"My country is the World. My Religion is to do Good."


Deists:
Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Thomas Paine

Oracles of Reason and the Age of Reason

Vernon Turner


[April 2005]



This paper was presented at the Thomas Paine Day commemoration on 29 January, 2005 in Amherst MA.

Vernon Turner resides in Amherst MA. If you wish to contact him about this paper, or to request permission to reprint, his email address is < vern.turner@verizon.net >

Editor's Note: Part 1 of The Age of Reason was completed by November 1793, before Paine's imprisonment in the Luxembourg. He entrusted the manuscript to Joel Barlow just before the arrest. Paine worked on Part 2 during his nearly 11 months in prison.



I'm going to start with a few lines written by Ethan Allen, Vermont's legendary hero:

Though none, by searching, can find out God, or the Almighty, to perfection, yet I am persuaded that if mankind would dare to exercise their reason as freely on those divine topics as they do in the common concerns of life, they would, in a great measure, rid themselves of their blindness and superstition, make better members of society, and acquire many powerful incentives to the practice of morality, which is the last and greatest perfection that human nature is capable of.

Doesn't that remind you of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason? Well, not quite. Paine would have said it better. That sentence is taken from Ethan Allen's radical book entitled Reason, The Only Oracle of Man (later referred to as Oracles of Reason). It was published in November 1785, nine years before Thomas Paine first published his book entitled The Age of Reason.

These two books, although written by men of quite different backgrounds, are similar in many ways. They are the only two books written in 18th century America which attempt to discredit the bible and all organized religions which rely on "revealed" writings for their beliefs about God, then replace that deity with one derived from reason and observation of the natural world. The two authors received similar treatment for their efforts by religious authorities and much of the general public -- abuse and humiliation for daring to say what their reasoning powers told them was the truth.

I would like to tell you a bit about Ethan Allen's Oracles of Reason and introduce a little-known American patriot named Thomas Young who, although not given credit, played an important role in the writing of that book.

These two men were born and grew up in towns near the northwest corner of Connecticut. Young was about 25, six years older than Allen, when they first met. Young was reasonably well educated and was a practicing physician; Allen had very little education but had an eagerness to learn and the two spent many hours together discussing a variety of subjects, including their mutual dislike for the Calvinistic religion they had been brought up to believe in. They decided to put their ideas about religion and philosophy on paper and together accumulated an extensive collection of notes and the makings of a manuscript which they hoped someday to publish.

Eventually, both men left the area but their paths crossed from time to time. Thomas Young kept the collection of notes in his possession. He continued his medical practice in the area until, in 1764 at age 33, he started moving around the colonies. Now with a family, he moved to Albany for a couple of years, then to Boston where he became quite well known, both as a physician and more importantly, as a Revolutionary political activist.

In Boston, Young worked closely with patriots there who are now better known, such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock. He often spoke, wrote for the press, organized rallies and led demonstrations. He was a participant in the Boston Tea Party without benefit of an Indian disguise. Because of this exposure, Young was singled out for punishment by the British military and in 1774, after being beaten and nearly killed by British officers, he fled the city with his family to Newport, Rhode Island. But his reputation followed him and after another close call there a few months later, he moved to Philadelphia.

Young was a participant in much that was going on in Pennsylvania in 1775 and 1776. He quickly built up a medical practice to support his family, and became friends with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush. He had a hand in instituting the famous Pennsylvania constitution which he later recommended as a model to the independent republic of New Connecticut through his old friend Ethan Allen, and suggested that it be re-named Vermont. The Pennsylvania constitution was adopted by the State of Vermont with only a few modifications.

Thomas Young died the next year, June 24th 1777, of putrid fever (probably typhoid) which he contracted while assigned to a military hospital. He was 46. Had he lived a fuller life span he would probably have ranked as one of the more famous of the Founding Fathers. As it happened, not one biography has been written about him. The closest to a biography that I have found was a 1970 journal article written by David Freeman Hawke, who also wrote a 500 page biography of Thomas Paine. It is entitled: Thomas Young -- Eternal Fisher in Troubled Waters -- Notes for a Biography.

Here is a quote from that article:

Dr. Young is unquestionably the most unwritten about man of distinction of the American Revolution. He might be called America's first professional revolutionist, a man who did as much as any individual not only to bring about the Revolution but in the process attempt to make it a real revolution, not just a war for independence. In four colonies (New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania) .... he prodded the citizens steadily toward revolt.

You probably are already familiar with the life and adventures of Ethan Allen, an early Vermont pioneer and land speculator, leader of the Green Mountain Boys, hero of the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, and for three years a prisoner of the British, most of the time on a prison ship. He was released in May of 1778 and after that "retired," if you can call it that, to a farm in Burlington, Vermont where he continued to work on the behalf of Vermont and its quest for statehood.

Thomas Young had died while Allen was a prisoner and Young left a widow with six children and little to live on. Sometime later Ethan paid a call on her and while there he found that she still had the notes and manuscript that Young had been keeping. He took them back to Vermont and returned to his task of putting his views and those of Thomas Young into print. Because of its nature, he had trouble getting it published, but finally succeeded in November of 1785. For reasons we do not know, he gave no credit to Thomas Young. Allen's biographers have mostly decided that it was pure vanity, of which Ethan certainly had his share, but I think there is another good explanation. He well knew that he would be castigated by the clergy and much of the public for what the book contained, and I can believe he did not want that to fall on Young's wife and children. It is conceivable that he had an agreement with her to that effect.

About 1500 copies were printed, but a fire at the printers, started by lightning, destroyed all but about 40 copies, leading many to believe that it was divine intervention.

That's all I'm going to say about the writing of Oracles of Reason. The next question in my mind is -- did Thomas Paine have access to a copy, and if so, did it make a contribution to his writing of The Age of Reason ? Soon after the publishing, Allen sent a letter to a man named St. John de Crevecoeur in which he said, "After many difficulties and procrastinations last fall, I published my theology, entitled Oracles of Reason and have sent a number of the books to sundry Capital places, and parts of America. One of the volumes I herewith transmit .... I desire that Mr. St. John would lay the Oracles of Reason before the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris".

St. John de Crevecoeur was a French aristocrat who came to North America as an officer to fight the British, traveled extensively in the colonies and then settled in New York on his own farm near the Vermont border. While there, he became a friend of Ethan Allen. Crevecoeur wrote a famous book called Letters of an American Farmer, published in 1782 in London, which was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. He returned to France permanently in 1790.

I mention Crevecoeur because he had close connections with many of Thomas Paine's associates in Paris during the period when Paine was writing his book The Age of Reason. As an example, Crevecoeur greatly assisted James Monroe when he came to Paris as Minister in the summer of 1794. He helped him find a residence and acted as his interpreter. Monroe soon managed to get Paine out of prison and then took him into his home to recuperate. Crevecoeur lived with his daughter, who was a very close friend of James Monroe's wife. Crevecoeur's son-in-law was imprisoned at the Luxembourg prison just two days before Paine's release. There is also a record that Crevecoeur sent food and clothing to a man named Thomas at the prison when Paine was there. These close relationships in Paris makes it very likely that Thomas Paine was well acquainted with Crevecoeur during the period that Paine wrote The Age of Reason and thus was likely introduced to Oracles of Reason at that time, if not before.

The final question is: Did Oracles of Reason have any influence on the writing of The Age of Reason ? This would take another, longer paper to cover. A number of scholars have written on the subject. I'll quote briefly from one of them, who did not think there was any influence. Dana Doten wrote in a New England Quarterly article entitled "Ethan Allen's Philosophy" :

It seems to me that the distinctions between Allen and Paine prove their mutual aspects to be due to common inspiration, and the common background of that early 18th century epidemic of Scriptural criticism, which was the Deistical School: it seems to me that their qualities of resemblance arise from these circumstances, rather than any direct influence felt by Paine. The tone of Paine is fundamentally different from that of Allen. Generally speaking it may be said that Allen is always seeking to support his philosophy by common sense, whereas Paine gives the impression of backing up his common sense with philosophy.

My own opinion is that if Paine actually did read Allen's book, common sense says that it must have contributed something, however large or small, to Thomas Paine's great book.

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