Some years back I was walking through Greenwich Village and came upon an old building plaque which read:
Every American school kid grows up learning about Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” which justified for many Americans the revolutionary cause and argued for the superiority of representational government. (For a closer look, see my review.) John Adams had reportedly stated, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Born in England, Paine immigrated to America after meeting Benjamin Franklin in 1774. During the war he served under George Washington, and it was at the Continental Army’s seemingly lowest point, in the winter of 1776, that he penned “The American Crisis,” which began with the immortal lines, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Despite his revolutionary accolades, he found little financial support in the newly established United States. When revolution broke out in France, he showed his endorsement by responding to Edmund Burke’s conservative attacks on the revolutionaries by publishing his Declaration of the Rights of Man. He traveled to France to oversee the French translation but soon ran afoul of Jacobin extremists due to his opposition to the death penalty. Imprisoned, he began writing his last great — and most controversial — work, The Age of Reason, a three part condemnation of Christianity and religion and a call for deism and scientific inquiry. Convinced that Washington had played a role in his imprisonment, Paine wrote a public letter condemning his former ally.
These attacks on the revered first president and on Christian theology destroyed Paine’s reputation in the United States. Nevertheless, he returned to the new republic, finding few prominent friends save for Thomas Jefferson (who was sympathetic to Paine’s views), who invited him to the White House during his presidency. Nearly everyone else abandoned him, and his name was bile on the lips of those who spoke it.
On his deathbed, he was asked by a doctor if he wished to accept Jesus Christ. Paine replied, “I have no wish to believe on that subject,” and took his final breath. His few remaining friends attended his quiet burial. In 1819, the English radical William Cobbett stole his bones and brought them to England, hoping to give him a more proper burial. Over time, however, most of the bones have been lost.
Paine is a personal hero of mine. He was a citizen of the world, a man of moral convictions, and an advocate for the liberty of both body and mind. As I stood reading the plaque, which had been placed there by the Greenwich Village Historical Society in 1923, I kept imagining that small party of mourners paying their respects to a man who deserved more recognition and appreciation. As I rode the train back home a poem began rattling in my mind. A simply rhymed verse, it was my own eulogistic offering of sorts. I jotted it down and I now share it here.
Lingering Paine There is a bustling village Where well-known Paine had died, Within the crooked nooks Of Gotham’s old design. It was on a street called Grove At number fifty-nine, When whispers could be heard On corners at the time. Long before the beatnik pens Let out their desperate sighs, Stonewall's mortar buckled Beneath the weight of cries. The words that stirred a people And helped a nation rise, They echo with us still, And keep this Paine alive.
If you would like to learn more about Paine, I recommend the late Christopher Hitchens’s Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography as a worthy primer. It is a slim volume, written with Hitchens’s signature wit, that succeeds in giving the reader a summary of Paine’s life and the reasons for why it mattered, and matters still.