Back to the Beginning

TPM Reader JF has some perspective from our distant past (with a fascinating postscript – the poem is by Thomas Paine) …

As a fellow early Americanist by training, I thought Josh might find this worth a moment’s consideration: how much the US has (or hasn’t) changed in its tolerance of religious difference. To wit, the poem the amazing poem, “The Monk and the Jew,” which I happened across in a 3 June 1775 copy of the Virginia Gazette. (jpg attached, link here🙂

Something about the amazingly public nature of the bigotry just gob-smacked me, though it shouldn’t have. It shares a page with several advertisements looking for run away slaves, after all, so we’re hardly surprised the author doesn’t have our standards of polite conversation (let alone civil rights). I suppose it’s the randomness of this. It’s a reminder that the past IS a foreign country, or at least, we better hope so.

At least in recent few decades, jokes about Jews don’t make the Jew dying the punchline. And the banal jokes of the 1950s (“a minister, a rabbi and a priest walk into a bar …”) have an ecumenical (and softer) air to them that this one decidedly lacks.

Still, and despite all my efforts not to compare the sins of past and present, I can’t help wondering whether Cliven Bundy would get a hearty laugh out of it. Probably would. I mean the word “negro” is all over this page.

Fascinating post-script to this. The author of the poem is none other than Thomas Paine. Yes, that Thomas Paine. Here’s a discussion of the poem in a book on Paine’s work.

One reader suggests that the poem itself is a jest, a mocking of religious intolerance. It seems more anti-clerical to me than a mockery of intolerance, though the two are not mutually exclusive.