On this day in 1809, more than 200 years ago, Thomas Paine died in what is now Greenwich Village, New York. Plagued during the last weeks of his life by “visitors” – some of whom forced entry into his rooms – who sought to convert him from deism to Christianity, Paine held firm to his belief in a benevolent creator God who was not to be found in the Bible, but rather in the wonders of the natural world.
It is only in the CREATION that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they be. It is an ever existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God. —Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1794
Of Paine’s trying last days, W. T. Sherwin, one of his earliest sympathetic biographers, writes:
The men who had fled from the force of his arguments during his life-time, were the first to flock around him in his dying moments, thinking that, in the excess of bodily anguish, he might be induced to drop a word in opposition to his former opinions, or conceiving that, through their often repeated exhortations, he might be persuaded to subscribe to their system of faith. If these gentlemen were not on every occasion so politely received as they expected, they met with no more than they deserved…
The night before Paine died, he was asked by his physician: “Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?”
Paine responded with words as carefully chosen as any he had even written:
“I have no wish to believe on the subject.”
He died peacefully early the following morning.
To this day, unfounded rumors and urban legends persist of Paine’s supposed recantation of his Deism, his purported terror of the fires of hell. Paine knew no such fears. The historical record shows that Thomas Paine died “placidly, and almost without a struggle,” in the words of his friend Clio Rickman. “[He] died,” says Rickman, “as he had lived, a deist.”
About a century later, John E. Remsberg, a teacher, Civil War Union veteran, and prolific writer of freethought literature, imagined and described Paine’s death this way:
Tempestuous as life’s voyage had been, the old man reached his port in peace. Nature, whom he had deified, fondly and pityingly held him in her all-embracing arms, and soothed him in that last sad hour as with a mother’s love. The morning sun looked kindly down and kissed his throbbing temples; gentle breezes, fragrant with the odors of a thousand roses, fanned his fevered brow; joyous birds, whose songs he loved so well, came to his window and sang their cheeriest notes; while faithful friends were at his bedside, ministering to every want. And so, bravely and peacefully, with that serenity of soul which only the consciousness of a well-spent life can give, the grand old patriot passed away.
Remsberg writes in the florid and sentimental language of nineteenth-century popular literature, a style that is often mocked and disparaged today, but I have always loved this passage because of the writer’s obvious feeling for Paine, and his clear desire to reach back across time and envision — or offer — comfort to the lonely soul who had sacrificed so much in fighting for the rights and liberties of others.
It is worth remembering that as a veteran of the Civil War, Remsberg would have been witness to battlefield deaths and suffering on a scale that Americans had never before experienced. As historian Drew Gilpin Faust notes in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Americans of the Civil War era shared Victorian sensibilities about death. A “good death” meant being surrounded by family and making peace with God. Books were written expressly to instruct Christian readers on how to die properly — with grace, dignity, and appropriate piety. The brutality of the Civil War, with its massive, indiscriminate, and often anonymous slaughter, shattered this mythology for many.
It is interesting to think that in some sense, Remsburg, steeped in the traditions of this era, may in fact have been striving to give Thomas Paine the gift, if only in memory, of a good death.