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THE PHILOSOPHY OF THOMAS PAINE
Thomas Alva Edison
This essay was written by Edison in 1925
and appears in The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas
A. Edison, edited by Dadobert D. Runes, 1948, The
Philosophical Library, Inc.
Tom Paine has almost no influence on present day thinking in the
United States because he is unknown to the average citizen. Perhaps I
might say right here that this is a national loss and a deplorable
lack of understanding concerning the man who first proposed and first
wrote those impressive words, the United States of America.
But it is hardly strange. Paine's teachings have been debarred from
schools everywhere and his views of life misrepresented until his
memory is hidden in shadows, or he is looked upon as of unsound mind.
We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic. He was the
equal of Washington in making American liberty possible. Where
Washington performed Paine devised and wrote. The deeds of one in the
field were matched by the deeds of the other with his pen. Washington
himself appreciated Paine at his true worth. Franklin knew him for a
great patriot and clear thinker. He was a friend and confidant of
Jefferson, and the two must often have debated the academic and
practical phases of liberty.
I consider Paine our greatest political thinker. As we have not
advanced, and perhaps never shall advance, beyond the Declaration
and Constitution, so Paine has had no successors who extended
his principles. Although the present generation knows little of
Paine's writings, and although he has almost no influence upon
contemporary thought, Americans of the future will justly appraise his
work. I am certain of it. Truth is governed by natural laws and cannot
be denied. Paine spoke truth with a peculiarly clear and forceful
ring. Therefore time must balance the scales. The Declaration
and the Constitution expressed in form Paine's theory of
political rights. He worked in Philadelphia at the time that the first
document was written, and occupied a position of intimate contact with
the nation's leaders when they framed the Constitution.
Certainly we may believe that Washington had a considerable voice in
the Constitution. We know that Jefferson had much to do with
the document. Franklin also had a hand and probably was responsible in
even larger measure for the Declaration. But all of these men had
communed with Paine. Their views were intimately understood and
closely correlated. There is no doubt whatever that the two great
documents of American liberty reflect the philosophy of Paine.
We may look in other directions, where the trace is plainer, easier
definitely to establish, for evidences of his influence. Paine, you
know, came over to the Colonies after meeting Franklin in London. He
had encountered numerous misfortunes, and Franklin gave him letters to
friends back home, which resulted in his becoming editor of the Pennsylvania
Magazine in January of l775. It is highly interesting that
circumstance should have brought him to America at that time and
placed him in such a position. Paine had little education, in the
school sense of the term, but he had read avidly and written a great
deal before meeting Franklin. Once placed at the editor's desk of a
new American periodical, he found time and opportunity exactly suited
to his spirit and his genius.
The Pennsylvania Magazine began to bristle -- so much so that
its owner, and the cooler heads of Philadelphia, were worried by
Paine's writings. Looking back to those times we cannot, without much
reading, clearly gauge the sentiment of the Colonies. Perhaps the
larger number of responsible men still hoped for peace with England.
They did not even venture to express the matter that way. Few men,
indeed, had thought in terms of war.
Then Paine wrote Common Sense, an anonymous tract which
immediately stirred the fires of liberty. It flashed from hand to hand
throughout the Colonies. One copy reached the New York Assembly, in
session at Albany, and a night meeting was voted to answer this
unknown writer with his clarion call to liberty .The Assembly met, but
could find no suitable answer. Tom Paine had inscribed a document
which never has been answered adversely, and never can be, so long as
man esteems his priceless possession.
In Common Sense, Paine flared forth with a document so
powerful that the Revolution became inevitable. Washington recognized
the difference, and in his calm way said that matters never could be
the same again. It must be remembered that Common Sense
preceded the Declaration and affirmed the very principles that
went into the national doctrine of liberty. But that affirmation was
made with more vigor, more of the fire of the patriot and was exactly
suited to the hour. It is probable that we should have had the
Revolution without Tom Paine. Certainly it could not be forestalled,
once he had spoken.
I have always been interested in this man. My father had a set of Tom
Paine's books on the shelf at home. I must have opened the covers
about the time I was 13. And I can still remember the flash of
enlightenment which shone from his pages. It was a revelation, indeed,
to encounter his views on political and religious matters, so
different from the views of many people around us. Of course I did not
understand him very well, but his sincerity and ardor made an
impression upon me that nothing has ever served to lessen.
I have heard it said that Paine borrowed from Montesquieu and
Rousseau. Maybe he had read them both and learned something from each.
I do not know. But I doubt that Paine ever borrowed a line from any
man. Perhaps he gained strength from the fact that the springs of his
wisdom lay within himself, and he spoke so clearly because the man's
spirit yearned to reach other spirits. Many a person who could not
comprehend Rousseau, and would be puzzled by Montesquieu, could
understand Paine as an open book. He wrote with clarity, a sharpness
of outline and exactness of speech that even a schoolboy should be
able to grasp. There is nothing false, little that is subtle, and an
impressive lack of the negative in Paine. He literally cried to his
reader for a comprehending hour and then filled that hour with such
sagacious reasoning as we find surpassed nowhere else in American
letters -- seldom in any school of writing.
Paine would have been the last to look upon himself as a man of
letters. Liberty was the dear companion of his heart; truth in all
things his object. Yet he has left us such stirring lines as those of
The Crisis, where he says; These are the times that try
men's souls. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Even an
unappreciative posterity knows that line, but we, perhaps, remember
him best for his declaration; The world is my country; to do good
my religion. [sic, the phrase, from Rights of Man, is,
...my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.]
Again we see the spontaneous genius at work in Rights of Man,
and that genius busy at his favorite task -- liberty. Written
hurriedly and in the heat of controversy, Rights of Man yet
compares favorably with classical models, and in some places rises to
vaulting heights. Its appearance outmatched events attending Burke's
effort in his Reflections.
Instantly the English public caught hold of this new contribution. It
was more than a defense of liberty; it was a world declaration of what
Paine had declared before in the Colonies. His reasoning was so
cogent, his command of the subject so broad, that his legion of
enemies found it hard to answer him. Tom Paine is quite right,
said Pitt, the Prime Minister, but if I were to encourage his
views we should have a bloody revolution.
Here we see the progressive quality of Paine's genius at its best.
Rights of Man amplified and reasserted what already had been
said in Common Sense with now a greater force and the power of
a maturing mind. Just when Paine was at the height of his renown, an
indictment for treason confronted him. About the same time he was
elected a member of the Revolutionary Assembly and escaped to France.
So little did he know of the French tongue that addresses to his
constituents had to be translated by an interpreter. But he sat in the
assembly. Shrinking from the guillotine, he encountered Robespierre's
enmity , and presently found himself in prison, facing that dread
But his imprisonment was fertile. Already he had written the first
part of The Age of Reason and now turned his time to the
latter part. Presently his second escape cheated Robespierre of
vengeance, and in the course of events The Age of Reason
appeared. Instantly it became a source of contention which still
endures. Paine returned to the United States a little broken, and went
to live at his home in New Rochelle -- a public gift. Many of his old
companions in the struggle for liberty avoided him, and he was
publicly condemned by the unthinking.
Paine suffered then, as now he suffers not so much because of what he
wrote as from the misinterpretations of others. He has been called an
atheist, but atheist he was not. Paine believed in a supreme
intelligence, as representing the idea which other men often express
by the name of deity. His Bible was the open face of nature, the broad
skies, the green hills. He disbelieved the ancient myths and miracles
taught by established creeds. But the attacks on those creeds -- or on
persons devoted to them -- have served to darken his memory, casting a
shadow across the closing years of his life.
When Theodore Roosevelt termed Tom Paine a dirty little atheist he
surely spoke from lack of understanding. It was a stricture, an
inaccurate charge of the sort that has dimmed the greatness of this
eminent American. But the true measure of his stature will yet be
appreciated. The torch which he handed on will not be extinguished. If
Paine had ceased his writings with Rights of Man he would have
been hailed today as one of the two or three outstanding figures of
the Revolution. But The Age of Reason cost him glory at the
hands of his countrymen -- a greater loss to them than to Tom Paine.
I was always interested in Paine the inventor. He conceived and
designed the iron bridge and the hollow candle, the principle of the
modern central draught burner. The man had a sort of universal genius.
He was interested in a diversity of things; but his special creed, his
first thought, was liberty.
Traducers have said that he spent his last days drinking in
pothouses. They have pictured him as a wicked old man coming to a
sorry end. But I am persuaded that Paine must have looked with
magnanimity and sorrow on the attacks of his countrymen. That those
attacks have continued down to our day, with scarcely any abatement,
is an indication of how strong prejudice, when once aroused, may
become. It has been a custom in some quarters to hold up Paine as an
example of everything bad.
The memory of Tom Paine will outlive all this. No man who helped to
lay the foundations of our liberty -- who stepped forth as the
champion of so difficult a cause -- can be permanently obscured by
such attacks. Tom Paine should be read by his countrymen. I commend
his fame to their hands.