No, I’m not talking about that neighborhood restaurant in Brooklyn (“Two Toms” on 3rd Avenue – get ready for LARGE portions) but our own Odd Couple of the Founding Fathers. I link these two because they were friends, and in the latter part of their lives, when Tom Paine was reviled at home and in England as a vicious, revolutionary atheist, denounced as a traitor to liberty in France, where he narrowly avoided the guillotine because of his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI, Thomas Jefferson stood by him, made sure he was allowed to return home to the USA, and publicly treated him as a friend. A rare display of strong principle by Jefferson, a man who was known by his supporters and enemies to be as emotionally and intellectually slippery as an eel.
Paine is often treated as a bit of a crank, something of a fanatic, perhaps a dangerous, incendiary character, while Jefferson, as we know, is the epitome of enlightened statesmanship and open-minded rationality. True? As far as T. Paine goes, the received wisdom is way off the mark, that’s for certain. He was not at all an atheist as charged, but subscribed to the straightforward deism of his day. He thought that the universe itself was evidence of a divine creator, but he knew that the creator had no truck with ordinary affairs of men and matter. I beg to differ, atheist that I am, but he was marvelously clear in his expositions. What put him on the wrong side of the righteous Christians was his argument in The Age of Reason that revealed religion has no factual or intellectual basis. Sacred texts, sacred prophets, miracles, he would have none of it, whether from the Christians, the Jews, the Moslems, or anyone else. He was committed to his principles, and they were good ones: freedom, liberty, abolition of slavery, and secular government. He railed against his countrymen when they embraced unrealistic platforms, such as opposition to all federal taxes, the occasion of his wonderful essay, “The Necessity of Taxation.”
TJ, on the other hand, with his hypocrisy regarding slavery, his puerile enthusiasm for blood in the streets in Paris, [ a strange feature of contemporary politics, that we have ultra-reactionaries using the rhetoric of the 60s counterculture – didn’t Newt Gingrich often sound like a rebel without a cause?] his political chicanery, his willingness to go for the jugular, seems like the political fanatic at times. Connor Cruise O’Brien has suggested that he is the intellectual grandfather of our militia movements. Perhaps he is the prototype for the modern political intellectual, the one’s who find sound, logical reasons for watering the soil with the blood of traitors (a few million or so) every few years. Reading him, and about him, you certainly get the feeling that politics was for him, as perhaps for some dangerous political leaders we know about, the working out of something intensely personal. First principle of good, democratic, politics: don’t let their problems become our problems.