Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were born about three decades and a few thousand miles apart. Neither came from especially privileged families, but both achieved international celebrity. While Franklin gained fame first as a scientist and then as an American patriot and revolutionary, Paine earned renown as the author of several revolutionary pamphlets, including Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, with the first two of these probably being the most widely read English-language pamphlets of the 18th century, and with the latter being popular but also fiercely attacked.
Franklin and Paine met briefly because of their common intellectual interests when Franklin was serving a diplomatic mission in England, and his letter of introduction helped Paine to land on his feet (after recovering from serious illness) when he arrived in Philadelphia in late 1774. While both Franklin and Paine supported republican revolution in the late 18th century, Paine took more radical positions, leading scholar Craig Nelson to describe him as “Benjamin Franklin unleashed.”
Franklin and Paine also both had religious upbringings: Franklin as a Presbyterian and Paine as an Anglican and Quaker. Neither, however, was inclined to accept the creed of any church, and each tried his hand at writing (and publishing) a personal statement of belief. (These credos are included in the assigned excerpts.) Ultimately, both men believed that religion was necessary to support public virtue — note the second paragraph of the Paine excerpt, for example — but while Franklin charitably supported multiple Christian churches, Paine launched a vociferous attack on revealed (Biblical) religion, which he considered to be both false and morally harmful. Franklin only leaned strongly towards the firm deism that Paine adamantly promoted.
- How did Franklin and Paine, each in their own way, articulate Enlightenment principles in these writings?
- How did Franklin’s and Paine’s views on religion (and Christianity) differ?
- How do these two excerpts reflect the influence of Protestant thought?
For an irreverent, alternate view of Franklin, see D. H. Lawrence’s famous 1923 send-up.