Age of Reason

Thomas PAINE

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PAINE, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology. New-York: Printed by T. and J. Swords, for J. Fellows, 1794. Small octavo (4 by 6-1/4 inches), period-style half brown calf and marbled boards, black spine label.

First American edition of Paine's landmark Age of Reason, "his great work of this period" (ANB). This very scarce and important 1794 New York edition was "the first edition printed in our country" (Gimbel-Yale), copyrighted and published only a few months after the Paris and London first editions; all early editions in English are highly desirable.

"Part I of the Age of Reason was written in Paris in 1793—in haste, because although Paine had originally been lionized by the French as a true ally in the cause of liberté, égalité, fraternité, he soon became disillusioned by the increasing violence of the revolution. When Paine declared his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI, he placed his own life in imminent danger. Arrested on Robespierre's order, Paine was able to deliver the manuscript to his friend Joel Barlow, who was also a close friend of Jefferson's, while en route to the Luxembourg Prison on December 28, 1793. In one of the more disgraceful manifestations of ingratitude by any American administration, Paine was left for more than nine months to rot in prison… Only when the freethinking James Monroe replaced Gouverneur Morris as minister to France did the American government exert its influence to obtain Paine's freedom" (Jacoby, Freethinkers).

"Ignored by the French, the book was extraordinarily successful in Britain and America… Although Paine's work had originally been composed to keep the French from 'running headlong into atheism,' it was immediately referred to, in the English-speaking world, as the 'Devil's Prayer-Book' or 'the Bible of Atheism.' Age of Reason was not the first critique of the Biblical text to be published during the Age of Enlightenment, but it was the first one to have been written in such simple and direct language… a clever mixture of popular common sense and scientific analysis that could be easily grasped by the mass of ordinary people" (Vincent, Transatlantic Republican, 14-15).

"As a Deist and a republican writer and activist, Paine believed that religious beliefs had to be reasonable and that God had given human beings control over their lives to perform good deeds. Paine believed that a truly religious man need not belong to a church or even attend religious services… A man must devote his life, as he had, to performing good works and leave the world a better place than he found it. His writings display his dedication to the principle that people everywhere would see that rights and liberty form the very foundation of human life and that no person should ever willingly relinquish them without a fierce struggle. By his rational analysis of God, government, and society, Thomas Paine personified the Age of Reason" (Jack Fruchtman, Jr.)

The publication history of Part I of Age of Reason is rather complicated, and a definitive priority has not been fully determined, but all early editions in English are extremely desirable. In March 1794 the work was published in Paris in English (by Barrois) and in French (by Gueffier). The first edition in English is likely Barrois' 77-page Paris edition, and a 55-page edition with joint imprint (printed in Paris by Barrois and sold in London by D.L. Eaton) is probably the first London edition. Gimbel states that "copies printed cheaply in English were sent to America, but a much finer edition was printed in Paris for circulation in England" (Gimbel-Yale 88).

John Fellows copyrighted the work in New York on June 17, 1794, as noted in the statement on the copyright page and in newspaper ads published by the Clerk of the District of New-York in June and July. Fellows' first New York edition was the first American edition. Richard Gimbel noted that it "was the first edition printed in our country, but it undoubtedly was preceded by the circulation of the Paris edition, in English" (Gimbel-Yale 89). In September 1794 Fellows published a cheaper second edition with fewer pages, and a number of other publishers issued editions in America before the end of the year.

"The first part of The Age of Reason quickly found its way to the United States. After all, Paine had dedicated the work to his fellow citizens of the United States, and he obviously hoped that it would find fertile ground in his beloved America. Without the same political and legal baggage that may have deterred many British publishers from printing The Age of Reason, the work was taken up by a variety of printers throughout the United States… In mid-June of 1794, New York printer John Fellows, who shared Paine's Deistic beliefs and later became a close friend, printed the first American edition of The Age of Reason" (Patrick Wallace Hughes, Antidotes to Deism: A Reception History of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, 1794-1809, 46-47). Bound without half title. This copy conforming to ESTC pagination: Age of Reason: vi, (7), 8-151, (152); Epitome of Lequinio's Prejudice Destroyed: (153-155), 156-188; Twenty-Five Precepts of Reason: (189), 190-192; variant pagination for: France. National Convention: 192-194. Without publisher's advertisement at rear. Containing unrecorded additional page 191 with text beginning "The French have been represented," concluding, "which they are about to institute" (source of text unidentified). Twenty-Five Precepts of Reason authored by J. Grasset de Saint-Sauveur. Evans 27460. ESTC W31698. Gimbel-Yale 89. Gimbel-Paine, 24. Early owner inscription above dedication; early gift inscription above first text leaf.

Text generally fresh light scattered foxing, expert archival restoration to corner of title page and pages 61-66 minimally affecting text. A very good copy, handsomely bound.

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