The Founding Father America Disowned
James W. Skelton, Ph.D.
[What follows below are the Preface and Introduction
to J.W. Skelton's book on Thomas Paine, published in 1992. Prof.
Skelton provides an important addition to the academic literature
dealing with the treatment Paine received by his contemporaries. The
book was printed by Professional Press, Chapel Hill, NC.]
PREFACE TO THIS EDITION
One of the most incredible injustices, if not tragedies, of American
history is that Tom Paine, the first American with sufficient courage
and dedication to utter the words "The United States of America,"
is virtually unknown to the citizens of the United States. Those
Americans who have written of Paine have almost invariably been
traditional conservatives, dogmatic utopists, or mere equivocators.
Thus the public has seldom been given an opportunity to view Paine in
broad perspective. Indeed, he whom the British writer, Michael Foot,
has recently called "the greatest exile" ever driven from
the British shore, has not only been reprobated but actually disowned
by the United States. It is therefore one of the paramount purposes of
this book to present extensive excerpts from Paine's voluminous
writings (long suppressed, it should be noted), so that the interested
reader may ponder Paine's insights, prophecies, and warnings and
conscientiously decide how deeply we are all indebted to this Founding
Father who was not only used, abused, vilified and finally disowned,
but whose very bones were not only stolen but whose whereabouts remain
How ironic that a tyrant like Napoleon should have said of Paine: "A
statue of gold ought to be erected to you in every city of the
universe," whereas Paine's whilom friend, George Washington, not
only remained silent but failed to lift a finger when Paine, not only
an American citizen but a veritable catalyst in America's quest for
independence, sought his assistance when languishing in the shadow of
The reason for Washington's, and other Founding Fathers', silence is
hardly a mystery: after achieving independence from the British, Paine
assumed that conditions would be transformed in the newly independent
states. That is to say, he assumed that there would he an actual
revolution: a transformation of American society. Indeed, there was a
basic, extensive fear among the new landowners, slaveholders, and
assorted oligarchs that Paine's genuine advocacy of true democracy --
freedom and respect for each person regardless of gender, ethnicity,
religion or social status -- would greatly endanger the
Thus there was no such thing as an "American Revolution."
So far from being a "revolution," it was, as Cecil V. Crabb
says: .... essentially an anticolonial contest in which, after a
heroic struggle against great odds, Americans won their freedom from
British colonial rule?' That is to say, there was no basic
revolutionary ideology, theoretical or operational, with regard to the
transforming of American society as, say, was the case for the French
citizen after the French Revolution. In fact, Paine was repudiated and
maligned for having such "revolutionary" thoughts. Paine's
conviction in Common Sense (1776) that the people could
transform the political order through the democratic process was later
interpreted by Gouverneur Morris as proof that Paine was "big
with a Litter of Revolution." More recently, in a pamphlet issued
to aliens, the Daughters of the American Revolution made this
interesting observation: "A revolution usually means an attempt
to tear down or overturn a government or wreck the existing
institutions of a country. The American Revolution did none of these
It is interesting, in the context of Napoleon's suggestion that a "statue
of gold" should be erected to Paine "in every city of the
universe" - it is interesting to contemplate the personages
present on Mount Rushmore: four faces whose size easily outmatch
Swift's Brobdinguagian fantasy (e.g., Washington's twenty foot nose).
Here we see carved in stone for the ages: Washington, Jefferson,
Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt -- presidents all. This represents the "Shrine
of Democracy," we are told. Washington, who had no fewer than 135
slaves and countless acres of land; Jefferson, who delivered a
phillipic against slavery while continuing his ownership of slaves and
actually stating that slaves were inferior human beings; Lincoln, who
was ambivalent concerning the "peculiar institution" of
slavery, and who seriously proposed that the slaves be returned to
Africa; and Teddy Roosevelt who, in a blurb endorsing racist Madison
Grant's book, The Passing of the Great Race, in which Grant
suggested that the state had a moral obligation to put certain
immigrants to death, said, "The book is a capital book.
shows a fine fearlessness in assailing the popular and mischievous
sentimentalities and attractive corroding falsehoods which few men
dare assail." If, on the other hand, Paine had been asked to
choose four persons to symbolize American democracy, he would
doubtless have chosen: an American Indian, a white person, a black
person, and a woman. For Paine literally believed that democracy meant
the people, all the people -- thus all would be represented.
But democratic representation is, and has been, missing. Thus the
widespread corruption, greed and hedonism so graphically illustrated
by Watergate, Iran-gate, the Savings and Loan scandal, inside trading
ad nauseam. In the wake of which has come our welfare,
warfare, financial and moral bankruptcy. Is it not absurd and
disgraceful that a Ralph Nader -- a nonelected, private citizen --
should find it necessary to found an organization to protect American
citizens from the numerous special interest's machinations which
Congress was supposedly elected to protect?
In this connection, one recalls a story which seems quite germane.
Soon after the fall of the Roman Empire, a prescient Roman writer who
had predicted its downfall, was asked how he had known Rome would
fall. His answer came quickly: "I knew Rome would fall the day I
discovered that everything was for sale." One is constrained to
ask the same question of the United States: is it not true that
everything is for sale? For not only are commodities for sale, but
social position, political position, women, men, and yes, even
children. Thus what Paine had envisaged as democracy has become
progressively metamorphosed into something vastly different: instead
of a government "of, for, and by the people," we have
systematically established a new form of government: Plutocracy -- a
government of, for, and by money. The so-called Golden Rule has indeed
been translated into: those who have the gold, rule. And, yes,
consider the fact that in the 1992 presidential campaign, millions of
disaffected, disillusioned, desperate American citizens opted to
follow a newly discovered monetary Moses -- a veritable
multi-billionaire: Pied Piper Perot -- in their excessive zeal for
deliverance from what they considered the Promissory Land.
Added to all this is the inexorable march of nuclear madness which,
it must be admitted, was initiated by the United States in the morally
inexplicable atomic attack on Hiroshima. Is it sheer fantasy that,
given the steadily increasing number of nations that now have the
nuclear capability -- is it mere fantasy to anticipate that,
accidentally or intentionally, the nuclear march is on its inevitable
way from Hiroshima to -- shall we say? - Earth-o-shima? Yet could not
the prospective Earth-o-shima have been precluded if; instead of
authorizing the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, the late President
Truman had had the insight implicit in Paine's dictum: "It is
wrong to say God made rich and poor: He made only male and female; and
He gave them the earth for their inheritance."
That said, here is Tom Paine who, if mankind survives, may one day no
longer be disowned by America, but, instead, known for what he
assuredly was: America's major proponent -- indeed prophet -- of
democracy and representative government.
This hook is based upon two propositions, if not convictions: first,
that the most nearly indispensable of America's Founding Fathers was
Tom Paine: second, that the majority of American citizens, if fairly
introduced to Paine's life and work, would insist that he be accorded
the appreciation and respect which, for two centuries, have been
systematically denied him.
There is thus no intention here to defend Paine. Not only would it be
superfluous, it would be an insult to a man whose life and work in
Americas "cause" is its own best defense.
One recalls Bolivar's statement: "To history belongs neither
falsehood nor exaggeration, but only truth." Though one is
tempted to acquiesce, the implicit assumption that "history"
and "truth" are either logically or traditionally connected
gives one pause. Pragmatically speaking, the late Judge Lawrence
Frank's insight seems more to the point: "History is twistory."
And if the reader should require an illustration, consider:
The Bicentennial has come and gone, and Tom Paine -- dare one say it?
-- the only Founding Father who consistently lived and died in a noble
attempt to "found" American democracy remains virtually
unknown as a result of his having been actually disowned. Indeed, the
only significant recognition he received in the recent Bicentennial
came from various meretricious merchants who callously invoked his
name merely for its past -- or future -- "schlock" value.
As the Bicentennial year neared its end, a syndicated columnist and
former presidential speech-writer, William Safire, deftly, if somewhat
cruelly, summarized the terms of the four presidents immediately
preceding President Carter in this manner: one was shot, the next was
run out, the third was thrown out, and the fourth was voted out. And
while, at this writing, it is obviously still too early to assess
President Carter's term, one hopes that it is not too late to
introduce to the American people the most nearly indispensable of all
the Founding Fathers: Thomas Paine.
Theoretically, such introduction should be unnecessary. After all,
more than two centuries have passed since Paine first set foot on
American soil; furthermore, we have boasted of "universal public
education" for approximately a century -- thus, every living
American should have been introduced to Paine, if only in American
History courses. Parenthetically, it should be noted that the history
textbook used in the public high schools in Philadelphia before and
during the Bicentennial --
The Making of Modern America was prepared by two authors and
five editors, all of whom are teachers and/or professors. One might
therefore expect both a thoughtful and fairminded presentation of
Paine's contribution to what the book's title promises, namely, "the
making of modern America." Yet one finds but four brief
references to Paine; one, indeed, complaining that "Some of
Paine's statements were extreme,. .." Two questions press for
answers: (1) Given such a superficial treatment, how are adolescents
to learn to appreciate, if not to emulate, Paine's selflessness and
consistent commitment to Americas freedom? (2) If the seven authors
and editors believe that "Paine s statements were extreme,"
what would they suggest as a more effective means of achieving
Two books more recently published for the general reader may suffice
as illustrations of the superficial, if not cavalier, treatment
accorded Paine: Thomas Fleming's 1776: Year of Illusions not
only presents Paine as a kind of bumptious interloper in the affairs
of America, but actually presumes to offer psychoanalytic motivations
for Paine's insistence, in Common Sense, that America be
independent of King George III. Specifically, Fleming says: 'Without
consciously admitting it, even to himself, Thomas Paine went to work
on George III with murder in his mind and heart." Such a
statement is palpable nonsense inasmuch as Paine held the view that
the office - i.e., the monarchy -- and not the person -- i.e., the
monarch -- should be abolished. Indeed, when later he became a member
of the French Revolutionary government, Paine actually voted with the
minority to preserve the life of King Louis XVI -- and at the risk of
The other book, America's Continuing Revolution -- a series
of eighteen lectures sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute "in
celebration of the Bicentennial of the United States" -- offers
lectures beginning with Irving Kristol and ending with Dean Rusk.
Unfortunately, with the exception of some incisive remarks by Kenneth
Clark, the work is almost uniformly conservative. Furthermore, Paine
is not only given casual treatment but, in Irving Kirstol's lecture, "The
American Revolution as a Successful Revolution," is summarily
dismissed in these terms: "Tom Paine, an English radical who
never really understood America, is especially worth ignoring."
This is indeed strange reasoning: for if, as is widely known, one can
hardly make an omelet without breaking eggs, how can one have Mr.
Kristol's 'successful revolution" if the revolutionary "egg-breakers"
are to be "ignored?" Who, then, would fill the role -- John
Adams, say, or Jefferson: or perhaps Washington, or Franklin? Or even
But why has Paine been persona non grata -- a man who, if one
may broadly translate, is, paradoxically, a Founding Father without a
country? One makes bold to suggest the reason: Tom Paine was dangerous
-- he literally believed in, lived, and died for democracy. He valued
man as man, and human dignity was his constant motif. Indeed, the
words of Euripides graphically capture the essence of Paine:
And avert thine eyes from the lore of the wise, Ironically, during the Bicentennial the only
extensive treatment on television of America's past was "The
Adams Chronicles" -- an episodic treatment which, in John
Leonard's words, presented John Adams as a "suckling prig."
Prig notwithstanding, Adams is quite well known; Paine, on the other
hand, seems either to be unknown or, if known, is regularly spoken of
disparagingly. Parenthetically, it is not without interest to observe
that "The Adams Chronicles" was produced and presented by a
public television station at a reported cost of upwards of five
That have honor in proud men's sight.
The simple nameless herd of Humanity
Hath deeds and faith that are truth enough for me.
Another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, has been far more
fortunate than Paine. Few seem aware, however, that although Jefferson
called the Declaration his "political creed" he remained a
slaveowner until death. If that were not sufficiently unethical and/or
paradoxical, consider the recent statement by a descendant of
Jefferson's Monticello slave mistress, quoted in the July 5, 1976
edition of the New York Times: "I don't 'claim' to be a Jefferson
descendant. I am. I'm not particularly proud to be a bastard progeny,
but fact is fact: For me, the Fourth of July will he a quiet day."
And speaking of "declarations," Paine not only disdained the
practice of slavery but was the first -- if not the only -- Founding
Father to declare, both orally and in writing, the necessity for its
abolition. Nor should it be overlooked that in the very year Paine
arrived in America - 1777 -- Jefferson, so far from "declaring"
for American independence, was, instead, publishing an essay -- "A
Summary View of the Rights of British America" -- in which, after
saying of Great Britain: "It is neither our wish nor our interest
to separate from her..." and after referring to "your
subjects in British America..," concludes with the "fervent
prayer of all British America" that such relationship "may
continue to the latest ages of time,..."
How ironic, therefore, that Britain's Queen Elizabeth, in her
Bicentennial visit to Philadelphia in July - a visit during which she
presented a Bicentennial bell to the United States as a gift from the
British people -- how ironic that she should have spoken of Britain's
"sincere gratitude to the Founding Fathers of the great Republic
for having taught Britain a very valuable lesson," when, in fact,
Tom Paine, the apostle of freedom, had not only been repudiated and
reviled in both countries, but was literally condemned to death for
treason in Britain, and actually disowned by his adopted country, the
United States. Should a final irony be needed, consider the
inscription on the "new" Bicentennial bell: "Let
Indeed, the Declaration of 1776 -- first declared by Paine in
Jannary, 1775, as "independence" -- clearly proclaimed to
the world the necessity for the sovereignty of the people. Paine,
however, was one of the very few influential persons who not only
sought his own independence but that of everyone else -- e.g., slaves,
Indians, and women. Obviously, this would require a social revolution
and a subsequent social reorganization. True, the Continental Congress
borrowed a phrase from Virgil -- Novus Ordo Seculorus -- A New
Age -- to be used as the motto on the Great Seal of the United States,
but the spirit quite outran the principle.
Thus the question: How can Paine receive a fair hearing? Goethe, we
are told, was once shown a demoniacal caricature of the philosopher
Spinoza. Instead of uncritically accepting such a characterization,
however, he chose rather to study the works of Spinoza. The result?
Goethe soon became convinced of Spinoza's greatness.
One wonders how many so-called moderns will display similar
fair-mindedness in the case of Tom Paine and, despite their having
been indoctrinated in a negatively prejudicial Paine legend, withhold
final judgment until they have studied Paine -- that is to say,
studied what he said and what he did.
How monstrous, for example, the -- let us be frank -- the Boeotian
ignorance implicit in President Theodore Roosevelt's description of
Paine as a "filthy little atheist." Mr. Roosevelt was wrong
on all three counts. Consider: first, as evidence attests, Paine,
though not a Beau Brummel, was nevertheless a rather careful dresser:
next, he was not "little," but of average height: finally,
not only was he not an atheist, he actually founded, as Conway reminds
us, "the first theistic society in Christendom."
Furthermore, one is quite amazed at Mr. Roosevelt's statement
--especially the ascription of "atheism." For even if Paine
had, in fact, been an atheist, would that not have been his "right"
under the First Amendment to the Constitution? A fortiori, had
not Mr. Roosevelt been President, and had he not sworn to uphold --
indeed, to defend -- the Constitution -- including, of course, the
freedom of religion clause? And you, the reader, if perchance you have
either heard or read the scurrilous epithet gratuitously hurled at the
long-since dead Tom Paine by Mr. Roosevelt, did you unthinkingly
accept the ascription or, even if you thought it an accurate one, did
you analyze the statement and deduce its basic unconstitutionality?
But, as with an iceberg, this general, surface impression of Paine
serves but to hide the enormous depths of establishmentarian
resentment. Perhaps if Paine had carried out his plan, relayed to
Jefferson in 1805, to publish his manuscripts in "five octavo
volumes," many of the misconceptions and misinterpretations which
have constantly dogged him would never have seen print. But thankfully
-- and, paradoxically, ironically -- Paine had not the time for such
egocentric indulgences: and for the very good reason that he was too
busy about his contemporaries' business, and his "sons" and "daughters"
- that is to say, your and my business. And the name of that business
was freedom - literally, freedom for all!
It is as though Thoreau had Paine in mind when, in 1850, in "Civil
Disobedience," he wrote: "A very few -- serve the state with
their consciences..., and do necessarily resist it for the most part,
and they are commonly treated as enemies by it."
And so to Tom Paine, with the sincere hope that, even at this late
date, the reader, when offered facts as opposed to legends, will make
his/her own fair evaluation of the Founding Father America disowned.
The words of the dying Hamlet to his friend, Horatio, seem most
If thou didst ever hold me in thy
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.