Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Paine, Thomas (1737–1809)
Author:
Blake, David Haven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's affection for Thomas Paine originated with his father, who both lovingly admired the patriot's writings and considered him an acquaintance. The poet's vision of an American spiritual democracy is historically rooted in Paine's example of political and religious radicalism.

Paine immigrated to Philadelphia in 1774, leaving in England his unsuccessful careers as a corset maker and excise officer. In January 1776, he published Common Sense, which sold as many as 150,000 copies and exerted an immeasurable influence on the cause for American independence. The same year Paine initiated a series of essays titled The American Crisis (1776–1783) which helped uphold colonial morale throughout the Revolutionary War. Paine's return to England in 1787 did not diminish his success as a political pamphleteer. Rights of Man (1791, 1792), a two-part response to Edmund Burke's attack on the French Revolution, was widely read for its brilliant defense of republican government. Paine's involvement with the French National Convention eventually led to his imprisonment in 1793–1794. While in France, he produced The Age of Reason (two volumes, 1794, 1795). The work's challenge to Christian superstition and biblical authority alienated many Americans, and upon his return to the United States in 1802, Paine was met with derision and scorn. The free-thinking Whitmans counted The Age of Reason among their favorite books.

Whitman told Horace Traubel that as a young man he had pledged to "do public justice" to Paine's much maligned reputation (Traubel 205–206). He received his finest opportunity when he spoke at the Thomas Paine Society Dinner in Philadelphia (28 January 1877). The speech was printed in Specimen Days (1882) under the title "In Memory of Thomas Paine." Relying on the testimony of Colonel John Fellows, an old friend of Paine's whom Whitman had met at Tammany Hall, the poet denied the many rumors about the old revolutionary's drunkenness and vulgarity. Whitman reminded his audience that Paine was largely responsible for the Union's independence, devotion to human rights, and freedom from religious tyranny. At the center of Whitman's comments was the issue of character, and the poet assuredly confirmed Paine's "noble personality," pointing to the philosophical calm with which he died (Prose Works 1:141).

Scholars have frequently noted Paine's legacy to Leaves of Grass. Both men were sympathetic to Quakerism, which provided them not only with a suspicion of priests, but also with a radically egalitarian vision of human divinity. Whitman retained much of Paine's deist belief in the self's capacity to comprehend moral truth through the study of the material world. As Betsy Erkkila has argued, however, when the language of natural law appears in Leaves of Grass, it tends to serve as a veil for the poet's partisan engagements. In this regard, what Whitman may have learned most from Thomas Paine was how democratic authors could convey their political opinions in the guise of candor and common sense.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.

Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York: Little, Brown, 1995.

Paine, Thomas. Collected Writings. Ed. Eric Foner. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Vanderhaar, Margaret M. "Whitman, Paine, and the Religion of Democracy." Walt Whitman Review 16 (1970): 14–22.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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