On January 29, 1737, a son was born to Joseph Paine, a humble staymaker living in Thetford, England. A great soul had come into incarnation; one who in the coming years would help call the American nation into being and draft a Bill of Rights for the yet unborn French Republic; who would suffer ignominy and imprisonment, be denounced for a century, and finally rise triumphant as one of the emancipators of the human race. Such was the destiny of Thomas Paine, and today three great nations claim him as a distinguished citizen and refer with pride to his achievements.
From his earliest childhood Thomas Paine rebelled against man’s inhumanity to man, as he saw it demonstrated in the stocks, pillory and gallows which he passed every morning on his way to school. The first pamphlet he ever wrote was a plea to the British Parliament in behalf of the overworked and underpaid excisemen whose lot he shared. This compassionate spirit made his mind host to two classes of thoughts — those he produced in himself by reflection and the act of thinking, and “those that bolt into the mind of their own accord.” He called the latter his “voluntary visitors” and admitted that he was indebted to them for all the knowledge he had.
Were these thoughts injected into Paine’s mind by certain Adepts who were concerned with the awakening of freedom destined to take place in the last quarter of the eighteenth century? Knowing that a new order of ages was due to commence, they sought a mind through which the needed reaction in America might be produced, and found it in Thomas Paine. They presented these ideas to Paine in the form of a vision. As he described it:
I saw, or at least I thought I saw, a vast scene opening itself to the world in the affairs of America, and it appeared to me that unless the Americans changed the plan they were pursuing with respect to the government of England, and declared themselves independent, they would shut out the prospect that was then offering itself to mankind through their means.
This vision made such an impression upon Thomas Paine that he left England and came to America. This visit resulted in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the birth of the American nation.
Evidence that the founding of the American Republic was sponsored by Adepts is seen in the Great Seal of the United States. On the reverse side of this Seal is a pyramid with the capstone removed, its space occupied by a blazing eye set in a triangle. At the top of the Seal appear the words “The heavens approve,” while at the bottom is the prophetic sentence, “A new order of ages.”
Thomas Paine arrived in America on November 30, 1774. He went at once to Philadelphia, and shortly afterward became the editor of the Pennsylvania Journal. He found the country greatly upset by oppression and unrest. One of his first articles in the Journal was written in defense of the negro slaves, urging their emancipation. Had his warning been heeded, the Civil War would not have occurred. This was followed by a protest against cruelty to animals and by the first plea for women’s rights ever published in America.
In 1775 the American Colonies were still acting as separate units and with no thought of secession from Great Britain. George Washington was still a loyal British subject, faithful to the Crown. The earliest anticipation of the Declaration of Independence came from the hand of Thomas Paine. It consisted of an article called “A Serious Thought” printed in the Pennsylvania Journal of October 18, 1775, in which Paine condemned the “horrid cruelties exercised by Britain” and prophesied the ultimate secession of the Colonies. This article was the forerunner of Common Sense, which Paine published anonymously on January 10, 1776. Half a million copies were soon in the hands of the people, and edition after edition poured from the press. Paine refused to accept a penny from the sale of this book, thus depriving himself of quite a considerable fortune. Six months later, the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed. Many people are convinced that Paine himself wrote the Declaration, although the several drafts were in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson. But, as William Cobbett said, “Whoever wrote the Declaration, Thomas Paine was its author.”
The influence of those Adepts who sponsored the formation of the American Republic and guided the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is seen in the fact that dogmatic religion plays no part in either of these documents. In the Declaration, nature and nature’s god are specified, the natural rights of man (such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) are defended, the King is described as the head of a civilized rather than a “Christian” nation, and the appeal is made to the native justice and magnanimity of the British. In the Constitution of 1787 it is stated that no religious test shall be required as qualification for office, and the first Amendment to Article VI prohibits the establishment of religion or the restraint of its free exercise. It is wrong, therefore, to describe the United States as a “Christian” country.
In Common Sense Paine outlined his plan for a representative government of the people, for the people and by the people, thus originating the form known as the modern democratic republic. In his Rights of Man he declared that “the government of America, which is wholly on the system of representation, is the only real Republic in character and in practice that now exists.”
Believing that “those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it,” Paine at once volunteered for service in the patriot army, and shortly afterward wrote the first of his thirteen pamphlets on the American Crisis. This pamphlet, beginning with the famous words “These are times which try men’s souls,” was read to every regiment by Washington’s orders, and the courage it inspired in the soldiers resulted in their winning the Battle of Trenton.
In 1777 Paine was elected Secretary of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and two years later became Clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. At once an act for the abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania was introduced, which was adopted in the following year. In 1781 Paine went to France to obtain help for the Continental Congress. The King loaded him with favors, and sent him back with a quarter of a million livres in silver and a convoy ship laden with supplies. This timely help from France enabled the young nation to continue the campaign to victory.
After the war was over, Paine bought a little house in Bordentown, New Jersey, and turned his energies toward perfecting those inventions for which he afterward became famous. His most important invention was that of an iron bridge, the forerunner of our modern steel bridges. He also evolved the principle employed for the propulsion of the modern automobile and invented a smokeless candle which embodied the principle now known as the “central draught burner.” Paine was also one of the inventors of the steamboat, and Sir Richard Phillips, who assisted Robert Fulton in his experiments on the Thames, openly declared that Thomas Paine had the idea of applying steam to navigation before Robert Fulton, although the latter received all the credit. As the Count de St. Germain told his friend Franz Graeffer that he had to go to London in 1790, “to prepare two new inventions which you will have in the next century — trains and steamboats,” it is highly probable that it was he who gave Paine his ideas on the subject. Paine was in England most of that year, having returned to Europe in 1787.
In the spring of 1790 Paine visited Paris. He found the French people still rejoicing over the fall of the Bastille. Lafayette assured him that its overthrow was due entirely to the transfer of American principles to France, and presented him with the key to the old fortress. On the first of May Paine returned to London and sent the key to General Washington. It now rests in Washington’s old home at Mount Vernon.
In the autumn of 1790 Edmund Burke’s book in defense of monarchy appeared. Paine replied by writing the first part of his Rights of Man, which he dedicated to Washington. Early in 1791 he returned to Paris, where he founded the first republican club in France and wrote his famous Republican Manifesto. He returned to London in July and wrote the second part of his Rights of Man, which he dedicated to Lafayette. Three months later he was summoned to appear before the Court of the King’s Bench, and was denounced in the House of Commons for having “reviled what was most sacred in the Constitution, destroyed every principle of subordination, and established nothing in their room.” William Blake advised him to leave England at once. Twenty minutes after his boat left Dover an order appeared for his arrest.
Paine’s dearest hopes were now centered in the success of the French Revolution and the new Republic. He installed himself in the house at Number 63 Faubourg St. Denis, which had formerly been the home of Madame Pompadour, and where the Count de St. Germain had been a frequent visitor. There he gathered his little republican circle around him and discussed ways and means of helping the French people. In 1792 four different departments of France elected him a member of the French National Convention, and the National Assembly made him a citizen of the French Republic. A year later he began writing his last book, The Age of Reason. On the day the first volume was finished Paine was arrested as a foreigner and sent to the Luxembourg prison, where he languished for ten months. After his release he spent eighteen months with James Munroe, in whose home he finished the second part.
The Age of Reason, which probably has been more maligned and misrepresented than any other book of its kind, was written with the desire of divesting religion of its superstitions. Although Paine was brought up as a Quaker, he confessed that from the time he was capable of conceiving an idea and acting upon it, he “either doubted the Christian system or felt it to be a strange affair.” Paine’s idea of religion was one which would bind all men together in one great brotherhood. In 1797 he founded in Paris an ethical society which promulgated a “religion of humanity” forty years before Auguste Comte used the phrase. It was called the society of Theophilanthropists, meaning, as he explained in a letter, “God, Love, and Man.” He rendered the word, Lovers of God and Man, or Adorers of God and Friends of Man. Paine argued for the existence of God as a “Superior Cause,” affirming that the eternal motion of matter is not an inherent property of matter, but must be derived from a superior source. The Theophilanthropists regarded Nature as the only reliable “book” on Theology. At their meetings they sang humanitarian hymns and read from the ethical teachings of the Bible and from Chinese, Hindu, and Greek authors. For a time the movement prospered, the members gathering in parish churches assigned to them by the Directory, but this privilege was withdrawn by Napoleon as a concession to Pius VII, and the Society lost its strength.
Paine knew that Christianity was not a new or unique religion, and declared that if Jesus had intended to found a new religion he would have written the system himself. He was willing to admit that Jesus might have been an actual character, although he had found no historical corroboration of the fact. When he compared the conflicting accounts of the genealogy of Jesus by Matthew and Luke, their discrepancies convinced him that this genealogy, instead of being a solemn truth, “is not even a reasonable lie.” If these two Apostles started the history of Jesus with a palpable falsehood, “what authority is there for believing the strange things they tell us afterwards?” As for the four Gospels, he was convinced that they were not written by the persons to whom they are ascribed, as not even the names of their authors were known at the time the New Testament was assembled.
Thomas Paine was also a deep student of astronomy. When he considered the immensity of space and the vast number of worlds and solar systems encompassed therein, he failed to understand how “the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent upon His protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman had eaten one apple.” Although he was unable to accept the Jewish or Christian concept of God, he still called himself a Deist. But the God he worshipped was the “First Cause eternally existing, of a nature totally different to any material existence we know of, and by the power of which all things exist.” As Space is beginningless and endless, could God be less than Space? As Time is beginningless and endless, could God be less than Time? The Christian faith, in which God is presented as a limited Being, seemed to him to be a “species of Atheism — a sort of religious denial of God.”
Thomas Paine believed that this Universe is governed by immutable Law. A miracle, therefore, was inconceivable. “Unless we know the whole extent of nature’s laws,” he argued, “we are not able to judge whether anything that may appear miraculous to us be within, or contrary to her natural power of acting.” Hence the “miraculous birth” of Jesus appeared to him as an “obscene humbug,” and he decried the sort of faith built upon such a premise.
Thomas Paine’s own faith was centered in the belief of a First Cause eternally existing and of a Universe governed by Law, while his religion was summarized in his famous sentence: My country is the world, and my religion is to do good. As his religion transcended the formal professions of any cult or sect, he refused to accept the creed of any Church. “My mind is my church,” he said, “and churches are but human inventions, set up to enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit.”
The expression of such thoughts as these caused Thomas Paine to be called an infidel. Christian writers have claimed that he died a drunkard, that on his death-bed he confessed his error in attacking religious dogma, but these lies have long since been disproved. A splendid vindication of Paine as a temperate man to the day of his death, and as one who maintained his philosophic convictions to the last, is to be found in the works of Robert G. Ingersoll. Paine maintained that infidelity “does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving.” It consists in professing to believe what one does not actually believe. Paine showed from history the record of the Christian Church and boldly asserted that “however unwilling the partisans of the Christian system may be to believe or acknowledge it, it is nevertheless true that the age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system. There was more knowledge in the world before that period than for many centuries afterward.”
Thomas Paine returned to America in 1802, and for the next seven years he lived in poverty and isolation. The great and fearless soul of Thomas Paine went to its own place on June 8, 1809, the year that Abraham Lincoln was born.
The founding of the American Republic, which obviously formed part of the work of the Theosophical Movement, was an attempt to prepare a place where thought might be free from dogmatic religious prejudice and bigotry. From the moment of its conception, the United States has had a leading role in the great drama of human evolution. Washington and Paine were the creators of this Republic, Abraham Lincoln its preserver. Americans of the present and coming generation will be either its regenerators or its destroyers.
The “moment of choice” for this country will, from all indications, end in 1975. Between now and then the American people must decide whether their country will go forward or backward. In her Five Messages to the American Theosophists H.P.B. told us that our Karma as a nation had brought Theosophy home to us. In the Fourth Message, written just before her death, she gave us the method by which this country might be saved.
Be Theosophists, work for Theosophy! Theosophy first and Theosophy last; for its practical realization alone can save the Western world from that selfish and unbrotherly feeling that now divides race from race, one nation from the other; and from that hatred of class and social considerations that are the curse and disgrace of so-called Christian peoples. Theosophy alone can save it from sinking entirely into that mere luxurious materialism in which it will decay and putrefy as civilizations have done. In your hands, brothers, is placed in trust the welfare of the coming century; and great as is the trust, so great also is the responsibility.