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Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine

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“The world is my country and to do good my religion.”  Those words could get a man in trouble in Thomas Paine’s time.  Born in England in 1737, he arrived in America in 1774 and quickly became a spokesman for the revolutionary cause, writing first “Common Sense” and then “The Crisis” in support of the American revolution.  Returning to England he got in trouble for his writing, “The Rights of Man,” and then got embroiled in the revolution in France, where he got on the wrong side of powerful leaders and spent time in prison.  When he returned to America, his more recent activities and his freethought views on religious matters obscured his contributions to U.S. Independence.

“The world is my country and to do good my religion” was a declaration that could get a man in trouble when Paine died in 1809, and this was still the case one hundred years later.  There was little reward for thinking beyond the level of patriotism and even less for godless “religion.”

Things have improved since then.  A future President is unlikely to describe Paine, or anyone else, as a “dirty little atheist” as Theodore Roosevelt did in a biography of Gouverneur Morris, American ambassador to France when Paine was in prison there.  First published in 1888, the book was reprinted in 1899 without change, an event which caused a furor of protest from the freethought community.

Then again, not speaking unkindly of atheists may be more a matter of politeness than of true understanding and tolerance.  Politics and religion are more closely involved than ever, it seems. Certainly the ability both to think for oneself and to think an issue through to its logical conclusion seems to be in short supply in the political arena.  The media use of sound bites doesn’t help.

Note: some reports on Thomas Paine now give his birthdate as February 9.  This is because the calendar was adjusted in 1752.  The English calendar had become off by eleven days from the Gregorian calendar in use outside of Britain and its colonies..  In 1752, September 3 to 13 simply didn’t happen.  The changing of all dates before that shift seems excessive to me.  In the peak of the freethought era one hundred years ago, January 29 was the day for celebration.

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More on Thomas Paine, with some resources

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An article on Thomas Paine by Dr. Roberts was printed in the Liberal Review in 1905.   Paine was in the news that year in two ways. One was a perceived insult. The other was an indication of a new level of acceptance.

            The insult had been made by President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1888, Roosevelt had written a biography of Gouverneur Morris, who was the American minister to France when Paine was in prison there. Morris was no friend of Paine; taking Morris’s view, Roosevelt referred to Paine as a “dirty little atheist.” Roosevelt’s book was republished in 1899 with no change. Calls for an apology were still circulating in 1905.

In the same year, 1905, the town of New Rochelle, New York, decided to give greater honor to Paine as its one-time resident. A monument that had been in an obscure location on a side street was to be moved to a central location with a bit of a park around it. The city council proposed to take over care for the monument from the freethinkers who had maintained it as volunteers since it was erected in 1839. A large official ceremony was held on October 14, 1905. George Macdonald [editor of The Truthseeker] later called it the “climax of all Paine celebrations that had been held.”

The timing of the printing of the lecture by Dr. Roberts, “Thomas Paine’s Labor for the Liberties of Man,” in September 1905, was probably set by the anticipated celebration; Roberts offers a straightforward presentation of Paine’s life. Paine was born in England of an Episcopalian mother and a Quaker father. Roberts tells a few stories of Paine’s childhood and early work in England, then moves on to his immigration to America in 1774 and his writing of “Common Sense” and “The Crisis.” “The Crisis” was credited with raising the morale of the struggling Continental Army in the difficult days of 1779. Roberts continues with the story of Paine’s return to Europe, his writing of Rights of Man, which got him into trouble in England, his participation in the French Revolution, and his writing of The Age of Reason.

Roberts credits Paine both with making religion more humane and with making human liberties secure.

Paine returned to the United States in the last years of his life, but he was not popular, largely because of his writings against Christianity.  Years later Robert Ingersoll would be able to retain popularity while tearing down the Bible and Christian doctrines, and Roberts followed in Ingersoll’s path.  In the first decade of the 19th century, this was not possible.

It should be noted, however, that freethinkers attribute all the dislike of Paine to his ideas.  It is also possible that he was not as likeable as Ingersoll or Roberts.  Human beings are less rational than most freethinkers want to believe.

Learn more about Thomas Paine from the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, which can be found at http://tpnha.keybrick.net

Here’s another source of information on freethought heroes: Roderick Bradford, a historian of American freethought, has a series of video clips from his current movie project online at http://vimeo.com/channels/432917

Indented sections are excerpts from my biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.  See the Books page for more information.

Not Just the Groundhog

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There’s more to say about Thomas Paine, but today is another cross-quarter day, the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  It’s an appropriate time to pause and appreciate the cycle of the year which shapes our lives, whether we admit it or not.

The Wheel of the Year

The Wheel of the Year

February 2 did not always belong to the groundhog.  In Christian tradition this is candlemas.  The name comes from the blessing of candles.  The day also marks the 40th day after Christmas, which was a day for purification of the mother after giving birth in Jewish tradition.

The association of this day with light goes back before Christianity.  And with light goes fire.  The tradition I like best associates this day with Brigid, either a saint or a goddess depending on your beliefs, who is the patroness of poets and blacksmiths.

Why this combination of poets and blacksmiths?  I think it is because they both deal with fire, although one is literal and the other metaphorical.  They both are makers, crafters, one in matter and one in language.  I don’t recall where I learned of Brigid and her support of this particular pair.  Other sources assign additional causes to her, but I prefer to stick with these two.

I learned of Brigid in Pennsylvania, not too far from the site of Punxatawny Phil, that obnoxious groundhog who gets most of the attention on Groundhog Day.  In that part of the country it is a given that there will be six more weeks of winter whether he sees his shadow or not.  In contrast to his big show (I wonder how many groundhogs have played the role) I light a candle and celebrate the returning light, the lengthening days, and the fact that this old earth has still not been thrown off its axis by the follies of human beings.

Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine

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Long before Martin Luther King, Jr., we might have had a January holiday by honoring Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, an important document in building support for the American Revolution.  Thomas Paine, who went on to write The Rights of Man,  was the first of a growing number of American freethought heroes.  Robert Ingersoll and Clarence Darrow have been added to the list.  Both of them honored Thomas Paine.  So did John Emerson Roberts.  One hundred years ago, celebrations were often held on January 29, Thomas Paine’s birthday.  Here is the report on one such event in Chicago in 1909, which was a special year because it was the centenary of Paine’s death.

The freethinkers of Chicago planned a large Paine celebration for January 29. This event would also honor Charles B. Waite, a Chicago judge and freethinker who had the same birthday as Paine and who turned eighty-five that year.  Nearly a dozen speakers were engaged to speak. Dr. John E. Roberts headed the list. Clarence Darrow was listed second. Darrow, like most of the others on the program, was a Chicago resident. Among those scheduled, only Darrow and Roberts had a national reputation in the freethought network.

The celebration was held at Hull House, Jane Addams’s famous settlement house. The weather was bad; a snowstorm led people to quote Paine’s famous line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Attendance was reported as good, but the weather caused a delay getting started, so a number of the speeches had to be shortened or eliminated. This restriction apparently did not apply to Dr. Roberts, who gave the keynote address on the life of Paine. The Truth Seeker promised to print the lecture in full at a later time, but never did.

Following Roberts, Mr. C. Stuart Beattie was to speak on “Paine and Waite.” He began by saying, “After the magnificent address that we have just listened to upon Paine, I should not attempt any remarks on that great character, but will proceed directly as to the other character who is known to us all.” Beattie proceeded to give a brief biography of Judge Waite. He was a personal acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln and was appointed by him to the SupremeCourtofUtahTerritory in 1862. In this position, he played a significant role in maintaining contacts for the Union, both in Utah and on to California. When the need there was past, Waite moved to Chicago and became a real estate lawyer and a scholar. Apparently, his experience with the Mormon leader Brigham Young helped him to reach the conclusion that all gods are man-made. His writing on the early Church was popular among freethinkers because, as Beattie expressed it, “his great idea was to take off from the character of Christ the crust of absurdity that his supposed historians and disciples had placed upon it.”

Among the other presentations was a “Vindication of Thomas Paine” in verse by John Maddock. This had to be abbreviated at the meeting, but it filled a page of The Truth Seeker in the issue published the week of the event. The poem begins:

We honor Thomas Paine to-night
Because he figures in the fight
Which has been waged by saint and sage
In every Christian land and age.

It ends, four columns later:

The work of Paine was done so well
The church is now the infidel –
Not true to truth, as reason shows.
Paine’s justified and so I close.

The page in The Truth Seeker is filled with pictures: of Maddock, the author of the poem, Thomas Paine, and Roberts and Darrow, the expected speakers. Darrow is not mentioned in the report of the event published two weeks later. At least four others of the intended speakers took no part in the actual proceedings. Evidently, the snowstorm caused more trouble than just a late start. The honors given to Judge Waite proved very timely. He died two months later.

From the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher.