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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"These are the times that try men's souls": Thomas Paine was born 281 years ago today

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of men and women. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have the consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom would not be so highly rated.
- Thomas Paine (The Crisis, Introduction)

It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving. It consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.
- Paine (The Age of Reason, Pt. 1)

Persecution is not an original feature of any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all law-religions, or religions established by law.
- Paine (The Rights of Man)

When, in countries that are called civilized, we see age going to the workhouse and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong in the system of government.
- Paine (The Rights of Man, Pt. 2)

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.
- John Adams (1735-1826) (of Tom Paine, letter, 1805)

Today is the 281st anniversary of the birth of Anglo-American political theorist and writer Thomas Paine (1732-1809). Born in Thetford, England, Paine emigrated to America in 1774 and supported himself by contributing to various contemporary periodicals. His pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), played a significant role in stirring up enthusiasm for independence from Britain, and subsequently, his series, The Crisis, publicized the American cause during the revolution. Returning to England in 1787, Paine wrote The Rights of Man (1791-1792) in defense of the French revolution, even urging the British to overthrow their own monarchy. Accused of treason and convicted in absentia, he fled to France but was eventually imprisoned there during the Reign of Terror and was only released by the efforts of the American minister, James Monroe.

Paine wrote The Age of Reason (1794-1796) in France in defense of his deistic beliefs but returned to the United States in 1802, where his extreme political and religious views led to his ostracism from public life. Sadly, he died in relative poverty in New York City.* English essayist G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote of him,

"Thomas Paine invented the name of the Age of Reason; and he was one of those sincere but curiously simple men who really did think that the age of reason was beginning, at about the time when it was really ending."

* N.B. In a somewhat bizarre note, the agrarian radical William Cobbett (1763-1835) exhumed Paine's bones several years after his death and brought them back to England with the intention of seeing them buried there. Apparently, however, the planned reburial never took place, and the final disposition of Thomas Paine's remains is still a mystery.

Thomas Paine:

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