Wednesday, October 22, 2008

2009, Tom Paine's Remains and Darwin

Prompted by Carl Zimmer's recent posting on Paine and Washington's experiment with marsh gas, I have finally gotten around to dealing with a topic on my mind for quite a while....

As a Darwin fan, I named my first two children Charles and Emma. And so a friend groaned when he heard that I called my second son Thomas--he presumed after Thomas Huxley.

But he presumed wrong! In fact, Tom was after my other hero (besides Darwin), Thomas Paine

Paine was a remarkable character. Born in Thetford, Norfolk, he played a role in both the American and French revolutions. Paine can be said to be the father of the United States of America, not only in naming the country, but in stirring up the revolution with his pamphlet Common Sense. But crucially, he went beyond just trading British national identity for an American one--he recast the colonies' disagreement with the British government and crown as an argument about the very nature of government and society. Not just, should we not have this king, but no one should have any kings anywhere!

Not content with stirring things up in America, Paine a few years later became an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, for which he gained honorary French citizenship. His book supporting the French Revolutionaries, the Rights of Man got him into trouble with the British authorities, so he hot-footed it over to France. But then he fell out of favour with the ruling faction and missed execution only by chance (a mark indicating that he should be guillotined was placed on the wrong side of a door). However, the fear of death brought out arguably his best work, The Age of Reason, which I am currently reading on my iPhone (is just chance that two works by Paine and two by Darwin feature along the few dozen ebooks available as iPhone apps--I sense a freethinkers' conspiracy at work!).

Paine is not remembered only for his remarkable biography, but also because of the remarkable clarity of his prose, which over two centuries on remains a model of plain truth plainly spoken. A read through Common Sense reveals not only a persistent outrageous rudeness towards the British Crown and monarchy in general but a series of memorable one-liners:
  • "...a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT"
  • "Time makes more converts than reason."
  • "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind."
  • "Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness"
  • "How impious is the title of sacred majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling into dust!"
  • "One of the strongest NATURAL proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION."
  • "The present state of America is truly alarming to every man who is capable of reflexion."
  • "When my country, into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir. It was time for every man to stir."
  • [of a monarchist] "one, who hath, not only given up the proper dignity of a man, but sunk himself beneath the rank of animals, and contemptibly crawls through the world like a worm."
The Rights of Man is similarly laced with plain-speaking vitriol against the British establishment, generalising the anti-monarchist argument against the entire hereditary aristocracy. But I am particularly fond of the up-lifting finale, predicting the spread of freedom across the world, which would make fine reading for any joint Darwin-Lincoln bicentenary celebration next year:
"It is now towards the middle of February. Were I to take a turn into the country, the trees would present a leafless, wintery appearance. As people are apt to pluck twigs as they walk along, I perhaps might do the same, and by chance might observe, that a single bud on that twig had begun to swell. I should reason very unnaturally, or rather not reason at all, to suppose this was the only bud in England which had this appearance. Instead of deciding thus, I should instantly conclude, that the same appearance was beginning, or about to begin, every where; and though the vegetable sleep will continue longer on some trees and plants than on others, and though some of them may not blossom for two or three years, all will be in leaf in the summer, except those which are rotten. What pace the political summer may keep with the natural, no human foresight can determine. It is, however, not difficult to perceive that the spring is begun."
But with The Age of Reason Paine scandalized not just the British establishment, but most Americans too. Over 200 years before Dawkins and his God Delusion, Paine laid out the common-sense arguments against Christianity, although Paine retained a belief in a noble creator-deity. As in the previous two works, here Paine often pulls no punches nor makes any effort at politeness towards those he is attacking:
  • "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."
  • "Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel."
But perhaps more destructive is his gently mocking tone:
"The Christian mythologists tell us that Christ died for the sins of the world, and that he came on Purpose to die. Would it not then have been the same if he had died of a fever or of the small pox, of old age, or of anything else?"
or the utter common sense of his arguments--here for example on whether Christ could have died for our sins:
"If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thingitself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge."
or his Carl-Sagan-esque rejoicing in the immensity of the universe and scorn at the parochialism of Christianity:
"Since, then, no part of our earth is left unoccupied, why is it to be supposed that the immensity of space is a naked void, lying in eternal waste? There is room for millions of worlds as large or larger than ours, and each of them millions of miles apart from each other."
"Those fixed stars continue always at the same distance from each other, and always in the same place, as the Sun does in the center of our system. The probability, therefore, is that each of those fixed stars is also a Sun, round which another system of worlds or planets, though too remote for us to discover, performs its revolutions, as our system of worlds does round our central Sun. By this easy progression of ideas, the immensity of space will appear to us to be filled with systems of worlds; and that no part of space lies at waste, any more than any part of our globe of earth and water is left unoccupied..."

"From whence then could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world, because, they say, one man and one woman had eaten an apple! And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer? In this case, the person who is irreverently called the Son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death, with scarcely a momentary interval of life."
It is hard to imagine the effect if all Americans were made to study all of Paine's work in school, including the Age of Reason! But I guess that would be disallowed under the First Amendment

And I digress...

What has all this to do with Darwin?, I hear you ask. Well, I discovered the answer in a book entitled The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins. 

As Collins points out, the publication of Paine's Age of Reason in America turned him from national hero to villain very quickly. He died in June 1809 (his life thus overlapping with Charles Darwin's by just a few months) and as the ever-eloquent Ingersoll (another American hero who all Americans should read) puts it:
Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred -- his virtues denounced as vices -- his services forgotten -- his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death. Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend -- the friend of the whole world -- with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came -- Death, almost his only friend.

At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead -- on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head -- and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude -- constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.
No minister of religion would allow Paine to be buried on consecrated ground and so he was interred on his own farmland in upstate New York, neglected hero of the American Revolution... 

But then Tom Paine's remains took on a strange afterlife, when an English radical William Cobbett adopted Paine as an English hero and in 1819 dug up his bones and returned them to England, in the hope of building a fittingly grand tomb for them. Instead, they mouldered away in a trunk in Cobbett's attic and then became separated from one another, with the skull and a right hand going their own way...

And, guess where, in Paine's vast universe of millions of worlds, they ended up...? the Kent village of Downe, in a house called Tro[w]mer Lodge, owned by Charles Darwin's daughter Elizabeth and situated a few hundred yards from the more famous Down House. As Collins recounts, Paine's skull was for a few years in the mid-19th Century in the possession of a country parson, Reverend Robert Ainslie, who rented Trowmer Lodge from Elizabeth Darwin. The skull is no longer there, but the building is.

Of course, none of this counts as anything other than coincidence. I can find no evidence that Darwin ever read Paine (although the Darwin Correspondence project shows two of his correspondents did: Joseph Hooker and Matthew Patrick), let alone knew that Paine's skull was just up the road as he wrote The Descent of Man. But, just as Stephen Jay Gould used to delight in the happy coincidence that two of his heroes, Darwin and Lincoln, were born on the very same day, I relish this slightly ghoulish connection between two of my heroes! 

So, next year in the midst of all the celebrations of Darwin200, of the joint bicentenary of Darwin's and Lincoln's births, spare a thought for Thomas Paine, citizen of the world and father of the USA and do something to commemorate this great man on the bicentennary of his death, June 8th 2009. And American readers, as you elect a new president, spare a thought for us poor Brits, who two hundred years after Paine's death, still have to live under the yoke of the British crown and the weight of an established church!

For details of UK Paine200 celebrations, see

1 comment:

Perfectly Candide said...

"It is hard to imagine the effect if all Americans were made to study all of Paine's work in school, including the Age of Reason! "

Reading Paine would not be a First Amendment violation if it was not an attempt to shape the student's religion.

But there is a practical reason why student's won't read "all" of Paine. The guy wrote far, far too much for that. The Life and Works of Thomas Paine is a ten-volume set.

Here is a writing of Paine that you probably have never heard of but had rather large consequence for the United States.