“For there’s no gods/And there’s precious few heroes.”
“The King of England looking westward trembles at the vision.”
– William Blake
Since it became America’s Bohemia, its “Republic of Dreams” as it’s been called, many junkies and drunks have died anonymously in the tenement houses of Greenwich Village, but only one of them was a Founding Father of the United States of America. Before Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan; or Walt Whitman and Mark Twain walked Canal and Houston, there was Thomas Paine. Here the forgotten founder of America died alone of cirrhosis in a lower Manhattan hovel with only six mourners at his funeral. His very body was absconded with and lost in transit to his native England. Regal George Washington lay in a massive mausoleum and a mural of his apotheosis looks out over the Capital (making him not just monarchical but divine); the silver-tongued hypocrite and patron of equality Thomas Jefferson’s tomb is surrounded by the graves of anonymous slaves. But Tom Paine, most pious partisan and prophet of liberty had his body mutilated, spread about, and lost. In myth-haunted America, land of the jeremiad, newest world based on some of the oldest legends, polemicists on both left and right treat our “Founding Fathers” as gods. Tom Paine however didn’t believe in gods, and so he was just a man, sometimes a flawed one, and because of that he deserves our love.
Tom Paine did not have the aristocratic forbearance of Washington or Jefferson; he was an uncouth man, one of the roughs, an American. Born in Norfolk he had a life-long working class English accent. Rebellion was what he was raised on. It was not ideology; it was inheritance. Unlike Jefferson he needed no Locke and Bacon to convince him of man’s natural state of liberty, and unlike Washington he had no need of a Jefferson to convince him of the same. His home village of Thetford was the site of Boudicca’s royal residence, the raped Celtic queen who avenged her husband’s death by descending on Roman Londinium and burning it to the ground, and it’s that legacy he imbibed in youth. It’s a historical slander of the English to say that they are a people of royal servitude, for Tom Paine demonstrated the deep sense of justice and equality which runs in the veins and sinews of those who belong to the radical English tradition. There is no understanding 1776 without understanding 1649, or 1381. His was not the England of Plantagenet, Tudor, Stuart, Hannover or Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Tom Paine is of the England that gave us John Ball and Jack Straw, Gerard Winstanley and Abiezer Cope, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. “When Adam delved and Eve span,/Who was then the gentleman?” is as if a nursery rhyme to the young Tom Paine, inheritor of radical religious non-conformism and theological dissension.
If Paine was an Englishman by birth he was an American by choice. For Paine “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” Washington and Jefferson were wealthy plantation owners, but Paine’s father was a corset-maker. Like his ally Benjamin Franklin, Paine was that most potent of American archetypes, the self-made man,. He was the son of a woman’s underwear maker who christened the thirteen colonies with his original name for them: “The United States of America.” His parents were Quakers, followers of the radical tradition of George Fox and John Naylor and William Penn. It was the Quakers who took the Reformation tenant of a priesthood of all believers to its logical conclusion, rejecting even Luther’s biblical “Pope of Paper” in favor of an “inner light.” Because of his Age of Reason he is often thought of as Theodor Roosevelt’s “dirty little atheist” (the 26th president’s estimation of Mr. Paine) but his convictions were forged in the kiln that is the hot and fiery inner light of the Society of Friends.
In England he failed at every task he tried, as a tobacco shop owner and a rope maker, as a town alderman and as a petitioner to Parliament. In 1774 he left his wife and escaped to London (Can one see George walking out on Martha?) where he met the frontier physicist, the sage of Pennsylvania, the raccoon-fur clad guest of Europe’s salons and courts: Benjamin Franklin. The printer wrote Paine a letter of recommendation. Five months later he was an immigrant in that apocalyptic-named Revelation city Philadelphia, sitting on the edge of the western horizon where the sun goes down on the last day of existence, but where Paine saw the sun rising in the west. It was the light marking the arrival of a “New Man,” a Homo Novus, a millennial figure that would take at least a thousand years to truly develop, the American. And while Paine may have failed at his schemes in England, and he would die destitute and alone, forgotten and drunk in New York, it was for an act in that auspicious year of 1776 that he would be forever remembered, a little pamphlet with the humble title of Common Sense.
Paine was a pamphleteer, a journalist, a propagandist. And he was the product of a radical republican tradition that has existed in the shadow of Britain’s royal absurdity for centuries. One could see him as in the tradition of that other revolutionary writer, John Milton. He had much like Paine taken advantage of cheap print more than a century before (during the years of the English civil wars) to advocate for the ancient liberties of the Anglo-Saxon people. But where Milton was an educated man, a polyglot and a polymath, “the Lady of Cambridge,” the author of the greatest epic poem in the English language, and the last of the Renaissance men, Tom Paine was but the son of a corset-maker. Milton’s home was Trinity College; Paine’s was a tavern in London or a bar in Philadelphia. That makes all the difference.
Milton – “Thus did Dion Prusaeus, a stranger and a privat Orator counsell the Rhodians against a former Edict: and I abound with other like examples, which to set heer would be superfluous. But if from the industry of a life wholly dedicated to studious labours, and those naturall endowments haply not the worst for two and fifty degrees of northern latitude, so much must be derogated, as to count me not equall to any of those who had this priviledge, I would obtain to be thought not so inferior, as your selves are superior to the most of them who receiv’d their counsell: and how farre you excell them, be assur’d, Lords and Commons, there can no greater testimony appear, then when your prudent spirit acknowledges and obeyes the voice of reason from what quarter soever it be heard speaking; and renders ye as willing to repeal any Act of your own setting forth, as any set forth by your Predecessors.”
Paine – “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 it now, deserves the love and thanks of men and women,” and ““If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace,” or “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” and maybe most amazingly “We have it within our power to begin the world anew.”
This is not to defame or slander Milton. Areopagetica is one of the most potent defenses of free speech written, in Eikonoklastes and The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates he conceives of an inspiring radicalism, and of course the author of Paradise Lost could turn a phrase. And yet his political pamphlets today read to us as stiff, scholarly, as arguments built on an edifice of the knowledge of the great classics, they ooze Latin and Greek. Milton can be stirring, he can be inspiring, he can light a love of liberty, but he can also be ponderous. Milton’s Republic collapsed under Cromwell’s Stalinist impulses, Paine’s remains, shaken and often on the verge of collapse, yet somehow still standing. It would be hard to argue that it was the pure power of direct, simple, and angry rhetoric that stays the life-blood of a nation, but perhaps (or hopefully) some of that working class rage of the dispossessed and ignored which threads it’s way through Common Sense is somehow to attribute to our survival. Milton was read widely, but he spoke in an educated tongue, a Cambridge man. Paine was a pub man; he spoke not to university dons but to the barkeep, the factory worker, the farmer. He has a rough language but it’s the peoples’ language. He wrote like an American. Paine’s sleight pamphlet sold half a million copies the year it was printed. Less than a year later all thirteen colonies would declare their independence from Great Britain.
Americans were already fighting the British in a revolution, but Paine made it the Revolution. Like all true Revolutionaries he knew that America needed its Year Zero, and he reoriented and redefined what was at stake. No longer was this a small rebellion simply tied to anger over a few taxes here and there, petty grievances about expensive tea and playing cards to raise revenue to pay for a frontier war which in many ways the colonists started themselves. No, now this was about apocalypse, it was about Millennium, it was about making the world anew and redefining what it meant to be a person. In Letters from an American Farmer written only a few years before by the Frenchman J. Hector St. John DeCrevecoeur he had asked, “What then is the American, this new man?” Paine had an answer; the American was of no particular nationality, and of no particular faith. Rather his was a new creed, a new religion, for now the cause of America is the cause of all mankind.
It’s important to remember that he was no provincial, his nationalism was cosmopolitanism. For Paine “America” was but a synonym for the cause of liberty, wherever she may need to be liberated. It was Paine who coined the phrase that would be the official name of these fifty states, but in many ways there is a distinction between “The United States” and “America.” The former is a nation-state bordered to the north by Canada and to the south by Mexico with the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other and a capital in Washington DC. Like all nations it has its good and bad, its idealists and its corrupt. It is a country bounded like all nations by a border of time and space. But “America” is something different, if “The United States” is written in prose than “America” is written in poetry. Its language is not that of legislation and treaties, rules and laws, but rather of myth and legend. “America” is the commonwealth, Arcadia, Eden. John Locke wrote “In the beginning all the world was America.” It’s synonymous with ancient and hopefully future freedoms. America is not a place, nor has it every really existed, it is merely always in the process of coming into existence. That other destitute and drunk poet-prophet Oscar Wilde would write almost a century after Paine’s death that “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.” The United States is on the geographer’s map, but America is on the one composed by the utopian. America is not found in the United States (alone) but she is found in Europe’s revolutionary camps of 1848, in the Paris Commune of 1871, in the abolitionist’s sermon, in the Union soldier’s heart at Gettysburg, at Seneca Falls and while marching in Selma, at the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence and in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell and inside Vaclav Havel’s type-writer, at Stonewall and Tiananmen Square. Thomas Paine understood the crucial point that America must never be a mere country, for it is much more; it is an idea, and a potent one. The American is not a citizen of the United States or an inhabitant of the western hemisphere; the American is “the Adam of a New World.”
In 1792 Paine found “America” in the streets of Paris, among the debates of Jacobins and Girondists. As he always maintained his cause was the cause of all mankind and his empire was Liberty’s, so in France he took the banner of revolution up once again. It was the second time in his life he left his native England for radical causes across the sea. Left behind in Britain was the Rights of Man, which answered the objections to the revolution made by Edmund Burke, the comfortable father of contemporary conservatism. Burke may have maintained that the dead deserve a say in the present, but Paine was wise enough to know that the world is for the living, and he answered Burke’s objections point by point. And he not only advocated the cause of revolution, he put his body “upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus to try and stop tyranny” (as Mario Savio put it in 1964). He was elected to the French Assembly, but his opposition to totalitarianism and his embrace of freedom was too consistent. He opposed the execution of the pustule rat-king Louis XVI, and Robespierre used the opportunity to have Paine imprisoned within DeSade’s home, the supposedly liberated prison of Bastille.
But as they say stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage, and Paine found an America even within the Bastille. It was here that he wrote The Age of Reason, the book scandalous and heretical enough that the newly holy of Second Great Awakening America would turn their back on the man who baptized their nation, and whose political ethos made their faith even possible. “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.” Milton’s rebellious and similarly exiled hero Lucifer taught us that the human mind can make of heaven a hell and of hell a heaven, and for Thomas Paine “My own mind is my own church.” It only saw publication because his fellow American and member of the French Assembly Joel Barlow (who also gave this nation its first epic poem in The Columbiad) smuggled it out of prison. Paine’s stay from execution was ironically perhaps more providential, all that saved him from the guillotine’s blade was an improperly placed sign on his cell door. Thermidor and Robespierre’s downfall awaited and James Monroe was able to secure his release. And this is how Thomas Paine found himself returned to the crooked streets of lower Manhattan, so different from the rational, rectilinear Enlightenment street grid of a few blocks north. But if America was an Arcadia than Et in America Ego.
Washington had his Mount Vernon, and Jefferson his Monticello, but Tom Paine just had 59 Grove Street. He died seemingly abandoned by all, with only Jefferson still supporting him but distancing himself at all costs, as the Federalists loved nothing more than to tout Paine’s associations with the third president, like some eighteenth-century Weatherman. In 1799 when Washington died Napoleon ordered ten days of mourning, thousands of Americans felt intense grief at the death of their god, and they built an Egyptian pyramid to entomb him, after he lived through the construction of the capital which bared his name. Ten years later when Tom Paine died like a common drunk most American newspapers merely reprinted the local obituary. There was no ceremony for Tom Paine; the Quakers wouldn’t even allow him to be buried in their ground. Only six people came to mark the passing of the man who named the United States of America, including two nameless black freedmen. On the Mall of that right-angled city of Roman marble there stands an occult obelisk in memory of Washington, and an American Pantheon holds a statue of Jefferson that is nineteen feet tall, but in the District of Columbia there is no memorial to Tom Paine. Washington and Jefferson are gods, but Paine is but a man, and the better for it. If you seek his memorial you must go to those places where people yearn for freedom, and are willing to fight for it. There if you seek his monument you must merely look and listen.
Note: This essay was originally published under the title of “Featured Heretic – Tom Paine” in the June 2015 issue of ExCommunicated, the newsletter of the International Society for Heresy Studies.
Ed Simon is the editor and founder of ‘Merica Magazine, and a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.