Tom Paine's Place in History

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Tom Paine's Place in History


He was the author of Common Sense (1776), the most influential pamphlet of the American Revolution, and of other stirring works, including an essay that famously began: "These are the times that try men's souls. He labored in behalf of liberty and the American Revolution "with as much effort as any man living," no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson recalled in 1801. And yet Thomas Paine (1737-1809) never won a place in the pantheon of America's Founding Fathers.

His religious views are often held to blame, but Wood, a historian at Brown University and author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), is skeptical. In The Age of Reason (1974), Paine attacked Christianity and orthodox religion, Wood notes, but he also set forth "his deistic belief in God the creator and harmonizer of the world." His deism was not very different from that of Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin. Yet no one would dream of calling them what Theodore Roosevelt called Paine: a "filthy little atheist."

Wood argues that the real source of Paine's poor standing was the character of the 18th-century social order. Like most of the Founding Fathers, he was not born a gentleman. But unlike them, he "was never quite able to shed his lowly origins as the son of a corset maker and the effects of all his years of living in poverty and obscurity, close to the bottom of English society. …

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