Thomas Paine was many things: author, radical, inventor, intellectual, and revolutionary; he is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
Paine was also no stranger to censorship, though- in his own time or the present day. He has been described as “a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination.”
He is best known for his writings supporting the American and French Revolutions, and was actually indicted for treason in England in 1792 for his work The Rights of Man, which defended the French Revolution against its most vocal critics, especially Edmund Burke, a British statesman. In the book, he contends that political revolution is acceptable when a government does not protect its people, their natural rights, or their national interests- an intellectual argument shared by Thomas Jefferson in some of his own writings. Paine was tried and convicted in absentia for the crime of seditious libel by Great Britain, and sentenced to death should he ever enter the country again. For years after its publication all copies of The Rights of Man were systematically and routinely seized and burned, as some 200,000 British managed to acquire copies. It was also banned in Tsarist Russia.
The Rights of Man continues to face challenges today for its “subversive” and “radical” ideas, and remains one of history’s most banned political narratives.
His 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, was considered so influential to the American revolutionary cause that it was reportedly said at the time that “without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Signed “Written by an Englishman,” it was published anonymously on January 10, 1776, and became in instant bestseller. In relation to the Colonial population of the time, it had the largest sales and circulation of any book in American history. It sold 120,000 copies in the first three months, 500,000 for the year, and went through 25 editions. Paine donated all of his royalties to Washington’s Continental Army, stating that to do otherwise would discredit the author and the cause.
You would think such a work would be a celebrated part of American history and discussed in classrooms across the nation, but the truth is it was removed from public school libraries in 1946, and the U.S. State Department banned Paine’s works from Information Service Libraries in 1953. The proponents of the State department were so vocal in their distaste for it that the American Library Association stated in The Freedom to Read that “the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.”
Perhaps his most infamous piece was the irreverent series of pamphlets, The Age of Reason, written in three parts between 1794-1807. While it was a bestseller in the United States, it was banned in the United Kingdom from 1795 to 1822; more than one English publisher was prosecuted for printing it. That’s not to say that it has always been highly regarded in America, though. President Theodore Roosevelt called Paine a “dirty little Atheist” in response to the collection of pamphlets; and John Adams was also very critical of the work for being too radical.
In The Age of Reason, Paine argued for Deism, and against Christianity and Atheism. Arguing against institutionalized religion and Christian dogma, it promoted reason and freethinking over allegiance to religious rule. Its early critics took issue with its common-man style of language, considering it “vulgar.” In fact, it was also a very inexpensive series of pamphlets, which aided in its rise to popularity in America. These factors took intellectual debate out of the hands of the elites and the aristocrats, and into the hands of everyday citizens.
Paine, like most of America’s Founding Fathers, was not Christian. Many of them, including James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, were Unitarians or Deists; they preferred scientific reason to the superstitions of religious canon.
According to the Old Bailey Sessions (1819), Richard Carlile was imprisoned for nine years, excessively fined, and eventually left bankrupt for publishing various editions of the book.
Today, because it disputes the legitimacy of the Bible, it is routinely challenged as “totalitarian,” and demands are made of schools to remove copies and that teachers censored from even mentioning the work in lesson plans.
It has long been a custom of governments around the world and throughout history to attempt to suppress ideas and thoughts advocating freethinking and debate on political policy. But in a truly democratic society all avenues of thought come with their own merits, pros, and cons. It is within the public debates of those topics that the spectrum of responders can meet in respectful dialogue to ponder what is in the best interest of the greater good.
After the events of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine spent most of his last years in France, where he continued to make both friends and enemies; but in 1802, at the invitation of President Jefferson, he returned to America. He died on June 8, 1809. Only six people attended his funeral.
Sources: University of Pennsylvania, Wikipedia, American Library Association
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions