I am always troubled by the willingness of Americans to revise history so that it fits into their own worldviews. To know history, one must first study history. To comment about a historic figure’s philosophy and intentions, one must first read that figure’s own journals and publications. To assert truth, one must first make sure that the assertion is true. There are some falsely self-proclaimed intellectuals who make assumptions about a text rather than read it, and therefore characterize history ineptly. Perhaps no American revolutionary figure has been exposed to more “intellectual” revisionism than Thomas Paine. I recently read an example of this on intellectualconservative.com by Thomas Brewton. Brewton writes:
“While Thomas Paine’s stirring prose helped to rally public opinion in support of the War of Independence in 1776, his later writings were 180 degrees out of synch with the Christian ethos that prevailed in the United States.
It was in those later writings after the War of Independence — The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason – that Paine expressed the sentiments which Mr. Ellis holds forth as the true values of 1776.
Paine’s social and political ideas were essentially the revolutionary and bloody socialism that afflicted the world in the 1789 French Revolution.
His The Age of Reason is an attack upon Christianity and all spiritual religion, a panegyric to the minds of intellectuals as the source of human perfection via the collectivized political state.”
Let me first tackle Brewton’s claim that Age of Reason “is an attack upon Christianity and all spiritual religion.” I have read it, and it is a very spiritual book itself. I do not know how Brewton would explain that a spiritual book is actually an attack on all spiritual religion. I am not certain that I am right, or that Brewton is wrong: Judge for yourself whether or not Age of Reason is “an attack on all spiritual religion” by reading some quotes from it:
“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 changing it.”
“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”
“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.”
“The Word of God is the creation we behold and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man.”
“It is only by the exercise of reason that man can discover God. Take away that reason, and he would be incapable of understanding anything; and, in this case, it would be just as consistent to read even the book called the Bible to a horse as to a man. How, then, is it that people pretend to reject reason?”
“Do we want to know that God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the creation.”
“The God in whom we believe is a God of moral truth, and not a God of mystery or obscurity. Mystery is the antagonist of truth. It is a fog of human invention, that obscures truth, and represents it in distortion. Truth never envelops itself in mystery, and the mystery in which it is at any time enveloped is the work of its antagonist, and never of itself.”
“The only idea we can have of serving God is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made. This cannot be done by retiring ourselves from the society of the world and spending a recluse life in selfish devotion.”
“The creation we behold is the real and ever-existing Word of God, in which we cannot be deceived. It proclaims His power, it demonstrates His wisdom, it manifests His goodness and beneficence.”
Some of those quotes certainly appeal to my own spiritual side.
Brewton–as one quickly learns from his website–believes himself to be the almighty authority on American perspective in 1776. You would think, given the credentials he professes to have, he would be more familiar with Common Sense. Brewton is a strong opponent of socialism, so I find myself in agreement with him on almost everything, but he misjudged Paine’s Common Sense. To read the true authority on Common Sense, one must read the document itself. Reading what someone else has written about it, as it appears Brewton may have done, provides no real education. It is true that Rights of Man contained socialistic ideas that were nowhere to be found in Common Sense. However, Brewton’s assertion that unlike Common Sense, Paine’s “later writings were 180 degrees out of synch with the Christian ethos that prevailed in the United States” is totally false. Common Sense is a booklet that was extremely influential at the time of the American Revolution, and it does have a religious theme consistent with Paine’s later works. In it, Paine bashes the idea that Christians are supreme, he paints Christians as cowards, and he advocates a strict separation of government and religion. While Brewton’s assertions about Thomas Paine contained no evidence (understandably, as it is difficult to draw quotes from an unread text), I will provide an inexhaustive list of quotes from Common Sense below that clearly show the work’s religious ideas:
“This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.”
“The reformation was preceded by the discovery of America, as if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.”
“As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensible duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith.”
“The Almighty hath implanted in us these unextinguishable feeling for good and wise purposes. They are the guardians of his image in our hearts. They distinguish us from the herd of common animals.”
“without anger or resentment I bid you farewell, sincerely wishing, that as men and christians, ye may always fully and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right; and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others; but that the example which ye have unwisely set, of mingling religion with politics, may be disavowed and reprobated by every individual inhabitant of America.”
In the last quote, Paine is specifically addressing the Quakers and other dogmatic Christian believers, who believed that the King had a divine right to rule America. If the professors of the “Christian ethos” had their way in 1776, we would have a different term for Americans: British subjects.