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Thomas Paine Responds to Samuel Adams’ Criticism of The Age of Reason

Thomas Paine first made a name for himself by publishing Common Sense. Unlike anything the American colonists had read before, Paine’s pamphlet was widely credited for creating a widespread desire within the colonies to separate from Great Britain. George Washington himself stated, “Common Sense, will not leave numbers at a loss to decide upon the Propriety of a Seperation [sic].”[1] Despite his integral role in the American Revolution, Thomas Paine has been woefully misunderstood. The positive reputation he built for himself during his early lifetime was essentially destroyed after he published part one of The Age of Reason, and Paine remained a rather taboo part of American history until somewhat recently. Published as a pamphlet in three separate parts, The Age of Reason contained Paine’s criticisms of religion and advocated for deism.[2] Although Paine was not trying to blatantly deny the existence of God, his criticism of organized religion was wrongfully interpreted by some as infidelity or even atheism.[3]

Debate about what motivated Thomas Paine to write The Age of Reason started the moment the first pamphlet was published, which is why this artifact in the Mercury Collection is so important to history. Written by Thomas Paine himself, this four-page manuscript may help clear up some of the confusion surrounding the now infamous Age of Reason. Dated January 1, 1803 these four pages are actually three separate writings collected as one. The front of the first page, titled “Fellow Citizens”, is a satirical piece which follows the characters “Prude” and “Fop”. While the story of Prude and Fop is interesting, the writing that begins on the next few pages is truly historic. In his own words, Paine explains his motivations for writing The Age of Reason in a letter meant for Samuel Adams. Beginning on the back of the first page is a transcription of the letter written by Adams to Paine, in which he initially criticized The Age of Reason. In his letter, Adams begins by lauding Common Sense and acknowledging Paine’s role in the American Revolution. However, Adams continues by expressing his disappointment with The Age of Reason and asking Paine why he is trying to “unchristianize” the masses. The next page of the manuscript is missing, and therefore the end of Adams’ critique and the beginning of Paine’s response are missing. The next page picks back up in the middle of Paine’s response to Adams, and the reader is entitled to a rare autobiographical explanation from Paine as to why he wrote The Age of Reason. From an excerpt of the letter in his own words, Paine writes:

            [4]“[those who fled] …from persecution. persecuted in their turn, and it is this confusion of creeds that has filled the world with persecution and deluged it with blood. even the depredation on your commerce by the barbary powers. it was a war of creed against creed boasting of god for its auther [sic] and reviling each other with the name of infidel. If I do not believe as you believe it proves that you do not believe as I believe, and this is all it proves.

            There is however one point of union wherein all religions meet, and that is in the first artical [sic] of every mans creed and of every nations creed that has any creed at all. I believe in god—those who rest here, and there are millions that do, cannot be rong [sic] as far as their creed goes. those who chose to go further may be rong [sic]. for it is impossible that all can be right since there is so much contradiction among them. the first, therefore, are in my opinion on the safest side.

            I presume you are so far acquainted with ecclesiastical history as to now, and the bishop who has answered me has been obliged to acknowledge the fact that the books that compose the N. testament were voted by yeas and nays to be the word of god (as you now vote a law) by the popish councils nice and laodicea, about 1450 years ago. with respect to the fact that there is no dispute, neither do I mention it for the Sake of controversy. this vote may appear authority enough to some and not authority enough to others. it is proper however that every body should know the fact.

            With Respect to the age of Reason, which you so much condemn, and that I believe without having read it, for you say only that you have heard of it, I will inform you of a circumstance because you cannot know it by other means.

            I have said in the first page of the part of the work that it had long been my intention to publish my thoughts upon religion, but that I reserved it to later time of life. I have now to inform you why I wrote it and published it at the time I did.

            In the first place I saw my life in continual danger. my friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off, and as I everyday expected the same fate, I resolved to begin my work. I appeared to my Self to be on my Death bed, for death was on every side of me, and I had no time to lose this accounts for my writing at the time I did, and so nicely did the time and the intention meet, that I had not finished the first part of the work more than six hours before I was arrested and taken to prison. Joel Barlow was with me and knows the fact.

            In the Second place the people of france were running headlong into atheism, and I had the work translated into their own language to stop them in that career. and fix them to the first article (as I have before said) of every mans creed, who has any creed at all. I believe in god. I endangered my own life, in the first place by opposing the convention in execution of the king, and labouring to shew the [sic] were trying the monarchy, and not the man, and that the crimes imputed to him were the crimes of the monarchial Sistem. And I endangered it a second time by opposing atheism. And yet some of your priests, for I do not believe that all are perverse—cry out, in the war whoop of the monarchial priest-craft what an infidel: what a wicked man is thomas paine: they might as well add for he believed in god and is against shedding blood.”[5]

Paine’s explanation of why he wrote The Age of Reason is a far cry from the hysterical analysis of his motives done by critics. Although Paine was not a traditional Christian, this letter proves he still believed in God and was therefore not an atheist. Not only does this letter set the historical record straight, but it also helps to humanize Thomas Paine. After finishing his rather serious response to Samuel Adams he includes the following riddle on the back of the last page, “What word is that which all man Loves, And by taking away the first letter most men loves, and by taking away the two first letter [shows] the character of a man that loves Neither?” Below the riddle is the word “GLASS”[6] in all capital letters. With respect to the mostly solemn way history is discussed, it is nice to have a reminder every once in a while that these people had senses of humor too.

 

Sources:

[1] “From George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Reed, 31 January 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0163.

[2] Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. D.M. Bennett. New York. 1877.

[3] Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. Oxford University Press. 2005. p. 256.

[4] The grammar and spelling in this transcript is exactly how it appears in the original letter.

[5] Paine, Thomas. Letter from Thomas Paine to Samuel Adams. January 1, 1803. Mercury Collection. p. 3-4.

[6] Paine, Thomas. Letter from Thomas Paine to Samuel Adams. January 1, 1803. Mercury Collection. p. 8.

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