Now, More Than Ever, Americans Should Read Thomas Paine

Alongside Locke and Jefferson stood Thomas Paine in the advocacy of the natural rights of humanity in political and religious liberty. Robert Ingersoll wrote that Paine’s The Rights of Man “was the greatest contribution that literature had given to liberty.”[1] The sole thesis of Paine’s argument for humanity’s rights was an argument from nature—his natural philosophy having been influenced by Isaac Newton. Epistemologically, Paine believed that “He who takes nature for his guide is not easily beaten out of his argument.”[2] Therefore, the greater breadth of his writings utilized the argument from nature to support his conclusions.

Paine wrote that he had obtained a general knowledge of natural philosophy as a child at which time he began to “confront” the evidence of Christianity.[3] He defined his natural philosophy as “the study of the works of God, and of the power and wisdom of God in his works.”[4] Therefore, Paine would retort, “Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man?”[5] Though Paine would later deconstruct the Bible as a whole, he borrowed from the Mosaic creation account for its “historical authority.”[6] Ingersoll wrote that despite Paine thinking that the Bible was “absurd and cruel,” he found that there were some good and useful things therein.[7]

On the surface, Paine seemed to only use the Bible in order to support his own suppositions and thereby reject the rest, but the same claim could be made of the apostle Paul quoting Greek poets in the Scriptures as well as Jude quoting 1 Enoch. Nevertheless, those particular passages that Paine found suiting to his views were those of a natural philosophic “nature” (i.e. Psalm 19). Considering Paine’s apparent study of comparative religions, he may have noted the natural elements throughout the various religions and thought of them as “historical” evidences of creation in order to employ the Mosaic creation account, but this is conjecture.

He pointed to the distinction of sexes as the only recorded distinction, and the Mosaic creation account of “the equality of man” was, to Paine, “the oldest upon record.”[8] Man’s natural rights were the foundation for his civil rights. The two were distinguished by Paine as thus:

Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others. Civil rights are those which appertain to man in right of his being a member of society.[9]

What must be understood of Paine is that when he refers to man’s natural rights he refers to “the natural dignity of man.” This dignity is “the honour and happiness of its character.”[10]

How these views, and the doctrine of natural rights, shaped the views of Paine is evident throughout his pamphlets. Governments “un-made” men by their activities which denied the natural rights of man. Hereditary succession was one of the most disputed notions by Paine in his writings, because hereditary succession was unnatural. While the monarchs claimed that their authority came from God, the truth was that kings and kingdoms were actually not God’s will according to the biblical account that Paine referenced in Common Sense. Therein, Paine argued that God reluctantly granted Israel a king. Prior to their history as a monarchical state, Israel was governed by judges and the elders of the tribes—a form of government that Paine identified as a “kind of republic.” Ergo, since the monarchs of Paine’s time argued for heavenly sanction, Paine went further into Heaven’s decrees in order to refute hereditary succession. He would also state that virtue is not hereditary, so to claim that one man’s rule would be in tandem with another’s who was virtuous was to ignore the “natural” truth about human nature.

One of the strongest NATURAL proofs of the folly of hereditary rights in kings, is, that nature disproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.[11]

Another view for which Paine argued on nature’s basis was the freedom of a person’s mind. This argument was especially useful in dissolving the notion of an established church, because one should practice their religion “according to the dictates of conscience.”[12] The natural rights of man’s intellect belonged to one’s religious choice as long as it did not impede the natural rights of another.[13]

With respect to what are called denominations of religion, if every one is left to judge of its own religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is wrong; but if they are to judge of each other’s religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is right; and therefore all the world is right, or all the world is wrong. But with respect to religion itself, without regard to names, and as directing itself from the universal family of mankind to the Divine object of all adoration, it is man bringing to his Maker the fruits of his heart; and though those fruits may differ from each other like the fruits of the earth, the grateful tribute of every one is accepted.[14]

At the time that Paine argued for religious liberty, the country supported a state church. The result of dissenting groups such as Puritans, and from them Quakers, and later Baptists, was persecution. Paine believed that in man’s natural state to make up his own mind, he should choose that sort of devotion that he believed was his “conscientious” devotion to the Almighty as long as it did not obstruct or violate another’s choice.

Paine would argue that persecution was not an original feature of religion, but that it was always the feature of all law-religions, or religions established by law. If the lawfulness of a religion was taken away, then every religion would assume its own “benignity.” As a testimony to the detriments of the union of the state and religion, Paine cited the effects that such union had on Spain.[15]

Eventually, as history records, liberty would be won both politically and religiously. The poet Joel Barlow reflected on Paine’s contribution to the Revolution. He wrote that “without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”[16] While the actual fight took place on the battlefield with Washington, Paine’s battlefield was in the mind. Barlow aptly noted this sentiment by realizing that minds had to change more than battles could win.

Now, more than ever, Americans should read the works of Paine, especially The Rights of Man. With so many elected officials acting as kings dictating to people how to live in the era of COVID-19, were the American populace aware of the founders’ belief about human rights, none of this would be acceptable. In my own Commonwealth of Kentucky, the governor has unilaterally ruled the state since March and came out with new restrictions as recent as yesterday. Rumors abound that he will make “suggestions” to churches today. Nevertheless, from my recollection, he was silent while protests and demonstrations abounded around the state—a right acknowledged and protected by the very same amendment that addresses religious liberty.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 1, United States Constitution

He has earlier advised churches to not meet, and the first amendment clearly states that the free exercise of religion shall not be prohibited. The mantra in response is usually, “Your rights end where my life begins,” and as a premise, this is factual. However, the way it’s employed is manipulative. No one forces those concerned for their lives to go out into the public. If they are so concerned, they should do the responsible thing and assume whatever risk exists if they decide to go into public. Otherwise, their fear is violating the rights of others who simply want to live their life in pursuit of happiness. That’s what’s liberty is all about: assuming your own risk.

[1] Robert G. Ingersoll, “Thomas Paine,” The North American Review 155, no. 429 (Aug., 1892): 181–95.

[2] Common Sense  (Appendix). 

[3] The Age of Reason 1.11.

[4] Ibid., 1.8. Cf. Thomas Paine, “A Discourse Delivered to the Society of Theophilanthropists, at Paris”; and “The Existence of God: A Discourse at the Society of Theophilanthropists, Paris.”

[5]Thomas Paine,  The Rights of Man, in Thomas Paine Collection (Forgotten Books, 2007), 88.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Ingersoll, 189-90.

[8] Paine, Ibid. 

[9] Ibid., 90.

[10] Ibid., 92. Paine’s theories on happiness and being a member of society are reminiscent of Aristotle (cf. Ethics 1.13).

[11] Common Sense (Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession).

[12] Ibid. (Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs).

[13] The Rights of Man, 90.

[14] Ibid., 107. 

[15] Ibid., 108. 

[16] Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 5.

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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