Monday, June 8, 2009

This Day in Literary History (“Common Sense” Author Thomas Paine Dies Broke and Broken)

June 8, 1809—Restless Thomas Paine left bits of himself—his words and, unfortunately, his peace of mind—in three different countries. The years following the 72-year-old revolutionary’s death in lower Manhattan followed the same pattern, in a sad, bizarre way.

More than 30 years after his words convinced American colonists of the necessity of revolution in Common Sense, then sustained them throughout “the times that try men’s souls” in The American Crisis, Paine was a wreck—utterly without funds, certainly without health, and increasingly without friends he made in the American and French Revolutions.

With schemes for inventions having come to naught, with his incessant pamphleteering even coming to an end with one last blast against the Federalist Party in the summer of the prior year, Paine had taken to drink and quarreling with onetime admirers.

Paine’s death at 59 Grove Street, in a house rented by his émigré friend Margaret de Bonneville, came as a relief. He had lost the use of his legs the prior summer. Over the winter, he was afflicted by swelling, skin sores—and, as it increasingly became evident that the end might be drawing near, the urging of some well-wishers that he repent his notorious religious skepticism while there was still hope for his soul.

That last matter was particularly fraught. Paine’s deism—the belief that God was like a celestial clockmaker who woynd the universe up, then never bothered to intervene again with the beautiful machine he’d set up—was shared by a number of contemporaries, including Franklin, Washington and Jefferson. But the first two patriots gave at least lip service to the reigning mainstream Protestant norms of the day, and Jefferson confined his certainty that Christ was a marvelous moral exemplar but not the Son of God to his library sanctuary at Monticello.

In contrast, Paine told the world what he was thinking in The Age of Reason. He regarded the book’s creation as an act of conservatism, a full-throated tract in favor of the idea of a Supreme Being, in marked contrast to the atheism he saw increasingly present in the French Revolution. Confined to jail awaiting execution at the height of the Reign of Terror, he was convinced that he couldn’t end his life in a much more important way.

But his audience—admirers and non-admirers alike—found his thinking to be, if not atheistic, then the closest equivalent. He scoffed at notions of the divinity of Christ; at the idea that Christ’s sacrificial death had to be accomplished on a cross (an illness would have done the job as well, he felt); and at the belief that the God of the Old Testament was even moral.

Having alienated the Federalist Party by attacking George Washington for leaving him to languish in prison in France (Washington’s ambassador thought that protesting the imprisonment might make a bad matter worse, and he didn’t particularly like Paine in any case), Paine now dismayed old colleagues such as Samuel Adams who, for all their political radicalism, embraced conventional religious beliefs.

The fanatical French revolutionary Marat had accused Paine of voting against the execution of fKing Louis XVI because he was a Quaker who opposed capital punishment. When Paine’s own life drew to a close, the Society of Friends refused his request to be buried in a Quaker cemetery, because they feared a monument would be erected to his memory—an act that would be against the sect’s rules. And that was his best chance to be interred in any kind of sacred ground—after The Age of Reason, just about every other sect regarded him as untouchable.

After being freed from prison at last with a new ambassador and invited back to America by new President Thomas Jefferson, Paine journeyed back to the United States of America (a name that he, characteristically, came up with) in 1802. Seven years later, after a life of some elation, far more disappointment, and constant tumult, he was at rest, buried at his upstate New York farm.

Peace turned out to be a forlorn hope. Ironically, it was an admirer rather than an opponent who disturbed his eternal rest.

It was another English-born radical who concocted the mad sequel to Paine’s life. If anything, William Cobbett may have surpassed Paine in his talent for vitriol, earning him the nickname “Peter Porcupine.”

Cobbett couldn’t bear to see Paine moulder and forgotten. In September 1819, he followed through on a plan to disinter Paine and transport his bones back to England, where he hoped to erect a suitable memorial to his memory. To that end, he swooped down on the farm, dug up Paine's remains overnight, and beat it out of the country as fast as he could.

It didn’t turn out as planned. Paine’s name remained anathema in Britain, so Cobbett’s campaign went nowhere. Various body parts became separated over time, particularly after Cobbett's death in 1835.

One help to anyone looking into this enduring mystery: to disprove the absurd rumor that the corpse carried away from New Rochelle, N.Y., was in reality African-American, Cobbett had a death mask of Paine made just three years after he had spirited away the body in the middle of the night. There was no doubt, to those who knew him, that this was Paine. That death mask will assist if there’s any hope at all of bringing together even a few of his various body parts.

In America, we make our revolutionaries into postage-stamp heroes, robbing them of the air of controversy and even disrepute that could make them vitally contradictory and, hence, alive to us today. So it was with Paine.

Ronald Reagan liked to quote his line, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again," ignoring not only his influential social-welfare proposals in Part Two of The Rights of Man but also the challenge to Judeo-Christian thinking that would have upset his the future President’s supporters on the New Right.

Divisiveness and factionalism were as much a part of Paine’s life as they are today. His wisdom never measured up to his bluntness, leaving him isolated at the margins of the two revolutions he aided so much with his pen and government service.

But he will not be forgotten, as Cobbett feared. It’s easy to see why: his words remain simple and bold, his arguments sharp and penetrating.

Thomas Paine might have had all kinds of problems with the apparatus of Heaven, but there has never been the slightest doubt that he wrote like an angel.

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