What I’m reading and writing, July 2-4

• Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but to my mind the best examplar of the truly independent ideal is his friend Thomas Paine, who experienced both the extremes of praise and condemnation from the American public for consistently using his own mind over the course of his amazing life.

The author of “Common Sense” and “The Rights of Man” later moved to France, supported the French Revolution and was nearly sent to the guillotine. After returning to America, he was reviled by religious zealots for writing “The Age of Reason,” which contained plenty of incendiary assertions in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, such as this:

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Jefferson, his fellow Deist, showed Paine some common decency in the aftermath, but he paid a steep personal price for his fierce independence of mind.

All of the usual patriotic doings on July 4 miss completely the meaning of independence. Amid the shifting populist passions of a young American nation, Paine never wavered from the intellectual spirit that led to the creation of the United States. It wasn’t just his brief against organized religion that signifies this, but it is the most dramatic example of the freedom of mind that he fought for his whole life.

(Glenn Beck’s egregious portrayal and summoning of Paine is bereft of this, or any, nuance. His Paine doesn’t evolve beyond 1776.)

In 1892, the freethinking giant Robert Ingersoll summarized Paine’s legacy and I haven’t found any tribute better than this:

“Paine had been guilty of thinking for himself and giving his conclusions to the world without having asked the consent of a priest — just as he had published his political opinions without leave of the king. He had published his thoughts on religion and had appealed to reason — to the light in every mind, to the humanity, the pity, the goodness which he believed to be in every heart. He denied the right of kings to make laws and of priests to make creeds. He insisted that the people should make laws, and that every human being should think for himself. While some believed in the freedom of religion, he believed in the religion of freedom.

“If Paine had been a hypocrite, if he had concealed his opinions, if he had defended slavery with quotations from the ’sacred Scriptures’ — if he had cared nothing for the liberties of men in other lands — if he had said that the state could not live without the church — if he had sought for place instead of truth, he would have won wealth and power, and his brow would have been crowned with the laurel of fame.

“He made what the pious call the ‘mistake’ of being true to himself — of living with an unstained soul. He had lived and labored for the people. The people were untrue to him. They returned evil for good, hatred for benefits received, and yet this great chivalric soul remembered their ignorance and loved them with all his heart, and fought their oppressors with all his strength.”

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