THEOSOPHY, Vol. 11, No. 4, February, 1923
(Pages 154-159; Size: 17K)
(Number 1 of a 29-part series)

GREAT THEOSOPHISTS

THERE are lives that Theosophists and all others would do well to study for many reasons, not the least of which is that mankind may learn to do justice to its benefactors. If, as the MASTERS of theosophical teaching and example affirm, "ingratitude is a crime in Occultism," then no true Theosophist but should do his utmost to "vindicate calumniated but glorious reputations," if he would not be accessory to one of the basest of crimes -- a crime with which history's pages are filled; worse still, a crime that history constantly commits. Perhaps one of the greatest barriers to that help which all need and which MASTERS long to afford, is the almost universal prevalence of the ingratitude which suffers the name and fame of those Great Souls who have labored in our midst to lie buried under obloquies, with few, indeed, to "do them reverence," or to defend the purity of their mission.

The great unthinking -- rather, misinformed -- mass still relies upon the knowledge and the good faith of its "authorities," accepting as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, whatever it finds in its books of instruction -- histories, encyclopedias, biographies. Thus every pioneer, every heroic figure in certain departments of human affairs, is invariably misrepresented and distorted, where not positively calumniated; not only during his lifetime, but for long centuries after. Mankind suffers inconceivably from this lamentable fact; for who will pay attention to the testimony of a discredited career? Thus one of the greatest of duties rests continuously upon all those who would serve the cause of Humanity; the duty to uphold the reputations of those calumniated philanthropists, that the World may not, through the heedlessness of the many, the calculated sophistries of the few, lose the priceless benefactions that should be the incorporeal hereditaments of succeeding generations. We purpose, then, from time to time, to write of some of those whom mankind has been led by subtle arts and specious half-truths to ignore, deride, despise, in order that justice may be done, ingratitude in some part diminished, and the whole armor of loyalty be put on by all who believe that there is no religion higher than Truth.

THOMAS PAINE

Who was Thomas Paine? Sectarian Christian writers have held him anathema for more than a century. Scarce a pulpit in the land but has resounded again and again to denunciations of him as an "infidel," an atheist, as immoral, as dishonest, as a drunkard -- this during four generations of the "men of God." He is mentioned in the same terms in sectarian and secular publications which cater to the established vestments. Catholic literature (and some Protestant) with true Jesuitical craft recites that he "repented" on his death-bed, confessed his sins, asked that prayers might be offered up for his "forgiveness." Secular history says that he was the son of a Quaker; that his school education ceased at 13; that he was twice employed and twice dismissed from Government employ, the last time because he was preparing to flee the country to escape his debts. True, profane writers admit certain great events in his career, but always coupled with minimizing comments, so that the shining of this human sun is obscured by the fogs thrown up by interested commentators.

Who was Thomas Paine? Let us put those great events before us, and in the light of their significance, judge for ourselves. After being dismissed in disgrace for planning to dodge his creditors -- as they say -- the fact is that Thomas Paine came to America bearing warm letters of introduction to nearly every prominent patriot in the Colonies. This was in 1774, when Paine was in his 37th year. All those letters were written by Benjamin Franklin, then in London, who had met Paine and was greatly impressed with him. The unthinking do not reflect that Franklin was not to be accounted a fool, and that Franklin's opinion and confidence form a curious contrast to what "history" would have us believe was Paine's character and career up to that time.

The warmest of old Ben's letters was addressed to his own son-in-law, Richard Bache, of Philadelphia, who introduced Paine to Robert Aitkin, proprietor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. Robert Aitkin had perspicacity enough to make Paine editor of his magazine. Remember that at that time Philadelphia was the metropolis of the Colonies, and the Magazine its most important periodical. Thus this disgraced and disgraceful "Tom" Paine -- as "history," secular and sectarian, would have us believe -- was at once at the very axis and center of the gigantic turmoil of the period just preceding the American Revolution. Less than two years after this discredited Columbus of the new world of the Republic of Conscience made his voyage, he issued to the beleaguered and bewildered Colonists his pamphlet, Common Sense. This was on January 9, 1776. So powerfully did it impregnate the minds and hearts of the people that it, more than any and all other factors, produced the Declaration of Independence. For this we have the word of Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Franklin, and many others.

But the glow of enthusiasm which made all things seem possible, and fired the Continentals to dare and do, speedily waned before the succession of defeats brought about by the trained power of British troops, the subtle disintegration by Tory plots and counter-plots, the chaos and confusion, the ambitions and greeds among the Rebels themselves. Even the great Washington was in despair. He besought Paine to once more essay with the pen what the sword had failed to accomplish -- to energise and sustain the weakened will of the country. In December, 1776, then, Paine spoke on paper's silent rostrum the immortal opening words of The Crisis -- "These are the times that try men's souls." From that hour the War was won -- the sword but followed out the furrows traced by Paine.

Paine was made Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Continental Congress. Who has read in small part the story of the sordid cabals and intrigues constantly casting the country's hopes into the smoldering fire of failure -- he knows what Paine must have seen and heard and pondered over in the weary depths of his great heart. He dared to tell the public things the public had fell need to know, despite the "ethics" of his situation. Once more he was discredited and disgraced before that very people he had served. On went the War with its tumultuous waves of rare triumphs and its terrible deep troughs of defeat and despair; at each hollow point, where all seemed engulfed, another of the Crisis pamphlets would appear; this throughout seven fateful years. At each emptied moment, Paine filled once more the cup of courage. Thus disgraced Paine gave grace to all and spelled the final triumph out of the broken letters of defeat.

Although history holds him out to scorn for betraying to the public official secrets, it has, nevertheless, to report that within a year the Pennsylvania Legislature made him its Clerk. A year later he went to France as secretary for John Laurens on a mission to obtain money for the hard-pressed Continental Congress which had so recently repudiated him. As much to Paine's influence as Laurens', to say the least, the mission was successful and the French King sent them home "with 2,500,000 Livres in silver and in convoy a ship laden with clothes and military stores." When one recalls Hamilton's urgent letter to Washington, praying for shoes to cover the bleeding feet of his men, just prior to the march against Cornwallis, the importance of this mission to France can be sensed. It can be sensed still more -- and Paine's surpassing value of "Common Sense" (the pseudonym he used in writing the Crisis series) to the cause -- when the student pries out the fact that in February, 1782, Washington officially asked the Continental Congress to give Paine a trifle of financial succor. The grudging Congress granted him $800 "on condition that he should use his pen in support of the Country." Oh, how that Congress' little big men must have inwardly groaned thus to have to inscribe indelibly a circuitous recantation! Implicit in this record is the fact of Paine's great poverty. He who had time to serve a Nation's needs, had no time to serve his own. The War won, the State of Pennsylvania granted him by Act of the Legislature, 500 pounds; New York State presented him with a farm of 277 acres at New Rochelle, and the Continental Congress -- Act of Reparation second -- a year later, in 1785, gave him $3,000. Paine, for the moment freed from penury, turned busily to other service and perfected an iron bridge to replace the structures of wood and stone hitherto almost solely used. In 1787 he left these shores, going first to France and then to England. In Paris and in London his bridge model was exhibited, exciting the wonder of the crowds and the admiration of engineers.

The fire of liberty which in America has been a light to the world, broke out in France into a conflagration. Liberty became license, and the bloody excesses frightened the world, even the well-wishers of human progress, who could not see in the fury of the mob the Karma of long centuries of Bourbonism, nor the new birth in the midst of the agonies of death. Burke, the mighty man of England, wrote his Reflections Upon the Revolution in France -- whereat the reactionaries of the world, the fatteners upon the theory that Government exists for the sake of the Governors, set up a vast acclaim. Paine, by now the fêted and petted of the party of Burke and Fox, straightway wrote The Rights of Man in reply -- a work that served in Europe as Common Sense and the Crisis had leavened the lump in America. Damned once more in England for the unpardonable sin of breach of partisan "ethics," Paine was pursued by the long arm of the English government itself -- at that time prime exponent of reaction. His book was suppressed, all possible copies confiscated and burnt, its circulation made a crime, and sentence of outlawry passed upon Paine. But the book circulated more furiously by stealth than ever it could by official permission. This was at the end of 1792. The situation could not be better stated than by a remark put by Lady Stanhope into the mouth of no less a person than Pitt. "Pitt used to say," she averred, "that Tom Paine was quite in the right, but then he would add, 'What am I to do? As things are, if I were to encourage Tom Paine's opinions we should have a bloody revolution'."

The sentence of outlawry was but an impotent curse, for Paine, his work done in Britain, had gone to France. France, for all her intoxication with the new wine of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," -- France knew a true Apostle of Liberty, and -- "republic" though she was -- gave him a more than Royal welcome. The National Assembly declared him a Citizen of the Republic; some number of Departments elected him forthwith as their Deputy to the Convention. Paine accepted the election as the representative of the Pas-de-Calais department and sat in the Assembly. He knew no word of French, but, when he spoke, the Deputies listened with attentive respect to his translated speech. True, as ever, to the sweet path of true Freedom he voted and spoke against the execution of the King. When the Girondists fell, Paine was expelled from the Assembly, once more declared a foreigner, and arrested for treason.

On the way to prison he left with Joel Barlow, American ambassador and his firm friend, the manuscript of the first part of the Age of Reason, which he had written during those thrilling days. He went to prison December 28, 1793, and there he was kept for ten months, each day expecting to see himself called forth to enter the tumbril that should transport him to the embrace of dame Guillotine. During this incarceration he wrote the second part of the Age of Reason. The tipsy government changing from one to another party, Paine was at last set free, restored to citizenship and to his seat in the Convention, where he sat until 1795.

"History" recites that Paine published an "attack" on Washington during this period. Over against that, to whose honor you will, set the other fact that Washington himself said and wrote, "Under God, the American people owe their liberty to Thomas Paine more than to any other man." Few picture the circumstances under which Paine's "attack" on Washington was written. The Republic of France, beset by a Continent in arms, England, recent slave-owner of the American Colonies, in the fore of the encircling host of the enemies of French liberty, Paine longed for the aid from America that France had given the struggling Colonists. Washington, stern patriot, was determined to keep the infant American Republic free from the dangers and the costs of the European struggle. The situation paralleled the conditions existent from 1914 to 1917 when Roosevelt would have had America do her part in the Great War for world liberty and Wilson was determined to keep us "out of war." Washington's view prevailed in 1795 as Wilson's in these latter days. Few reason out that had Thomas Paine's ardent world-patriotism prevailed over the national patriotism of Washington, we had been spared the "War of 1812," and the West have been spared the Great War of 1914. Who was right -- Roosevelt or Wilson, Washington or Paine?

Paine returned to the United States once more in 1802, in his 65th year. His attack on Washington had cost him many friends of eminence; his Age of Reason had cost him the enmity of countless thousands who had before spoken his name with pride. The ensuing years were seven lean years of isolation, of loneliness, of poverty, of ill health. The starved and aged frame collapsed in 1809, and Thomas Paine was "dead." William Cobbett of English fame, in 1819 exhumed the poor pitiful bones and carried them back to the country of their birth. In 1839 the citizens of New Rochelle erected a tardy monument to his memory as their sole claim upon the hall of fame.

Who was Thomas Paine? Let Theosophists ponder the theme. It has been written by one who ought to know that the Adepts Themselves were behind the American Revolution, and some of Their representatives were visible actors in that mighty drama. Shall we weigh and adjudge Thomas Paine by what his enemies have said of him? By what his friends have recorded? By his works and wisdom? By his own profession of faith -- a profession to whose searching depths his whole life bears faithful witness? This was his profession of faith:

THE WORLD IS MY COUNTRY; TO DO GOOD IS MY RELIGION.

Read the record of Thomas Paine in the light of that profession -- and receive the illumination and inspiration which will flow from it. One word more:

The absence of the Christian "God" from the Declaration of Independence and from the Constitution of the United States is due to the influence of Thomas Paine. Religious freedom throughout this broad land, where sects thrive, but Liberty of Conscience still prevails, is due to Thomas Paine. And now, after a century, the vast educative power of the Age of Reason has, as he himself foretold, put the certificate of death upon "revealed religion."


Next article:
Great Theosophists
Jesus, the Christ
(Part 1 of 2)



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