The Charlotte News



Belated Recognition:

Justice To Tom Paine

--By W. J. Cash

I AM enormously pleased that Hesketh Pearson has written a biography of Tom Paine, in which justice is at last done to the memory of a man who has been traduced and neglected as few others have been.

It was Tom Paine, and not Sam Adams or Jefferson or anybody else, who really made the American Revolution--who alone had the wit to see and the courage to say that compromise was impossible, and that the colonies must cut loose from the mother country if they were to realize their appointed destiny--who spoke boldly out in "Common Sense" and brought resolution into the hearts of the people. Regardless of who actually indited the document, it was Tom Paine, as William Cobbett said, who really wrote the Declaration of Independence. For its philosophy and even its phrases rise straight out of his writings. More still, it was Tom Paine who actually won the American Revolution; since it was undoubtedly the bold trumpeting of his pamphlets which turned the tide of despair and desertion in Washington's army, and nerved that ragged band to smash the Hessians at Trenton.

Real Father Of The Country

Far more than Washington, he deserves the title of "Father of his Country." And far more does he deserve the never-dying gratefulness of the American people. Washington, for all his merit, had a little of the stuffed-shirt in his makeup, and a great deal more of the mere cavalry captain. He had no sympathy whatever with democracy, and he was far from seeing what Paine saw and said, that the name of the United States of America would presently stand in the company of the nations as great as, or greater than, the name of the kingdom of Great Britain. Washington, indeed, was only reluctantly committed to the doctrine that independence was necessary, at least once during the war was distinctly in a mood to terminate the conflict on terms that fell short of independence. Moreover, in the long debates which eventuated finally in the Constitution, he--well, let it be said that he showed himself far more generous and large of spirit than most of the men who were engaged in them, but also let it be added that he never forgot that he was the richest man in the colonies nor in the least gave over his narrow loyalty to his class.

But old Paine was and is the living voice of democracy. His "Rights of Man" was the ablest statement of the democratic thesis ever heard of in the world before, and remains the ablest ever heard of to this day--a mighty tract for our own time. Moreover, he was that almost-unparalleled thing, a man who was completely disinterested about it. There is no record that he ever saw profit for his labors. On the contrary, he steadfastly gave away to charity every penny which his writings brought. He never ran for office, and to his last day he lived as much as he could out of the public eye.

None To Do Him Honor

And his reward? Well, in all this land, swarming as it does with statues of obscure nobodies on horseback, there is not, I believe, a single monument to Tom Paine. Worse, for a hundred and fifty years, his name has been a hissing from countless pulpits, along with that of Voltaire and Satan. The epithet which has commonly come up when his name was mentioned is that infamous one of "filthy little atheist," fastened upon him by a cheapjack politician whose name is now rapidly descending into the oblivion it deserves.

And the reason for this neglect and abuse? The one most commonly given is that he once upon a time wrote a pamphlet called "The Age of Reason." But I doubt that it is adequate to explain the matter. "The Age of Reason" is not atheistic. It is merely deistic. It nowhere says anything that was not widely believed by other men of the time, including Washington--and which was not widely said by other men of the time, including Jefferson. Its criticisms of the Bible, moreover, are always reverent; they are purely textual and logical, and there is hardly a single one of them which is not taken for granted by educated clergymen throughout the Christian world today, and which has not been so taken for granted for fifty years and more.

Hate, And A Stuffed-Shirt

No, I think the reason lies deeper. I think "The Age of Reason" has been cried out as an atheistic tract merely by way of banning a man who was hated for quite other causes. The book he has actually been hated for is "The Rights of Man." For in that book Paine answers and with devastating effect annihilates the argument of Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution." And that deflation of the great rhetorical stuffed-shirt who to this day is still rammed down the throats of school boys as gospel truth, the ruling class of England never forgave him. And that deflation, the federalists of these United States, ardently engaged in aping the ruling class of England, never forgave. And that deflation, the champions of the status quo right on down through the years could not and would not forgive.

Uncompromisingly Democratic

I think, in short, that Paine has been so industriously neglected and so passionately lied about through all these years just because he stated the democratic thesis so clearly and uncompromisingly--just because he pointed out so plainly that if democracy was to come, all the old heaped up abuses which Burke and the Tories and the Whigs and the Federalists and all the champions of the status quo were so busily "reconciling" with it, would have to go. Just because he made it so manifest that what was getting itself called democracy in England the new United States fell a great deal short of actually being such.

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