The corruption and debauchery of Thomas Paine
By Mark Alexander
Last week Americans observed Patriot’s Day. While this day is always appropriate for studying the heroic figures of the day, it is also a good opportunity to consider the corruption, dereliction, and demise of one of the most influential advocates for independence ahead of the American Revolution and through its conclusion. This historical figure also reminds us of what can happen when one becomes intoxicated with power and detached from his love for Liberty and the unalienable Rights of Man.
We have referenced many times how generations of Beltway politicians and bureaucrats on the Left suffer from "Potomac Fever" — a chronic condition that manifests as an intoxication with, and insatiable desire for, statist power. At no time in American history has the fever-infested Swamp been more dangerous to the future of Liberty than under the reign of Joe Biden and his enemies of Liberty.
So enticing is the allure of power and influence that some on the Right who were elected on a conservative platform devolve into what have perennially been called RINOs, "Republicans in Name Only." I don't toss around that label on occasions when an otherwise reliable conservative votes on the wrong side of an issue — often because of backroom machinations that are never revealed. So much for "sunshine laws."
Of course, no Beltway dwellers are inherently immune to Potomac Fever, including the once-formidable and entertaining conservative writer Jonah Goldberg, formerly in my Top 10 list of political pundits. He fended off Potomac Fever for many years, until his immunity was compromised by Trump Derangement Syndrome.
And on that note, I turn to another writer who, in the context of his original work, still ranks in my Top 10 list of Revolutionary War influencers.
Thomas Paine was an English-born American revolutionary activist, a philosopher and political theorist whose role advocating for Liberty can't be overstated as a cohesive force ahead of the American Revolution. In 1774, the 37-year-old Paine immigrated to the American colonies with the assistance of founding statesman Benjamin Franklin. A year later, he authored a 47-page pamphlet, Common Sense, which you can read among other instrumental founding documents on our Historic Documents page. It was published anonymously in January of 1776 and was read by, or to, virtually every American Patriot of that era.
In Common Sense, Paine framed the revolution by noting: "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. ... The Sun never shined on a cause of greater worth."
Of Rule of Law, he wrote: "But where says some is the king of America? I'll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. ... Let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS king. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is."
This single work was the most persuasive publication making the case for American independence. He was certainly influential on Thomas Jefferson and his drafting of the Declaration of Independence and those who affirmed it by unanimous approval.
Historian Gordon Wood, a Concord, Massachusetts, native and author of the exceptional historical narrative The Radicalism of the American Revolution, described Common Sense as "the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era."
We have often quoted his sequel to Common Sense, The American Crisis, which he began in December of 1776 and continued to print until 1783. Of the contest for Liberty, he wrote at length: "Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle, is a species of vice. ... 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 by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. ... I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death. ... Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. ... If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."
He observed in the darkest days of the Revolution: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it. ... Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it."
So, how did a once-revered protagonist of the American Revolution fall from fame to infamy?
As a disclaimer, let me state up front: Subsequent to George Washington's embrace of the Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolutionary War, the latter serving with distinction through many battles including the Siege of Yorktown and the surrender of British Gen. Charles Cornwallis in 1781, I have had little use for the Franco gentry, much less the British royalty.
Paine left America and returned to Britain in 1787, but he was charged with treason and fled to France in 1793.
There, he became a protagonist in the French Revolution, a very different affair than its American predecessor. It was a "reign of terror," far from its motto advertisement, "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, and fraternity).
So esteemed was Paine that the French bestowed upon him honorary French citizenship, and he was elected to the National Assembly. At the time, he had written to Samuel Adams, "The people of France were running headlong into atheism, and I had the work translated into their own language, to stop them in that career, and fix them in the first article of every man's creed, who has any creed at all — I believe in God."
However, he fell afoul of the French government when he objected to the beheading of King Louis XVI. He was jailed, but ahead of his own execution, with the assistance of the U.S. ambassador to France and future American president, James Monroe, he was released.
But in time and under duress, Paine's faith disintegrated into deism, and ultimately the deification of himself. The first part of his treatise, The Age of Reason, exposed this shift: "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. My own mind is my own church."
Of Christianity, Paine wrote: "As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of Atheism — a sort of religious denial of God. It ... is as near to Atheism as twilight is to darkness. ... The age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system. ... Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. ... The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion."
Paine's views were heavily influenced by the era of "reason" and the errors of reason.
Paine consulted Benjamin Franklin regarding an early draft of his Age of Reason manuscript, and Franklin responded: "I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence ... you strike at the foundations of all religion. ... I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion, that ... the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face..."
Franklin added: "I would advise you ... to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it."
So imbued with French arrogance was Paine, so self-aggrandized had he become, that in 1796 he impugned the character of George Washington in a public letter, declaring, "In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington's character appear in the world."
In 1802, Paine fled France for America and returned to New York. But so offensive was his arrogance that he was treated as an outcast.
In his last letter to Paine, Samuel Adams wrote: "When I heard you had turned your mind to a defense of infidelity, I felt myself much astounded and more grieved, that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States. ... Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause."
By the end of his life, Paine was a pauper and drunkard, but his last writings perhaps reflected something of a restoration of his earlier perspective on faith. His last will and testament began with the words, "Reposing confidence in my Creator, God," and ended with, "I die in perfect composure and resignation to the will of my Creator, God."
As historian William Federer observed, "As a tragic lesson, Thomas Paine went from the height of popularity as America's premier pamphleteer to dying a penniless drunk in Manhattan, with only six people attending his funeral. He is memorialized in the rhyme: 'Poor Tom Paine! There he lies, Nobody laughs and nobody cries, Where he has gone or how he fares, Nobody knows and nobody cares.'"
His obituary in the New York Evening Post read in part, "He had lived long, did some good, and much harm."
So despised was Paine at the time of his death in 1809 that no Quaker cemetery would accept him for burial, as per his will. Thus his remains were unceremoniously interred in a field on a farm near New Rochelle, New York, which had, ironically, been given to him years earlier in honor of his Revolutionary War patriotism. Ten years later, his remains were dug up and shipped to England by an agrarian activist, but upon arrival in Liverpool, customs agents refused to allow his corpse on British soil. What was left of him was likely dumped into the sea, though there have been claims that his bones were divided up and sold.
Today, he is the only former founding Patriot with no gravesite — and the earliest American victim of "Potomac Fever," those who have taken leave of Common Sense.
Mark Alexander is the executive editor of the Patriot Post.