Let’s Revive Thomas Paine Birthday Memorials by Annie Laurie Gaylor (March 1995)

p> A “State/Church Celebration On Thomas Paine Day” was sponsored by the national office of the Freedom From Religion Foundation at the Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, on the anniversary of Thomas Paine’s birthday, January 29.

The notoriously conservative capitol police delayed approval of the event for half a month, denying the Foundation’s request to hold a function in the impressive rotunda area. However, with the help of some local representatives, the permit was eventually awarded, with a function held in the elegantly appointed Wisconsin Senate hearing room.

Madison-area freethinkers (and a couple from Milwaukee) attended the event, ate birthday cake and listened to remarks about Thomas Paine by Patricia King (see next page) and staff member Annie Laurie Gaylor (below). Dan Barker entertained at the piano and ended the event, appropriately, with his original musical tribute based on Paine’s motto: “The world is my country . . . to do good is my religion.”

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Thomas Paine memorials traditionally were held on the anniversary of his January 29 birthday in American freethought circles, beginning in 1824 at the initiative of New York freethinker Benjamin Offen.

Hundreds would turn out for all-night soirees, birthday bashes, speech-making, dances and feasts in Paine’s honor–covered by the press. Can you imagine?

One memorable memorial was held on Paine’s 113th birthday in 1850. Eight hundred admirers attended the event at New York City’s Museum and feted through the night. The New York Herald reprinted Ernestine Rose’s speech in full the following day. What makes this all the more surprising is that the Herald was published by the conservative pro-slaver, James Gordon Bennett, no friend of feminists such as Rose. Freethinkers in particular, of course, felt a need to pay homage to a great American whose revolutionary role had been diminished and libeled because of his views against Christianity. But in those days, even conservatives understood the newsworthiness of Paine’s contributions.

How times have changed. But since these are times, once again, that try men’s and women’s souls, we would like to revive the Thomas Paine memorial tradition. The democratic principles and the use of reason which Paine cherished are jeopardized by the religious right. We very obviously are not, at the moment, enjoying an Age of Reason.

Paine was born in England in 1737. He began working with his father as a corset-maker at age 13, after minimal schooling. He ran away at 17 to be a sailor, then held a variety of posts including a minor government job, educating himself, studying Newton, attending London lectures. The England of this period had poor laws, brutal criminal sanctions against the lower classes, Anglican control of government and required religious tithes. Newt might have reveled in this, but it made Paine a revolutionary.

Paine had made a minor name for himself, having addressed Parliament on behalf of his fellow excisement, when he lost his job and left for America in 1774, with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin.

He started as a printer at the Pennsylvania Magazine, quickly becoming editor, calling for abolition. In 1776, his 50-page pamphlet, “Common Sense,” was published, calling for colonial independence. Almost half a million copies were sold. As an aide-de-camp writing by campfire the following year in New Jersey he started his “Crisis” series. You know the first line as “These are the times that try men’s souls.” He wrote more than 16 Crisis essays, all signed as “Common Sense.”

Following the American Revolution, Paine was invited to France by General Lafayette to advise him on constitutional matters for the French Revolution. Paine was even given the key to the Bastille, which proved ironic considering later events.

At this time Paine went back and forth from France to England, writing part one of The Rights of Men, in answer to Edmund Burke’s polemic against the French Revolution, in 1791. Within its first few weeks, it had sold 50,000 copies, converting many British to the cause. In Part II he proposed a progressive income tax and an international association of the nations. More than 100,000 copies sold in Great Britain, despite Pitt’s attempt to muzzle its publication by bribing the publisher.

The government then commissioned and paid for a publication of a slander biography of Paine, calling him a Jacobin and making him notorious. While the French were hailing him as a “friend of the people,” English mobs were burning Paine in effigy. Paine fled England in September, 1792, warned by his friend the poet, William Blake, of imminent arrest. Officials trailed in hot pursuit and missed apprehending him by 20 minutes. He was found guilty in absentia of seditious libel and was “outlawed” from his native land.

Within a year, Paine, a gentle revolutionary, was arrested by French zealots. Historians agree that the American ambassador to France, Gouverneur Morris, a longtime political enemy, conspired to keep Paine imprisoned by not acknowledging his rights to American citizenship, while telling those back in America he was doing all he could to help Paine.

Paine was 57 and nearly died in a Luxembourg cell, languishing for 11 months, unsure whether each day would be his last, once avoiding execution due to the careless mistake of a guard. Finally, James Monroe replaced Morris as ambassador, and rescued Paine, nursing him at his home for ten months.

The part of this history that is significant to freethinkers is that on his way to prison, Paine gave a manuscript entitled “The Age of Reason” to his friend Joel Barlow, another friend of state/church separation. Part I was published in 1794. Paine wrote Part II during his slow but successful convalescence at Monroe’s home.

Paine did not realize how this critique of Christianity would cause him to be vilified in the United States of America. When President Jefferson invited Paine to return to America as an honored guest, Paine returned aboard an American warship in 1802. He wrote a friend that every newspaper was “filled with applause or abuse.” The abuse won.

The Federalists, assisted by clergy, began a vituperative attack that continues today, considered by most scholars to be a campaign of vilification that has no parallel in our U.S. history. He became known as “the loathsome Thomas Paine,” and was called a “lying, drunken brutal infidel.” He had what one biographer termed a moderate appetite for brandy in an age of indulgence, but the libel of his being a drunkard continues today. Jefferson, himself a target from the same crowd, stood by Paine. But Paine was subjected to continual attacks and snubs. In 1806 he suffered the ultimate insult when Federalist officials in New Rochelle denied him citizenship–the right to vote.

He died in poverty in New York City in 1809, not before two clergy invaded his sick room hoping he would recant. He didn’t. He simply told them, “Let me alone; good morning.” He was buried at his New Rochelle farm. Twenty years later a religious Englishman stole his bones and the remains disappeared.

Freethinker Moncure Daniel Conway wrote later in the century: “As to his bones, no man knows the place of their rest to this day. His principals rest not. His thoughts, untraceable like dust, are blown about the world which he held in his heart.”

Now on to The Age of Reason. Thomas Paine described it as “marching through the Christian forest with an axe.” Paine toppled the biblical stories of creation, resurrection, miracles, prophecy, holding all of the bible up to the light of reason.

If you have read The Age of Reason, you will know that Paine was a true Deist, not a “dirty little atheist,” as Teddy Roosevelt unkindly put it, but an unswerving critic of Christianity:

“Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man,” he wrote.

“One schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests.”

In a letter to Erskine, Paine wrote: “Of all the tyrannies that affect [hu]mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave, and seeks to pursue us into eternity.”

From the Age of Reason:

“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize [hu]mankind.”

“My own mind is my own church.”

“Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system.”

“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave [hu]mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

He wrote, “it would have approached nearer to the idea of a miracle if Jonah had swallowed the whale.”

Finally, from The Rights of Man, Paine’s caveat against theocracy:

“Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all law-religions; or religions established by law.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation pledges to celebrate Thomas Paine’s birthday by multiplying our efforts to keep church and state separate and to help rebirth an Age of Reason. We urge you to join us.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today.

Freedom From Religion Foundation