Thomas Paine’s Le Siècle de la Raison, ou Le Sens Commun Des Droits De L’Homme: Notes on a Curious Edition of The Age of Reason

  • David Hoffman
  • Claudia Carlos


Thomas Paine’s deistic manifesto The Age of Reason, published in English in 1794 with a sequel in 1795, is nothing if not a book with a dramatic and ironic career. According to Paine’s account, it was composed in Paris to combat the atheistic tendency of the French Revolution with a naturalistic deism, but it ended up being the cause of Paine’s demonization as an infidel by the Federalist press in America.1 What turned out to be the first installment of The Age of Reason, which we shall refer to as “Part One,”2 was, according to Paine, finished on December 28, 1793, just six hours before he was escorted to the palais du Luxembourg with a high expectation that his head would soon be parted from his body. Paine escaped execution through serious illness and administrative error, and lived on to write a sequel.3 However, the version of The Age of Reason that Paine finished on that December night may not have been the first version of the work.


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  1. 1.
    Paine explicitly makes the claim that he wrote Age to combat the atheistic tendencies of the French Revolution in a public letter to Samuel Adams dated January 1, 1803. The letter is reproduced in Moncure D. Conway, ed., The Writings of Thomas Paine, Volume 4 (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969), 202–208. On this correspondence, also see John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 475–478. The letter was originally published in the National Intelligencer, February 2, 1803. On Paine’s portrayal in the Federalist press in America Press, see David F. Hawke, Paine (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 353–356. Conway’s collection of Paine’s works is one of several modern editions including Eric Foner, ed., Thomas Paine: Collected Writings (New York: Library of America, 1995) and Philip S. Foner, The Complete Works of Thomas Paine (New York: Citadel Press, 1945). Of these, the generically arranged Philip S. Foner edition is the most complete, and the E. Foner Library of America edition is the most readily available by traditional means. Age is also available as a stand-alone volume from a number of publishers, including Citadel Press’s 1974 version with an introduction by P. S. Foner. Unless otherwise noted, we will be referring to the Conway edition of Age in Volume Four of Writings. We do so for two reasons. First, it is the only modern English edition of Age to use the chapter titles found in the early French editions, and these are quite important for our analysis. Second, what we believe is Conway’s original 1896 edition of The Age of Reason, with the same pagination as in the Burt Franklin reprint, is available through Google Books, and so is arguably even more accessible than the E. Foner edition. For reviews of English language literature concerning Thomas Paine and Age, see David C. Hoffman’s, “Cross-Examining Scripture: Testimonial Strategies in Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason,” Rhetorica 31, no. 3 (2013): 261–295, and “‘The Creation We Behold’: Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and the Tradition of Physico-Theology,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 157, no. 3 (2013): 281–303.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Both Hawke (446) and Keane (599–600) are of this opinion and cite two sources to date the work. (1) Lanthenas’s letter, which is strong but perhaps not entirely conclusive evidence; (2) Paine’s alleged confirmation of the date in a letter to Daniel Isaac Eaton, which was published by Eaton as part of an advertisement in the Morning Chronicle, December 19, 1795, 2. This letter is reprinted in Philip Foner, Complete Writings, Volume 1, 1383. This letter, however, does not make any mention of the date of the publication of Le Siècle 1793. It is rather Paine’s protest against the pirated “Symonds edition” of Age, published in October of 1795. Other scholars are less committal about the status of APS Le Siècle. Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (Florence, KY: Routledge, 1998) does not specifically mention an early French edition of Age, but does cite Richard Gimbel’s article on APS Le Siècle (see page 180, and Chapter 7, note 8). Other recent works, such as Harvey Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Boston, MA: Little Brown, 2005), Edward Larkin’s Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), and Jack Fruchtman’s The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), are silent on the matter.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    See Richard Gimbel, “The First Appearance of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason,” Yale University Library Gazette 31 (1956): 87–89.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    In her remarkable study of Paine’s religious thought, Nathalie Caron already suspected this to be the case, and now we can confirm her hypothesis. See Thomas Paine contre l’imposture des prêtres (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1999), 161, note 48.Google Scholar
  5. 16.
    The following account owes much to a number of much fuller explorations of the place of religion in the French Revolution including John McManners, The French Revolution and the Church (New York: Harper & Row, 1969); Mona Ozouf, La fête révolutionnaire: 1789–1799 (Paris: Gallimard, 1988); Michel Vovelle, La révolution contre l’Église. De la raison à l’Être suprême (Paris: Editions Complexe, 1988); Albert Mathiez, La révolution et l’église (Paris: A. Colin, 1910); and Alphonse Aulard, Le Christianisme et la Révolution française (Paris: F. Rieder, 1927).Google Scholar
  6. 18.
    On the end of tithing, see McManners, French Revolution, 26. For the French text, see sections 5, 8, and 11–13 of Décret portant abolition du régime féodal des justices seigneuriales, des dîmes, de la vénalité des offices, des privilèges, des annates, de la pluralité des bénéfices, etc. in Jean-Baptiste Duvergier, Collection complète des lois, décrets, ordonnances, règlements, et avis du Conseil d’État, vol. 1 (Paris: A. Guyot et Scribe, [puis] L. Larose, [puis] J. B. Sirey, 1824–1949), 33. On the nationalization of church property, see McManners, French Revolution, 27. For the French text of these laws, see Décret qui met les biens ecclésiastiques à la disposition de la nation (novembre 2–4, 1789; Duvergier 1, 54–55) and Decret relatif à la conservation des biens ecclésiastiques, et archives et bibliothèques des monastères et chapitres (novembre 14 [7 et]-27, 1789; Duvergier 1, 58).Google Scholar
  7. 21.
    McManners, French Revolution, 48. Based on an extensive consultation of local records from different regions, T. Tackett has argued that “the initial phase of the ‘battle of the oath’ was won by the constitutionals, yet the margin of victory was remarkably close and precarious.” See Religion, Revolution and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 23.
    The measure leaving enforcement of ecclesiastic policy to local administrations was passed on January 25, 1791. See McManners, French Revolution, 61. For the French text, see Décret concernant les attributions des directoires de département et des tribunaux pour le remplacement des ecclésiastiques refusant de prêter serment (janvier 25-février 4, 1791; Duvergier 2, 180). On the internment of priests, see McManners, French Revolution, 62. See also Jean Leflon, La crise révolutionnaire, 1789–1846 (Paris: Blond & Gay, 1949), 103 and Michel Vovelle, La révolution française, 1789–1799 (Paris: Armand Colin, 2011), 150.Google Scholar
  9. 46.
    McManners, French Revolution, 98–99. See also Albert Soboul, La révolution française (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), 324.Google Scholar
  10. 49.
    For more on the events of the de-Christianization campaign, see Jean de Viguerie, Christianisme et révolution. Cinq leçons d’histoire de la Révolution française (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Latines, 1986); Vovelle, La révolution contre l’Église; and Jean Tulard, Jean-François Fayard, and Alfred Fierro, Histoire et dictionnaire de la Révolution française, 1789–1799 (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1987).Google Scholar

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© David Hoffman and Claudia Carlos 2016

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  • David Hoffman
  • Claudia Carlos

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