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Thomas Paine: “Contentment”
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“This prayer is Common Sense./ Let others choose another plan,/ I mean no fault to find,/ The true Theology of Man/ Is happiness of Mind. T.P.”

The original manuscript of a poem by the great Revolutionary pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, written to Mrs. Joel Barlow, the wife of a famed American poet. In the poem, Paine explains his ideas on happiness and love and makes direct references to America and his most famous work, Common Sense. The poem, entitled “Contentment or, If You Please, Confession,” was written in response to a comment by Mrs. Barlow (the Barlows were living in Paris at the time). Turning away from what he calls “the superstition of scripture Religion,” Paine proposes a new religion—“happiness of mind.”

THOMAS PAINE. Autograph Poem Signed “T.P.,” to Mrs. Barlow. [c. 1798-1799]. 2 pp., 7¼ x 9⅜ in.

Inventory #21491.99       Price: $100,000

Complete Transcript

Contentment

Or, if you please, Confession

To Mrs. Barlow, on her pleasantly telling the author that after writing against the superstition of the Scripture religion, he was setting up a Religion capable of more bigotry and enthusiasms, and more dangerous to its Votaries, that of making a religion of Love.

O could we always live and love,

And always be sincere,

I would not wish for heaven above,

My heaven would be here.

 

Though many Countries I have seen,

And more may chance to see,

My little Corner of the World

Is half the World to me.

 

The other half, as you may guess,

America contains,

And thus between them I possess

The whole world for my pains.

 

I’m then contented with my lot,

I can no happier be,

For neither World, I’m sure, has got

So rich a Man as me. <2>

 

Then send no fiery Chariot down

To take me off from hence,

But leave me on my heavenly ground—

—This prayer is Common Sense.

 

Let others choose another plan,

I mean no fault to find,

The true Theology of Man

Is happiness of Mind.                           T.P.

Historical Background

Though overshadowed by his more justly famous prose works including Common Sense, The Rights of Man, The Age of Reason, and others, Paine wrote a fair amount of poetry, including verses addressed to Lord Howe, on the death of General Wolfe, and an ode to the patriots of Boston.

Philip Foner’s collection of Paine’s writings published fifteen poems, including the present manuscript, then owned by the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, which has since deaccessioned it. Such a poem as this, however, on questions of love and happiness, is quite uncommon in Paine’s canon. Any manuscript material from Thomas Paine is rare; poetry that incorporates themes from Common Sense is very desirable indeed.[1]

Joel Barlow (17-1812) was one of the “Hartford Wits,” a group of young writers and poets that included Lemuel Hopkins and John Trumbull. An aspiring epic poet, Barlow’s most famous work, Hasty Pudding, was written in the mock heroic style. He was a career diplomat who negotiated the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, which ended raids on American shipping by the Barbary pirates. The treaty contained the phrase “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” likely in an effort to convince North African Muslims that the United States was different from the European nations who had launched the Crusades and that the treaty was between two secular states, not two religious powers.


[1] Philip S. Foner, ed., The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. II (New York: Citadel, 1969), 1467-68.


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