Saturday, January 29, 2011

Missing: the Shoulders of One Giant

Today is Thomas Paine's birthday. The author of Common Sense, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, he is among those we call "the founding fathers." His writings largely fueled the fire of the American Revolution and inspired many of the bedrock principles of our constitution and bill of rights. John Adams reportedly said, "Without the pen of the author of 'Common Sense,' the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Why am I writing about him in my atheism blog? Because he is not only the patriot's hero, he's also the secular humanist's. Though he believed in God, he was a deist--one who believes in a divine creator who does not interfere in human affairs. His writings on the subject promote reason above revelation, and rail against intitutionalized religion and Christian doctrines. 

I'll be wearing this t-shirt today:

That image is kind of small; it says, "My country is the world. My religion is to do good."

By the end of his life, his views on religion had so ostracized him in the United States that only a handful of people attended his funeral. His obituary in the New York Citizen included the summary, "He lived long, did some good and much harm." Sheesh. 

Things get really hinky at this point. He wanted to be buried in a Quaker churchyard, but none would receive his body for burial so he was laid to rest under a tree on his farm. Ten years later, William Cobbett, who had written a slanderous biography of Paine but became his #1 fan after actually reading his works, exhumed the remains with the intention of giving him a proper burial in England, Paine's native land. 

What happened next? Let me quote Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: "[F]or no apparent reason, [Cobbett] kept the bones in a box in his house. His heirs failed to keep track of the remains, so they are lost to posterity--something that probably would not have struck the author of The Age of Reason as a catastrophe." 

But yeah, his bones are missing. 


  1. What a story! Have you read all his works Carol? Where to begin????

  2. No, I haven't read all his works. Freethinkers is a fantastic book and includes lots of context and many or most of the other revolutionary characters to keep the plot rolling along. It would be a perfect starting point.