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Hero in Reverse

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

Poor Tom Paine! there he lies:
Nobody laughs and nobody cries.
Where he has gone or how he fares
Nobody knows and nobody cares.

Posterity felt relief at having done with Thomas Paine. He was a professional revolutionist, asking embarrassing questions and stirring the caldron of trouble. An idealist, he had no use for the arts of compromise. According to a famous bit of apocrypha, when Benjamin Franklin once said “Where liberty is, there is my country,” Paine countered with “Where liberty is not, there is my country.” He expressed himself best in terms of revolt: after lending his services to American Independence and then to the French Revolution, he found fault with both—with the first because Washington and his fellows were too conservative, with the latter because the Terror was too extreme. A lonely man who tried to be a friend to the People, he was doomed to move in ever-narrowing circles of minority sympathy. In the Paris riots of 1791, because he had forgotten to put a cockade in his hat and was unable to speak French, he was threatened with hanging by the mob. A little later the Revolution which had elected him to honorary citizenship clapped him into the Luxembourg Prison. In England, the land of his birth, and in America, the land of his adoption, he grew to be an object of unparalleled hatred.

To trace the curve of Paine’s reputation is to learn something about hero-worship in reverse. Carlyle, Emerson, Nietzsche, and others have suggested its positive side, but the matter of public execration has seldom been analyzed. The romantic cult of the national hero in the nineteenth century was in fact a counterpoise to that spirit of democracy and internationalism advanced by Paine. “My country is the world: to do good, my religion,” said Paine, but for his love of mankind he has received little in exchange.

Public hate is an index to the group mind as interesting as hero-worship, and can be equally lyrical of expression. The savage attacks upon President Roosevelt within recent years, whether by his politico-economic or his international enemies, are an obbligato to the hero-worship with which other millions regard him. Esprit de corps gathers most readily about the magnetic poles of adoration and hate; one is a necessary complement to the other. “Our side,” whether in children’s games, war, politics, or religion, implies scorn of the outlander. One who cannot be identified with all the major aims of the group is barred as its hero; if he is too prominent to be ignored or forgotten, he will be pilloried in the market place. An eminent man in an age of conflict must be, to the folk imagination, either wholly good or bad. After his death this legend continues to expand, helped by orators, poets, biographers, and interested groups for or against him. If he is soon accepted by the mass as its saint or hero, all his faults are forgotten; but if he proves unacceptable, he becomes a villain, and whatever services he rendered are canceled out. Benedict Arnold and Paine were once heroes in the American Revolution. But the treason of one to the flag and the other’s denial of economic and religious orthodoxy shortly made them both into popular bogeys. Folklore went to work upon them—devising not the cherry-tree stories of young heroes but tales of precocious crime, and carrying them on to death-bed repentances (Arnold donning his buff and blue uniform, Paine calling upon the name of Christ) that seem never to have happened. Hero-worship read backwards is like the Black Mass.

To an impartial view, Paine vastly less than Arnold merits the sulphurous halo that posterity has hung upon him. Arnold’s treason was a sordid monetary affair, and in a recent searching inquiry into his unpublished letters Mr. Carl Van Doren has found no excuse for his actions, as a few sentimentalists have tried to do. But Paine betrayed nobody, and indeed had a genius for doing things unprofitable to himself. His passionate concern for the welfare of Everyman, that made him so neglectful of his own interests, has been forgotten by all save a few liberal historians. And to set Paine in the pillory for his deistic opinions seems a little unjust when Franklin, Jefferson, and Lincoln are among our greatest heroes and when even Ethan Allen and John Adams march in the rank of worthies. Paine’s foolhardiness in proclaiming his heresy was of course greater than theirs; but one also suspects that many hated his deism because of his economics. The Federalists and their heirs planted a fear of him in the ranks of homespun piety, for reasons that were rather disingenuous. They tried, in fact, to do the same with President Jefferson, but failed because of Jefferson’s greater eminence and good works. The way in which they aimed at both, but succeeded only in downing the bird of lower flight, is a story worth telling—in its continuation from James Cheetham’s day to that of Theodore Roosevelt.


If he had become a hero, Paine would have been lauded as a self-made man. He was the son of a poor Quaker corset-maker, and he educated himself. As it was, Paine’s later enemies ridiculed him as a “staymaker,” took note of his mistakes in grammar, and even found something suspicious in his changing the spelling of his name from “Pain.” They found he had been dismissed from the excise, and that he had separated from his second wife (with whom he had never cohabited, “whether it could be owing to natural imbecility, or to philosophical indifference,” as his first biographer, George Chalmers, remarked in 1791). But they made no mention of Franklin’s letter of introduction which sent this “ingenious, worthy young man” to Philadelphia in 1774, and passed over the brilliant pamphleteering with which, in the next winter, Paine plunged into the cause of independence. “Common Sense,” which sold almost half a million copies, made Paine temporarily into a hero. Its power can hardly be exaggerated. Although its title suggests the one quality that Paine the man lacked, this pamphlet convinced untold thousands by its audacious simplicity. Late in 1776, when Paine was retreating with the American army into New Jersey—and exposing himself to later charges of cowardice, solely because like Jefferson he was a penman rather than a soldier—he wrote “The Crisis.” His words in the days of Washington’s adversity, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” rang out like a bugle. They, together with Paine’s scorn for “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot,” were quoted by President Roosevelt as the climax of his recent speech to the nation. Hours of great decision inevitably bring us back to the national psychology that bred Tom Paine, and are apt once more to put his phrases upon our lips. Just as Jefferson gives us the classic statements of our democratic life, so Paine offers us the best words of a fighting faith. Congress appointed Paine secretary to the Committee on Foreign Affairs. In a letter lately discovered, he wrote Franklin in Paris, on October 24, 1778: “I have the pleasure of being respected and I feel a little of that satisfactory kind of pride that tells me I have some right to it.”

But Paine’s satisfaction was short-lived. His indiscretion in quoting secret documents in the heat of party politics forced his resignation. Prudence meant nothing to Paine, even when such a vital matter as the French alliance was at stake. The honesty, innocence, and maladroitness of an idealist belonged to him. Conservatives in the patriot ranks began to dislike him, and as early as 1779 we hear of a band of merry revelers returning from dinner at Clothier-General Mease’s, who met Paine and tripped him into the gutter—an exploit remembered years later, with pride, “in the interest of religion.” Yet Dr. Franklin, a man of liberal and understanding mind, wrote in 1785 that he was proud of having sent “so useful and valuable citizen to America.” Franklin may also have had Paine in view, along with “the honest heretic Dr. Priestley,” when he remarked shrewdly two years later: “I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude, or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not, like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them.”

At the end of the Revolution Paine found himself poor in pocket until Pennsylvania gave him 500 in cash and New York presented him with a confiscated Loyalist farm at New Rochelle. There he lived until 1787, mildly lionized as the pamphleteer of independence save by those who knew through report of his bias toward “infidelity.” So far he had given no public scandal. But a newspaper satirist of 1786 rebuked a cunning lawyer, called “Zenas,” by observing that wit without good sense

Made thee of law the blemish, man the stain, Inferior scarcely to that monster. . .. . .

“Paine” is clearly the rhyme word to be supplied. But notoriety did not break upon him until after he had gone to Europe to build iron bridges and had ended by being absorbed in the French Revolution and its anti-royalist, anti-clerical sentiments (“May the last King be strangled in the bowels of the last Priest 1” ran the slogan of that day). “The Age of Reason” followed “The Rights of Man.” And innate conservatives like Edmund Burke and George Washington, who had seen the Revolution of ‘76 as a constitutional act, within the bounds of a rigid civil compact rather than a revocable social contract, now sensed with alarm the threat of Tom Paine’s doctrine that had been taken as a mere rhetorical flourish in the pages of “Common Sense”: “Government, even its best state, is but a necessary evil; at its worst, an intolerable one.” Anarchy seemed to be in the air. “As far as my experience in public life extends, I have ever observed that the great mass of people are always just, both in their intentions and their object,” said Paine to the French Assembly, but conservatives could pillow their heads on no such faith. Recalling how effective Paine had been in the American Revolution, many took fright. The reasoned fears of Burke were communicated to many unreasoning men. Some English Tories wore boots whose hobnails were marked “T. P.,” and so they contrived to trample upon Paine and his principles. A pitcher made at Leeds during the French Revolution showed a serpent with Paine’s head and some appropriate verses—

Observe the wicked and malicious man Projecting all the mischief that he can.

Now called “the notorious Tom Paine,” he was burned in effigy, while pamphlets assured the British that he had been guillotined on September 1, 1794, after confessing “I have written and spoken nothing but lies in my life.”

In America, three acts of Paine drove successive nails into the coffin of his defunct herohood. “The Rights of Man” offended sentinels of the political and economic status quo and the friends of England. His next book, exploding the “Christian mythology” and comparing the Father Almighty to Zeus Pater, outraged many more, and gave the first group a more effective weapon against Paine in a day when theological heresy was more fearsome than the economic sort. His third act was to turn upon George Washington. Although he had dedicated the first part of “The Rights of Man” to the President, he soon decided that Washington had been indifferent to his plight in the Luxembourg Prison.

In 1796 Paine addressed a violent public “Letter” to him: “As to you, Sir, treacherous in private friendship, and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled whether you are an apostate or an impostor.” Such foolish talk, from one now in the throes of a persecution complex, finished Paine’s career as an American patriot. Franklin’s grandson, Benny Bache, who had printed this “Letter” in Philadelphia, had the good luck to die in the yellow fever epidemic, just before the death and final apotheosis of Washington—but Paine lived on and came to be known as the traducer of the Father of His Country. His enemies never let the people forget that Paine had attacked both Washington and God.

In 1802 he came back to America to rejoice in the liberal administration of Jefferson and to become one of its chief embarrassments. Mr. Jefferson, whose polite note to Paine’s printer had been used as an advertisement for “The Rights of Man,” and who had offered Paine passage home on a public vessel, was forced to play the uncomfortable role of patron. Among the Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress is a clipping from the Richmond Recorder criticizing the President for taking up with “the open and avowed enemy and calumniator of Washington”; in the margin it is marked, by the anonymous sender, “seriously recommended to the perusal of Long Tom.” The Federalists were glad to find a stick with which to beat the Jeffersonians. “What!” shrieked the New England Palladium, “Invite to the United States that lying, drunken, brutal infidel, who rejoices in the opportunity of basking and wallowing in the confusion, devastation, bloodshed, rapine, and murder, in which his soul delights?” Stories of Paine’s drunkenness and personal squalor—founded apparently upon a moderate appetite for brandy, which he had begun to indulge in his Paris days of illness and gloom, and a taste for snuff, which made his waistcoat less than lovely—were now magnified and spread by the many who disliked him. His red nose became, for that generation, the oriflamme of intemperance. John Adams, who hugged his own deistic heresy in secret but hated democracy, called him “the filthy Tom Paine.” And silly anecdotes arose about how he had to be bathed forcibly, clawing in protest with his finger- and toenails “like birds’ claws.” Federalist newspapers called him “the scavenger of faction,” “loathsome reptile,” “demi-human archbeast,” “an object of disgust, of abhorrence, of absolute loathing to every decent man except the President of the United States.”

Thin-skinned by nature, Paine was rubbed raw by such treatment, and after his arrival in Washington he fancied that even Mr. Jefferson had turned against him when the President postponed their meeting. Hoping to interest Jefferson in his bridge-building and other scientific schemes, Paine wrote reproachfully on January 12, 1803: “I will be obliged to you to send back the Models, as I am packing up to set off for Philadelphia and New York. My intention . . . was to have some conversation with you. . . . But you have not only shown no disposition towards it, but have, in some measure, by a sort of shyness, as if you stood in fear of federal observation, precluded it. I am not the only one who makes observations of this kind.” The President at once invited Paine to the White House for a day or two, explaining that he had been very busy rather than “shy.” But a Sunday or two later, when Mr. Jefferson rode through the rain-drenched swamps from the Executive Mansion to the Capitol in order to attend divine services, Federalists snickered at his sudden access of piety.

Jefferson’s religion, which the Federalists had questioned until many simple believers were troubled, gradually ceased to be a burning issue, No Bibles were confiscated under his Administration, and in fact a great tide of revivalism broke over the backwoods—at the Gasper River, Holly Springs, Red River, and other notable camp-meetings among the farm folk and frontiersmen who made up the great mass of Jeffersonian followers. For had he not eased their tax burdens, and opened up a great inland empire for their settlement? And so, many a rural newspaper—like the Newburgh Recorder of the Times, on August 29, 1804—remarked that in the “wise and virtuous administration” of Mr. Jefferson, God had “poured out his spirit among the people in a manner before unknown in America.” But Tom Paine, who continued to flaunt his skepticism in speeches and pamphlets as Jefferson had never done, and who lacked the latter’s good works and prestige of office, fell upon evil days. He became the best-hated man in America, a bogey of pulpit and nursery.

In the spring of 1803, when Paine tried to engage passage from New York to Trenton, the stagedriver refused him a seat: “My stage and horses were once struck by lightning, and I don’t want them to suffer again.” Settling on his farm at New Rochelle, Paine led an increasingly harried life. A singer in a New York Presbyterian church was suspended for having visited him. His chief visitors, it was reported, were “the laboring class of emigrants,” to whom he was a sans-culotte hero. “Not the most zealous partisan of Mr. Jefferson will notice him in public,” wrote John Lambert, “and even those who are so lost as to admire his writings, are ashamed to be seen in his company.” In 1806 he was denied the right to vote, on the charge that he was not an American citizen. An attempt was even made to murder him.

James Cheetham, a Manchester hatter who had come to America out 6f admiration for Paine and then had turned against him when Paine discovered Cheetham’s disloyalty to principle, set to work on a scurrilous biography in the year of its subject’s death. From the poet and diplomat Joel Barlow, Cheetham received a curt answer to his queries. Paine, said Barlow, was “one of the most benevolent and disinterested of mankind,” who began to drink only when ostracized by the respectable, and unfairly gained the name of a drunkard. Suppressing this letter, Cheetham reported that Paine “got drunk regularly twice a day; by dinner time, when he went to bed, and at night, after he awoke to tea.” Cheetham also drew a fanciful picture of Paine and his tipsy Negro servant, old Betty, both lying “prostrate on the same floor, dead drunk, sprawling and swearing and threatening to fight, but incapable of approaching each other to combat.” Cheetham alleged that when Paine lived with the Ryders in 1808-09 “he chose to perform all the functions of nature in bed.” As a moral fillip the biographer accused Paine of adultery with his French admirer Madame Bonneville, thirty years his junior, solely upon the evidence that she had a son named Thomas, with “the features, countenance, and the temper of Paine.” (The soundest evidence points to the chastity, and apparently the impotence, of Paine throughout his life.) After Paine’s death Madame Bonneville won a legal action against Cheetham because of this charge—although Judge Hoffman fined the libeler only $150 because his book “tended to serve the cause of religion.” But the most fantastic length to which Cheetham went was the composition of a dully blasphemous poem on the Christ-child and the Magi, which he printed in the “Life” as coming from Paine’s pen.

Immediately after Paine’s death in the summer of 1809, numberless stories were told about his final terror and remorse; Colonel Ingersoll’s offer in 1877 to pay $1000 to any clergyman who could prove one of them was never claimed. Denied a place in consecrated ground, Paine was buried in a corner of his farm at New Rochelle, the mourners consisting of Madame Bonneville and her sons, the Quaker Wil-lett Hicks, and two Negroes. But curiosity-seekers soon swarmed to his grave, hacking off bits of the tombstone and breaking twigs from the cypress and weeping willows that Madame Bonneville had planted. In 1819 William Cob-bett, sorry for the things he had once said about “the infamous Tom Paine,” had the bones dug up and removed to England with the intention of raising a fine monument there. But nothing was done, and upon Cobbett’s death in 1835 these relics passed into the hands of a receiver in probate. The court declined to class them as an asset, and so bones and coffin went to a furniture dealer who seems to have lost them permanently. In America, the death-mask of Paine, in the possession of Fowler and Wells, phrenologists, became a fascinating exhibit in the lecture era before the Civil War. But it was reported that the New York Historical Society, owning the only bust of Paine, kept it hidden as a matter of protection against haters of the man.


“Thomas Paine needs no monument made by hands; he has erected a monument in the hearts of all lovers of liberty,” President Andrew Jackson dared to tell Judge Hertell. Old Hickory belonged to the frontier, which, with its alternate spasms of radicalism and revivalism, saw Paine without snobbery—as a hard-hitting pamphleteer who fought the people’s fight against tyranny. In 1825 J. K. Paulding wrote in “John Bull in America”:

“Pray,” said I, . . . “do they ever read the Quarterly at English Prairie?”

“The Quarterly! Lord bless you—they read nothing but Tom Paine. I never saw any other book in all the Western country.”

Elsewhere, in the East and among conventional people, opinion was quite different. John Neal, an American writer of sorts, informed the readers of Blackwood’s in 1826 that Paine “is held in utter abomination throughout America. The mischief that he did was intentional; the good, accidental.” A quarter-century later, in 1851, an old man named Grant Thorburn who claimed an intimacy with Paine wrote his recollections for the New York Observer; they turned out to be the same old yarns repeated from Chalmers and Cheetham, with the spice of a few fresh lies. On the eve of the Civil War, the City Council of Philadelphia refused a portrait of Paine for Independence Hall; in 1876 they rejected a bust of him made by Sidney P. Morse and offered by “the Liberals of America.” Meanwhile, however, the feud between deism and the Christian churches was slowly cooling. Unitarian thought helped to bridge the chasm, while the new generation of freethinkers—Robert Owen, Frances Wright, Abner Kneeland —ceased to tilt against the windmills of dogma in their new concern with women’s rights, labor, abolition, and socialist experiments. The reputation of Paine the liberal began to make headway against that of Paine the agnostic. Gilbert Vale, a New York editor in the middle years of the century, repaired Paine’s tomb and wrote a friendly life of him. On the eve of the Civil War Paine was discovered by his stoutest champion, Moncure D. Conway. Conway, a Virginian whose exposure to Harvard and to Emerson had converted him to abolition and a leftward slant in theology, had become minister of the First Congregational Church of Cincinnati. Seeking to know what the other half believed, he began to spend his Sunday afternoons sitting in a dark corner at “infidel” meetings. He heard self-taught workingmen—whose intellects were better than their grammar—take their text, with simple fervor, from “The Age of Reason.” Never before had Conway heard a good word for Paine. Now he began to study for himself, and decided that Paine’s legend, like those of Faust and the Wandering Jew, was encrusted with the diabolism of old wives’ tales and folklore. After the rejection of Paine’s portrait at Independence Hall, Conway preached an eloquent sermon on the patriot’s birthday in 1860—recalling his great services to democracy and his life in the Christ-like pattern of poverty and persecution, and declaring that the United States was unworthy to display Paine’s picture in its national shrines. The congregation was won to this tardy justice, and called for copies of the sermon; the “infidels” soon began to repay Conway’s visits, and sit in the pews of his church. In 1892 Conway brought forth, after many years of research, a life of Paine in two volumes. Clearing away the hoary moss of libel and misstatement, Conway wrote a book of honest scholarship.

A generation later, Elbert Hubbard hailed Paine a little fulsomely as “the greatest writer of his day,” while George Creel, famous propagandist of the first World War, acclaimed him as “a tremendous figure” and “The Rights of Man” as “the living Constitution of Great Britain.” Albert Payson Terhune, William M. van der Weyde, and other amateur admirers of Paine claimed—in what might be called the Baconian heresy of our patriotic literature—that Paine was the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jeffer-son, said van der Weyde, “was never a facile, forceful or felicitous writer, as proven by his published works”; moreover, such a phrase in the Declaration as “Scotch and foreign mercenaries” reveals Paine’s characteristic hatred of the Scotch, whereas Jefferson, who had been educated by three Scotch tutors, liked them! Even Mr. Earl Browder, in evoking Paine as a Communist hero, has termed him the coauthor of the Declaration of Independence, “the fiery revolutionary tribune of the people.” Such are the vagaries of partisanship.

The most notable phrase ever coined in disparagement of Paine came from the pen of Theodore Roosevelt who, in absorbing the Federalist prejudices of his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, learned to hate Jefferson with almost equal zeal. In 1888 in his life of Gouverneur Morris, Roosevelt explained that Morris made no great effort to reclaim Paine from duress: “So the filthy little atheist had to stay in prison, ‘where he amused himself with publishing a pamphlet against Jesus Christ.’ There are infidels and infidels; Paine belonged to the variety—whereof America possesses at present one or two shining examples—that apparently esteems a bladder of dirty water as the proper weapon with which to assail Christianity.” The label “filthy little atheist” was widely quoted by books and magazines. It raised a vigorous protest from Paine’s friends, who were founding a Thomas Paine National Historical Association and a museum at New Rochelle.

In 1899, when Roosevelt was Governor of New York, a delegation visited Albany in the hope of getting a retraction, but the Governor refused to see them. Later, a group waited upon him at the White House, but went away uncom-forted. In 1917 William van der Weyde, New York photographer and future editor of Paine’s works in a poor edition, contrived to draw Roosevelt into correspondence on the subject. Their exchange of letters, still unpublished, is now in the Huntington Library in California. Roosevelt promptly conceded that “deist” might have been more accurate than “atheist,” but thought the difference immaterial. In regard to the epithet “filthy” he wrote: “The statement refers to a quotation from Gouverneur Morris’s journal while he was Minister to France, during the French Revolution. He visited Paine, and found him in bed, not having left it for a week, for purposes of nature, altho seemingly entirely able to do so. If ‘filthy’ does not describe such conduct, no word can.” When in reply van der Weyde pointed out that no such passage occurs in Morris’s published journal, Roosevelt on July 9,1918 hedged a little: “The quotation I first sent you was from some manuscript writings of Morris’s which was submitted to me some thirty years ago. (I am not able to identify them; indeed, I am not sure that they were in manuscript instead of in print.) And as I have no time to look up the matter, I have made, and shall make, no further allusions to it and shall not quote it.” The recall and the grammar are here equally shaky; Roosevelt was wrong in seeking his authority in Gouverneur Morris’s Paris diary, which, as published in its entirety by Beatrix Cary Davenport in 1939, shows Morris’s impatience with Paine as “a troublesome Fellow” who talked too much, but nothing worse. To one who has read Paine’s enemies, it is clear that Roosevelt had borrowed one of Cheetham’s libels (written about Paine in the last phase of his life, and not of his days in France), but was unable to remember his source. The impatience of Colonel Roosevelt under questioning is revealed well enough in his earlier letter of July 1,1918: “I haven’t the time to write volumes on every point when I differ from friends or from strangers concerning historical figures. My own view is that sound [‘some’ has been canceled and ‘sound’ written over it] students of history and politics must come to the conclusion that Washington was immensely right, and Paine immensely wrong, during the decade which included Paine’s residence as a Revolutionary in Paris.” It was plain from the beginning that Paine’s champion would get no real satisfaction from Roosevelt, although van der Weyde offered to show the Colonel “a mass of testimony as to Paine’s cleanliness of person and habits.” In the midst of this exchange of letters Roosevelt received news of his son Quentin’s death at the front; van der Weyde, while pausing to offer condolence, returned to the attack with an earnest tactlessness worthy of Paine himself. He asked that the word “filthy” be withdrawn, and he would be satisfied. Roosevelt answered briefly that he was of the same opinion still, and on September 4, 1918 directed his secretary to close the correspondence, since “Colonel Roosevelt does not see that there is anything he can add to what he has written.”

In this controversy, Roosevelt’s adversary had quoted a statement from Walt Whitman: “Paine was double damnably lied about. Anything lower, meaner, more contemptible, I cannot imagine; to take an aged man—a man tired to death after a complicated life of toil . . . then to pull him into the mud, distort everything he does and says; oh, it’s infamous! Thomas Paine had a noble personality, as exhibited in presence, dress, manner, and what may be called his atmosphere and magnetism, especially the later years of his life. I am sure of it.” The source of this quotation is not given; only part of it corresponds to a similar passage in “Specimen Days,” from Whitman’s speech on Paine’s birthday in 1877, and to a statement Whitman gave Conway for the latter’s biography. But all three quotations agree in spirit, drawing their authority from Whitman’s youthful acquaintance with Paine’s deist friend, Colonel John Fellows. The poet was hampered by neither snobbery nor orthodox piety in his appreciation of Paine, for, like Paine himself, Whitman was a roving scion of the Quakers—leaning toward the Hicksites—and he followed the inner light rather than the beacons of respectability.

In general, however, Paine has been undiscovered by American art and artists. Frank Smith, his best biographer since Conway, calls Paine “the eagle that is forgotten.” Novels, plays, and poems of the Revolution pass him by, while such minor memories as Ethan Allen, Francis Marion, Mad Anthony Wayne, and Israel Putnam are glorified. The man of words is probably less compelling to the romantic imagination than the man of deeds, but beyond this handicap remains the fact that Paine’s reputation has been battered by generations of abuse. A late incident may be revealing. In 1983 an English instructor in the City College of New York was asked by the College to give a radio talk about Paine. Soon after acceptance he received a letter from the broadcasting company notifying him that the talk had been canceled, since “in New York City Thomas Paine is considered a dangerous subject, and not suitable for radio discussion.” At length, after the chairman of the English department and the president of the College had protested to the broadcasting company, and had certified that the speaker was no firebrand but a conservative scholar, the address was re-scheduled and given five minutes additional time.

Paine was a blunt and combative man, lacking the gentle birth so important in the eyes of his supercilious critics, but possessing one or two of the conventional vices of a gentleman. He was thus in a most unhappy position. In remembrance of the old hue and cry, posterity has never done him justice. With his distinguished services in our Revolution and to mankind, Paine is the best example of an American hero manque. In a democracy the hero is more truly the people’s choice than he is under governments and party groups devoted coolly to myth-making. A synthetic hero like Horst Wessel, manufactured by the theory that “truth” is that which it is good for the people to believe, has no place in our American Valhalla. Even our random instances of the political build-up, like that of Old Tippecanoe in 1840 or of Coolidge, the silent sage of the 1920’s, strike no deep root in the soil of our affection or patriotism. They hardly outlast the election poster. But our great men by public acclaim—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Lee—are names that any nation might be proud of. They are much sounder than the selections made by Carlyle, that connoisseur of heroes, in his devotion to Mahomet, Cromwell, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and Dr. Francia, the dictator of Paraguay. For in our American democracy (despite our reputed worship of success) might does not make right, and we are not apt to be dazzled by the sheer mastery of the superman. Of course we have made our mistakes of commission, have adopted as heroes a few who later disappointed or disillusioned us. We have had “lads that wore their honors out.” General Grant suffered from his gullibility among the bucket-shops of Wall Street. Admiral Dewey failed to become President after a few indiscreet words and deeds. Only yesterday Colonel Lindbergh was cheered as the Flying Fool; today he has stopped flying. More rarely, perhaps, we have erred by omission. Occasionally we have treated our great men with ingratitude, largely by the persuasion of minority groups whose clamor has unfairly dictated the verdict of popular history. The repudiation of Woodrow Wilson is but slowly being repaired by time and the return of the tragic cycle he sought vainly to prevent. Today his wise and generous words ring like an echo across the void of two neglectful decades. The symbol of Thomas Paine is much farther removed in time, and the pattern of his life a less vivid parallel in 1942. Perhaps it is too late for him ever to gain his true stature as an American hero and liberaL


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