Three Thomases and the dawning of the idea of America

Independence of the mind from tyranny — and religion; Part 1 in a series on the evolution of democracy

Thomas Jefferson is rightly revered as perhaps the key intellectual father of the American Revolution and subsequent republican democracy. He was the lead author of the Declaration of Independence, with its stated commitment to natural rights and its 27 grievances against English monarchical rule.

He also wrote two earlier works: the 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America and the 1775 Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, both of which were important precursors to the Declaration of Independence in July, 1776.

Jefferson’s main act, however, was to serve as our third President, from 1801–1809, and with his influence over many later presidents, to ensure that our constitutional republic form of representative democracy, endured as a republic and did not instead decay into a kind of monarchy. While Jefferson was a member of the Democratic-Republican party, he would likely be a Democrat today, because the key opposing party in his era, the Tories (the Democratic Party didn’t exist during his era), advocated a more aristocratic version of republican democracy than Jefferson consistently advocated.

Thomas Paine, the English corset-maker turned influential thinker and writer, is also well-known, but not as revered as Jefferson. He is mostly known today as the writer of the tremendously popular revolutionary pamphlet published in January of 1776, Common Sense, which was influential on Jefferson and many other authors and revolutionaries, as well as the general public who read it avidly.

Paine also wrote a dozen or so public letters during the revolutionary war, known today as The American Crisis, designed to rally the troops, literally, and to build more public support for the revolutionary war as it dragged on for eight long years (1775–1783). The first letter begins with the now iconic line: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

John Adams, our second president, both hated and revered Paine, calling him at one time “a mongrel between pig and puppy,” but later acknowledging Paine’s tremendous influence: “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs … Call it then the Age of Paine.”

Paine is less well-known today for his two books of political and religious philosophy. The first, The Rights of Man, was published in two parts (1791 and 1792), and set forth the intellectual basis for the political and intellectual revolution in America and, a decade later, in France. It also defended the French Revolution as a just cause from the harsh attacks of Edmund Burke, a well-known English conservative thinker.

The second, and Paine’s last major work, was the firebrand book, Age of Reason, also published in two parts, in 1794 and 1795, respectively. It was a broadside against organized religion, in particular, but also religion of almost any sort. It argued, instead, for deism, a belief in a creator God who endowed His human creations with the faculty of reason. As the title suggests, it lauded reason as the lodestar for right action, and Paine viewed religion as hopelessly contrary to reason.

This book caused Paine’s reputation during the later part of his life to become deeply tarnished. He was appreciated greatly for his writing during the revolutionary war, and the funding that he provided to the cause. He donated all of his publishing profits to the war cause and was for most of his life in dire financial straits. But despite his well-earned revolutionary and philosophical credentials, his wholesale rejection of organized religion in his later works made many enemies and he died far less appreciated than during the middle years of his long life.

A third Thomas is far less well-known than these two previous intellectual giants: Thomas Young, a revolutionary thinker who played key roles in intellectual and political life in the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts colonies prior to and during the revolutionary war. He helped to draft the Pennsylvania constitution in 1776, a decade before the federal Constitution was created, and considered to be the most democratic of the state constitutions at that time (with a unicameral legislature, a 12-person executive council rather than a governor, and a declaration of rights).

Young died from disease in 1777, while serving on the fields of battle, so he was not alive long enough to ensure that his reputation received its just desserts. Nor, until relatively recently, were many historians willing to carry his torch to obtain his rightful place in America’s intellectual pantheon.

“Nature’s God” and deism

However, Matthew Stewart’s 2014 book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Revolution, provides a readable and highly interesting corrective for Thomas Young’s reputation. Stewart makes the case that not only was Young active and influential in the Massachusetts colony, achieving an important political change of leadership in that colony (with the active help of Thomas Paine and others), which created a bare majority in the Continental Congress in favor of a vote for independence from England, Young was also a significant intellectual, an omnivorous reader and collector of books, and perhaps the hidden author of a little-known 1785 book called Reason, the Only Oracle of Man: Or a Compendious System of Natural Religion, generally known by its shorter title today: Oracles of Reason.

This interesting book was ostensibly written by Ethan Allen, a revolutionary founding father from Vermont who is known today for his physical rather than his mental prowess. Stewart and some other intellectual historians believe, however, that most of this book was actually written by Thomas Young and adapted by Allen after Young’s death.

The book was less a work of revolutionary fervor than it was a work in favor of free thinking and deism. Deism is the view, at least as it is generally described today, as the belief that the creator God exercised His powers to bring our reality into existence and then stepped away to let it run its course, based on the rules that He provided. Deists argue that there is no active role exercised by God in our world, thus no need to worship or revere Him beyond a basic “thanks for creating me” kind of gesture.

While this is a thumbnail sketch of deism today, deism was generally thought to be in the 17th and 18th Centuries just another name for atheism and a rejection of religion — and it was condemned by church and state alike in various nations. An inactive God was considered by believers to be the same as no God at all. A passive God certainly threatened the role of the various established churches since there was no need for the church to save our souls or provide earthly guidance.

It is important to remember that even in the 18th Century most nations still imprisoned or even killed blasphemers and heretics. Thomas Paine was tried and convicted for blasphemy in England for his heretical book Age of Reason, and escaped imprisonment only by fleeing for France.

Allen/Young’s work did not lead to anyone’s imprisonment in the new United States of America, where free-thinking was more accepted. Their work was mainly influential by its transmission through Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other more prominent Founding Fathers, many of whom were also deists, but considerably less voluble in their advocacy of this minority view. Allen and Young were outspoken and brash. Jefferson, Franklin and other deists were politic and cautious in their deism.

And yet Jefferson’s arguably most memorable line — its first — from the Declaration of Independence is as follows:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“Nature’s God” here is surely no basis for concluding that our nation was founded on Christian principles — as is often thought to be the case by religiously-minded thinkers today. Rather, it is a fairly soft reference to the deism that many of the signers found to be a more appealing version of religion than the oppressive and monarchically-entwined Christianity of that era.

Why reason and democracy go hand in hand

The two major intellectual themes of the three Thomases’ work I’ve described here were political freedom and religious freedom, and the need to address both as joint aspects of the same underlying perversions of reasons and liberty.

The obvious commonalities in both themes are numerous: 1) treating adults as adults and capable of making their own choices on complex issues; 2) using reason as the basis for right action, both individually and collectively; 3) opposition to centralized power structures and the abuses of such power that centralization inevitably brings.

There is a third major intellectual thread, however, that can’t be ignored: the role of reason in science and technology that was re-making the world dramatically during the revolutionary era.

Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, Boyle, Hooke, and people like Benjamin Franklin, had re-shaped our understanding of the natural world since the 16th Century. But Newton, in particular, had achieved almost singlehandedly, a massive shift in how intelligent people understood the world. His magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, which connected the Heavens to the ground beneath our feet by providing a unified single theory of gravity, had shown the power of the human mind to understand God’s handiwork in glorious detail.

Most gentlemen (yes, it was almost exclusively men in this era who were public intellectuals) in the “civilized world” during the Revolutionary Era also fancied themselves naturalists and scientists to varying degrees. These men included, of course, Jefferson, who was a famous tinkerer and avid observer and recorder of nature, and Benjamin Franklin, who is rightly revered as a serious scientist of electricity and other weather phenomena. Thomas Paine was also a highly avid reader in science and engineering and gained some fame for his own single-span iron suspension bridge design, which was sadly never built during his lifetime.

My point, however, is that the triumphs of reason in science and technology that were poised to re-shape the physical and intellectual landscape of all Europeans and eventually all peoples, were already clear enough in the mid- to late-18th Century. As a result, the growing use of reason in all walks of life was not a particular aberration. It was just a matter of time before this way of thinking became widespread. The American Enlightenment was well under way, albeit a century or so later than the European Enlightenment.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the triumphs of reason in science and technology led to advances in democracy and republicanism (a variant of democracy) because of the application of scientific thinking (based, of course, in reason and logic) to the problems of governance. And ditto in terms of religious thinking — it’s particularly hard to square the teachings of most religions of the book, based on texts that are thousands of years old and thus from a pre-rational era, with reason and logic.

The three Thomases were all, in their own way, riding these three waves of the application of reason in science, politics and religion. They all played some role in not only riding these waves but creating these waves. Timothy Ferris’s book, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason and the Laws of Nature, is an excellent overview of the parallel growth of science and democracy in the Modern Era.

Those waves continue to roll today, steadily eroding (albeit slowly in many cases) the manifestly unreasonable structures of thought and power, and abuses that come from those structures, that we still endure in our 21st Century world.

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Tam Hunt

Public policy, green energy, climate change, technology, law, philosophy, biology, evolution, physics, cosmology, foreign policy, futurism, spirituality