Sunday, June 14, 2009

True friend of people, labourer for liberty

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Friend! So warm, so close. Yet, so taken for granted, so misused. More so, when we speak of "friend of the people". Today, we shall discuss the life and work of one such dear and old friend of ours, of all the peoples of our world, so old that he died on 8 June 1809, two centuries ago.

Yet he lives today – fresh and free. You will not find him in the pages of newspapers or flashed on TV screens. For, he is not a celebrity. His simple words slip off the tongues of the rabble-rousers and the mob, they throb in the hearts and agitate the minds of all common people, the ordinary folk who hold "freedom" dear. Even a hypocrite like Bush could not but invoke the magic word “freedom” to justify the US invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Who was this dear and old friend, who first coined the words, "The United States of America"? Who was this selfless labourer for liberty? Who was this man, that his book, Rights of Man (1792), was read by Mahatma Jyotiba Phule in Pune in 1847 and deeply influenced this champion of the dalits in India?

"The world is my country, to do good my religion"

In 1892, the centenary year of the publication of The Rights of Man, Robert Ingersoll wrote:

"If the people of the great Republic (USA) knew the life of this generous man, the real story of his services, his sufferings and his triumphs of what he did to compel the robed and crowned, the priests and kings, to give back to the people liberty, the jewel of the soul;

"If they knew that he was the first to write, “The Religion of Humanity”;

"If they knew that he, above all others, planted and watered the seeds of independence, of union, of nationality, in the hearts of our forefathers -- that his words were gladly repeated by the best and bravest in many lands;

"If they knew that he attempted, by the purest means, to attain the noblest and loftiest ends -- that he was original, sincere, intrepid, and that he could truthfully say: 'The world is my country, to do good my religion';

"If the people only knew all this -- the truth -- they would repeat the words of Andrew Jackson: 'Thomas Paine needs no monument made with hands; he has erected a monument in the hearts of all lovers of liberty."

I first read about Paine, while studying the history of the independence of the United States of America from colonial British rule. Here he wrote his classic Common Sense (1776). How come Tom Paine, an Englishman, had so much to do with the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence, I wondered?

With independence gained for American states, Paine went back to England, where his experience led him to write the Rights of Man (1791-92), in response to Edmund Burke’s fierce attack on the French Revolution. Paine was branded an outlaw in England for his anti-monarchist views. He would have been arrested but warned by the poet William Blake, he fled for France.

Soon this champion of liberty appeared in Paris pleading for mercy: that the life of the French King Louis XVI be spared: "I am not the personal enemy of kings. Quite the contrary. No man wishes more heartily than myself to see them all in the happy and honorable state of private individuals; but I am the avowed, open and intrepid enemy of what is called monarchy." This plea for mercy sent Paine to jail.

In this post, I have taken copious extracts and paraphrased from a brilliant piece by the American free-thinker Robert G. Ingersoll, published in 1892. (The Works of Ingersoll, New Dresden Edition). The Thomas Paine National Historical Association has an excellent website, with original writings by Thomas Paine.

Misunderstood and jailed by his French revolutionary friends, Paine wrote The Age of Reason (1794, 1796) in jail. "Paine clearly saw," according to Ingersoll, "that men could not be really free, or defend the freedom they had, unless they were free to think and speak. He felt that, being a man, he had the right to examine the creeds and the Scriptures for himself, and that, being an honest man, it was his duty and his privilege to tell his fellow-men the conclusions at which he arrived.

"Paine found that the creeds of all orthodox churches were absurd and cruel, and that the Bible was no better. Of course, he found that there were some good things in the creeds and in the Bible. These he defended, but the infamous, the inhuman, he attacked.

"In matters of religion he pursued the same course that he had in things political. He depended upon experience, and above all on reason. He refused to extinguish the light in his own soul. He was true to himself, and gave to others his honest thoughts. He did not seek wealth, or place, or fame. He sought the truth.

"Kings asserted that they derived their power, their right to govern, from God. To this assertion Paine replied with the Rights of Man. Priests pretended that they were the authorized agents of God. Paine replied with the Age of Reason.

"The Age of Reason affected the priests just as the Rights of Man affected nobles and kings. The kings answered the arguments of Paine with laws, the priests with lies. Kings appealed to force, priests to fraud. Paine contended for the rights of the individual, for the jurisdiction of the soul. Above all religions, Paine placed Reason; above all kings, Men; and above all men, Law."

For this frankness, he was reviled by the Christian churches and slandered in the USA, so much that when he returned, his reputation had been literally effaced. Across three nations, USA, England, France, Tom Paine fought for liberty. He took part in the writing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Rights.

‘The pen of Paine; the sword of Washington’

"In all he wrote, Paine was direct and natural," says Ingersoll. "He touched the very heart of the subject. He was not awed by names or titles, by place or power. He never lost his regard for truth, for principle -- never wavered in his allegiance to reason, to what he believed to be right. His arguments were so lucid, so unanswerable, his comparisons and analogies so apt, so unexpected, that they excited the passionate admiration of friends and the unquenchable hatred of enemies.

"So great were these appeals to patriotism, to the love of liberty, the pride of independence, the glory of success, that it was said by some of the best and greatest of that time that the American cause owed as much to the pen of Paine as to the sword of Washington."

The Thomas Paine Society organised Paine 200, where Greg Cleays and John Keane, two major historians and biographers of Thomas Paine, assessed his legacy on the 200th anniversary of his death. For a recording of the two speakers, click here. John Keane has also written a superb biography of Tom Paine, which is available online. Click here.


Alongside, my dear students, please have a look at the NYT links sent by my school-mate Vivek Pinto from Tokyo; in keeping with the tone of my blog. If you too wish to draw the attention of my readers to a particular story or article, please mail me the link and I shall upload it alongside my post.

I have taken Tom Paine this time, because the bi-centenary of his death provides us a useful peg to revive the work of a selfless human being, who laboured for liberty. But there is another more important reason. If you track the media carefully, you will find hardly any mention of this great man, even in the USA, for whose birth he was one of the great pioneers responsible.

My blog, Against the Tide, will highlight the lives and work of persons like Tom Paine; some living, others long gone. In future posts, at convenient times, I will take up:
- poets like Shelley, Byron, Pablo Neruda;
- essayists like William Hazlitt;
- scholars like Noam Chomsky;
- revolutionaries like Shahid Bhagat Singh, Che Guevara;
- historians like D.D. Kosambi, Howard Zinn;
- teachers like Paolo Friere, John Holt, Neill;
- people's scientists like J.B.S. Haldane, Meghnad Saha, J.D. Bernal;
- doctors like Patch Adams;
- journalists like John Pilger, Studs Terkel, Wilfred Burchett;
- musicians like Pete Seeger, Lennon and Dylan.
If you have any suggestions to add on this list, please let me know.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, India, Sunday, 14th June 2009.


Kathleen Callon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen Callon said...

I am an American, and I read this post due to subscribing to posts about William Blake.

I am glad you admire Thomas Paine. He is a hero here. I think you may have misunderstood how he was perceived. He was and is a hero in the USA, England, and France. He was a hero of the common man who enraged the governmental leaders who didn't want equality. (Here is a good website:

Our nation was formed by English colonists who believed English rule was tyrannical. Thomas Paine is one of our Founding Fathers, and we greatly admire him.

Thank you for your time.

Mark Wilensky said...

I'm a fifth-grade teacher in Colorado, U.S., and a crucial part of teaching American civics is providing students with our primary sources: the founding documents. This is critical in understanding what “We the People” really means. Today, as they did over 230 years ago, those documents instill in students the belief that all our voices are important. That is Paine's greatest contribution to our country. His pamphlet, Common Sense, spoke to all the voices in the 13 colonies during a time of great fear and indecision. He gave a vast number of citizens a vision of what each could do, 176 days before the Declaration of Independence. A belief that power should radiate from the citizens. That message is still paramount to all our students today. For that pamphlet alone, Paine is considered by those who are aware of him, an integral part of America's creation.

Mark Wilensky,
author of "The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine: An Interactive Adaptation for All Ages"

Manasi said...

Mr. Pinto,

I appreciate your thoughts on my blog and i am sorry i couldn't respond earlier as i was traveling. Your blog's header says a million words about what is going on in India's journalism/media landscape. I too had blogged about it a while back and i hope to hear your thoughts on it too..

अब्द said...

Dear Sir,
This is an enriching and enlightning post.
I need to read it one more time or I may have to read it two times more or probably three times.
Thank you.

Sushant Kulkarni said...

Hello Sir,
Thanks a lot for writing this thought-provoking post for us.

Joe Pinto said...

Kathleen Callon, Mark Wilensky - Thank you for caring to respond to my post and clarifying that people in USA still do care for the ideas of Tom Paine and that he is cherished.

Manasi - The situation is bad in India but, as you will see from the writings of Noam Chomsky, the US scene is far worse since the ownership of privately-controlled media is far tighter there.

Abd, Sushant - Besides a passing reference, it is not possible to dwell at length about liberators like Paine in my editing classes. Hence, the detailed piece here.

Warm regards,
- Joe.