Paine's Letter to Washington
Proved His Humanitarianism
by Joseph Lewis
Abraham Lincoln is our best loved president. He has endeared himself in the hearts of the American people by his deep humility and his great love of humanity. This was illustrated when a young soldier was charged with desertion. The boy's defense was simply physical exhaustion. He had fallen asleep while on sentry duty. He was tried, convicted and condemned to be shot. His case was brought to Lincoln's attention. Lincoln ordered the boy released, and put him back on military duty. The boy died a hero's death, killed in action, fighting for the cause of Liberation.
A similar case of compassion took place during the Revolutionary War. One of Washington's Captains had been caught and brutally killed by enemy soldiers. Washington had demanded the murderers, and failing in this, intended to execute a captured soldier of equal rank of the enemy. Captain Asgill was selected for the retaliation. The matter came to Paine's attention. He rebelled at the thought that an innocent man should be made to pay the debt of another. This was not justice; this was revenge. With the welfare of humanity uppermost in his heart, Thomas Paine found time to write Washington a letter. He said: "for my own part, I am fully persuaded that a suspension of his fate ... will operate on a greater quantity of their passions and vices, and restrain them more, than his execution would do".
In times of war, traitors and spies and deserters were punished as an example to others, but many innocent men have been executed during these periods of passion and blind fury. Such was the case of Captain Asgill who was to be hanged in retaliation for the wanton murder of one of Washington's officers. Washington was determined to carry out his execution. Had it not been for the merciful intervention of Thomas Paine, Captain Asgill would have been put to death. Washington rescinded his order, as the result of Paine's appeal, and Captain Asgill's life was saved.
Thomas Paine, more than four generations before Abraham Lincoln, had set an example of mercy that should endear him to all mankind. If Lincoln is remembered for his tender mercies, Thomas Paine should be honored for having given to the world an example of how to temper the passions for revenge with reason, motivated with a love of Justice and Humanity, in order to prevent an act of grave injustice. For this deed of mercy, Thomas Paine's name should be enshrined into the hearts of every man and woman.
John Adams was right when he said, "Without the pen of Paine the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain." Adams was there. He saw it happen. He knew.
And yet, there is so much that the general public does not know about the Author-Hero of the American Revolution. How many people know, even historians, that Thomas Paine was our first Secretary of State? Why was this man appointed to such a high office, perhaps the most important post in the Revolutionary Government, with the exception of the Commander-in-Chief? Thomas Paine held no public office. He was not an elected official. Why, then, was he given such a responsible position? What had he done to deserve it?
Thomas Paine knew more about constitutional government, and particularly a Republic, than any other man of his time. He was called upon by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Lee for guidance and he gave freely of his knowledge and his labors with profitable results.
But why was he appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs?
I believe I know the answer. It is my contention that Paine wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, gave it to John Adams, who in turn gave it to Jefferson to "edit" for the Committee of five appointed by Congress, and Paine was given this important post in recognition for having written America's Charter of Freedom, and for his invaluable ability to guide the destinies of the young Republic.
Paine was the only man of his time who had the ability to write upon political matters that was understandable to the rest of the world. Was it not our own Benjamin Franklin who said: "Others can rule, many can fight, but only Thomas Paine can write for us the English Tongue"?
The history of the American Revolution cannot be written until all the facts, as well as all of the invaluable services that Thomas Paine rendered to the Cause for American Freedom, are fully and completely told.
The Ninth Commandment
by Joseph Lewis
from The Ten Commandments
"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
If the other nine Commandments were gems of a moral genius and precepts for the highest ethical conduct -- which of course they are not -- this Commandment alone would invalidate the Decalogue as a divine revelation. This Commandment definitely shows these precepts to be rules of conduct, based on superstitious taboos, for the small tribe of Hebrews who formulated them, for if he had given all the peoples of the earth a precept to follow, this God would not have restricted giving false witness only against one's "neighbor." Bearing false witness would have been condemned as inherently wrong regardless of whom the testimony might affect.
False testimony is unethical no matter against whom it is given, and if it is considered to be ethically right at certain times and under certain circumstances, the whole fabric and structure of our moral ideal collapses. For "truth is truth to the end of reckoning." Not for the benefit of one's "neighbor" or to the detriment of one's enemy, but truth for truth's sake is the highest ethical concept and the very quintessence of justice. The honorable man will speak truthfully even though it prove to his own detriment. It is essential to the principle of equality before the law that justice be applied equally to my enemy and to me. If we permit an exception for the sake of expediency or for some prejudicial reason, we may some day suffer because of that exception.
Universal justice will never be achieved until all the peoples of the earth are governed by the same laws and enjoy the same privileges. It will not matter then under what flag a man lives, so long as he enjoys liberty, and justice is administered impartially to all.
This Commandment does not say, "Thou shalt not bear false witness." If that were all it said, then it would possess some virtue. But the makers of this Commandment were not concerned with a general application of telling the truth under all circumstances. The three additional words of this Commandment were added for a very definite reason. For the age and for the purpose they were intended, the Commandment would be incomplete without them. Therefore, in keeping with the primitive moral standard of tribal culture, this Commandment very properly reads: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." These three words, "against thy neighbor," completely change its meaning and preclude its application as an ethical precept for modern society. Without them, this Commandment could very easily have universal application, but with them it falls back into the narrow provincial category of the early Israelitish tribal code.
At the time this Commandment was written, anyone who was not a "neighbor" was an enemy. This was the law of tribal life. The boundaries and property of clans had to be vigilantly watched and jealously guarded. It was essential to the solidarity of the tribe that all band together for the common good.
According to Talmudic law, only a brother Hebrew is a neighbor. In another interpretation of this very Commandment, brother and neighbor are synonymous terms which do not apply to anyone outside the clan.
The word "neighbor" as used in this Commandment, unmistakably meant a fellow tribesman, a compatriot, and did not, nor was it ever intended to describe a fellow human being in a universal sense. This is verified not only by leading Biblical authorities, such as the Rev. Henry Sloan Coffin, who says that "the Israelites did not apply this Commandment to their dealings with other people," but by the Bible itself.
When properly understood in the light of primitive culture, this Commandment is in perfect harmony as to its origin and meaning with the other portions of the Decalogue. The authors of the Decalogue could not have formulated it differently; they were mentally incapable of embodying a Commandment with the broader principle of universal application. All the Commandments belong in the same category and were promulgated for one purpose -- to prevent injury to the clan and to promote tribal solidarity for the sake of their deity's approval.
If this Commandment consisted of the simple statement, "Thou shalt not lie," it would be free from its clannish implication. And if, in addition to this unequivocal declaration that an untruth should not be uttered, the penalty provided for speaking falsely was that the tongue should become palsied, than indeed might such a Commandment act as a sentinel in order that "truth might bear away the victory."
There is no monitor guarding the mind from believing that which is untrue, or restraining the tongue from speaking that which is false.
Professor James H. Breasted, the noted Egyptologist, makes a significant observation in his book, "The Dawn of Conscience". After an exhaustive study of the evolution of ethics, he confesses:
"Like most lads among my boyhood associates, I learned the Ten Commandments. I was taught to reverence them because I was assured that they came down from the skies into the hands of Moses, and that obedience to them was sacredly incumbent upon me. I remember that whenever I fibbed I found consolation in the fact that there was no Commandment "Thou Shalt not lie,' and that the Decalogue forbade lying only as a 'false witness' giving testimony before the courts where it might damage one's neighbor. In later years when I was much older, I began to be troubled by the fact that a code of morals which did not forbid lying seemed imperfect; but it was a long time before I raised the interesting question: How has my own realization of this imperfection arisen? Where did I myself get the moral yardstick by which I discovered this shortcoming in the Decalogue"?
Professor Breasted's answer to his question is predicated on the inevitable conclusions, drawn from his researches, that ethics develop in an evolutionary process and that "the moral ideas of early man were the product of their own social experience." A careful examination of the early religions systems and the moral codes of contemporary times forced him to state that "it is important to bear in mind the now commonly accepted fact that in its primitive states, religion had nothing to do with morals as understood by us today." Professor Breasted is too considerate when he speaks of only primitive religion and morals as being two entirely separate and distinct departments of human thought. They are just as much separate and distinct today as they were ten thousand years ago. Religion and morals have not only no connection with each other, but are often antagonistic both in principle and practice, as has been factually substantiated in the analysis of the previous Commandments. He also discovered that "man arose to high moral vision two thousand years before the Hebrew nation was born."
This Commandment survives today, not because of any ethical value that it might possess, for it has none, but because it is associated with a religious taboo. It is but another striking example of the utter lack of moral value when conduct is predicated upon racial and religious edicts.