The power of Paine, as in the case of Orwell or Baldwin, was that he refused to be anyone’s propagandist. He may have embraced the American Revolution, as he embraced the French Revolution, but he was a fierce abolitionist and a foe of the use of terror as a political tool, a stance for which he was eventually imprisoned in revolutionary France. He asked the American revolutionaries “with what consistency, or decency” they “could complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousand in slavery.” He stood up in the National Convention in France, where he was one of two foreigners allowed to be elected and sit as a delegate, to denounce the calls in the chamber to execute the king, Louis XVI. “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression,” Paine said. “For if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Unchecked legislatures, he warned, could be as despotic as unchecked monarchs. He hated the pomp and arrogance of power and privilege, retaining his loyalty to the working class in which he was raised. “High sounding names” like My Lord, he wrote, serve only to “overawe the superstitious vulgar” and make them “admire in the great, the vices they would honestly condemn in themselves.” He ridiculed the divine right of kings. The British monarchy, which traced itself back seven centuries to William the Conqueror, had, he wrote, been founded by “a French bastard landing with armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives.” And he detested the superstition and power of religious dogma, equating Christian belief with Greek mythology. “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,” he wrote. Paine posited that the “virtuous people” would smash the windows of the Christian God if he lived on earth.
His unrelenting commitment to truth and justice, along with his eternal rebelliousness, saw him later vilified by the leaders of the new American republic, who had no interest in the egalitarian society championed by Paine. Paine attacked former revolutionaries such as George Washington in the United States and Maximilien Robespierre in France who abused power in the name of “the people.” He was driven out of England by the government of William Pitt and then, after nearly a year in prison, was ousted from Jacobin France. He was, by that time, an old man, and even his former champions, in well-orchestrated smear campaigns, routinely denounced him for his religious and political radicalism. The popular press in America dismissed him as “the drunken infidel.” But Paine never veered from the proposition that liberty meant the liberty to speak the truth even if no one wanted to hear it. He died, largely forgotten, a pauper in New York City. Six people went to his funeral. Two of them were black.