“Wicked and Seditious” — Paine’s Rights of Man


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In honor of Banned Books Week , I decided earlier this month to revisit Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.

Originally published in England as two separate pamphlets (in March 1791 and February 1792), the 200-page book is still widely considered Paine’s most important and influential work.

It is also, according to the American Library Association “one of history’s most banned political narratives.” In England, it was contraband for decades. Selling this work of “seditious libel” could get you arrested, fined, imprisoned – or even, as in one case, transported. Both a defense of the French Revolution and an ideological take-down of English monarchy, Rights of Man caused a political furor almost unimaginable for us today. (Yes, even in the age of Trump). In 1792, brought to trial by the Crown, Paine fled his native England to avoid being hung as a traitor. He would never return.

Since that time, Rights of Man has remained controversial, a regular target of censorship efforts around the world. Even in the United States it hasn’t always been safe from challenges in schools and libraries.

Nor is it difficult to understand why. Paine’s insistence, conveyed in plain language, that ordinary citizens had an inherent, always-existing right to choose – and if necessary to change – their governments was and continues to be toxic to authoritarians of all political stripes.

I first encountered Rights of Man around 2010. Having read The Age of Reason and Common Sense, I was prepared for the conventions of eighteenth-century language, as well as Paine’s impressive gift for both lucid explanation and (often hilarious) sarcasm.

I was not prepared for the sheer breadth and compass of Paine’s democratic vision – nor the depth of his feeling for the oppressed. Of the supposedly “vulgar … ignorant mob,” the lowest of the poor classes throughout Europe, Paine offers this insight, two centuries before activists had a word for marginalization:

It is by distortedly exalting some men, that others are distortedly debased, till the whole is out of nature. A vast mass of mankind are degradedly thrown into the back-ground of the human picture, to bring forward, with greater glare, the puppet-show of state and aristocracy.

The book is filled with such insights.

Yet, even after a second reading, I still find Rights of Man a difficult work to fully absorb. It is nearly impossible to summarize, because it is so many things at once. Far more than a polemic, it is also reportage, protest, political theory. It is at once sober journalism and withering satire, careful analysis and impassioned plea for justice. The late commentator Christopher Hitchens describes it as “one of the first ‘modern’ texts,” and “both a trumpet of inspiration and a carefully wrought blueprint for a more rational and decent ordering of society” (Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: a Biography, 11).

In its reach and complexity, the book is different, even, from Paine’s other writings. Unlike Common Sense or The American Crisis, it’s less a call to arms than a spur thought and reflection – though it is filled with evocative metaphor and stirring language. Unlike The Age of Reason, it doesn’t target a specific foe, such as organized religion – unless that foe is monarchy and “hereditary government,” which will strike most readers of today as last century’s news.

Ironically, the main barrier to fully appreciating Rights of Man in 2017 may be that its critique of “government” has been largely blunted over time – by the very progress that Paine himself hoped for and advocated. What was “seditious libel” worthy of trying to hang an upstart writer back in 1792 is today the “common sense” of nearly all modern democracies.

As Paine states in “Letter to the Addressers.” his summary and defense of Rights of Man, “I have asserted … and by fair and open argument maintained, the right of every nation at all times to establish such a system and form of government for itself as best accords with its disposition, interest, and happiness; and to change and alter it as it sees occasion.”

That is – people, meaning ordinary citizens, are the creators and shapers of government. And those same people have the right to change and reshape their government if they so choose.

Paine doesn’t need to convince us that such a belief is right, just, or natural. We presume those truths to be self-evident. What shocks us is that anyone might believe – or have ever believed – otherwise.

Americans in particular have been telling ourselves this story of how governments are best formed for over two hundred years. We tell it this way because we learned it from our Founders, including and especially Thomas Paine.

So what, if anything, can a work like Rights of Man say to us today, if so many of its precepts are already ingrained in our worldview? Haven’t we already absorbed all this business about representative democracies and written constitutions?

Well … perhaps – but it is helpful to remind ourselves of how much reality – political reality, in particular – is invented.

Rights of Man – like all Paine’s work, like the writings of all our Founders – was created at a time when modern democracy was experimental and widely mistrusted. Words and concepts matter. Historians point out that in Rights of Man, Paine transformed the meaning of the word democracy itself, giving it the largely positive connotation it carries today. In the late eighteenth century, thinkers and writers were still using democracy as a slur – a synonym for anarchy, lawlessness, “mob rule,” and the unmooring of civil order. John Adams understood the word in this sense, and like others of his time, characterized democracy as a kind of contagion – as “Paine’s yellow fever.” The statesman Edmund Burke became Paine’s ideological rival – and the catalyst for the writing of Paine’s book, when he dismissed as irrelevant some “paltry sheets about the rights of man.”

American political discourse has been, and continues to be, one long debate about rights: who has them, who should, what they entail, how they are to be enforced, what puts them under threat. When the Supreme Court hears a case, whether on health insurance or campaign funding or immigration, it acts as an arbiter of rights. Many of its most important cases historically have referenced and interpreted the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, better known to all of us as the Bill of Rights. We are nearly incapable of imagining a world without rights – or at least a theoretical assertion of them – as a given.

It has perhaps become too easy for us “post-moderns” to forget that there was a time in which rights were a foreign and forbidden language, a cause to charge writers with madness and treason, to jail booksellers and publishers and to burn authors in effigy. The media of Thomas Paine’s day cast his work in precisely those terms, whether through vicious editorial cartoons of “Mad Tom, the Man of Rights” or a scurrilous government-funded “biography” packed with falsehoods.

Yet Paine – and his ideas – have persisted.

Among many other things, Rights of Man advocates for a progressive tax structure and what we might today call a welfare state: government pensions for the old, education for the young and the unemployed, help for the impoverished and for new parents. Many of these ideas did not see fruition for a century and more after Paine’s death. Many others have yet to be even tried. Paine did not live to see most of the changes that his words helped bring about.

And just as he failed to see the coming Reign of Terror in France – an oversight that nearly got him killed (there were a great number of things in Paine’s life that nearly got him killed before he actually died … at the age of 73) – so he also failed to see that the dissolution of monarchy would not bring an end to war. Nor could he have known that democracy wasn’t a cure-all, and that many of the abuses he attributed to “the monarchical system” would prove a hazard to representative systems as well. The presidency of Donald Trump is far from the earliest example, but of course it springs most easily to mind. In reading Paine’s various descriptions of monarchy as afflicted by the ills of both youth and old age, it’s hard not to keep seeing Trump, the would-be emperor of America, with his alternating temper-tantrums and breathtaking ignorance.

It is government through the medium of passions and accidents. It appears under all the various characters of childhood, decrepitude, dotage, a thing at nurse, in leading-strings, or in crutches. It reverses the wholesome order of nature. It occasionally puts children over men, and the conceits of nonage over wisdom and experience. In short, we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government …

Likewise, in contemplating the phenomenon of “alternate facts” and “fake news” that we read about daily, Paine’s warnings about the “the puppet show” and “mystery” of government take on new resonance.

Yet for me, as always, the most moving aspect of Paine’s writing is never ideology – or even bold, strong language, but compassion – and the kind of open-hearted idealism that our cynical culture loves to deride as naive fantasy.

There are moments, more perhaps in Rights of Man than any of his other works, when Paine’s faith in his fellow human beings – that is, in us, ordinary Jane-and-Joe Average citizens like you and me – is not only profoundly touching, but unsettling. Throughout the book, it is clear that Paine rests his faith less in a specific form of government than in his fellow human beings – in “we the people” and our willingness to assert and protect not just our own rights – but those of others. Representative democracy will work, he tells us, not because of this or that party or leader, but because “the nation” (in the Rousseauist sense, meaning “the people”) has the ultimate power to shape and control government.

“Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it,” he tells us. “Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. …. Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require.” Those are rousing and hopeful words – words fit to encourage a resistance.

Paine also believed that we the people could see through the orchestrated lies that government (or the media) so often peddles. In “Letter to the Addressers,” he writes:

… how easily does even the most illiterate reader distinguish the spontaneous sensations of the heart, from the labored productions of the brain. Truth, whenever it can fully appear, is a thing so naturally familiar to the mind, that an acquaintance commences at first sight. No artificial light, yet discovered, can display all the properties of daylight; so neither can the best invented fiction fill the mind with every conviction which truth begets.

In Rights of Man, this sentiment is even more streamlined and poetic:

… such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. The sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness.

In this age of floating signifiers, fake news, and tweeting presidents, it is challenging, even daunting, to adopt Paine’s optimistic stance on the self-evidence of truth. Media and technology have changed all of that, we keep hearing. We may (rightly) ask if Paine was being naive – and whether we are naive to trust what he says.

But we should not forget that speaking truth to power has never been a magic trick or a one-time proposition. Truth may “only” need to appear – but most of the time it needs to appear over and over again before it sinks it. Paine knew this, even if he doesn’t say so here. We can tell that by the number of times that he did, in fact, repeat those democratic ideals that we think we know, but rarely expend the effort to examine or teach or defend. Paine did all these things throughout his life, very often at great personal risk, over, and over, and over again.

Thomas Paine persisted – on many fronts beyond the printed page. And through those efforts, his thoughts and ideas have persisted into our own time.

We need to remember that, and follow his example.

Beginning the World Over Again: Ian Ruskin’s Thomas Paine Returns to Public Television


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Images courtesy of Ian Ruskin. Photoshop by C.M. Bichler


“We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense, a pamphlet of less than fifty pages, published in January of 1776, months before the Declaration of Independence was drafted. In clear and robust prose, Paine urged his fellow Americans to do the unthinkable, the impossible – to declare themselves an independent nation.

Given the chaos of American politics at the present moment, many of us no doubt long for the power that Paine invokes here – the power of citizens to alter their government – an idea that may seem quaint in the age of Trump, but which is, after all (or used to be), at the heart of American national identity.

That desire to reshape the world for the better is also at the heart of Ian Ruskin’s compelling one-hour drama on the life of Paine, arguably America’s most fervent revolutionary and certainly the most radical of our Founders. The film is returning to public television stations around the country this week, with multiple airings on the World Channel on and around Independence Day. (Where I live, in the Detroit area, Thomas Paine’s To Begin the World Over Again will be shown four times between July 3 and 4. To find airdates where you are, visit The World Channel, thelifeofthomaspaine.org, or web-search the schedule for your local PBS affiliate.)

I discovered Ian Ruskin’s work through his blog-piece: “Why Thomas Paine Matters,” posted to Daily Kos in April of 2012. The article, reflecting on both the importance of Paine’s ideas and the dearth of political truth-telling in America, also contained links to video excerpts from Ruskin’s stage play.


Watch Video: Enlightenment

For me, this was a perfectly timed coincidence. I watched in wonder and delight as Thomas Paine came to life on my laptop screen. I had been making a study of Paine and his writings ever since reading The Age of Reason in 2009. (The tale of my acquaintance with Mr. Paine can be found in my own Daily Kos diary from about a year ago.) Ruskin’s pushback against a distorted Tea Party version of American history was grounded in fact, not ideology. Better still, he used Paine’s actual words and ideas to press his case. His characterization immediately struck me as jaw-droppingly right – exactly in line with the man I had glimpsed in countless letters and essays, and in the sarcastic humor and soaring rhetoric of all his major works. I knew I had to see this play. And I really wanted to talk to the man who had written and performed it.

About a week later, I sent an email – a fan letter, really – to Ian Ruskin. Since then I’ve had the privilege of chatting with the playwright several times about the purpose and evolution of his play. I saw it performed in Philadelphia at the American Philosophical Society in 2012, and later helped bring it to an audience at Bowling Green State University, where I was then a graduate student in American Studies. One of the undergraduate students told me afterward how inspired he’d been to see the performance (and that he’d also read The Age of Reason), and I realized that history didn’t have to be oversimplified or whitewashed to connect with non-scholars.

In March 2015, I was in the audience at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood as To Begin the World Over Again was filmed. The experience was magical. The creative and artistic process was fascinating, of course – but almost as amazing was getting to see how others in that audience absorbed and reacted to a historical figure as someone relevant to their own lives.

Historian Harvey Kaye, one of the many scholars consulted for Ruskin’s Paine project, has observed in his book Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, that we tend to look back to the American Founders in times of national crisis, habitually seekng inspiration in “our revolutionary past at times … when the very purpose and promise of the nation [are] at risk or in doubt.” Paine in particular, according to Kaye, is the embodiment of the American impulse to radicalism. Ruskin’s goal in bringing Paine to the stage (and now the screen) was originally to remedy public perception of a “misunderstood” historical figure and to counter the “complete distortion of Paine’s words and work and beliefs” by entities such as the Tea Party.

Ruskin seems to have found his mission in rescuing historical figures who’ve been misunderstood or have faded from public memory. He began exploring the potential of history-based one-man plays in 2001 with From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks, which celebrates the achievements of labor radical Harry Bridges. His next project will take on the life and thought of the inventor Nikola Tesla.

Both the stage and film versions of To Begin the World Over Again capture the turbulence and heartbreak of Thomas Paine’s life, while also exploring his most important ideas – which have shaped American political thought for more than two centuries now.

The film opens with Ruskin as Paine lighting candles on a darkened stage – an apt metaphor for our own political moment. Over the course of an hour, he recounts his tumultuous career – from poverty in England through the upheavals of the American and French Revolutions, to the public declaration of his own non-Christianity in The Age of Reason – an event which led to public censure and neglect in the years before his death in 1809. Along the way, period music and eighteenth-century art (political cartoons and portraits of Paine’s contemporaries), help to flesh out the story and re-create the atmosphere of Paine’s time in all its messiness: its rationalism (for the lucky few), its revolutions, its abject poverty (for the many) and its boisterous and often corrupt politics.

If all of that sounds a little familiar, it should.

The play was called timely by several critics even before the election of 2016. Now, as our nation endures seemingly endless corruption and chaos, meanness and hatred directed at the most vulnerable, and a looming constitutional crisis, Paine’s words and ideas take on a new and urgent relevance.

“I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”             — Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

Far from being a textbook lesson about a lone genius, Ruskin’s film is a believable human drama about patriotism and sacrifice – about the potential cost of idealism, selflessness, and speaking truth to power. As we learn, Paine sacrificed nearly all for his vision of a better, more humane world: intimate love, emotional and financial security, domestic ties to family and country – and many of his closest friendships, whether to death or to ideological disputes. Ever more abandoned and solitary, Paine ages before our eyes in this film. His bitter, late-in-life breaks with George Washington and Samuel Adams are wrenching – for him and for us. His literal appearance as a lone figure on the minimally dressed stage becomes all too symbolically fitting.

Perhaps Ruskin’s most impressive feat here is to provide us a glimpse into the heart and mind of a man whose inner life, even for scholars, remains elusive. Paine was not in the habit of self-disclosure in his writings, most of which are intended to persuade through reason and sheer force of rhetoric. Yet Ruskin somehow gets beneath the surface of the political man, using Paine’s personal correspondence, his religious writings, and the observations of scholars and contemporaries to fill in the knowledge gaps – and by making intuitive leaps as necessary. In interviews, Ruskin cites his own sense of kinship with Paine the immigrant as a factor that informs his interpretation of the character. The deeper Ruskin dives into Paine’s psyche, the more riveting his performance becomes.

In some ways, I am reminded of the musical 1776, one of my personal touchstones to the American Revolution from about the age of about eleven. Like that much longer play, To Begin the World Over Again moves from lightness and bawdy eighteenth-century jokes (Ruskin’s Paine speaks of the similarities of “politics and farting”), to the darker aspects of revolution and its human toll. The excited, almost bubbly Paine that we see in the first half of the film contrasts sharply with the somber character of the second half. It is in the film’s closing moments, when Ruskin’s delivery slows down and Paine becomes reflective, that we see the man worn down to his essentials, a weary soul battered by harsh experience, yet still unwilling to compromise his words or beliefs. As an actor, Ruskin is at his most compelling while revealing Paine’s slow emotional breakdown. The unblinking and up-close eye of the camera makes that decline harrowing. On film (as opposed to the live stage), Paine is literally no longer at arm’s length, and the effect is powerful.

For those who don’t want to wait, the film is currently available to stream at on Amazon Prime and Vimeo. The DVD can be ordered on Amazon or directly from Ruskin’s non-profit.

Thomas Paine not only knew how to rally a resistance movement – he knew the rigors of sustaining one. During the winter of 1777, as Washington’s troops retreated across the frozen Jersies and the American Revolution appeared to be doomed, he wrote the first of his Crisis papers, opening with the line: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The essay reaches its rhetorical climax in these lines–used by President Obama in his first inaurgual address:

Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.

I urge everyone to spare an hour over the July Fourth holiday to take in the story of America’s Founding Radical, a man who, in the most personal way, understood that “it is dearness only that gives every thing its value,” and who fought all of his life for the “celestial article [of] FREEDOM” for every single human being. At a time when America’s founding ideals are being threatened as never before, the voice of Thomas Paine, always ahead of his time, continues to speak powerfully to our own.

Watch Trailer: Thomas Paine’s To Begin the World Over Again


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Hope and Virtue: A Tale of Two Big Words

img_20161218_142523_kindlephoto-108009314This is a President Obama story, an Inauguration Day story. It is also a Thomas Paine story.

While sifting through the random items that somehow made it from my old house to my new(ish) apartment this past December, I came across a large button celebrating the 2009 inauguration of then-new President Barack Obama. Round, bright white, and oversized, the button featured Obama’s portrait and the words “Hope and Virtue” in large, bold type. I had ordered it online in those giddy first days of the first Obama term, because I liked the design — and because I wanted to brag on the victory of “my” President after eight dark and fearful years of the George W. Bush administration. Good riddance, Scooter Libby and “Darth” Cheney. Hello, Hope and Virtue.

Though I have to admit that at the time, the phrase “hope and virtue” struck my ear a bit oddly. “Virtue,” seemed a quaint and old-fashioned term. When was the last time “virtue” had been invoked in American political discourse? No matter. It was still one cool piece of swag.

This button soon joined the collection of Obama swag I had amassed during the election, which in time, like many of my collections, somehow dispersed itself and then disappeared into the variegated and unorganized museum of things known as “my stuff.” I forgot about it.

During the autumn of 2009, I read a book called The Age of Reason, and instantly became fascinated with its author. A Paine biography later yielded an interesting connection: Obama’s first inaugural address contained a quote from Paine (sadly uncredited), that had been lifted from the first “Crisis Paper,” written in the winter of 1776, while Washington’s army was retreating across the frozen Jersies. It was meant to lift the spirits of both the American soldiers and citizens during the “times that tried men’s souls.” The passage Obama used:

“Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”

Of course, by that time I had forgotten my cute, flashy Obama button with its quaint, dated phrasing, but when it turned up again nearly eight years later, while I was sorting through some boxes of things I’d saved, it seemed ironically appropriate that I should rediscover it at the end of Obama’s second term — both literally and figuratively “in the depth of winter.” This time, of course, I instantly recognized the key words as Paine’s phrasing, indeed old-fashioned — and utterly appropriate. My (re)discovery of this ephemeral but suddenly very relevant object felt like a little nudge from the universe, the dropping of a cosmic hint – a gift and a reminder from both Thomas Paine and President Obama to hold fast to our nation’s professed ideals, even – especially – at a time when those ideals seem more fragile and in more danger than ever before.

Obama’s inauguration was a celebration of hope, an amazing display of diversity and all that was best about America. I kept the TV on for hours all through those festivities, and (it seemed) for most of the weekend after. This year, needless to say, I won’t be looking at my TV on Friday unless it’s to watch PBS Kids or the Create channel.

I will, however, find a place to display my “vintage” Obama button – probably someplace near a picture of Thomas Paine (I have several). Like Paine, I will endeavor to resist our “common danger” with word and with action, and like “my” President, I will have the audacity to hope for better days.

“Say not that thousands are gone, turn out your tens of thousands; throw not the burden of the day upon Providence, but ‘show your faith by your works,’ that God may bless you. It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, will suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now is dead; the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole, and made them happy.”

– Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, Number One, 1776

“I have no wish to believe on the subject.”

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.


“The glide of the smallest fish …”

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It’s tough to choose a favorite quote by Thomas Paine — American Founder, career revolutionary, and perennial skeptic. Pithy sayings and memorable phrases are Paine’s stock-in-trade, from “We have in it in our power to begin the world over again” to “These are the times that try men’s souls” and even “United States of America” – which first appeared, formally capitalized as our country’s name, in Paine’s American Crisis. In fact, Paine is so quotable that he’s even been credited (or blamed) for a number of things he never said or wrote. The Thomas Paine National Historical Association maintains a handy list of these bogus Paine quotations.

Since I began reading his work in 2009, my personal list of valued (and often memorized) Paine quotations has piled up almost on its own, the way books pile up in odd corners of my bedroom. Most of my favorites are drawn from his deist work The Age of Reason (1794-1795), a rationalist and often satirical critique of the Bible and organized religion. The book is filled with beautiful, compact, often proverb-like turns of phrase: “the word mystery cannot be applied to moral truth, any more than obscurity can be applied to light,” “The word of God is the Creation we behold,” and perhaps most famously: “My own mind is my own church.”

Still, if I had to pick one line of Paine’s that struck me on first reading, and that continues to linger for reasons that I can only partially explain, it would be this:

“ … the glide of the smallest fish, in proportion to its bulk, exceeds us in motion almost beyond comparison, and without weariness …”

Yes, that’s Thomas Paine — also in The Age of Reason — here stepping, however briefly, into the role of nature poet. This passage might seem atypical of his work. It carries none of the rhetorical or political punch of his more famous dictums. There is no humor, no sarcasm, no argument to be clinched. It reads like something pulled from the Tao Te Ching, or perhaps from the work of Paine’s friend, the iconic romantic poet William Blake.

Yet this is the line I always return to in thinking about Paine’s life and works. For me, it expresses not only a love of nature, but a deep sense of kinship with and compassion for other living beings.

It also marks the place where the narrative of my own life intersects with Thomas Paine’s.

In the fall of 2009, I was in one of life’s valleys. Two years out from breast cancer treatment, emotionally and physically exhausted, I had begun to realize that my more-than-ten-year marriage was unraveling. The daily care of my seven-year-old autistic son was making me ever more homebound and isolated, and the clock on my still incomplete Ph.D. dissertation was about to expire.

Somehow, I also found myself absorbed in reading The Age of Reason. I consumed it at first in small bites – a page or two each day. For fiction-writing purposes, I told myself. Background to understand the Enlightenment as a time and place. Fodder for the great historical romance I was going to create.

It wasn’t long, however, before my research became an addiction. I found myself reading Paine for the sheer and sometimes perverse joy of it. I loved following the turns of his arguments. I savored his gift for irony, his keen eye for the illogical and absurd. I was fascinated by the way his writer’s voice could shift on a dime — from biting sarcasm to patient pedagogy to pure lyricism — sometimes in the space of a line or two. Thomas Paine became for me the eccentric but lovable friend who sat each day at my kitchen table, cheering me up with rude jokes about religion – about the Bible, heaven, hell, and the devil – all things that I had been taught to regard as deadly serious during my childhood.

One afternoon, as I was coming to the end of the book, Paine — after a series of bitter arguments with the apostle Paul — abruptly dropped his tone of relentless skepticism. As if reductionist logic had finally exhausted even him, he paused in his argument to simply observe. I followed his gaze — and suddenly there it was:

“Every animal in the creation excels us in something. The winged insects, without mentioning doves or eagles, can pass over more space with greater ease in a few minutes than man can in an hour. The glide of the smallest fish, in proportion to its bulk, exceeds us in motion almost beyond comparison, and without weariness. Even the sluggish snail can ascend from the bottom of a dungeon, where man, by the want of that ability, would perish; and a spider can launch itself from the top, as a playful amusement.”

I was reading aloud, as I sometimes do with very old or very complex works (slowing down and hearing the words often helps me to better understand). At that point, and for no good reason, my eyes teared up. My voice broke. I had no idea why.

It was only later that I learned Paine had written this portion of the book while recovering from nearly a year spent in a French prison during the Reign of Terror. He was fifty-seven years old at the time, and while he managed to escape the guillotine, the stress of the ordeal destroyed his health for the remainder of his life.

Younger Paine Portrait for Blog

Yet Paine continued to write, almost until the day he died, despite chronic physical pain and frequent bouts of deep depression. It isn’t surprising to find that in The Age of Reason, he expresses the wish for “a better body and a more convenient form.” “The personal powers of man,” he laments, “ … are so limited, and his heavy frame so little constructed to extensive enjoyment …” It’s a rare moment of self-disclosure for a writer who most often defines himself through political rhetoric and the parsing of ideology.

As his biographers have noted, Paine tended to hide his private identity behind the assumed public roles of revolutionary and social critic. The historian Gordon Wood calls him America’s “first public intellectual.”

Accordingly, our culture has remembered him as an ideologue first, whether we see him as the rabble-rouser and maker of revolutions, or the scourge of religious creeds and establishment thought. Such caricatures, fostered in Paine’s own time – often by his enemies – go a long way to explain present-day efforts to make Paine over into a rabid nationalist or reduce him to ideological “bomb thrower.” I recently came across one piece on the internet arguing that Donald Trump, by virtue of making outrageous statements and voicing “anti-establishment” sentiments, was some sort of spiritual heir to Thomas Paine. The same sorts of claims have been made about Democratic insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders. Of course, neither Trump nor Sanders, nor any modern politician — could have written anything approaching Paine’s genius – and certainly not his brief and lyrical observation of the tiny fish.

Much of Paine’s writing, and particularly his descriptions of the natural world, do not fit neatly into the persona of either Paine the Patriot or Paine the Infidel. The detail of the fish gliding through the water is but one example.

In reading Paine at length, I find that he is not, in fact, generally a writer of “screeds.” Certainly, he can be caustic. He is often impassioned, with a tendency to get swept up in the drama and occasionally grand language of his own arguments (a trait that I, as a writer, find completely lovable). Paine can hurl insults with the best: his characterization of Edmund Burke as drama queen in Rights of Man is a witty extended metaphor that goes on for paragraphs. Yet undergirding all these writing choices – and that is what they are: strategic choices — something else is at work.

In our own time, when politicians can sneer at concepts like empathy and community, it comes as a revelation to find that Paine’s work concerns itself deeply with those very things. The “smallest fish” in The Age of Reason – a seemingly insignificant and fleeting life – becomes the occasion for wonder, for gratitude, and for a much bigger sense of longing that goes beyond the self – a wish that life could be kinder and “without weariness” for us all.

It is Paine’s constant identification with the smallest and the least – the poor, the distressed, and the exploited – his refusal to hold the suffering of others at a distance, that often makes his work so compelling. Compassion is the strong undercurrent of his major works, even when his words are full of righteous rage. In Common Sense, Paine characterizes England as an unnatural parent, callous toward her children in the colonies. Defending the principles of the French Revolution in Rights of Man, he rebukes his intellectual rival, Edmund Burke, for failing to bestow “one glance of compassion” on the wretched prisoners of the Bastille or the sufferings of the common people of France. “Is this,” he asks of Burke, “the language of a rational man? Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race?” In the same work, Paine repeatedly calls forth images of individual human beings brutalized in under oppressive regimes, “whether sold into slavery, or tortured out of existence …”

In Paine’s very first pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise, written in 1772, two years before he left England for America, we find moving examples of the writer’s first-hand knowledge of poverty, which in the eighteenth century was epidemic. “The rich,” Paine writes, “… may think I have drawn an unnatural portrait; but could they descend to the cold regions of want, the circle of polar poverty, they would find their opinions changing with the climate.”

He also understands that ideology is no cure for suffering:

“He who was never an hungered may argue finely on the subjection of his appetite; and he who never was distressed, may harangue as beautifully on the power of principle. But poverty, like grief, has an incurable deafness, which never hears; the oration loses all its edge; and ‘To be, or not to be’ becomes the only question.”

Throughout The Age of Reason, Paine rages against the cruelties visited upon women, children, and other innocents within the pages of the Bible. There are moments when Paine seems almost beside himself at these horrors committed in the name of god. Indeed, his most telling criticisms of scripture rely not on the parsing of fact and logic (though he gives us plenty of that), but upon the idea that the Bible as narrative – as simple storytelling – is ultimately destructive of human compassion.

“To believe the Bible to be true,” he writes, “we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of god, and to read the Bible without horror, we must undo everything that is tender, sympathizing and benevolent in the heart of man.”

This, for me, is what makes Thomas Paine stand out, as a writer, as a personality – as a human being: his huge and fearless compassion – for suffering children, the poor, the disenfranchised, for the spider and “the smallest fish.” This empathy drives his ideology and breathes life into his words. That feeling is crystalized in the image of the tiny, darting fish. I cannot read Paine’s brief reflection on this least of creatures without also considering the “tender, sympathizing and benevolent” heart that took note of its existence, saw a glimpse of the divine, and raised a pen to share that feeling with readers.

A little more than a century after Paine’s death, freethinker and Civil War Union veteran John Remsberg wrote this of Paine’s works:

“They are full of charity, they glow with patriotism, they are warm with love. Even yet, within their lids methinks I feel the beating of the generous heart of him who penned them….”

It is exactly those qualities of love and generosity that draw me to back Thomas Paine’s writings again and again. It is exactly those qualities that we, as a society, stand in desperate need of now as we consider the future of our nation, as we contemplate the functions of a just, and yes, a compassionate, future world.

a completely made-up true story …

I came across this story — really a fragment — written out longhand in one of my journals. I had forgotten I’d written it, but it seemed exactly the piece with which to launch this blog, which is all about the intersections between story and history.

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Sigh. “I can’t do this anymore, Thomas.”

The bewigged head snaps up from the writing desk. The blue eyes fix like bright daggers.

“Do what?”

“This …” My gestures are formless, helpless. I wave my hands vaguely at the cluttered apartment. The towels dumped in a pile in the middle of the sofa, the papers scattered – everywhere.


The blue eyes regard me solemnly, unsurprised. He lays down the quill, adjusts the spectacles on his large nose.

“You mean this – bit of untidiness?”

“My life,” I correct him.

A decisive shake of the head. The wig goes askew and he pushes it back in place, an impatient gesture. “This is not your life.”

Ink-stained fingers pick up the quill, tap it gently but pointedly against the paper. “This – is your life.”

“It was supposed to be.”

“So what’s changed?”

“Oh, I don’t know. A kid. A divorce. A need to pay rent.”

The blue eyes never waver. I almost want to look away.

“But that’s everyone’s life, you know,” he says, not judging now. Just stating fact.

“I know.”Paine Engraving--Crop-c

“But not everyone has this–” The quill again, flicking against the side of the table. “Gifts are meant to be used.”

It is an argument I cannot win. Ever.

“You’re right, Thomas.”

Lifted brows. “And?”

“And … I guess I should just do it, huh?”

A slight nod of approval, and then his nose is back in his parchment again. The quill scratching busily.

I sit down, pull up a blank page on my monitor, curl my fingers over the keys – and begin.

–July 11, 2015

My dialogue with Mr. Paine tells a story, of course, a story that is only tangentially about history or about a historical character, but reveals a great deal about me and particularly me-as-writer. The words came spontaneously in a moment of frustration, as much journal-writing does. But my casting of Thomas Paine in the role of mentor was hardly a random choice.

I’ve been absorbing the details Paine’s life and writings since 2009. The historical details used here, though sparse, are drawn from what I know of his character, his appearance, his habits, and his life. I know he had blue eyes and a frequently piercing gaze, noted by many of the people who met him. I know that he was sometimes observed to be untidy, and that, like many eighteenth-century men, he sometimes wore a wig (described by at least one observer as “tattered”). I actually saw Paine’s metal-frame spectacles in a display case at Iona College, which houses several artifacts belonging to the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. All these bits and pieces of data manage to creep into my text.

More importantly, I know that Paine was a fiercely devoted writer, and that he wrote under hardships I can only imagine: while broke and unemployed, while waiting in the dead of night to be carried off to prison – and probable beheading – during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (which he survived). He continued to write and publish as an old man, when his body was so frail and broken that it required supreme effort just to sit at a desk. In at least one biography, I read that Paine dictated work during times when his hands were so wracked with gout that he couldn’t manage a quill.

Yet almost until the day he died, Thomas Paine never stopped writing. I don’t say that in my journal entry, but the knowledge of that fact lies at the heart of my little story. It underlies my entire sense of who Paine was and why I should try to emulate him.

In these ways, my story is informed by history and in small ways even interprets it. Yet its clear purpose is making sense of my own life during a specific moment in time. To that end, my storyteller’s imagination borrowed a real-life historical character and spun a kind of fable — with a “moral,” yet — out of the facts of his life.

Professional historians, seeking truer, more accurate, and richer understandings of the past in its “pastness” (yes, that’s a real academic term) are forever having to warn the rest of us – as both readers and writers – against the pitfalls of seeing history as mere entertainment, or only through the narrow window of our particular moment, as though we and our time were the ultimate purpose of everything and everyone that has gone before. Yet we cannot seem to resist the appeal of recreating other times in our own image, of telling stories about the people who inhabited those times – people who were and were not like ourselves, but who were, after all, our ancestors.

When we tell historical tales, we are spinning the myth of our own origin.

Stories about the American Founders, including Thomas Paine (who wasn’t always considered a Founder, by the way – but we’ll get to that later …) are part of our national mythology – and I don’t use the word “mythology” here as a term of disparagement. Cultural and personal mythologies capture our beliefs and values. They reveal what we believe about ourselves.

They tell us, and the rest of the world, who we think we are.

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