Voltairine de Cleyre Archive
Source: Text from RevoltLib.com
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source: RevoltLib.com; 2021
To speak of Thomas Paine is to mention in one breath daring tempered by judgment, courage both mental and physical, foresight and prudence coupled with unstinted generosity, patience and endurance for the long race, constancy to the unwon ideal, that superior power over men, conferred by no extrinsic dictum, typified best perhaps by the lodestone, which always bursts forth in times of revolution from the unexpected place, the unbought and the unsought glory of the man who is a hero because a hero is required and does not measure his services nor reckon on their reward; not that he underrates himself; (it is as impossible as it is undesirable that a powerful personality should not know itself as such) but simply that in the moment of decisions the value of self is abandoned. So far as any or all of these qualities are concerned Thomas Paine is a name for them all, in their highest expression. And one feels in approaching him that there is something like treason in paying him any but a perfect tribute. Yet such is the position into which I am forced,—to say less than I should, less than I would had not words and the art of using them almost failed me.
I do not like lecturers who come before the public with apologies, nor do I propose to make any; I simply say this to let you know that I shall feel, perhaps more keenly than any of you, my failure to do Paine justice. For the half century that his history has been being unmined from the cellar of calumny and filth that the orthodox had cast upon it, unmined chiefly by small groups of freethinkers scattered here and there and spreading his words among men, like the little foxes with the firebrands going in among the corn, the principal endeavor has been to establish Paine’s reputation as a great reformer in religion. And such he undoubtedly was. Whoever reads his “Age of Reason” in anything but a spirit of predisposition against it, must feel this, however much he may disagree with Paine’s criticism, or consider that he has come short in his constructive philosophy. And it is meet, too, that the book that cost him most, both before and after death, should be the one selected for defense. Nevertheless the effect has been rather to lose sight of what appear to me greater thoughts and acts. For just as the orthodox have forgotten, so have many freethinkers forgotten, his immense labors in the field of active struggle against the domination of man by man. It is true that his mind did not transcend the mental vesture of the time, and it was all the better in one of his marvelous capacities for swinging masses of men that it did not. The lonely heralds of the opening dawn go upon their paths solitary; no matter how much they desire to draw others with them, they cannot. And had Paine been one of these that break through the forms of thought such as was Copernicus, or Kant, or Darwin, he would have been at constant war with himself. Half his nature would have chosen the lonely path; the other half, the zealot, the propagandist, would have cried out, they must go with me; I must do something to make them go with me. Now the secret of Paine’s success was that he was so thoroughly at one with himself, he believed so utterly what he preached, he had faith, he hoped, and so strongly that others were drawn to believe and to hope. For spite of all intellectual pride this is the man whom we love and admire; this is the man who overcomes us, who gets his way; this man consistent in himself, who has a remedy for the world’s wrongs and hopes everything from it!
From the point of vantage of 100 years’ experience it is seen that Paine’s political creed, like his religious one, will no longer fit. But that does not matter. Neither will ours fit in a hundred years, and none of us, no, not one, is great enough to foresee where the misfit will arise. It is not our business to bear the evils of the thrice unborn upon our necks; nor was it Paine’s to bear ours.
Yet while not claiming for him the prophetic gift, it is still true that he did see the moral patchwork in our constitution, the trouble of 1812 brewing, and the greater trouble of ’61-’65.
When he first came to this country he wrote a number of contributions to the Pennsylvania Magazine, in one of which he pleaded justice for the negro, basing his plea then as always upon the natural equality of man irrespective of color. Afterwards when the constitution was framed, he objected that nothing had been done for the negro, and in his letters to the American people, written after his imprisonment in France, in which the constitution was caustically reviewed, he cries out again for this yoked man not yet to be freed for more than half a hundred years,—foreseeing that nothing good can in the end come from slavery, that every evil must bring a compensating evil. The soldiers’ graves in the National cemeteries, the thousands of limping, haggard tatters and rags of white men attest how well Paine foresaw Time’s revenges.
In the letter to Washington, partially unjust as it is in view of the fact that Gouverneur Morris and not Washington was responsible for the failure to save Paine from prison in France, as we now know, thanks to Moncure Conway, but which Paine did not know,—in this letter, I say, will be found the most terrible arraignment of the constitution ever penned. We who are Anarchists are called traitors for much calmer talk. Yet here was the man “whose pen had done more for the revolution than Washington’s sword,” as his bitterest enemy declared; who believed heart and soul in the republic, who had given his money and his substance and taken the chances of his life in battle for it; the man whose devotion to America could not be gainsaid; this man declared that the American constitution was the mirror of the most vicious features of the British constitution, a fecund soil for monopolies with all their ills. It is we who experience those ills, we who know what a gigantic tool of oppression the constitution and the cumbersome machinery of the lawmaking power have become. Yet probably even we do not feel so keenly as he the fatal blunder; for while we know how it grinds us in our flesh and souls, rears its prisons and scaffolds for us, we have had the yoke about our necks always,—while he had once seen the country free. He had been through all the battle, had fought his fight and won his victory, only to see it lost through cowardice of thought. That was indeed bitter; and it is that bitter outcry against this sacrifice which marks Paine out among most of his time for influence on future history. The fact that he was the initiator of the direct movement for political independence in America, in the famous meeting where Adams, Franklin and Washington all shrank from uttering the thought heavy upon their souls, is a matter of past history. The fact that he was the one man in America to write the right thing at the right time, his voice the wind to sweep the scattering flames of insubordination and revolt into the conflagration of revolution; the fact that he proposed and headed with the whole contents of his purse the subscription to save the army when even Washington was in despair at the prospect of mutiny and desertion among the soldiers; the fact that he raised all the feeling possible against the fiction of divine rights and so got himself hunted out of England; the fact that he took the most active part possible in aiding the work of the French revolutionists, which he believed would be the beginning of the breakdown of monarchy throughout Europe and the building up either of one universal continental republic or a confederation of sister republics; the fact that he was the one man in the convention who dared to stand for the life of Louis the XVI, and thereby got himself suspected, thrown into prison, and condemned to death—all these facts are of import in reading the character of the man, and in comprehending the record of those days when they were making history fast. Yet none of these has so much influence upon the demands of to-day as the voice of discontent crying for eternal vigilance, which sounds through these almost unknown letters. These are the things which it will pay to reprint in the day when American liberty feels in its tomb the first stirrings of the resurrection. Did we like Paine believe in God, we might say “Pray God it may not be far away.”
Such are the characters whose historic influence is greatest; they who hew, and hew hard to the line laid down for them by the events of their time; yet are not blinded by the stir and roll of things; who see clearly where the deflection from the line is likely to occur, and where it will lead; who raise the warning treble that goes shrilling to the future, startling, waking with its eerie cry custom-dulled ears, and sodden souls, who start to ask, was it not a ghost of the Revolution? In that day which may not be so distant as we fear, Paine will be more alive than ever; he will be watching at a million firesides with the old keen, strong eyes.
While I have deprecated the fact that the religious reformer has been exalted to the neglect of the political one, I cannot omit that part of his life-work so well-known to all, yet never old. The “Age of Reason” has long been both exaggerated and despised as an iconoclastic work. But we are indebted to Conway, the greatest of Paine students, who out of the many biographies he has written has chosen that of Paine to be the master-piece of his life (and it is a work which any author might be proud to regard his master-piece), to him I say we are indebted for a different view of the “Age of Reason.”
I know not whether Mr. Conway’s own Unitarian bias may not have influenced him; it is possible. It is possible that his eager search for positivism may have unconsciously determined his attitude towards the great hero, and modified his interpretation of Paine’s words. I believe it has; because I believe that is inevitable. I believe we read our own ideals into other people, and must do so if we think at all. But making all allowance for the biographer’s prejudgment, Conway has still a magnificent argument for putting Paine in the defendant’s position. We are no longer to view the book as an attack upon religion but as its defense,—the defense of what is beneficial, permanent, necessary, in the religious element of human nature against the scribes and pharisees on the one hand and the philistines on the other. It was the plea for the redemption of the edifice from the dirt and cobwebs, the protest against smashing the stones to kill the spiders. The great prerequisite to the understanding of the “Age of Reason” is an acquaintance with the literature of that time—especially French literature. The pamphlets, periodicals, and books are the crystals wherein the Zeitgeist of the 18th century is preserved. Without this acquaintance we cannot realize how the people continually thought, and what was new and what was old, what was acceptable and what unacceptable to them. And we shall find by it that the fashion of sneering popularized by Voltaire, and so admirably embodied by the finesse of the French language (always a language of double meanings and hemi-demi-semi-shaded insinuations), the still more reprehensible habit of deducing immense generals from very scanty particulars, or in fact contriving the generals first and then fitting in or suavely waiving the particulars altogether, had so permeated not only French philosophy, but the heads of the common people as well, that religion had become almost a byword, a baseless superstition unaccounted for by, and unnecessary according to, the all-accepted theory of Natural Law. To defend it, to maintain that there was something else in it, was equivalent to pleading for the life of the King before the convention! That was to maintain that there were claims of the human—after the King had been stripped; this was to say that underneath the gewgaws and tinsel of religions the undying heart of man, the man of all the past, had been expressing its noblest aspirations. And Paine stripped off the tinsel and said, “Put your hand here,—it beats”; and because he tore the tinsel, the orthodox would have stoned him; and because he said “it beats,” the philosophers would have whetted the knife. And between the two he stood firm, proclaiming what he believed, not counting the cost. We may not believe as he; most of us do not. But that is the man we love: who has something in him superior to the judgments of men; who holds steadfast—steadfast even in persecution, even to death.
Perhaps there is no more pathetic thing than the last years, the death, and the burial of Paine. The world would have been poorer had he died sooner; but to him, to the man, the gun-shot or the guillotine had been kinder than the unhappy life rejected by the nation he had given all to free, shunned by political cowards and persecuted by religious bigots,—even on his death-bed. But though so lonely, so pathetically lonely, there is something that sends a fine, cold thrill along the nerves in that strange procession and burial—that poor procession, that procession of the Hicksite Quaker, the two negroes, the widowed Frenchwoman and her son. I wonder what sort of day it was; whether the sun shone or the clouds lowered over the solitary grave on the little farm, when Margaret Bonneville said to her child, “Stand you there at his feet, for France; and I will here, for America.” I do not know where the negroes and the Hicksite stood when that august corpse was lowered to the depths, but there, close, somewhere, stood the unfreed race, for whom he had vainly plead, and there, close, somewhere, the soul’s revolt at spiritual masters. And from that tomb there went away the scattering fires, of the risen ghost, the ’61 living Paine, the Grand Reality.