Meanwhile, the Revolution continued to march in the same direction into which the weight of its first errors had necessarily dragged it. After the National Guard has demanded and obtained by menaces from the Assembly its consent to the death of twenty-nine of its own members, Robespierre requires a law to be passed “against foreigners.”
Paine employed whatever prestige was left him in saving some of these foreigners. He spent the whole summer of 1793 in retirement; he lodged in an old abandoned residence of Madame de Pompadour. However, certain persons soon began to recall the fact that Paine himself was not to the manor born; he came from somewhere else. His origin, name, language, all proclaimed the foreigner. Then, he was the friend of the Girondists, and the dregs of the Parisian populace were convinced that the Girondists had plotted against the national unity, because they hated Paris.
The month of October, 1793, was one long crisis. A decree of the Convention enacted on the third that the Girondists, “as agents of the English faction,” should be tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. In his report, the Conventionnel Amar denounced Thomas Paine as equally guilty—that very Thomas Paine whom England had, notwithstanding, proscribed. “He had,” said Amar, “dishonored himself during the trial of Capet by supporting Brissot and daring to talk about the dissatisfaction of the United States of America.” But Robespierre, having caught the Girondists in his net, was contented, and scorned to support an accusation against the author of the “Rights of Man” for the present. However, on the tenth of October, it was decreed that all Englishmen should be arrested; several young republicans from across the Channel fled stealthily, first to Paine, then beyond the frontier. Now, on the very day upon which the decree was issued, Paine, on his side, was writing to Jefferson, advising the United States to take the initiative in convoking a congress of peace at The Hague, the object of which should be to guarantee freedom of commerce and to reconcile hostile nations: it was the sole chance of saving the rights of man—with innocent internationalism on one side, venomous nationalism on the other, and both of them manifesting themselves simultaneously. You see how far apart the gulf had grown between Paine and the Revolution.
However, he sees that Brissot and his other friends have been cut off from the land of the living. The benches around him in the Convention were empty, and the Terrorists soon returned to the charge against Paine himself. Bourdon de l’Oise denounced him in the Convention on the twenty-sixth of December. The accusation, as might naturally have been expected, was based on his “connivance with the foreigners,” and this “connivance” was wrapped up in deep mystery. “I know,” said Bourdon, “that he has been intriguing with an ex-agent of the Foreign Office.” That was all ; the accusation was of the vaguest, and therefore, the more impossible to meet. When Paine became aware of it, he was somewhat taken aback by the strange methods of discussion adopted by his « Nationalist » opponents. “I should have wished,” he said, in his honest simplicity, “that Bourdon de l’Oise had taken the trouble to make himself better acquainted with the facts, before rising to speak against me.” Barrère defended the thesis upon which Bourdon had founded his charge. “It is necessary that the French people should understand how injurious to its interests is the decree that allows foreigners to form a part of the national representation.” Robespierre was silent, but the Assembly divined his wishes. It showed its docility by decreeing that “no foreigner could be permitted to represent the French people.” So Thomas Paine and the Prussian humanitarian, Anacharsis Clootz, found themselves excluded from the Assembly.
Two days afterwards, the Committee of General Safety ordered them both to be arrested. Paine had passed the night with a few American friends, and, in the morning, was awakened by a commissary of police and some of the National Guards. A perquisition was made in his domicile in his presence, and he was then conducted to the prison of the Luxembourg, where he remained for more than eleven months, escaping the guillotine by a miracle.
At all events, this tedious incarceration was a benefit to him in one respect: he was not caught up in the deluge of tyranny that followed. He was really freer in a dungeon than he would have been outside, for he was, at least, sheltered from informers. And then, during the spring of 1794, France had to submit to a regime that was, in every respect, directly opposed to his doctrine of the equality of rights and of a real republic: there was not a single liberty for which he had struggled that was not flouted and crushed.
Yet, for all that, in the midst of all the terrible forces that had been let loose, Thomas Paine was quietly philosophizing in his prison. He was arranging methodically his ideas upon religion. It was not solely in order to distract his mind from dwelling on external events that he was doing so; he was too much of a journalist to allow his thoughts to loosen their hold on the actual; and, in fact, the question of religious belief was as actual at this period as anything well could be. As a result of the maxims of the Terror, fetichism began to have a new and flourishing life. The origin of all the deadly errors of the time lay in a certain confused theology which went back many centuries behind the Declaration of Rights, and which was, in all respects, the downright contradiction of every principle embodied in that document. For the universal, humanitarian, rational God to whom Voltaire said: “Thou hast not given us hearts to hate or hands to butcher one another ; grant that all men may hold in horror the tyranny that would constrain the soul!” was gradually substituted an ancient, tribal God, jealous and murderous.
He was not known as God, but as La Patrie (the Fatherland), and sometimes even as Liberty, officially as Reason, or rather as the Supreme Being. But, by whatever name He might be styled, He was actually a god like the Yavah of Deborah and Gideon, and His devotees, the “patriots,” felt themselves bound by an inexorable rule, a rule obeyed without examination, to use the saber and the knife of the guillotine against “incivism,” I was almost going to say, against the “uncircumcized.” All the servants of this deity had to swear to love certain objects and to hate certain other objects. The wives, children and relatives of the accused were all involved in the same destruction; sepulchers were violated; war was waged against stones, for men spoke in the Convention the language that is found on a Moabite or Assyrian stela, talked of razing rebellious cities, like Toulon and Lyons, to the ground, and of abolishing their very names, so as to kill them even in the memory of men. And this new religion has a whole liturgy of rites—those rites that have always characterized holy wars, or the wars of “the pure with the impure”—before God was conceived as one and universal.
The time had arrived, therefore, for the grand idea of the Eighteenth Century, Humanity, to be resuscitated, if the new aberration was to be successfully confronted.
And this is just what Paine endeavored to do in his “Age of Reason.” A government emancipated from tyranny—and that was the sole form of government he favored—could be maintained only among a people that had arrived at the “age of reason”; that is to say, at the age of free thought. The man who does not flatter himself that he possesses definite truth, but who modestly seeks to see clearer, and who has learned the habit of self-criticism, is alone preserved from wishing to tyrannize over consciences; he alone has the republican spirit. But Robespierre and his acolytes, being disciples of Rousseau, proved that they were incapable of thinking freely. Did they even know what sort of a thing free thought was? In their natural religion, they dogmatized, they excommunicated, just as the Pope did in his literal religion.
Paine had observed this phenomenon, he had noted that the intolerant spirit of ecclesiastical persecution had been transported into politics, and that the Revolutionary Tribunal had taken the place of the Inquisition. No one would have expected that the Profession de foi du Vicaire Savoyard would have given birth to such servitude. Thomas Paine has the same beliefs as the Vicaire Savoyard, but his method is very different. He is not like the village priest, an “Orpheus singing primal hymns”; he is an utilitarian who consults experience. Instead of setting forth as primary truths his own inner illuminations, he finds the marks of the truth of a religion in the proofs it is able to show of its capacity for insuring the general happiness of mankind. A religion which stimulates men to hate and slaughter one another cannot help being false. The true divine is the human.
True religion, then, does not consist in pure good will, which simply renders the individual himself blameless, but in carefully planned and efficacious beneficence. It is the imitation of God as Creator and Father, as Reason and Love. Far from this true religion having been revealed to us by the agency of a primitive instinct and afterwards again discovered in the recesses of our souls “in the silence of prejudices,” it is a recent acquisition of experience, valuable in proportion to the high price paid for it, and in proportion to its salutary consequences. It is necessary to preserve this acquisition and to increase it still further.
Thus the conscience of the modern man is really a product of history; but its authority is not the less sure on that account; the very reverse is the case, for as it is the authority of an authentic experiment prosecuted from age to age, this modern conscience has the right to sit in judgment on the religious conceptions of the past; in the Bible, it makes selections; it retains all that is conformable to reason and promotes fraternity; it rejects all the irrational marvels, all the “Christian mythology,” and it particularly thrusts aside the barbarous commandments given by the national Jewish God to His people. The exclusivism of the synagogue is certainly detestable, and it is necessary to deprive it of the prestige it has gained by a pretended conformity to the will of God. The philanthropist Jesus did his best, because of his natural goodness, to free his contemporaries from this notion; but he was the victim of the kindliness of his heart, a victim well worthy of pity and still an object of veneration.
Such is a summary of the ideas of Paine on religion; they are, in my opinion, much nearer to those of Voltaire than to those of Rousseau; but they differ from Voltaire in tone and accent, and are far more popular, serious and tender.
None of the pamphlets of Paine won him more enemies than this little book of rational theology. He touched the English reader on his sensitive point, his reverence for the “Holy Scriptures.” From that moment, the malignant hatred of the pious met him at every turn and blackened his character with indefatigable zeal.
Yet, it had never been his intention to wound the feelings of anybody; all his purpose was to render testimony to the truth as he saw it. He had written the “Age of Reason” with profound conviction: it was to be his last will and testament. He completed it in prison, in daily expectation of death, which everything predicted to be inevitable. From the cells next his own, he saw the departure, in tumbril after tumbril, of Hérault de Séchelles, Clootz, Camille Desmoulins, Danton, etc., all gagged by their judges, as had been the Girondists. In a single night, 168 prisoners were dragged from the Luxembourg, and of these 160 were guillotined the next day. What chance had Paine, then, of surviving them? Doubtless he was an American citizen; but Gouverneur Morris, the official representative of the United States, had abandoned him. Some of his fellow-citizens settled in France addressed, indeed, a petition to the Convention (January 27, 1794) praying for his liberation; but at that very moment, Vadier, one of the accusers of the man they were trying to save, was president of the Assembly; Vadier, instead of answering yes or no, buried the protest under a heap of meaningless phrases. Paine was, therefore, to all appearances, lost. He was undisturbed, devoting all his care to the preservation of his papers and the composition of a farewell dedication to his fellow-citizens of North America.
The circumstance which saved his life was quite fortuitous: it was simply the negligence of his jailers. The door of his cell was open and thrown back against the wall of the corridor on the night when a keeper went round to chalk on it the death sign for the following morning. In a fit of absent-mindedness he wrote the name of Paine on the inside of the door. The commissary who, before daybreak, passed along the corridor, ordering the condemned prisoners to come out of their cells, saw nothing on one particular door, and went on. Then came the ninth Thermidor, the downfall of the Terror and the general jail delivery.
Yes, delivery for the other captives; Paine, who had been forgotten by the executioners, was now forgotten by the liberators. He wrote to the Convention on the nineteenth Thermidor, reminding it that he was still in existence and demanding his release; the communication never reached the Legislature, so he continued to crouch in that Luxembourg cell of his the whole autumn; he was very ill, exhausted by the bad air and the bad food, and suffering from an abscess in the hip which was rapidly undermining his health. Fortunately for him, his friend Monroe had replaced his personal enemy, Morris, as United States Minister. Monroe at once interfered, and Paine was restored to freedom. The author of the “Age of Reason” was, then, again among the living. The decree excluding him from the Convention being annulled, he again took his seat in it on the eighth of December, like the pallid ghost of the days, already far distant, when the republic had been inaugurated with shouts and hurrahs. Of the nine members of the Constitutional Committee only two were left: Sieyes, who owed his safety to his pliancy, and Paine, who never bent to anything or anybody.
After the Terror had been once banished, it was the terror of the Terror that governed. The pendulum had swung backward. Just as in 1792, all imaginable measures were adopted to prevent the slightest possibility of the revival of royal despotism and of the past, so, two years later, all energies were devoted to the task of rendering the existence of a new Robespierre forever impossible and of killing forever the recent past, more hated than that of old. The longing for security, after months of chaotic confusion, is likely to reach a degree of savage exasperation in the bosom of the honest bourgeois.
So Thomas Paine, who preserved his normal serenity, found that he had to pass once more from the right to the left. A while ago, an “aristocrat” in the eyes of the Terrorists, he is now a democrat from the standpoint of the Thermidorians. But it was not because he really oscillated. It was his opinion that principles which could be influenced by circumstances had no genuine foundation in the heart. He pardoned everybody. Why not? None of the people had done him wrong. The experience he had under gone had not in the slightest degree shaken his confidence in the people. It was not, he believed, the people that had imprisoned and persecuted him, but a faction that had usurped the popular power. The people is, and not the less on that account, the legitimate sovereign, the only sovereign that has the right to establish a government by the election of representatives, who are delegated, not to issue decrees suggested by passing whims, but to enact general and durable laws.
If the Constitution had been obeyed, these acts of arbitrary power which now revolted everyone would have been rendered impossible. What constitution? That of Condorcet or that of Herault? It did not make any difference, provided that it was a written, printed constitution, containing a certain number of articles, a constitution which each citizen could carry in his pocket. Despotism arises only when people place themselves at the mercy of events. The evil is that the republic has no stable defensive organization, that liberty is not regulated. This thesis was developed with great force by Paine in his dissertations on the “First Principles of Government,” published in July, 1795, just when the Constitution of the Year III was the subject of deliberation. It was a liberal constitution enough, but it was never popular. It was a prudent return to the vote by qualification, to the regime of the middle classes.
Because the poor have brandished their pikes during the past riotous days, the poor are to be deprived of the right of voting. A strange but yet natural mode of reasoning! Boissy expounds it in explicit terms: “We ought to be governed by the best. The best are the best educated and those most interested in the maintenance of the laws. Now, with very few exceptions, you will find such persons only amongst those who possess property. A country governed by men of property is in the social order.” It was, in all its nakedness, the society of classes against which Paine had always protested. He could not permit such a theory to be advanced without raising his voice against it. Although enfeebled by sickness, he forced himself to come to the Convention (seventh of July, 1795). He remained standing in the tribune while the secretary read a translation of his discourse. After apologizing for his long, involuntary absence, he affirmed the constancy of his republicanism, and recalled the initial meaning of the French Revolution as indicated by the Declaration of Rights.
Now, the proposed constitution was completely out of harmony with the latter; by withdrawing universal suffrage from the people, it showed that it was not truly republican. To introduce political right as an attribute of property was to strike with inertia a system of government whose very essence was life and movement. Important words these, but they were not listened to. Paine seemed not to understand the situation. The Constitution was a confiteor that the Convention knew itself to be unpopular, that it was about to disappear, and that its only chance of returning to power was to conciliate the respectable classes. The speech of Paine was heard with deference, but found no echo; the French translation was not even published.
It was the last time that the champion of the Republic was to intervene in the affairs of France. The Convention was dissolved on the twenty-sixth of October, 1795, and Thomas Paine became a private citizen.
He continued to vegetate in Paris under the Directory, surrounded by a few faithful disciples and forgotten by the public. Yet he still tried to contribute, for the sake of a distant future, to the progress of republican morals and republican religion, the want of which had just made the Revolution a failure. He had a French translation published of the “Age of Reason,” the book in which the modern conscience first dared, without indirection and without sarcasm, to set itself up as the judge of Christian traditions, and laid the basis of a purified religion, reduced to the only beliefs which appeared necessary as a foundation of fraternity among men. […]
Naturally he was one of the first adherents, if he was not the instigator, of Theophilanthropy. […] But he did not remain long with the Theophilanthropists. The latter, fearing to wound the sympathies of anyone, avoided stating categorically what they did not believe. This reticence by no means suited the taste of Thomas Paine, who was always frank and outspoken.
Nevertheless the followers of this religion were gaining some footing, and eighteen churches were abandoned to them. They even installed themselves in Notre Dame for a time. Then came the Concordat, and the Theophilanthropists, with other non-conformists, had to vanish into obscurity.
When the priests returned openly and the peals of the bells again rang out in triumph, the temper of Thomas Paine was not at all in tune with the change. In his passing freak of ill-humor, he even wrote to Camille Jordan, who was in favor of toleration, a letter of protest. The kind of worship that commended itself to Paine was of the silent, meditative order: no bells or organs or trumpets for him! No manifestations that are likely to arouse hostility, either. Have not recent experiences taught us to distrust whatever tends to overexcite the sensitive element in man’s nature? The influence which is gained over him by such methods is neither legitimate nor prudent: he is led like a somnambulist, it may be to misery, it may be to crime. He must be liberated from such a yoke; every religion which has any end in view except the happiness of humanity is a public peril, etc.
But apparently the First Consul had not the least intention of liberating his fellow-citizens.
Paine had at first believed in Bonaparte. The latter, on his return from Italy, had caressed and cajoled him with the skill of which he alone had the secret. What if this Bonaparte was predestined to destroy all antiquated despotisms? Perhaps even William Pitt would find his match in him! For it was just the moment when rumors were abroad that the conqueror of Italy was meditating a descent on England. At this news the old English radical fairly quivered with hope: why should a general of the French Revolution land in Britain if not to emancipate the English people, and at last bring to them that long-desired republic which could alone procure peace?
The abandonment of this fine plan for the liberation of England and the departure of Bonaparte for Egypt cruelly deceived Thomas Paine. But if the departure of the First Consul was a disappointment, how much more so was his return! After the eighteenth Brumaire, France no longer offered any field of activity to a counselor of the people, for the people no longer influenced events. They were politely dispensed from the trouble of watching over their own interests. And, should any of them exhibit a tendency to meddle with public affairs notwithstanding, he encountered a diligent police and a determined censorship that quickly brought him to his senses. “The love of order,” has become, according to the formula of Fouchè, “the first of public virtues.” Woe to the man who shows himself devoid of it! And so Nicholas de Bonneville, Paine’s host and good friend, is locked up in prison and his journal, Le Bien Informé, is suspended, because he has compared Bonaparte to Cromwell. The Terror has apparently come to life again, not more cruel, but chronic, regular, and with every chance of surviving.
It was the rebound of the rock of Sisyphus. This time Thomas Paine gave it up. All his dreams had been vanquished, and he was beginning to feel the weight of his advanced years—he was near seventy. So he wanted rest, wanted a holiday, the society of dumb nature. A longing to till the land, to live on his farm at New Rochelle, took hold of him, and he bade a last farewell to the feverish agitations of unhappy Europe.
He embarked at Havre on the first of September, 1802, and, on the thirtieth of October, after an absence of fifteen years, years filled with strife and trouble, he again saw the shores of America.
Paul Desjardins – Thomas Paine: father of republics
(in Life and Writings of Thomas Paine, 1908)