Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)
Thomas Paine and The Age of Reason
J. Ward Regan
Thomas Paine, hero of the American Revolution, was in an especially convoluted and dangerous situation. His status as a well-known and highly controversial political writer had kept him politically active since 1774. In 1792, Paine was living as an exile in France under a death sentence from England. Unfortunately, he then also became the target of factions in the French Revolutionary government during the Reign of Terror. His ten years in exile—including ten months in prison—were trying, and he narrowly escaped death, but he produced some of his most important work during this time. Among them is The Age of Reason, Paine’s Deistic account of God and nature, and a direct assault on religious institutions around the world. The first draft was hurriedly completed while Paine was eluding the police, who had an order for his arrest from Robespierre. He then revised the work in Luxembourg Prison while awaiting execution—which he luckily avoided.—J.W.R.
One wonders what occupied Thomas Paine’s mind as he languished in Luxembourg Prison in Paris during the summer of 1794, in the midst of the French Revolution. Perhaps he contemplated his impending death from illness or beheading. Maybe he wondered if his dire circumstances might have been avoided, or if The Age of Reason would be his last words to the world. It seems that Paine, always the optimist, distracted himself with ideas for rewriting it.
He almost certainly looked back on the American and French Revolutions and his part in them. There was a lot to survey; over the past eighteen years he had been a best-selling author, political philosopher, international revolutionary, soldier, spy, and inventor. Many of the political elites on both sides of the Atlantic would have been happy to see him go. John Adams described Paine as one of the world’s great troublemakers, yet did not underestimate his importance: “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine…. Call it then the Age of Paine.”1
Paine wrote The Age of Reason in exile and prison at the height of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. The book is a critique of institutionalized religion, as well as a call to reason and morality. The Age of Reason sets forth the main tenets of a theistic universe without institutionalized religion, and has been seen as a foundational text by free thinkers and radicals for over two centuries.
The first part was written feverishly while Paine was eluding arrest, and rewritten in prison as he awaited execution; he completed a second part after his release. The Age of Reason is not as well known to Americans as his political works Common Sense or The American Crisis, perhaps because it was more controversial. Even though it was demonized, many of Paine’s ideas about religion were shared by other Founding Fathers. The book’s detractors and Paine’s critics unfairly characterized him as an atheist in an effort to discredit the book and his ideas.
Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1737, in Thetford, a small town in Norfolk, England. His mother was Anglican, his father a Quaker and skilled craftsman (he was a stay-maker for women’s corsets). He received a common grammar school education until the age of thirteen. This taught him how to read, write, and do math, as well as providing some instruction in history and the Bible. In his youth he was apprenticed and tried twice, unsuccessfully, to join a pirate ship.
After two marriages and several careers—including shopkeeper, teacher, and excise officer—Paine decided to emigrate to the North American colonies. He had previously met Benjamin Franklin in London and they had become friends. When Paine decided to go to the colonies, Franklin wrote him a letter of introduction, which he carried with him on his long life-threatening ocean passage. Paine finally landed in Philadelphia in late 1774.
The American Revolution, Common Sense and The American Crisis
In 1775, Paine’s job as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine in Philadelphia put him in the middle of an ongoing political crisis. He quickly became acquainted with both the politics and the major figures of the American Revolution. At the end of 1775 he turned his literary attention to the conflict with Britain and wrote Common Sense, in which he makes the case for American independence. The pamphlet made him an instant celebrity, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and came at exactly the right time to nudge public opinion in favor of independence (Claeys, 12).
By the time Paine arrived, the relationship between the colonies and England had deteriorated significantly, but after the Declaration of Independence the conflict intensified. During the war, Paine fought in the Continental Army and was even at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. The American Crisis Papers (1777–1783) drew from his experiences in battle and living with the hardships of war.
When the American Revolution ended in 1783, Paine turned to other endeavors, and began work on the design and manufacture of cast-iron bridges. Unable to find financial support in America, he went to Europe in 1787. He was in the middle of his bridge project in England when the French Revolution erupted. Once again a revolution would bring Paine to the forefront of a political transformation.
The French Revolution, The Rights of Man and Exile
Paine wrote The Rights of Man, Part I in 1791 in response to Reflections on the French Revolution, written against the French Revolution by Englishman Edmund Burke a year earlier. Paine’s book, in support of the French Revolution and its ideas, was astonishingly successful and made Paine one of the best-known authors of his day. It was one of almost six hundred books written during what is known as “The French Revolution Debate” in England in the early 1790s; most sold several hundred, maybe a few thousand. Burke had sold more than 30,000, but The Rights of Man, Part I sold hundreds of thousands of copies (Foner 219, Keane 307, Thompson 108). Paine differed from and surpassed his contemporaries in the depth and breadth of his audience. His books were read by the professional and middle classes, the working class, and even the “poor” (Stone 69–139).
He followed Part I less than a year later with The Rights of Man, Part II, which made a strong and sustained attack on the English monarchy and its related institutions. Paine additionally described a plan for social security and public education funded by income and property taxes. The criticisms in The Rights of Man, Part II were sharper than the government would permit, and Paine was charged with seditious libel. Knowing that a guilty verdict was preordained, Paine left for France and was tried and found guilty in absentia.
From International Hero to Political Prisoner
When he arrived in the French city of Calais in 1792, Paine was warmly welcomed and promptly elected to the National Convention. He went to Paris and took his place in the Convention, and became deeply involved in the revolution. Paine was one of only two foreigners in the legislative body, the other being Anacharsis Cloots.
By 1792, the idea of a French Republic had been accepted—but it needed a constitution. Paine was appointed to the committee in 1793 to write one, but the committee never finished its work. This was also when Louis XVI was on trial. During the trial, Paine took to the floor of the National Convention and made a powerful argument to exile rather than execute the king. He was unsuccessful, and the king was guillotined.
As the revolution progressed, Paine increasingly became a vocal critic of the new French and American governments. During the Reign of Terror, he was seen as a political threat and targeted by Robespierre and the Jacobins. A note in Robespierre’s handwriting stated, “Demand that Thomas Paine be decreed of accusation, for the interest of America, as well as of France” (Paine and Conway 87). It was around this time, in early 1793, that Paine published a first draft, now lost, of The Age of Reason under a different title.
From October to December 23, 1793, he worked on a new version of The Age of Reason, even as political events brought danger closer. The night he finished, he stayed in Paris; very early in the morning he was awakened by the police and arrested. (In the introduction to one version of The Age of Reason, Paine recalls the date as being December 28, though several historians date these events to December 23 and 24.) By delaying the police for a few hours, he was able to deliver the manuscript to his printer before being taken to Luxembourg Prison.
At the beginning of his prison stay, Paine’s health was good and the rules were lax. Over the next ten months, both these conditions would deteriorate. The Reign of Terror went through perhaps its most chaotic, violent, and dramatic stages while Paine was in prison. In a letter Paine wrote to Sam Adams in 1803 he recalled, “My friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off…. I every day expected the same fate.” When he was first imprisoned, there was a great deal of activity by friends and allies to get him released, but the political situation of the revolution and an unhelpful American ambassador kept him in jail.
Initially Paine was able to buy the basic items he needed in jail. He wrote letters as well as edited new editions of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. The introduction for a 1795 London edition of The Rights of Man lists the “Luxembourg Prison May 19, 1794” as the location of its writing. The title page of the same edition describes Paine as a “Member of the French Convention; Late a Prisoner in the Luxembourg in Paris.” The dedication in The Age of Reason to “The Citizens of the United States of America” was written about a month into his imprisonment.
Paine’s prison stay came to a crisis point on July 24, 1794, when his name appeared on the list of prisoners to be executed the next day. But the morning of July 25 came and went without the guards collecting him. Four days later, in one of the most dramatic political turnarounds in history, the Jacobins were removed from power and Robespierre was executed in the “Thermidorian Reaction” of July 1794. This significantly altered the political landscape, putting Paine in a safer position. He was finally released in November 1794 with the help of the new American ambassador, James Monroe.
Paine went to recuperate at Monroe’s house in Paris. While there, he expanded then published a new edition of The Age of Reason. After his recovery he returned to the National Convention, and in 1797 he wrote Agrarian Justice, which included his most radical political critique and proposals. In this work, he expanded his social programs from The Rights of Man, describing more fully the attributes and rationale of his robust welfare state.
Paine left the National Convention in 1797. He continued writing and trying to get back to the United States. In 1802, Paine suggested the Louisiana Purchase to U.S. president Thomas Jefferson and the French government. That same year, Paine returned to the United States and took up residence at his farm in New Rochelle, New York, and in Greenwich Village in New York City.
His reputation had diminished because of controversy surrounding The Age of Reason and an earlier public conflict with George Washington over his imprisonment. In his last years, when he felt well enough, Paine continued his involvement in politics and writing, and he saw visitors right up to the time of his death. He died on June 8, 1809, and was buried on his farm. Soon afterward, in a misguided effort to honor him, his bones were exhumed and subsequently lost by William Cobbett, an English admirer.
Historical Context and Importance of The Age of Reason
Throughout his life, Paine’s ideas and writing spread to a wide audience, well beyond the usual reading public of other political and philosophical writers of the eighteenth century. Open political debate and activity had only recently become part of a new and growing public sphere. At this time, England and other parts of Western Europe had the basic elements necessary for modern politics; one major component was a growing reading public who bought newspapers and books, and talked about what they read. By the end of the eighteenth century the number of commercial presses had grown into the thousands. They produced printed material of every description. Simultaneously, mechanisms for the broad and relatively quick dissemination of these new commodities, and the ideas they contained, had fallen, or been forced, into place.
This was the beginning of a global era in trade, politics, and culture. The European countries had established colonies all over the world, the English and French being the fastest-growing in the eighteenth century. England, especially, had been unconsciously experimenting since the 1500s with new business, banking, and social models that had transformed a small nation into a global power. Increasingly, business and political activity expanded—from what had been a very small circle of economic and political players—outward and downward in the social order. Thomas Paine was a beneficiary of this relatively dynamic society, even though he was born near the bottom.
Summary and Analysis of The Age of Reason
Paine maintained that The Age of Reason was aimed at all religions, though he most often references Christianity and the Christian Bible. The book also promotes Deism as the “natural religion” of God, based in reason and nature. He clearly and often trumpets the success of science in explaining many of the former “mysteries” of the universe. In this sense, The Age of Reason is as much pro-science as anti-religion.
Paine’s general opinion is that the Bible is not history, but a product of the cultural process of mythmaking. The Age of Reason was seen as a threat by the political and religious ruling elite at the end of the eighteenth century. To most people and institutions the Bible was an actual history of the earth’s creation, Egypt, and the Jews, as well as the biography of Jesus. The Age of Reason was considered so dangerous that its sale was banned, and publishers and booksellers in England were prosecuted for years after its initial publication. Ironically, the state prosecutor against The Age of Reason in one early case was the same attorney who had defended Paine in his treason trial, Thomas Erskine.
Paine’s questioning of Biblical authority and his understanding of Natural Law are closely tied to his political ideas. He argues that God’s benevolence—giving humans the bounty of the earth for support—should be emulated by humans through supporting and assisting others; man “can now provide for his own comfort, and learn from my munificence to all, to be kind to each other.” Paine is straightforward in his assessment of the various aspects of different religious traditions and texts. He sees the Bible, and all “sacred texts,” as suspect. He contends that they are all either immoral or unbelievable.
In questioning the main elements of organized religion, particularly those of the Abrahamic traditions, Paine establishes a clear division between himself and most of his contemporaries. In different parts of the book he highlights the historical connections between church and state. He describes how a system was created with each institution pointing to the other for justification and enforcement, much to their mutual benefit. Moreover, he believes that this relationship distorts the function of both. He then examines the means by which specific dogma and ritual have been created, transmitted, and justified: revelation as written in holy books; divine inspiration.
Paine also notes the influence of local non–Christian stories and beliefs about the supernatural that were incorporated into the Christian story. Paine made it clear that he believed the iconography, mythology, and ceremonial practices of Roman religion and society were the foundation upon which the Roman Catholic Church and Christianity in general were built. He writes, for example, that “the deification of heroes simply changed into the canonization of saints” (Paine).
Textual Analysis of The Age of Reason
“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life” (Paine). Paine starts The Age of Reason with this straightforward statement of personal belief, yet for the past two centuries he has been accused of being an atheist. During his life, he was constantly frustrated by critics who had not read The Age of Reason. In an 1803 letter to Samuel Adams, Paine accuses him of making statements about Paine’s beliefs based on hearsay and without actually having seen the text. Paine’s statement of belief is clearly Deistic. Throughout the book, Paine consistently refers to the existence, wisdom, and moral authority of God—not a common practice of atheists. Furthermore, he contrasts his description with the cruel and immoral picture of God painted by many stories in the Bible.
Paine then proceeds with a discussion of the nature and history of organized religion, looking at the stories’ teachings and credibility. He moves easily back and forth between theological and scientific discussions, and writes that nature is the only act of God that can be equally examined and understood by everyone. For Paine, science is a democratic endeavor. In order to explain the scientific view of the universe, he gives a basic lesson in astronomy, describing the planets and their movements in the solar system; this was still relatively new information at the time.
Paine’s intention is not to limit the possibilities of religion or worship, but expand them. He makes the bold assertion that “my own mind is my own church.” Since the mind is a place of reason and imagination for the Deist, both of which are God-given, he is invoking here the highest authority possible for the Enlightenment. The statement might also betray some of the Quaker influence on Paine. Quakers believe that everyone has a personal connection to God, and that there should be no religious institutions standing between humans and the Creator.
Paine makes a daring accusation when he writes, “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish [Islamic], appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” Here, Paine draws a strong connection between the political realm and the religious. He asserts that they play off each other’s falsehoods in order to maintain their positions of wealth and power. Previously, in Common Sense and The Rights of Man, Paine referred to these institutions being intertwined; in The Age of Reason he delves deeper into the psychological and intellectual reality of a world where spiritual and moral truths are essentially dictated by those in power. He maintains that changes in one institution would bring changes in the other: “Soon after I had published the pamphlet Common Sense, in America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.”
The American and French Revolutions marked a major transformation in how people thought about politics and government. The western world had not seen many non-hereditary political institutions. During the Enlightenment there was growing doubt concerning the traditional ideas maintained by the Church about the physical and moral universe. Paine uses the persecution of Galileo by the Catholic Church as an example of the extremes to which religious institutions will go in order to maintain their power and suppress dissent.
In chapter two of The Age of Reason, Paine addresses the problems with religious institutions’ claims about their knowledge of God’s will. As part of his attempt to demystify religious claims to exceptionalism, he writes, “Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals.” These divine revelations are claimed by major Biblical figures such as Abraham, Moses, and the Apostle Paul, and are important because they are used to justify the authority of the Bible and, consequently, the power of religious and political institutions. In addition, Paine does not accept the traditional attributions of authorship for the books of the Bible.
Paine is not averse to the idea of divine revelation. He might argue that if God wanted to communicate directly, He would; but the passing-on of stories about other people’s revelations is a different matter. As Paine points out, “It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.” Paine points out that this initial problem with Biblical accounts of divine revelation is compounded by the passing of time and the amount of copying involved. As an example of how easily content and meaning can be corrupted over time, in the Introduction to Book II of The Age of Reason, he uses the insertion of text he had not written into some editions of Book I, very recently published.
Paine then closely scrutinizes the Gospels. His first comment is that the story of Jesus’ birth was consistent with other contemporary supernatural origin stories. He concedes that, at the time the Gospels were written, there were no scientific standards for proof, so any story might do—but then points out that by the eighteenth century there were scientific explanations for many supernatural claims made in the Bible.
Paine’s examination and critique put the stories of the Bible in a historical and cultural context. From this perspective it is not surprising to Paine that stories attempting to persuade about matters divine have miraculous elements—but these are exactly what he attacks: the fantastical and supernatural. God, as the Deist sees Him, would not suspend or violate the laws of nature. Paine asserts that the Gospels’ attribution of divine parentage and Jesus’ rising from the dead would not be unexpected: “He was born when the heathen mythology had still some fashion and repute in the world, and that mythology had prepared the people for the belief of such a story.”
He continues by giving more examples in which the Christian Bible borrowed from Classical and Jewish stories, such as “The statue of Mary succeeded the statue of Diana of Ephesus.” These similarities call into question the accuracy and veracity of the stories. For Paine, such elements dilute and obscure the moral teaching of the Bible, and diminish the authority it might have. While the story of Jesus’ life is suspect, his message corresponds closely with that of other moral philosophers, and their similarities make it possible to see Jesus’ teachings in a different light. “He [Jesus] was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind.” For Paine, it is not the nature of Jesus’ birth or miracles that give his words authority. The ideas themselves have value, not the stories surrounding them.
Paine, like many before him, saw geometry as an example of universal truths that, once discovered, can be communicated unchanged over time. He now invokes Euclid’s Elements of Geometry “because it is a book of self-evident demonstration, entirely independent of its author” (Paine). The Gospels, unlike Euclid, do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Paine maintains that geometry and science need no justification for their acceptance other than the reliability of their ideas. Like any good Enlightenment thinker, Paine believes ideas and assertions must be verifiable on their own merits, without supernatural authority.
Paine’s promotion of the Enlightenment’s scientific perspective is clear. In a separate section, he recounts his discovery of scientific ideas through the attendance of lectures, and by working with scientific instruments and a moving model of the solar system (an orrery). He sees the laws of nature, discovered by humans, as examples of God’s wisdom and reason. In effect, Paine argues that things are only mysterious until explained by reason and science. God’s works are knowable by examining how the laws of the universe work. Paine concludes that, “so far as relates to the supernatural part, [the Bible] has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it.”
Building his argument, Paine reminds the reader of the Bible’s canonization over time by man-made institutions—and of the events at the Council of Nicaea in ad 325. By showing that the Bible is a product of human invention—“They decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made, should be the word of God, and which should not”—he invalidates its claim to supernatural authority.
Even when writing about religion, Paine sees the political aspects of the Bible’s stories. He questions the ruling class’s constant claims of innate superiority when he wryly notes, “It is somewhat curious that the three persons whose names are the most universally recorded were of very obscure parentage. Moses was a foundling; Jesus Christ was born in a stable; and Mahomet [Muhammad] was a mule driver.” He points out that their achievements are impressive, and that each faced persecution by contemporary religious and political institutions. He describes Jesus as a radical who challenged the Jewish religious establishment, which then used the Roman legal system to rid itself of the threat.
Jesus’ persecution might have spoken to Paine personally; he was still under a death sentence in England. Paine had always rejected the death penalty, and was one of the few members of the French National Convention to speak against the execution of Louis XVI. He’d made two arguments: first, that Louis XVI, as Louis Capet—a French citizen—was also a victim of the monarchal system. Second, he argued that sparing the king would be an act of mercy signaling the rise of a new government in France that valued human life. This latter motive also lies behind the writing of The Age of Reason; in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Paine wrote that he feared France and the French Revolution were veering toward atheism and tyranny.
As part of his overall discussion, Paine was willing to make assertions about the nature of God; they were not all new ideas, but they were clearly and succinctly expressed. One was “There is a Word of God; there is a revelation. The Word of God is the creation we behold.” He describes God, both the concept and the thing, as “the first cause. The cause of all things.” This is a thoroughly Deistic concept, one easily accepted by the eighteenth-century intellegencia.
An interesting but often overlooked aspect of The Age of Reason is Paine’s articulation of an interconnected physical and metaphysical cosmology that is connected through his understanding of the laws of nature and Natural Law. As part of his discussion of the size of the universe, Paine asks the reader to imagine the size of the earth relative to a never-ending space: “A world of this extent [earth] may, at first thought, appear to us to be great … it is infinitely less in proportion than the smallest grain of sand is to the size of the world…. It is difficult beyond description to conceive that space can have no end; but it is more difficult to conceive an end.”
Paine puts forth several ideas about space and exobiology that sound contemporary in their ruminations. He speculates that the universe is widely populated: “Since then no part of our earth is left unoccupied, why is it to be supposed that the immensity of space is a naked void.” While Paine is not as well known for scientific research, he worked and communicated with many scientists and theologians, such as the Reverend Joseph Priestley and inventor John Fitch. Paine’s scientific literacy is evident when he explains scientific theories and his ideas about God, whom he refers to as the “Great Architect.”
The last chapter of Book I is titled Of the Means Employed in All Time, and Almost Universally, to Deceive the Peoples. In this chapter Paine examines three supernatural aspects of religion, which he describes as “the three principal means that have been employed … to impose upon mankind. Those three means are Mystery, Miracle, and Prophecy.” Throughout the chapter Paine uses natural science to counter miraculous religious claims. With the example of the lighter-than-air balloon, invented in the eighteenth century, he illustrates how something can simply be not-understood, rather than not understandable. He writes that misunderstood natural phenomena can be mistaken for the supernatural, and that study of nature leads to knowledge of God.
In the preface to Book II, Paine gives an account of his recent imprisonment and recounts the story of Robespierre seeking his arrest. He also explains that when writing Book I he did not have a Bible on hand, and had to rely on memory; but that when he started rewriting The Age of Reason, he had one. He writes that he was too forgiving in Book I, and that the Bible was even more objectionable than he’d remembered. Book II is a close reading of textual elements of the Bible. Examining the Old Testament, Paine asks simple questions about its history and the authenticity of the different books: “The first thing to be understood is, whether there is sufficient authority for believing the Bible to be the word of God, or whether there is not?”
Paine does not ascribe divine origin to the Old Testament, nor does he think the traditional attributions assigned to its books are correct. His criticism applies as much to the Pentateuch, credited to Moses, as it does to the books of the Prophets. There is also a short discussion of the history of the word “prophet.” Paine writes that many of the stories in the Old Testament are morally repugnant. He recounts the brutal military conquests and supernatural feats in order to impugn the credibility of the whole book: “There are matters in that book, said to be done by the express command of God, that are … shocking to humanity.”
Rather than read the Gospels in the order they appear in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (vertical)—Paine examines them in a side-by-side reading (horizontal). By reading the texts this way, one can see that even where they seem to be retelling the same incident, the Resurrection for example, the narrative and “facts” are not consistent. “It is not then the existence or the non-existence, of the persons that I trouble myself about; it is the fable of Jesus Christ” (Paine). He returns to the historical moment of the accounts of Jesus’ life to examine their accuracy, credibility, and authorship. He again points out that the stories should not be seen in the same way as the teachings. Paine provides a more detailed history of the Council of Nicaea and the work of later ecumenical councils that over the centuries decided Church doctrine and proclaimed it the word of God.
A significant problem for Paine with the New Testament was the lack of agreement about the facts of Jesus’ life in the Gospels. Throughout The Age of Reason Paine contends that the supernatural elements of the Bible, and especially the stories about Jesus, only put the text in greater doubt. Paine again connects the Bible’s stories to its pagan analogues. The question for Paine was, since the stories of Zeus and Hercules are held to be myths, why should what is essentially the same story, but with God and Jesus, have any more credibility?
Rather than try to summarize Paine’s conclusion in Book II, it is more illustrative to quote from it. Each of the following excerpts gives us a concrete theme or action connected to the larger cosmology Paine proposes throughout the text:
MORALITY: “The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries, that have afflicted the human race, have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion.”
POLITICS: “It has been the scheme of the Christian church, and of all the other invented systems of religion, to hold man in ignorance of the Creator, as it is of government to hold him in ignorance of his rights. The systems of the one are as false as those of the other, and are calculated for mutual support.”
SCIENCE: “All the knowledge man has of science and of machinery, by the aid of which his existence is rendered comfortable upon earth, and without which he would be scarcely distinguishable in appearance and condition from a common animal, comes from the great machine and structure of the universe.”
PROGRESS: “Certain as I am that when opinions are free, either in matters of government or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail.”
There are two major turning points in eighteenth-century Anglo-American and French politics. Both England and France experienced seismic disruptions at the end of the eighteenth century, in 1776 and 1789, respectively. These events perhaps mark the beginning of a new politically dynamic, volatile, and transitional world. A world perched on the edge of the modern industrial era. Paine played important roles in both revolutions, and in the larger political landscape of the era.
The impact of Paine’s writing cannot be overstated; his ideas were both ahead of and firmly rooted in his own time. In Paine’s later work, especially Agrarian Justice, he sought to assert Natural Law and Natural Rights not simply as abstract principles. He proposed specific plans—such as public education and social security—to move society toward a material manifestation of those political ideas.
Paine believed that democratic institutions and social justice could arise from changing the ideas and mechanisms that govern society. Like many of the social-contract theorists, Natural Law proponents, and philosophers, he believed that knowable, unchangeable laws govern the universe and human society. Since humans are all equally endowed with reason and rights, none can be denied the protections and privileges owed by nature and society. In this respect, Paine was part of what is called the “Cosmopolitan” movement of the late eighteenth century. Other thinkers, such as Hume and Kant, also saw themselves as citizens of the world, with basic rights that could not be abridged. In their mind, citizenship was not bestowed by a government but chosen by the individual. If they considered the world their country, perhaps reason was its national religion.
To understand the continued relevance of Thomas Paine and The Age of Reason or The Rights of Man, try a web search; he will be found referenced in a wide range of political and religious writings and discussions. One of the most interesting aspects of his popularity is that he is often invoked by the Liberal, Conservative, and Radical political establishments alike. The Age of Reason is especially pertinent in the twenty-first century, given the global political situation, and in view of how religion and religious worldviews have been used by all sides to condemn, justify, and exonerate war and terrorism. It is the persistent immediacy of the questions raised in The Age of Reason that makes it a constant classic.
1. Full quote: “I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Bonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.” (John Adams to Benjamin Waterhouse, letter, October 29, 1805).
Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. London: Oxford University Press, 1977. Print.
Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995. Print.
Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Online Library of Liberty. N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed July 11, 2011.
_____. Letter to Samuel Adams, 1803.
Paine, Thomas, and Moncure Daniel Conway. The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004. Print.
Stone, Lawrence. “Literacy and Education in England 1640–1900.” Past and Present 42.1 (1969): 69–139. Print.
Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966. Print.