Common Sense.  Printers in other colonies distributed it, and its opening words became immortalized throughout the world: These are the times that try men’s souls.

Prior to crossing the Delaware for a surprise attack on Trenton, Washington had his officers bring the troops together in small squads and ordered them to read Paine’s essay to the men.   Whether enlisted men standing around in sleet and snow, hungry and ill-clad, could be brought to life listening to an officer read a pamphlet, is open to question.  But it did have the effect of lifting citizen spirits when it was published, along with news of Washington’s victory.  It was either John Adams or Joel Barlow who is reputed to have said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”

The evils of paper money

After the war, Paine sailed to England and continued to write on political and economic issues.  In an essay titled “Prospects on the Rubicon,” Paine saw clearly the defects of paper money.

Every thing shows, that the rage that [overran] America, for paper money or paper currency, has reached to England under another name. There it was called Continental Money, and here it is called Bank Notes. But it signifies not what name it bears, if the capital is not equal to the redemption. . . .

Credit is often no more than an opinion, and the difference between credit and money is that money requires no opinion to support it. . . .

In short, the delusion of paper riches is working as rapidly in England as it did in America. A young and inexperienced Minister, like a young and inexperienced Congress, may suppose that he sees mines of wealth in a printing press, and that a nation cannot be exhausted while there is paper and ink enough to print paper money. Every new emission, until the delusion bursts, will appear to the nation an increase of wealth. Every merchant's coffers will appear a treasury, and he will swell with paper riches till he becomes a bankrupt.

In another essay, in which Paine defended the Bank of North America as a means of curtailing the issuance of paper money, he wrote:

However paper money may suit a borrower, it is unprofitable, if not ruinous in the end, to every other person. The farmer will not take it for produce, and he is right in refusing it. The money he takes for his year's produce must last him the year round; and the experience he has had of the instability of paper money has sufficiently instructed him, that it is not worth a farmer's while to exchange the solid grain and produce of a farm for the paper of an Assembly, whose politics are changing with every new election . . .

Paine’s most complete attack on paper money is to be found in his essay, “DISSERTATIONS on government; the affairs of the bank; and paper money”:

The only proper use for paper, in the room of money, is to write promissory notes and obligations of payment in specie upon. A piece of paper, thus written and signed, is worth the sum it is given for, if the person who gives it is able to pay it; because in this case, the law will oblige him. But if he is worth nothing, the paper note is worth nothing. The value, therefore, of such a note, is not in the note itself, for that is but paper and promise, but in the man who is obliged to redeem it with gold or silver.

Such simple truths, so long-forgotten today.

Unforgivable transgressions

Had Paine died at this point in his life perhaps he would be fondly remembered in official histories.  But he lived to write a blistering criticism of Washington and what to many was a savage attack on the Bible.

While a member of the French legislature during the French Revolution, Paine had fallen victim to Robespierre’s Terror and had been imprisoned to await execution.  He expected Washington, as his long-time friend and now president, to intervene on his behalf through the U.S. envoy to France, Gouverneur Morris.  When this didn’t happen Paine became embittered, and following his release after a ten-month incarceration, he composed an open letter to Washington dated July 30, 1796.  It was published in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, editor of the republican journal Aurora.  Paine biographer John Keane writes:

In his open letter, Paine gave a detailed account of his imprisonment and said that he held Washington personally responsible for the fact that until [the arrival of James Monroe, who replaced Morris as envoy], he had not been considered an American citizen. . . .

Characterizing the president as “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life, Paine warned him that “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.” [John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life, pp. 430-431]

Paine, born in Thetford, England in 1737, answered the charge of not being an American citizen by claiming that, until July 4, 1776, there were no true Americans, only Englishmen or English-Americans.  Furthermore, Paine took an oath of allegiance to the United States on two occasions, once in 1776, and again in 1777.

Nevertheless, Washington’s reputation as “father of his country” was already too well established for his letter to go over well.  Around the same time he published Age of Reason Part II, in which he wrote, referring to the Old Testament:

To believe, therefore, the Bible to be true, we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of God; for wherein could crying or
 smiling infants offend? And to read the Bible without horror, we
 must undo everything that is tender, sympathizing, and benevolent in the heart of man. Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it
 to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice.

But in addition to all the moral evidence against the Bible, I 
will in the progress of this work produce such other evidence as even a priest cannot deny, and show, from that evidence, that the Bible is not entitled to credit as being the word of God.

In Age of Reason Part I he had written:

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I
 detest everything that is cruel.

Though Paine wrote Age of Reason because of his conviction that false systems of religion were encouraging the spread of atheism, he has been often regarded as an atheist ever since.

In describing how Paine has been remembered, biographer Jack Fruchtman, Jr. notes that:

On the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the city of Philadelphia refused to allow a bust of Paine to be placed in Independence Hall.  In 1933, a New York radio station first invited, then refused, to allow a City College professor to give a short talk on Paine because the old radical was regarded as “a dangerous subject and not suitable for radio discussion.”  The station later relented. [Jack Fruchtman, Jr., Thomas Paine, Apostle of Freedom, pp. 441-442]

The victors, in writing the histories, tell us who should be remembered and why.  Paine, critic of Washington and the Bible, has been shunned to the back of history’s bus.

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George F. Smith's picture
Columns on STR: 71

George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.    



Eric Field's picture

Great essay, George.  I have always been a fan of Paine's writings.  It has always appalled me how most of Paine's detractors (and many supporters as well) seem to have never actually read the Age of Reason, or any of Paine's other critical works.  Despite any of his personal flaws, Paine absolutely deserves more credit for his contributions to the classical liberal tradition. 

Jim Davies's picture

Thanks, George, I had not realized how big was Paine's contribution to the new America. You show he was no mere scribbler but a very active participant.
He had one great weakness, which I think you didn't mention: right up front, in "Common Sense", he wrote that government is necessary as well as evil.  For his time, it's amazing that he perceived the evil; it's very sad that his view of humanity was so low as to suppose that evil is necessary.
He therefore gave away the whole game, on Page 1. The outcome - a new and ultimately very dreadful government - was exactly what he and the others produced. It's too bad he couldn't have read Alex Knight's latest STRticle before penning his masterpiece.