Tom Paine:
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.]


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 unknown.

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 Robespierre's guillotine.

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 status quo.

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 things."

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. …It 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 America's independence?

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 being proscribed.

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 Mr. Kristol?

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,
That have honor in proud men's sight.
The simple nameless herd of Humanity
Hath deeds and faith that are truth enough for me.
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 million dollars!

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 Freedom Ring."

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 apposite:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.