Today marks the anniversary of Thomas Paine’s death. In the current climate of fear and uncertainty — as well as fierce struggle against injustice, it seems appropriate to celebrate the moral resilience of a man who resisted force, orthodoxy and oppression — even with his last breath.

Here are my thoughts on the death of Thomas Paine, in a post from 2016:

“My own mind is my own church.”

The following passage, from the opening pages of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason has always been one of my favorites. Here, Paine famously lays out the tenets of his religious belief in simple, stirring language:

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

“I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow creatures happy.”

It’s easy to see why these words, clear and heartfelt, are so often quoted. But as usual, Paine is only getting started. Next comes a set of caveats and clarifications:

“But lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

“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.

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

Again as usual, Paine leaves us with no doubt as to exactly where he stands on the subject of religion. But it’s what comes next that is, for me, not just the most interesting, but the truly revolutionary part of Paine’s argument. Here, Paine the critical thinker steps beyond the language of creed (“I believe”) and begins to address — and then to question — the nature of belief itself.

“I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise. They have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But 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.

“It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive any thing more destructive to morality than this?”

Paine points out the dangers of what we would today call self-deception — what he, more bluntly, calls “mental lying.”

In fact, throughout The Age of Reason, as in so much of his work Paine insists on the need to interrogate belief: to ask ourselves exactly where our beliefs come from, why we hold to them — and where they may lead us. For Paine, received wisdom on any subject is always, always — something to be questioned, and frequently something to be resisted.

“Every place has its Bastille …”

How do cruelty and authoritarianism make their inroads into government and culture? Thomas Paine had some very clear ideas about that. The following passage is from Part One of Rights of Man, first published in 1791.

“When despotism has established itself for ages in a country, as in France, it is not in the person of the King only that it resides. It has the appearance of being so in show, and in nominal authority; but it is not so in practice, and in fact. It has its standard every where. Every office and department has its despotism, founded upon custom and usage.

Every office and department has its despotism, founded upon custom and usage. Every place has its Bastille, and every Bastille its despot.

Every place has its Bastille, and every Bastille its despot. The original hereditary despotism resident in the person of the King, divides and subdivides itself into a thousand shapes and forms, till at last the whole of it is acted by deputation. This was the case in France; and against this species of despotism, proceeding on through an endless labyrinth of office till the source of it is scarcely perceptible, there is no mode of redress. It strengthens itself by assuming the appearance of duty, and tyrannises under the pretence of obeying.”

“Let them call me rebel”

So many of Paine’s words still have meaning and resonance for us today, I’ve decided to add a new regular feature to this blog: weekly quotations from the man himself, most of which require very little explanation. Here’s the first:

“Let them call me rebel, and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one, whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man. I conceive likewise a horrid idea in receiving mercy from a being, who at the last day shall be shrieking to the rocks and mountains to cover him, and fleeing with terror from the orphan, the widow and the slain of America.”

— from The American Crisis 1, December 1776

Paine, of course, is referring to George III, but his words may conjure a more familiar figure, or that of any dictator.

Thomas Paine Day

I celebrated Thomas Paine’s birthday for the first time in 2010. It was an inspired impulse, almost a whim. I bought a dozen red roses and a bottle of French brandy at the local market and took them home – where an already-framed portrait of Paine (downloaded from the internet) perched on my writing desk, right next to the computer monitor. I trimmed the roses, arranged them in a big clear-glass mug, and set them next to the picture. Perfect. Or … nearly. I fussed with the tableau until I liked it well enough to snap a phone picture of my small tribute to America’s most radical Founder. I poured myself a glass of brandy, toasted the great man’s memory, and settled down to read his work for an hour or so. The End.

Except it wasn’t the end. It was only the beginning. The hardy roses obliged me by lasting that entire week and into the next. My writing desk was next to my bed, so every morning when I got up, the first thing to engage my eye was usually my little memory-altar to Paine, and that – throughout that week and into the next – made me absurdly happy.

Of course the placement of Paine’s birthday could not have been more perfect in my view. January 29 falls roughly in the middle of the not-quite-two-months between Christmas and my own birthday in February. A low-key, self-designated holiday proved to be just the tonic for the blah (and here in the midwest, literally grey) period of “back to normal routine” after the big winter holidays. Paine’s birthday also made for a nice reflective pause in anticipation of my own birthday. But perhaps the best perk was that my marking of this day was entirely private (at first). A sweet little secret all my own. No one needed to know why I felt bubbly and festive strolling through the grocery aisles on a chilly January day, or why I was buying flowers and liquor with what felt like a silly grin on my face. No one had to know unless I decided to tell them. There was an almost illicit thrill in that. And there were no crowds of gift-buyers to jostle with, no rules to follow, no expectations to meet (or fail to meet). Nope. Just me, Mr. Paine, some beautiful words, and whatever moments of cozy reflection I could squeeze out of the day. I felt like I was making up something from scratch – a little bit like “Baxter Day” in the PBS Kids TV show Arthur.

When I learned that actually, folks had been celebrating Thomas Paine’s birthday since at least 1827 – with feasting, speeches, music and dancing (Dancing? What would the Quaker-raised Paine have made of that?) – I felt delighted anew, as if I had joined a community – a semi-secret fan club stretching back to the earliest days of the Republic.

And it seemed to me that my supposed “homemade holiday” needed to expand a little – to become, like Paine himself, a bit more public-spirited. And what better way to do that than share his words? So when I celebrated Paine’s birthday the following year, I bought the flowers and poured the brandy – but I also made a small gift of Paine’s words to the world, giving away three new copies of The Age of Reason on a book-exchange website (all of them snapped up within hours, as it happened). By 2012, it was five copies. Eventually, I was giving away not just The Age of Reason, but Rights of Man and Common Sense as well. To this day I love the thrill of sending Paine’s words off to strangers living in parts unknown.

And what words they are and how we need them – now more than ever. Happy Birthday, Thomas!

The Measure of Greatness

“He [Beethoven] never got his picture on bubble gum cards, did he? Have you ever seen his picture on a bubble gum card? Hmmm? How can you say someone is great who’s never had his picture on bubble gum cards?”

— Lucy Van Pelt, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Photo: Thomas Paine on Topps collector card, c. 1950s.

The Thomas Paine Fan Club No. 1 — Messages from the Past


, ,

I ordered the book from Amazon. The seller had noted that it was a library discard. Still, an actual copy of something published in 1863, for less than fifty dollars, seemed like a steal.

It came to me rebound in one of those heavy institutional covers – plain black, stamped in bright gold letters along the spine: author, title, publication date. At less than 200 pages, it was a slim book, and I was impressed that “G. Vale –The Life of Thomas Paine” had actually been made to fit horizontally across the narrow spine. Inside, a book plate (front) and a card-pocket (back) – at a guess relics from the 1960s – informed me that this little piece of history had once belonged to Long Island University’s (no-longer-existing) Southampton College. The book plate, in narrow letters punched out by a manual typewriter, told me that the book was given to the university by a “Mr. Neil MacNeil.”

Inside the cover were 192 yellowing pages — a biography of Thomas Paine published during the Civil War, printed using old-school letter-press technology that left visible indentations in the paper. The page-edges had been trimmed to fit the new binding, of course – a sacrilegious practice that I was yet willing to overlook. I was holding in my hands one of the earliest attempts to restore Thomas Paine to the American public memory.

But I had not yet discovered the book’s best treasure, the thing that made it unique.

On the very last of the original pages, in a space left conveniently blank by the publisher, I found this note in faded ink, set down in old-fashioned longhand:


Thomas Paine

Thy fidelity to God and humanity shal be forever held sacred in the hearts of the American people. Yes generations yet unnumbered in the cycles of Eternity shal come fourth and delight to do the Honor.

June 25th, 1871

The inscriber left no signature – just three newspaper clippings pinned onto that last page. These are dated in pencil as published in 1877, and involve the tale of Paine’s many-times-debunked deathbed conversion to Christianity (a “libel” as our reader notes in pencil at the head of one of these clippings). The cuttings were in good condition – as un-yellowed as if they had been taken from a newspaper of last year, never mind over a century ago. At first I had trouble believing they were real. But examining the backs of these scraps convinced me that they were, in fact, genuine old newspaper articles. They contained nuggets of information such as the following:

A St. Petersburg dispatch of the 9th says a fanatical rising had taken place in the Tchetchensi country. One band of 500 insurgents were dispersed by the Russian troops, with a loss of ninety-nine killed and 250 wounded. The Russian loss was small.


Reverse side of one clipping from the book.

An explosion of gas occurred on the morning of the 9th, in the Wadesville Mines, near St. Clair, Pa. Fourteen men were imprisoned, and the bodies of six had been recovered up to the morning of the 10th. Eight were rescued alive, badly injured.

From statistics in the Railroad Gazette, it appears that Colorado built 154 ½ miles of railroad in 1876; California, Ohio, and Texas were the only states that built a greater number of miles during the year. The total mileage in this state [Iowa?] is put down at 950.

These cuttings paint images of a time both distant and familiar. Mine accidents. Chechen rebels (readily labeled as “fanatical” and “insurgents”) fighting oppression by the Russian government. States competing for technological bragging rights. In this world, as in our own, the ardent concerns of Thomas Paine – political liberty, the rights of working people, and the thrill of innovation – still have meaning and resonance for the American people.

It also seems worth noting that the inscription and cuttings are from the 1870s. 1876, of course, was the American centennial year. There would have been renewed public interest in the American Founders. While the culture at large still denied that designation to Thomas Paine in the late nineteenth century, his devotees have never been in any doubt that he deserved that status. Our engaged reader of Paine’s life, reflecting in private, here predicts (accurately) a future time in which the unsung hero will be honored.

I often think of Paine devotees as members of a small and quasi-secret fan club that now (no longer so secret, but still a bit under the public culture radar) has come to span over two centuries. When I “meet” members of this club who have passed this way, leaving traces of their love for Paine in personal or published writings, I feel a bit like the fictitious Anne of Green Gables, who waxes poetic whenever she has the great good fortune to meet a “kindred spirit.” It is as though I have found a message in a bottle that is actually, miraculously, addressed to me, sent by a secret friend across time. This little note – a declaration of love both private and public – is addressed not just to Paine but to those future generations “yet unnumbered.”

I envision a quiet little army of such readers and writers, each keeping the flame of Paine’s ideas and his memory alive through these small covert actions over at least a century of establishment silence about Paine’s life and contributions. In 1871, as this particular reader was making reverent notation in the last pages of a book, Moncure Conway’s definitive, thoroughly researched life of Thomas Paine would not be published for another 21 years, in 1892.


Clipping on the death of Thomas Paine. The month of Paine’s death is given incorrectly. Paine died in June of 1809.

I can’t help wondering who this reader/curator was – this person who troubled to put a steel-nib pen into an inkwell and compose a personal note to Thomas Paine — sixty-eight years after his death. Eighty-eight years before I was born, and nearly a century and a half before the book would fall into my hands. A century before 1976, when the nation’s Bicentennial would provoke my own interest in the American Founders at age eleven.

Was our writer the mysterious “Mr. Neil MacNeil,” or someone else?

No doubt I’m doing a lot of projecting here. I keep notes of this kind in some of my own books. Some of them are addressed to Paine or to other writers. Many are addressed to myself, or to possible future readers. Sometimes I’m not sure who I’m addressing. Notes made in the margins and on the end-papers of books often seem to be in dialogue with both the published author and some other audience. William Blake is said to have defended Paine fiercely in the marginal notes penned into his own copy of The Age of Reason. There is at least one scholarly study of Thomas Jefferson’s volumes of marginalia.

Yet for me, the notes of an anonymous and so-called “ordinary” reader are no less fascinating or valuable. They are the material evidence someone’s reaction to the written word, as well as the wish to leave something of that reaction behind. Such notes are reminders that scholarship is not only for scholars, and that small acts of memory are the very things that come to build “history.”



Inscription and cuttings at the back of Vale’s biography of Paine, as I found them.