Thomas Paine: A Hero of the Radical Enlightenment

With how much more glory, and advantage to itself, does a nation act, when it exerts its powers to rescue the world from bondage, and to create itself friends, than when it employs those powers to increase ruin, desolation, and misery.

– Thomas Paine: Collected Writings

William Cobbett, the great English pamphleteer, who for so long had been an enemy of Thomas Paine, and who had once written within the pages of his Porcupine’s Gazette attacking him on issue after issue, said: “How Tom gets a living now, or what brothel he inhabits, I know not,” he wrote during Paine’s last years in physical and professional decline. “Whether his carcass is at last to be suffered to rot on the earth, or to be dried in the air, is of very little consequence. Whenever and wherever he breathes his last, he will excite neither sorrow nor compassion; no friendly hand will close his eyes, not a groan will be uttered, not a tear will be shed. Like Judas he will be remembered by posterity; men will learn to express all that is base, malignant, treacherous, unnatural and blasphemous, by the single monosyllable, PAINE.”1

Yet, after years of struggle against his own issues with the darkening world of England had reversed course, and become a convert to Thomas Paine, saying: “Any man may fall into error, but a fool or a knave will seldom acknowledge it…. I saw Paine first pointing the way, and then leading a nation through perils and difficulties of all sorts, to independence and to lasting liberty, prosperity and greatness.” Cobbett had become certain that his erstwhile nemesis had been right about everything all along, and he in turn was now Thomas Paine’s most devoted acolyte. He immediately became a friend to Mme. Bonneville, the woman who had inherited Paine’s literary estate, and worked to ensure that all of the great man’s writing would be safeguarded, and eventually published.(ibid)

In the preface to the Rights of Man we hear that powerful voice that would define an era as Paine realizes for the first time that Edmund Burke, his long time friend, has suddenly become an enemy of freedom and enlightenment: “when I saw the flagrant misrepresentations which Mr. Burke’s Pamphlet contains; and that while it is an outrageous abuse on the French Revolution, and the principles of Liberty, it is an imposition on the rest of the world”.2 He continues, saying:

When the French Revolution broke out, it certainly afforded to Mr. Burke an opportunity of doing some good, had he been disposed to it; instead of which, no sooner did he see the old prejudices wearing away, than he immediately began sowing the seeds of a new inveteracy, as if he were afraid that England and France would cease to be enemies. That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of Nations, is as shocking as it is true; but when those who are concerned in the government of a country, make it their study to sow discord, and cultivate prejudices between Nations, it becomes the more unpardonable.(435)

The battle between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine never ended with their death, it continues still with every new generation of Conservative and Progressive partisan. As Jonathan Israel tells it “what distinguishes Paine’s discourse from that of mainstream American revolutionary ideology is its appeal to universal values and total refusal to invoke English tradition, precedents, and history”.3 Israel continues relating that Paine was the foremost spokesman of the Radical Enlightenment, saying, “Paine spoke in terms of universal human rights, not the liberties of Englishmen, grounding these universal rights in the freedom carried over from the state of nature into the state of society, loudly echoing Spinoza and the French radical philosophes.”( ibid.) Against the Radical Enlightenment of Paine and those that affirmed his stance on atheism, etc. those like Robespierre, would counter:

Robespierre’s and the Jacobins’s most powerful and effective argument against the Radical Enlightenment was their constant complaint that the “modern philosophy” opposes “feeling,” and especially the sentiments of the ordinary person. Here, ironically, Robespierre’s Jacobinism closely converged with royalist Counter-Enlightenment ideology, both propagating the myth of the Enlightenment as a coldly clinical, unfeeling machine of rational ideas, brutalizing natural sentiment and destroying instead of furthering what is best in human life. This allegation was taken up internationally and became a stock theme of British attacks on the “modern philosophers” in the 1790s.(Kindle Locations 2978-2983).

This attack against the Radical Enlightenment based on “affective politics” is with us still. As Israel tells us Tom Paine, dubbed by Joel Barlow “a luminary of the age, and one of the greatest benefactors of mankind,”  emerged as one of the most successful publicists of his time, one who propagated the radical cause with unprecedented impact in Britain, America, and France and who resonated also in Ireland. A key exponent of radical thought, Paine broke with all the time-honored conventions of traditional British radical Whiggism, with his cosmopolitan universalism and reaching out to French philosophy effecting what one scholar has aptly called “a striking departure from the conventions of English political writing.”

As Thomas Jefferson and his political heirs controlled the American government for a great part of the nineteenth century, Paine’s reputation was ascendant in the immediate decades after his death. During that time many in the United States forgave and forgot The Age of Reason and Letter to Washington while remembering and celebrating Common Sense and Rights of Man. Paine birthday dinners were widely popular, with the 1830s including galas in New York, Albany, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Boston; New York’s 1834 celebration drew seven hundred. Like their English counterparts, American working-class organizations passed out copies of Rights of Man to new members, and many union leaders could recite by heart great swaths of Paine. His American stature reached a peak under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who said that Rights of Man would be “more enduring than all the piles of marble and granite that man can erect…. Thomas Paine needs no monument by hands; he has erected a monument in the hearts of all who love liberty.” (Craig Nelson, KL 5990)


1. Nelson, Craig (2007-09-04). Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (Kindle Locations 179-185). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition.
2. Paine, Thomas; Foner, Eric (2012-09-21). Thomas Paine: Collected Writings (Library of America) (p. 434). Library of America. Kindle Edition.
3. Israel, Jonathan (2011-08-11). Democratic Enlightenment:Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (p. 453). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

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