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Mr. Ulmschneider's Forums > AP Government: Madison, Paine, and Politics
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T-Paine: America's First Political Outlaw

posted Dec 14, 2012 05:06:08 by 天宇VasaClarke
Many factors contributed to Paine's unpopularity and obscurity. There was the matter of his social standing--not born into the gentry, not particularly wealthy, not urbane in manners, he was the epitome of a representative of the proletariat--in the words of an unnamed witness, "'the very picture of a journeyman tailor who has been drunk and playing at nine pins for the first three days of the week, and is returning to his work on Thursday'" (215). Something of an outsider, a recent arrival to America--in the words of Gouverneur Morris (who probably wins the award for "most embarrassing death"), nothing but a "'mere adventurer from ENGLAND'" (215). Using "simple, direct--some critics said coarse, barnyard--imagery drawn from the commonplace world" (220). He was excluded from the aristocracy, but that wouldn't have prevented a career as the mouthpiece of the working class. He even spent time in Revolutionary France.

Then he had to go and slam Christianity in his book The Age of Reason.

I mean, most of his revolutionary compatriots were just a wee bit irreligious, but going straight out and saying that "there is none more [bad] than this thing called Christianity" (221) was a really silly thing to do. Before, his enemies could only sit and grumble about his lower-class background and cantankerous nature, but now they've got ammunition that might actually stick in this particular time and place. Being called an atheist back then was pretty serious, and Paine ended up digging his own grave with that particular line. Basically, America's original maverick doomed himself through his anti-authoritarian nature. Sad, isn't it.
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4 replies
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BenS.McClure said Dec 14, 2012 14:27:58
Vasa, I think your point holds some validity, however, I don't think that his being labeled irreligious was one of the most significant contributing factor to his reputation dying off eventually. He was never the type of man to be compared to the likes of the founding fathers; he wasn't outspoken unless he was holding a pen and paper--these traits do not a leader make. I believe that it was his demeanor in general as a quieter, less abrupt, and less outspoken man that led to his critics leaving him out of the rankings of "founding father-dome." But I do agree with your argument for his social standing--he didn't have much of a base off of which to build his reputation. He certainly couldn't have had an easy time even getting to the semi-famous reputation he gained himself, regardless of how minuscule it is considered today.
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天宇VasaClarke said Dec 15, 2012 23:29:24
Thank you for your kind feedback! You raise good points, but I still think his public disregard for religion contributed to his decline. Even with his disadvantages, he could have easily been a popular demagogue and a voice of the people--perhaps not to be counted among the Founding Fathers, but perhaps as a folk hero. Outing himself as irreligious, however, destroyed a major section of his popular support--while members of America's intellectual elite personally may not have minded very much, having privately come to the same conclusions, America (and most of the Western world) was still a very religious society, and the people were no longer able to take him seriously. He became "damaged goods," driving off what few friends he had, and ended up dying cold and alone.
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Mr_Ulmschneider said Dec 18, 2012 03:16:07
Hmmm. While his irreligiousness might have been important, do you all think his association with the French Revolution might also have played an important role in his eventual exile from the circle of historical memory and, as you put it, 'founding father dom'?

Also, though Paine was never a political leader, it is worth noting that most elective offices at the time had property requirements -- Paine, for example, never had enough money in most of his life to have been allowed to serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
"An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second." (Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785)
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davidmclayton0 said Dec 18, 2012 13:29:30
Perhaps it was not irreligion in particular but a general radicalism that prevented him from becoming enshrined as a major American historical figure. For example, he traveled to France and openly supported the French Revolution, which was much too radical a stance for most of the founding fathers. Paine's unwillingness to hide his ideas and his outspoken nature overall contributed to his lack of modern-day acknowledgement.
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