The Philosophy of Thomas Paine
Thomas Alva Edison
[Reprinted from The Diary and Sundry Observations
of Thomas A. Edison,
edited by Dadobert D. Runes, 1948,
Philosophical Library, Inc.]
Tom Paine has almost no influence on present day thinking in the
United States because he is unknown to the average citizen. Perhaps I
might say right here that this is a national loss and a deplorable
lack of understanding concerning the man who first proposed and first
wrote those impressive words, 'the United States of America.' But it
is hardly strange. Paine's teachings have been debarred from schools
everywhere and his views of life misrepresented until his memory is
hidden in shadows, or he is looked upon as of unsound mind.
We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic. He was the
equal of Washington in making American liberty possible. Where
Washington performed Paine devised and wrote. The deeds of one in the
field were matched by the deeds of the other with his pen. Washington
himself appreciated Paine at his true worth. Franklin knew him for a
great patriot and clear thinker. He was a friend and confidant of
Jefferson, and the two must often have debated the academic and
practical phases of liberty.
I consider Paine our greatest political thinker. As we have not
advanced, and perhaps never shall advance, beyond the Declaration and
Constitution, so Paine has had no successors who extended his
principles. Athough the present generation knows little of Paine's
writings, and although he has almost no influence upon contemporary
thought, Americans of the future will justly appraise his work. I am
certain of it. Truth is governed by natural laws and cannot be denied.
Paine spoke truth with a peculiarly clear and forceful ring. Therefore
time must balance the scales. The Declaration and the Constitution
expressed in form Paine's theory of political rights. He worked in
Philadelphia at the time that the first document was written, and
occupied a position of intimate contact with the nation's leaders when
they framed the Constitution.
Certainly we may believe that Washington had a considerable voice in
the Constitution. We know that Jefferson had much to do with the
document. Franklin also had a hand and probably was responsible in
even larger measure for the Declaration. But all of these men had
communed with Paine. Their views were intimately understood and
closely correlated There is no doubt whatever that the two great
documents of American liberty reflect the philosophy of Paine.
We may look in other directions, where the trace is plainer, easier
definitely to establish, for evidences of his influence. Paine, you
know, came over to the Colonies after meeting Franklin in London. He
had encountered numerous misfortunes, and Franklin gave him letters to
friends back home, which resulted in his becoming editor of the
Pennsylvania Magazine in January of 1775. It is highly interesting
that circumstance should have brought him to America at that time and
placed him in such a position. Paine had little education, in the
school sense of the term, but he had read avidly and written a great
deal before meeting Franklin. Once placed at the editor's desk of a
new American periodical, he found time and opportunity exactly suited
to his spirit and his genius. The Pennsylvania Magazine began to
bristle -- so much so that its owner, and the cooler heads of
Philadelphia, were worried by Paine's writings. Looking back to those
times we cannot, without much reading, clearly gauge the sentiment of
the Colonies. Perhaps the larger number of responsible men still hoped
for peace with England They did not even venture to express the matter
that way. Few men, indeed, had thought in terms of war.
Then Paine wrote 'Common Sense,' an anonymous tract which immediately
stirred the fifes of liberty. It flashed from hand to hand throughout
the Colonies. One copy reached the New York Assembly, in session at
Albany, and a night meeting was voted to answer this unknown writer
with his clarion call to liberty. The Assembly met, but could find no
suitable answer. Tom Paine had inscribed a document which never has
been answered adversely, and never can be, so long as man esteems his
In 'Common Sense' Paine flared forth with a document so powerful that
the Revolution became inevitable. Washington recognized the
difference, and in his calm way said that matters never could be the
same again. It must be remembered that 'Common Sense' preceded the
Declaration and affirmed the very principles that went into the
national doctrine of liberty. But that affirmation was made with more
vigor, more of the fire of the patriot and was exactly suited to the
hour. It is probable that we should have had the Revolution without
Tom Paine. Certainly it could not be forestalled, once he had spoken.
I have always been interested in this man My father had a set of Tom
Paine's books on the shelf at home. I must have opened the covers
about the time I was 13. And I can still remember the flash of
enlightenment which shone from his pages. It was a revelation, indeed,
to encounter his views on political and religious matters. so
different from the views of many people around us. Of course I did not
understand him very well, but his sincerity and ardor made an
impression upon me that nothing has ever served to lessen.
I have heard it said that Paine borrowed from Montesquieu and
Rousseau. Maybe he had read them both and learned something from each.
I do not know. But I doubt that Paine ever borrowed a line from any
man. Perhaps he gained strength from the fact that the springs of his
wisdom lay within himself, and he spoke so clearly because the man's
spirit yearned to reach other spirits.
Many a person who could not comprehend Rousseau, and would be puzzled
by Montesquieu, could understand Paine as an open book. He wrote with
clarity, a sharpness of outline and exactness of speech that even a
schoolboy should be able to grasp. There is nothing false, little that
is subtle, and an impressive lack of the negative in Paine. He
literally cried to his reader for a comprehensive hour, and then
filled that hour with such sagacious reasoning as we find surpassed
nowhere else in American letters -- seldom in any school of writing.
Paine would have been the last to look upon himself as a man of
letters. Liberty was the dear companion of his heart; truth in all
things his object. Yet he has left us such stirring lines as those of
'The Crisis,' where he says; "These are the times that try men's
souls. ...Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered." Even an
unappreciative posterity knows that line, but we, perhaps, remember
him best for his declaration; "The world is my country; to do
good my religion."
Again we see the spontaneous genius at work in 'The Rights of Man,'
and that genius busy at his favorite task -- liberty. Written
hurriedly and in the heat of controversy, 'The Rights of Man' yet
compares favorably with classical models, and in some places rises to
vaulting heights. Its appearance outmatched events attending Burke's
effort in his "Reflections."
Instantly the English public caught hold of this new contribution. It
was more than a defense of liberty; it was a world declaration of what
Paine had declared before in the Colonies. His reasoning was so
cogent, his command of the subject so broad, that his legion of
enemies found it hard to answer ham. "Tom Paine is quite right,"
said Pitt, the Prime Minister. "but if I were to encourage his
views we should have a bloody revolution."
Here we see the progressive quality of Paine's genius at its best. "The
Rights of Man" amplified and reasserted what already had been
said in "Common Sense," with now a greater force and the
power of a maturing mind Just when Paine was at the height of his
renown, an indictment for treason confronted him. About the same time
he was elected a member of the Revolutionary Assembly and escaped to
So little did he know of the French tongue that addresses to his
constituents had to be translated by an interpreter. But he sat in the
assembly. Shrinking from the guillotine, he encountered Robespierre's
enmity, and presently found himself in prison, facing that dread
But his imprisonment was fertile. Already, he had written the first
part of "The Age of Reason" and now turned his time to the
latter part. Presently his second escape cheated Robespierre of
vengeance, and in the course of events "The Age of Reason"
appeared. Instantly it became a source of contention which still
endures. Paine returned to the United States a little broken, and went
to live at his home in New Rochelle -- a public gift. Many of his old
companions in the struggle for liberty avoided him, and he was
publicly condemned by the unthinking.
Paine suffered then, as now he suffers not so much because of what he
wrote as from the misinterpretations of others. He has been called an
atheist, but atheist he was not. Paine believed in a supreme
intelligence, as representing the idea which other men often express
by the name of deity.
His Bible was the open face of nature, the broad skies, the green
hills. He disbelieved the ancient myths and miracles taught by
established creeds. But the attacks on those creeds -- or on persons
devoted to them -- have served to darken his memory, casting a shadow
across the closing years of his life.
When Theodore Roosevelt termed Tom Paine a dirty little atheist he
surely spoke from lack of understanding. It was a stricture, an
inaccurate charge of the sort that has dimmed the greatness of this
eminent American. But the true measure of his stature will yet be
appreciated. The torch which lie handed on will not be extinguished.
If Paine had ceased his writings with "The Rights of Man" he
would have been hailed today as one of the two or three outstanding
figures of the Revolution. But "The Age of Reason" cost him
glory at the hands of his countrymen -- a greater loss to them than to
I was always interested in Paine the inventor. He conceived and
designed the iron bridge and the hollow candle; the principle of the
modern central draught burner. The man had a sort of universal genius.
He was interested in a diversity of things; but his special creed, his
first thought, was liberty.
Traducers have said that he spent his last days drinking in
pothouses. They have pictured ham as a wicked old man coming to a
sorry end. But I am persuaded that Paine must nave looked with
magnanimity and sorrow on the attacks of his countrymen. That those
attacks have continued down to our day, with scarcely any abatement,
is an indication of how strong prejudice, when once aroused, may
become. It has been a custom in some quarters to hold up Paine as an
example of everything bad.
The memory of Tom Paine will outlive all this. No man who helped to
lay the foundations of our liberty -- who stepped forth as the
champion of so difficult a cause -- can be permanently obscured by
such attacks. Tom Paine should be read by his countrymen. I commend
his fame to their hands.