top of page

Robert G. Ingersoll on Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was one of the intellectual heroes, one of the men to whom we are indebted. His name is associated forever with the Great Republic, as long as free government exists he will be remembered, admired and honored.

He lived a long, laborious and useful life. The world is better for his having lived. For the sake of truth he accepted hatred and reproach for his portion. He ate the bitter bread of sorrow. His friends were untrue to him because he was true to himself, and true to them. He lost the respect of what is called society, but kept his own. His life is what the world calls failure and what history calls success.

If to love your fellow men more than self is goodness, Thomas Paine was good.

If to be in advance of your time to be a pioneer in the direction of right is greatness, Thomas Paine was great.

If to avow your principles and discharge your duty in the presence of death is heroic, Thomas Paine was a hero.

I challenge the world to show that Thomas Paine ever wrote one line, one word in favor of tyranny, in favor of immorality; one line, one word against what he believed to be for the highest and best interest of mankind; one line, on word against justice, charity, or liberty, and yet he has been pursued as though he had been a fiend from hell. His memory has be execrated as though he had murdered some Uriah for his wife; driven some Hagar into the desert to starve with his child upon her bosom; defiled his own daughters; ripped open with the sword the sweet bodies of loving and innocent women; advised one brother to assassinate another; kept a harem with seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, or had persecuted Christians even unto strange cities.

He died almost alone. The moment he died Christians commenced manufacturing horrors for his deathbed. They had his chamber fill with devils rattling chains, and these ancient lies are annually certified to by the respectable Christians of the present day. The truth is, he died as he had lived. Some ministers were impolite enough to visit him against his will. Several of them he ordered from his room. A couple of Catholic priest, in all the meekness of hypocrisy, called that they might enjoy the agonies of a dying friend of man. Thomas Paine, rising in his bed, the few embers of expiring life blown into flame by the breath of indignation, had the goodness to curse them both. His physician, who seems to have been a meddling fool, just as the cold hand of death was touching the patriot?s heart, whispered in the dull ear of the dying man: "Do you believe, or do you wish to believe, that Jesus Christ is the son of God?" And the reply was: "I have no wish to believe on that subject."

These were the last remembered words of Thomas Paine. He died as serenely as ever a Christian passed away. He died in the full possession of his mind, and on the very brink and edge of death proclaimed the doctrines of his life.

Paine was the first man to write these words, "The United States of America." He was the first great champion of absolute separation from England. He was the first to urge the adoption of a Federal Constitution; and, more clearly than any other man of his time, he perceived the future greatness of this country.

The claim that Paine was the real author of the Declaration of Independence is much better founded. I am inclined to think that he actually wrote it; but whether this is true or not, every idea contained in it had been written by him long before. Certain it is, that Jefferson could not have written anything so manly, so striking, so comprehensive, so clear, so convincing, and so faultless in rhetoric and rhythm as the declaration of Independence.

He has been blamed for his attack on Washington. The truth is, he was in prison in France. He had committed the crime of voting against the execution of the king. It was the grandest act of his life, but at that time to be merciful was criminal. Paine being an American citizen asked Washington, then President, to say a word to Robespierre on his behalf. Washington remained silent. In the calmness of power, the serenity of fortune, Washington, the President, read the request of Paine, the prisoner, and with the complacency of assured fame consigned to the wastebasket of forgetfulness the patriot's cry for help.

In this controversy, my sympathies are with the prisoner.

Paine did more to free the mind, to destroy the power of ministers and priests in the New World, than any other man. In order to answer his arguments, the churches found it necessary to attack his character. There was a general resort to falsehood. In trying to destroy the reputation of Paine, the churches have demoralized themselves. Nearly every minister has been a willing witness against the truth. Upon the grave of Thomas Paine, the churches of America have sacrificed their honor. The influence of the Hero author increases every day, and there are more copies of The Age of Reason sold in the United States, than any work written in defense of the Christian religion. Hypocrisy, with its forked tongue, its envious and malignant heart, lies coiled upon the memory of Paine, ready to fasten its poisonous fangs on the reputation of any man who dares defend the great and generous dead.

To fight for yourself is natural; to fight for others is grand; to fight for your country is noble; to fight for the human race; for the liberty of hand and brain is nobler still.

For many years religious journals and ministers have been circulating certain pretended accounts of the frightful agonies endured by Paine and Voltaire when dying; that these great men at the moment of death were terrified because they had given their honest opinions upon the subject of religion to their fellow men. The imagination of the religious world has been taxed to the utmost in inventing absurd and infamous accounts of the last moments of these intellectual giants. Every Sunday school paper, thousands of idiotic tracts, and countless stupidities called sermons, have been filled with these calumnies.

While theologians most cheerfully admit that most murderers die without fear, they deny the possibility of any man who has expressed his disbelief in the inspiration of the bible dying except in the agony of terror. These stories are used in revivals and in Sunday schools, and have long been considered of great value.

I am anxious that these slanders shall cease. I am desirous of seeing justice done, ever at this late day, to the dead.

When Thomas Paine was dying, he was infested by fanatics, by the snaky spies of bigotry. In the shadows of death were the unclean birds of prey waiting to tear with beak and claw the corpse of him who wrote the Rights of Man. And there lurking and crouching in the darkness were the jackals and hyenas of superstition ready to violate his grave.

After all, drinking is not as bad as lying. An honest drunkard is better than a calumniator of the dead.

To become drunk is a virtue compared with stealing a babe from the breast of its mother.

Drunkenness is one of the beatitudes, compared with editing a religious paper devoted to the defense of slavery upon the ground that it is a divine institution.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that he [Paine] was poor and that he died a beggar, does that tend to show that the Bible is an inspired book and that Calvin did not burn Servetus. Do you really regard poverty as a crime? If Paine had died a millionaire, would you have accepted his religious opinions: If Paine had drunk nothing but cold water would you have repudiated the five cardinal points of Calvinism. Does an argument depend for its force upon the pecuniary condition of the person making it? As a matter of fact, most reformers, most men and women of genius, have been acquainted with poverty. Beneath a covering of rags have been found some of the tenderest and bravest hearts.

Owing to the attitude of the churches for the last fifteen hundred years, truth telling has not been a very lucrative business. As a rule, hypocrisy has worn the robes and honesty the rags. That day is passing away. You cannot now answer the arguments of a man by pointing at holes in his coat. Thomas Paine attacked the church when it was powerful, when it had what was called honors to bestow, when it was the keeper of the public conscience, when it was strong and cruel. The church waited till he was dead then attacked his reputation and his clothes.

Once upon a time a donkey kicked a lion. The lion was dead.

From the persistence with which the orthodox have charged for the last sixty-eight years that Thomas Paine recanted, and that when dying he was filled with remorse and fear; from the malignity of the attacks upon his personal character, I had concluded that there must be some evidence of some kind to support these charges. Even with my ideas of the average honor of believers in superstition the disciple of fear. I did not quite believe that all these infamies rested solely upon poorly attested lies. I had charity enough to suppose that something had been said or done by Thomas Paine capable of being tortured into a foundation for these calumnies. I was foolish enough to think that even you [Editor, New York Observer] would be willing to fairly examine the pretend evidence said to sustain these charges, and give your honest conclusion to the world. I supposed that you, being acquainted with the history of your country, felt under a certain obligation to Thomas Paine for the splendid services rendered by him in the darkest days of the revolution. It was only reasonable to suppose that you were aware that in the midnight of Valley Forge the Crisis, by Thomas Paine, was the first star that glittered in the wide horizon of despair. I took it for granted that you knew of the bold stand taken and the brave words spoken by Thomas Paine, in the French Convention, against the death of the king. I thought it probable that you, being an editor, had read the Rights of Man; that you knew that Thomas Paine was a champion of human liberty; that he was one of the founders and fathers of this Republic; that he was one of the foremost men of his age; that he had never written a word in favor of injustice; that he was a despiser of slavery; that he abhorred tyranny in all its forms; that he was in the widest and highest sense a friend of his race; that his head was as clear as his heart was good, and that he had the courage to speak his honest thought. Under these circumstances I had hoped that you would for the moment forget your religious prejudices and submit to the enlightened judgment of the world the evidence you had, or could obtain, affecting in any way the character of so great and so generous a man. This you have refused to do. In my judgement, you have mistaken the temper of even your own readers. A large majority of the religious people of this country have, to a considerable extent, outgrown the prejudices of their fathers. They are willing to know the truth and the whole truth about the life and death of Thomas Paine. They will not thank you for having presented them the moss-covered, the maimed and distorted traditions of ignorace, prejudice and credulity. By this course you will convince them not of the wickedness of Paine, but of you own unfairness.

What crime had Thomas Paine committed that he should have feared to die? The only answer you can give is that he denied the inspiration of the Scriptures. If this is a crime, the civilized world is filled with criminals. The pioneers of human thought; the intellectual leaders of the world; the foremost men in every science; the kings of literature and art; those who stand in the front rank of investigation; the men who are civilizing, elevating, instructing, and refining mankind, are today unbelievers in the dogma of inspiration. Upon this question, the intellect of Christendom agrees with the conclusions reached by the genius of Thomas Paine. Centuries ago a noise was made for the purpose of frightening mankind. Orthodoxy is the echo of that noise.

The man who now regard the Old Testament as in any sense a sacred of inspired book is, in my judgement, an intellectual and moral deformity. There is in it so much that is cruel, ignorant, and ferocious that it is to me a matter of amazement that it was ever thought to be the work of a most merciful deity.

Upon the question of inspiration Thomas Paine gave his honest opinion. Can it be that to give an honest opinion causes one to die in terror and despair?

Have you in your writings been actuated by the fear of such a consequence? Why should it be taken for granted that Thomas Paine, who devoted his life to the sacred cause of freedom, should have been hissed at in the hour of death by the snakes of conscience, while editors of Presbyterian papers who defended slavery as a divine institution, and cheerfully justified the stealing of babes from earth to the embraces of angels? Why should you think that the heroic author of the rights of Man should shudderingly dread to leave this "bank and shoal of time," while Calvin, dripping with the blood of Servetus, was anxious to be judged of god? Is it possible that the persecutors; the instigators of the massacre of St. Bartholomew; the inventors and users of thumb screws, and iron boots, and racks; burners and tearers of human flesh -- the stealers, whippers and enslavers of men; the buyers and beaters of babes and mothers; the founders of inquisitions; the makers of chains, the builders of dungeons, the slanderers of the living and calumniators of the dead, all died in the odor of sanctity, with white, forgiven hands folded upon the breasts of peace, while the destroyers of prejudice; the apostles of humanity; the soldiers of liberty; the breakers of fetters; the creators of light; died surrounded with the fierce hands of fear?

In your attempt to destroy the character of Thomas Paine you have failed, and have succeeded only in leaving a stain upon your own. You have written words as cruel, bitter and heartless as the creed of Calvin. Hereafter you will stand in the pillory of history as a defamer; a calumniator of the dead. You will be know as the man who sad that Thomas Paine, the "Author Hero," lived a drunken, cowardly and beastly life, and died a drunken and beastly death. These infamous words will be branded upon the forehead of your reputation. They will be remembered against you when all else you may have uttered shall have passed from the memory of men.

He who attempts to ridicule the truth, ridicules himself. He becomes the food of his own laughter.

There is nothing grander than to rescue from the leprosy of slander the reputation of a good and generous man.

At the age of seventy-three, death touched his tired heart. He dies in the land his genius defended, under the flag he gave to the skies. Slander cannot touch him now, hatred cannot reach him more. He sleeps in the sanctuary of the tomb, beneath the quiet of the stars.

A few more years, a few more brave men; a few more rays of light, and mankind will venerate the memory of him who said:

"Any system of religion that shocks the mind of a child cannot be a true system;"

"The world is my country, and to do good is my religion."

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
bottom of page