The Theological and Political Works of Thomas Paine.
Tom Paine is one of those writers who have been, as it were, gibbeted by a not very remote posterity. Probably hardly any one opens his works; no one takes the trouble to know much about his life; he survives in the memory of men as a kind of disreputable ghost, who, having ignominiously failed in an assault, as hopeless as it was wicked, on all that men hold most sacred, does not deserve even that slight amount of respect which would be implied in calling him Thomas. He is, and always will be, Tom—the wretched uneducated plebeian who dared to attack Church and State. In our days, indeed, he is chiefly an awful example. The ribaldry of Voltaire, the polished sneer of Gibbon, and the coarse brutality of Tom Paine, usually swing at one end of the see-saw, the other end of which supports Locke, Boyle, and Newton, weighted also with appropriate epithets.
Paine, however, once attracted great attention, and was a real live monster whom it was thought creditable to kill. Lady Hester Stanhope, if we are not mistaken, says that her uncle Pitt used to speak of him as being both very able and perfectly consistent; and he himself boasts, in the second part of the Rights of Man, that between forty and fifty thousand copies of the first part had been sold in the United Kingdom. His works have therefore something of an historical interest, and it is worth the while of those who care for the history of past controversies to look a little into them.
Paine's reputation, such as it is, rests upon three performances—Common Sense, published in 1776; the Rights of Man, in two parts, published respectively in 1791 and 1792; and the Age of Reason, in three parts, published in 1793, 1795, and 1807. Besides these, he published a variety of other pamphlets of much inferior interest, relating principally to the American politics of the day. His most considerable performances by far are those which we have named.
Perhaps the most characteristic passage in the whole of his works, and certainly the one which throws the greatest light on their nature, is to be found in the first part of the Age of Reason. That strange performance was written under the solemn sanction of imminent danger to life; for Paine, whilst he was writing it, expected to be guillotined, and he was actually arrested within six hours after its conclusion. Towards the end of it he gives an account of his life and of the growth of his opinions, and this enables us to understand clearly enough what sort of man he was.
'My father,' he says, 'being of the Quaker profession, it was my good fortune to have an exceeding good moral education and a tolerable stock of useful learning.' He was sent to a grammar-school at Thetford, but learnt no Latin, 'because of the objection the Quakers have against the books in which that language is taught.' He adds, 'The natural bent of my mind was to science. I had some turn, and I believe some talent, for poetry.'
He gives, by the way, a singular specimen of his poetical gifts in a note to another part, of the Age of Reason, which contains an elaborate argument to prove that the Hebrew prophets wrote poetry. 'To show that these writings are composed in poetical numbers, I will take ten syllables as they stand in the book, and make a line of the same number of syllables (heroic measure) that shall rhyme with the last word. It will then be seen that the composition of these books is poetical measure.' It does not seem to have occurred to him that any one could see it without his help. 'The instance I shall produce is from Isaiah—
Hear O ye heavens, and give ear O earth,
'Tis God himself that calls attention forth.'
It does not appear to have struck him that 'The Age of Reason written by Tom Paine' is a very good heroic line, or that 'An outride officer in the Excise, under the name of fifty pounds a year,' to take another example from his own works, is a couplet.
He appears to have studied mathematics with attention, and to have derived from them the only real cultivation that his mind ever received. He speaks of mathematics, however, with the same awkwardness as of poetry: 'The scientific principles that man employs to obtain the foreknowledge of an eclipse, or of anything else relating to the motion of the heavenly bodies, are contained chiefly in that part of science which is called trigonometry, or the properties of a triangle, which, when applied to the study of the heavenly bodies, is called astronomy; when applied to direct the course of a ship on the ocean, it is called navigation; when applied to the construction of figures drawn by rule and compass, it is called geometry; when applied to the construction of plans of edifices, it is called architecture; when applied to the measurement of any portion of the surface of the earth, it is called land-surveying. In fine, it is the soul of science; it is an eternal truth; it contains the mathematical demonstration of which man speaks, and the extent of its uses is unknown.' There is a clumsy perversity about calling geometry a case of trigonometry which is thoroughly characteristic of Paine.
With this degree of education Paine combined, from his early childhood, a profound aversion to Christianity as commonly understood. 'When about seven or eight years of age,' he heard a sermon on the Atonement:
'After the sermon was ended I went into the garden, and as I was going down the garden steps (for I perfectly recollect the spot) I revolted at the recollection of what I had heard. . . . This was not one of those kind of thoughts that had anything in it of childish levity; it was to me a serious reflection. ... I believe in the same manner to this moment; and I moreover believe that any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be a true system.'This is a very remarkable passage, and shows the strong side of Paine's mind. He had many and great faults, yet it is but bare justice to him, and to his Quaker education, to remember that he had also the great merit of implicit obedience to the dictates of his own conscience, though that conscience might be, and no doubt was, very ill-instructed on many points. The Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light, and the Quaker contempt for external authority, whether in books or men, as being cardinal ordinances, lay at the bottom of Paine's character, and led him by an easy transition to be a dogmatic Deist and Republican.
He says himself: 'The religion that approaches the nearest of all others to true Deism, in the moral and benign part thereof, is that professed by the Quakers; but they have contracted themselves too much by leaving the works of God out of their system. Though I reverence their philanthropy, I cannot help smiling at the conceit that, if the taste of a Quaker could have been consulted at the creation, what a silent and drab-coloured creation it would have been.'
Such was Paine: a vigorous, sturdy snob (the word must be excused, for it exactly describes the man), with a slight education, principally mathematical, with strong conscientious feelings of a narrow kind, and with a creed which led him to revolt against all established beliefs, and to cling to his own views with all the vehemence of a dogmatist. No kind of man can be more vehement, more impatient of compromise, more prejudiced against all English institutions, and more inclined to view them with hearty dogmatic dislike, than a Quaker broken loose from his creed. Paine is not the only person of that description known to our history, and a considerable resemblance to his sentiments is to be found in those of men who have not been brought by circumstances into such marked collision either with the political institutions, or with the religious belief, of their country.
Let us now turn from the man to his writings. The first of them which attracted much attention was Common Sense, dated at Philadelphia in 1776. It is a furious attack on the English Constitution, followed up by a view of the state and prospects of America. It shows a shrewd, keen appreciation of the state of things then existing, mixed up, however, with a fierce indignation against England and things English, which it is still painful to read because it is impossible not to recognise in them the expression of a feeling which the whole system of our government had created in Paine's mind, which it must have created in the minds of many others like him, and which, whatever our national partiality may say to the contrary, it does still excite to a considerable extent in a far larger number of persons than would generally be supposed.
It ought never to be forgotten that, though Reform has triumphed over Revolution in this country, there always was, and still is, a revolutionary section of the community. Indifference to the history and cordial dislike to the institutions of this country, and passionate admiration for the United States, in which their principles triumphed and permanently established themselves, are the characteristics of this party.
No one displays them with so hard an outline or puts upon them so keen an edge as a Quaker sufficiently emancipated from the principles of his sect to take part in political life, and yet sufficiently under its dominion to retain the unexpressed conviction that the existing institutions of mankind, their governments, their laws, their wars, their glories, and their literature, all rest on an unsound 'carnal' foundation, and ought to be replaced from top to bottom by institutions founded on those thin notions of morals and politics into which Quakerism develops itself when it passes from the passive into the active and dogmatic stage.
The great object of Common Sense is to wean the Americans from that pride in England, and things English, which still survived the outbreak of hostilities in very many of them, and which still led a considerable party to consider reconciliation as a possible and desirable event. Paine's object is to show that the badness of the English Government, and the brightness of their own prospects, made such a reconciliation altogether undesirable, even if it had been possible.
He begins with a remark, which is certainly profound and contains much truth, that society is not to be confounded with government, and that, whilst the former is good in itself, the latter is at best a necessary evil. He then goes on to examine the English Constitution, which he says consists of 'the base remains of two ancient tyrannies—Monarchical tyranny in the person of the king, Aristocratic tyranny in the persons of the peers—compounded with some new republican materials.' He then enters upon a fierce attack on kings in general, which is supported oddly enough by many texts of Scripture, and is as fierce, ignorant, and brutal as any composition needs to be. 'Could we,' says he, 'trace kings to their first rise, we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers,' etc. etc.
If Paine had read Homer and Hesiod in his youth, instead of filling his mind with the belief that trigonometry and his own notions of right and wrong were the sole measures of all things external and internal, he might have learnt a very different lesson as to the light in which the earliest kings, the 'shepherds of the people,' were regarded. Nay, if he had read the Bible with an open mind, he would scarcely have thought or spoken so hardly of the patriarchs who are the earliest princes described there. To call Abraham 'the principal ruffian of a restless gang' would be a marvellous abuse of language on any hypothesis as to the book of Genesis.
Of the English monarchy, in particular, he speaks with furious hatred and contempt. It was founded in robbery at the Norman Conquest. It inflicted on the nation a long course of miseries, and it had arrived, when he wrote, at a state of degraded uselessness: 'In England the King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which, in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business, indeed, for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.'
This indignant account of the English Government is followed by an argument to show how unfit England was to govern America, and how much better independence and union would be than reconciliation. A constitution is rapidly sketched out, the immense resources of America are dilated on, and the whole subject is handled in a way which culminates at last in the following memorable words:
'Should an independency be brought about by the legal voice of the people in Congress, we have every opportunity and every encouragement before us to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah till now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.'These words ought not to be forgotten by those who continually put forward the French Revolution as the great crisis of modern history. The American plant is older, healthier, and far more successful, and endowed with much greater powers of reproduction. The history of the last century has, no doubt, shown that Paine's estimate of the institutions of his own country was ignorant, narrow-minded, and false; but if he were still alive, it cannot be denied, that he would be able to point to the great career of the United States as a confirmation of the positive part of his teaching, and to say that, in so far as he had erred about England, his error lay in underrating the degree in which his own principles would be practically recognised and acted upon by the English people and Government. The history of the British Constitution for the last three generations has been in many respects glorious, but it has not been a history of the growth of the powers of monarchy or aristocracy.
Paine's minor American pamphlets are not worth reading, but this cannot be said of the Rights of Man. It is a fierce answer, from the ultra-democratic point of view, to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. The first part was published in 1791, and the second in 1792. The second part was made the subject of a prosecution. Paine, though defended by Erskine, was instantly convicted, and was outlawed on his conviction. His publisher, Eaton, was also prosecuted, but was acquitted; the jury finding him 'guilty of publishing, but with no malicious intention.'
On reading the two performances at this interval of time, and at a distance from the fierce passions which they both represented and excited, it must be admitted that Burke used much the harder language, and was far the more violent of the two. He wrote like a man of genius and an experienced statesman thrown off his balance by furious indignation. Paine writes with a sort of dogged prosaic zeal, without a touch of the fancy or enthusiasm which distinguished his antagonist. Here and there he indulges in a clumsy floundering joke.
For instance, he says:
'If governments, as Mr. Burke asserts, are not founded on the Rights of Man, and are founded on any rights at all, they consequently must be founded on the rights of something that is not man. What, then, is that something? Generally speaking, we know of no other creatures that inhabit the earth than man and beast, and in all cases where only two things offer themselves, and one must be admitted, a negative proved on any one amounts to an affirmative on the other; and therefore Mr. Burke, by proving against the Rights of Man, proves in behalf of the Beast, and consequently proves that Government is a Beast; and as difficult things sometimes explain each other, we now see the origin of keeping wild beasts in the Tower; for they certainly can be of no other use than to show the origin of the Government. Oh, John Bull! what honours thou hast lost by not being a wild beast,' etc.There is a certain amount of this sort of stuff in Paine's other writings, especially in the Age of Reason, and a very little would no doubt be enough to gain him the reputation for stupid and gross vulgarity and profanity which is associated with his name; but there is much more than this in his writings. The greater part of the Rights of Man is made of very different material. He has a square, solid, lawyerlike theory to which he sticks like a leech, and which he contrasts, with much emphasis and considerable effectiveness, with the state of things then existing in England.
There is a great deal of coarseness and abundance of ignorance in what he has to say, and every part of the work is pervaded by the fundamental fallacy which vitiated so much of the speculation of the day, and which threw Burke into paroxysms of rage unworthy of his great intellect and wide experience— the fallacy of supposing that it is possible to justify particular measures by alleging the truth of general principles, which, after all, are only the particular measures put in an abstract shape.
This is, at bottom, the fallacy of idem per idem. There is, indeed, no branch of speculation in which Mr. Mill's observation on the syllogism is more to the point than in politics. Take, for instance, the first Right of Man. 'Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility.' To say nothing of the bad logic of the last sentence (in which it would seem 'not even' ought to be substituted for 'only'), this is equivalent to an assertion that all Englishmen, all Frenchmen, all Germans, all Chinese, etc., were born, and always continue, free and equal. But the object was to prove the iniquity of the French system of privileged orders. Now, if all Frenchmen are asserted in the major proposition to be born, and to continue, free and equal, the minor and the conclusion are mere repetitions.
This and other philosophical refutations of the Rights of Man have been so often insisted on that they may be taken for granted. We are more in danger of forgetting the strong side of such affirmations. If the National Assembly had said, 'The existence of privileged classes is injurious to the French nation, and is greatly resented by the bulk of the French people, and we will therefore destroy those privileges,' they would have spoken plainly, and to a great extent truly; and there can be no doubt that they would have made good their words, or that the counter-propositions of many of those who condemned them as incendiaries and cut-throats, would have been quite as unphilosophical, and a great deal more pernicious in practice.
Indeed, if any one will go through the Seventeen Rights of Man, regarding them not as philosophical axioms but as general rules for legislators, he will find it very hard to deny that, like the Book of Homilies, they contain a good and wholesome doctrine, and one fit for the times, though it was greatly controverted.
If proof of this is required, let us imagine legislation proceeding on the opposite principles, as thus: 'Freedom is a bad thing, and restraint a good in itself. Mankind is divided into classes, the distinctions between which are immutable and ought never to be violated.' 'Certain individuals and bodies of men— to wit, the existing kings of European countries and the existing aristocracies—are entitled to the authority which they at present possess, whatever use they may make of it, and the rest of mankind has no other duty but that of obedience to them.' 'Men ought to be molested on account of their opinions, especially on account of their religious opinions, and that whether they disturb public order or not, if the constituted authorities dislike them.'
If we wish to do justice to the revolutionists of the last century, we must remember that their declarations of the Rights of Man and other dithyrambs were levelled not against calm Benthamite philosophers, or English constitutional lawyers nourished on the Bill of Rights and the Habeas Corpus Act, but against gross tyrannies which had been in the memory of living men as fierce and cruel as became their principles. First principles of all kinds are bad things, but we infinitely prefer the Rights of Man to the doctrines of De Maistre and Bonald, or even to the Politique tirée de l’Écriture Sainte.
The real objection to Paine's pamphlet lies, not in its vindication of the French, but in its stupid and ignorant attacks on the English Constitution. Even in them, however, there was some degree of truth. He was quite right in saying that England has no constitution at all, in the American sense of the word. He would also have been right, we think, in denying that Burke appreciated this fact fully, or at all events stated it fairly, though he was wrong in accusing him rudely and coarsely of concealing it.
The question whether or not it is a good thing to have a constitution, in that sense of the word, was far too delicate, and required far too much historical knowledge, to be treated by an illiterate partisan like Paine. We doubt, however, whether justice has been done in this country to his side of the question. A calm discussion of the question whether experience is in favour of the Sovereignty of the People, and written constitutions, would be extremely interesting, and by no means so one-sided a matter as many people suppose. The Federalist throws some curious light on the question, which is by no means a mere affair of oratory and metaphor.
It is strange in these days to read the proceedings against this work, and to see, that the points seized on for condemnation, are mostly historical and abstract. For instance, Paine called the Bill of Rights a Bill of Wrongs and Insults, and described the Revolution of 1688 in a very uncomplimentary way; and these, amongst other things, were viewed, not as errors or extravagances, but as crimes to be punished by law.
The work by which Paine will probably be longest remembered is undoubtedly the Age of Reason. There is nothing very remarkable in the book itself, but many circumstances connected with it are exceedingly singular. It is a pamphlet in three parts, published respectively in 1793, 1795, and 1807. The substance of the first part is a fierce attack on the whole scheme of Christian theology as usually propounded, and an equally vehement assertion of the principles of Deism. There is little in it that deserves notice except the remarkable history of Paine's own mind, to which we have already shortly referred. The rest consists of coarse objections, to the coarsest and rudest way of stating particular theological doctrines, and of an ardent and obviously sincere glorification of physical science as 'the Word of God,' the true means by which a real knowledge of God may be obtained.
It is only just to Paine to say that, in theology as well as in politics, the positive side of his belief was the foundation, and the negative merely a superstructure. He was coarse, violent, ignorant, and unmannerly to a degree, whatever was the subject in hand, but he was a thoroughly sincere Deist, and a man who believed with vehemence in the teachings of his own conscience; and these things ought to be borne in mind when we try to form an impartial estimate of his character.
The first part of the Age of Reason is, in an intellectual point of view, altogether undeserving of notice. It is a violent and vulgar repetition of what had been better said by scores of other writers. It is obvious also that it was written currente calamo, and without time either for consideration, or reference to the commonest authorities. He says in one place: 'I insert the 19th Psalm as paraphrased by Addison into English verse. I recollect not the prose, and where I write this I have not the opportunity of seeing it.'
He gives, indeed, in the preface to the second part, the history of the composition of the first. He began the work towards the end of 1793, being then a member of the French Convention, and apprehending his own arrest and execution. A motion had been made which pointed against him, and he says:
'Conceiving after this that I had but a few days of liberty, I sat down and brought the work to a close as speedily as possible, and had not finished it more than six hours, in the state it has since appeared, before a guard came there about three in the morning . . . and conveyed me to the prison of the Luxembourg.'Whilst in prison, he says:
'I was seized with a fever that in its progress had every symptom of becoming mortal, and from the effects of which I am not recovered. It was then that I remembered with renewed satisfaction, and congratulated myself most sincerely on having written, the former part of the Age of Reason. I had then but little expectation of surviving, and those about me had less. I know, therefore, by experience, the conscientious trial of my own principles.'In his famous reply to the Age of Reason, Bishop Watson refers to this passage, and says that he fully believes in Paine's sincerity. It is, indeed, impossible for any one who can recognise the expression of genuine dislike and mental hostility to a dominant system or creed not to do so. The first part of the Age of Reason ought to be regarded as a kind of last dying speech and confession of a revolutionist, who maintained to the end the principles in which he had conscientiously lived.
It would be both useless and wrong to deny that, in the midst of its coarse and ignorant ferocity, there is a certain fuliginous magnanimity about it which is by no means destitute of impressiveness. It is also right to remember that there are ways of putting Christian doctrines which do revolt the conscience, and which provoke honest men to deny the matters proposed. It would not be difficult to find parallels for much of Paine's language in the writings of divines in considerable credit. The difference between them lies in the fact, that they maintain that the doctrines which they agree with Paine in considering immoral, are not a part of Christian theology.
The positive part of Paine's creed, the belief in a good God, is held by every one who claims the name of a Christian; and it is very striking to see how this forms the foundation of his belief, and the mainspring of his general confidence in himself and his opinions. It would be useless to illustrate further, and in connection with topics of such a nature, the ignorance, the coarseness, and the unbridled vehemence of his language and ways of thinking.
The second and third parts of the Age of Reason are directed specifically against the Bible. He remarks, in his preface, with singular naiveté:
'They will now find that I have furnished myself with a Bible and Testament, and I can say also that I have found them to be much worse books than I had conceived.'This remark gives the exact measure of the value of the book. If a man deeply prejudiced against the existing order of things, endowed—to use Bishop Watson's language—with 'a considerable share of energy of language and acuteness of investigation,' and destitute of almost every kind of collateral knowledge, were to go into a bookseller's shop, buy an English Bible, and, taking it for granted that it must either be a blasphemous forgery from end to end, or else absolutely true and perfect in every part from end to end, were to begin to establish the first half of the alternative by picking holes in it, he would write just such a book as the second part of the Age of Reason.
Paine hardly seems to be aware of the fact that anybody before himself had ever handled the subject at all, and he seems also to have thought that he had finally disposed of it. At the end of his observations on the Old Testament, which fill a little more than sixty octavo pages, he says:
'I have now gone through the Bible as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulder and fell trees. Here they lie, and the priests, if they can, may replant them. They may perhaps stick them in the ground, but they will never make them grow.'
It is needless to give illustrations at any length of the indiscriminate fury and vehemence with which Paine wrote. He says, for one thing, that the book of Job is the only book in the Bible 'that can be read without indignation and disgust.' He speaks of Isaiah as 'one continued, incoherent, bombastical rant, full of extravagant metaphor, without application and destitute of meaning.' In a word, it never seems to have occurred to him that there was any difference between the age of the Kings and Prophets and his own, or between their ways of expressing themselves and his.
The brutal, savage way in which Paine wrote about the Bible is as discreditable to his feelings as to his knowledge and judgment; but it must be owned that he raised, though in an ignorant and furious manner, the principal points which had attracted the attention of better informed writers long before his time, and which have been abundantly discussed since.
Though he not only knew no Hebrew, but probably hardly knew that there was such a language, he notices the difference of phraseology which has lately been made so famous in connection with the discussion about the Elohistic and Jehovistic documents. He also put his finger upon many of the passages which have been relied upon by one school of writers from the days of Spinoza downwards, to prove that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, and he makes observations as to the composition both of Isaiah and Jeremiah which are to be found in the writings of much better scholars—Bishop Kidder, for instance. This, of course, exposed him to the obvious remark that all his objections were old—an argument which has the disadvantage of not showing, or tending to show, whether or not they were well founded.
The plain truth is that, if a man wants to make an attack on the Bible, the topics lie close to his hand, and can hardly escape him, even if he has no other critical apparatus than a reasonably good translation. The great question is, what upon the whole, and after taking account of these adverse criticisms, people in general, at a given time, decide to think of the Bible, and of the religion which is so intimately connected with it. The outline of the case on the one side, and on the other, has been before the world for an indefinite time. Each age pronounces its general verdict by its actions, and in order to influence mankind deeply and permanently something very different is required from Paine's Old Bailey brutality.
The Age of Reason naturally suggests, by way of contrast, Bishop Watson's celebrated answer to it. It certainly is a masterpiece of style, and is well worth reading, if only for the sake of seeing how intensely bitter it is possible to be by the force of elaborate politeness. Watson writes like an accomplished and very clever college don who, by the force of circumstances, finds himself obliged to meet a pothouse orator upon equal terms. He instinctively appreciates the exigencies of the case, and writes with a sort of splendid courtesy and candour which must have stung his antagonist to the very soul.
To say that he fully answers all the difficulties which Paine starts would be untrue. They are, and will long continue to be, the subject-matter of one of the broadest and deepest controversies in the world; but it is quite true to say that he gave the answers, which at that time were supposed to be the proper ones, in a way which showed conclusively that he was a most accomplished gentleman and scholar, and that Paine was coarse, brutal, grossly ignorant, and in the last degree rash and presumptuous. In our own days some of Paine's theories are advanced in a very different manner from his, and are defended by weapons which he did not know how to use; but, with every respect for the Episcopal Bench, we know of no living bishop who can write like Watson.
Saturday Review, October 28, 1865.