First published January 9, 1776; excerpted from The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 1995
"Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ' 'Tis time to part.'"
Thomas Paine (1737–1809) first arrived in the American colonies from England in November 1774. This was the same year the Intolerable Acts were passed by Parliament to punish Boston and all of Massachusetts for dumping British tea into Boston Harbor (the Boston Tea Party, December 1773). The Intolerable Acts closed the Port of Boston, gave the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts complete control of town meetings, ordered that British officials who committed major crimes in the colonies would be tried in Great Britain, and required that the colonists house British soldiers in dwellings belonging to private citizens. Boston was suffering from the closure of its port, and the colonies were in an uproar. Colonists wondered who would be next to feel the wrath of Parliament. To show their support and sympathy for Massachusetts, in September 1774, twelve of the thirteen colonies had sent delegates to the First Continental Congress to discuss what to do about deteriorating relations with Great Britain.
In 1774–75, Americans were more or less divided into three groups on the issue of America's relationship with Great Britain. There were Loyalists, who wished to remain within the British Empire and be governed by Parliament and King George III (1738–1820). There were moderates, who saw that Parliament and the king were trying to exercise more control over America than ever before but hoped a compromise could be reached. And there were Patriots, who mostly still professed allegiance to King George but insisted that he recognize their rights to control their own government. Even though Paine was a newcomer and could not really call himself an American, he became a Patriot. However, Paine aligned himself with the very small group of Patriots who at that time wanted America to proclaim complete independence from Great Britain.
Born and raised in grinding poverty, Paine was a champion of the poor and downtrodden. One of his first published American essays was entitled "African Slavery in America." It established a reputation for him in a small way. Urged to use his talents in the cause of independence, he wrote perhaps his most famous work, Common Sense, and published it on January 9, 1776, a little over two months after America received the news that King George considered the colonies to be in a state of rebellion. By the time Paine's pamphlet was published, America and Great Britain had already been fighting for eight months. They would fight another six months before America was able to make a final break and declare its independence. Paine's Common Sense gave the more moderate Americans a strong push toward declaring independence.
Common Sense was a history of the dispute between America and Great Britain. It called for American colonists to rise up in rebellion against the British king who was attempting to enslave them and to proclaim their independence. The following excerpt shows that Paine criticized the very idea of a government of the aristocracy—a government run by people of a privileged class. Some historians say that Common Sense is not only the most brilliant pamphlet to come out of the American Revolution, it is one of the most brilliant ever written in English. Where other Revolutionary-era writers addressed the most educated people of the day, Paine spoke to ordinary men and women.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Common Sense:
- In Common Sense, Paine addressed those who still thought King George meant well toward the colonies but was being misled by his advisers into adopting harsh laws. Not true, according to Paine; the king was no better than his advisers and probably worse.
- Six months before Paine published Common Sense, in July 1775, the Continental Congress had appointed George Washington (1732–1799) commander in chief of a new Continental Army. Although hoping for peace, the Congress was preparing for war. Washington's army was made up of men whose terms of duty were to expire at the end of December 1775. He hoped for something dramatic that would inspire his men to reenlist. Common Sense would prove to be the drama Washington was looking for.
Excerpt from Common Sense
But there is another and greater distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into kings and subjects. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.
In the early ages of the world, according to the Scripture chronology there were no kings; the consequence of which was there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion. Holland without a king hath enjoyed more peace for this last century than any of the monarchical governments in Europe….
Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry. The heathens paid divine honors to their deceased kings, and the Christian world has improved on the plan by doing thesame to the living ones. How impious is the title of sacred Majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling into dust!
As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of Scripture; for the will of the Almighty … expressly disapproves of government by kings….
[Paine then continues to speak about the evils of monarchy in general. He proceeds to speak specifically about monarchy in England, saying that while "England … hath known some few good monarchs … [it has] groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones." He goes on to speak of the noble cause of American revolution, saying: "The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth." Paine then has much to say to those who favored patching things up with Britain. He ends his argument by asking and answering the question, Why is reconciliation good for America?]
I have heard it asserted by some, that as America has flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But even this is admitting more than is true; for I answer roundly that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power taken any notice of her. The commerce by which she hath enriched herself are the necessaries of life, and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe….
But Britain is the parent country, some say. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families; wherefore, the assertion, if true, turns to her reproach; but it happens not to be true, or only partly so, and the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low … design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither hath they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home pursues their descendants still….
I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge, not a single advantage is derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and our imported goods must be paid for, buy them where we will.
But the injuries and disadvantages which we sustain by that connection are without number; and our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instruct us to renounce the alliance: because any submission to, or dependence on, Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. 'Tis the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she can never do while by her dependence on Britain she is made the makeweight on the scale of British politics.
Europe is too thickly planted with kingdoms to be long at peace, and whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign power, the trade of America goes to ruin, because of her connection with Britain. The next war may not turn out like the last, and should it not, the advocates for reconciliation now will be wishing for a separation then, because neutrality in that case would be a safer convoy than a man of war. Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, "'Tis time to part." Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other was never the design of heaven…. (Commager and Morris, pp. 286, 288–89)
What happened next …
According to Paine, Common Sense sold more than one hundred thousand copies in a few weeks (the total population of the colonies was about three million). Eventually, five hundred thousand copies were sold. In no time, nearly everyone had either read Paine's pamphlet or heard of it, and it was the topic of discussion everywhere. Public opinion in favor of a rebellion against Great Britain was given a huge boost by the publication of Common Sense.
Many men joined General Washington's army or reenlisted after hearing what Paine had to say. Washington noted: "I find Common Sense is working a powerful change in the minds of men." On January 14, 1776, Washington had 8,212 soldiers in his army. In June 1776, the British prepared to capture New York City and General Washington moved to block them. By that time, Washington had nineteen thousand soldiers, and by the end of August, he had twenty-seven thousand soldiers. (Writer Paul Johnson estimated that "at no point did [Washington's] total forces number more than sixty thousand soldiers.")
In England, reactions to Common Sense were favorable among those who already sympathized with the colonists. One such sympathizer was Edmund Burke (1729–1797; author of "On Conciliation," described earlier). Burke called Common Sense "that celebrated pamphlet, which prepared the minds of the people for independence." A London newspaper reported that even some Englishmen who had been violently opposed to the idea of American independence were converted by Paine's pamphlet. However, it did not deter King George and Parliament from their goal of putting down the rebellion in America.
Paine had concluded Common Sense with the bold suggestion that if America were an independent nation, it could seek help from foreign countries (who would be unwilling to help a country that was a dependent of Great Britain). In February 1776, even before American independence was declared, the Continental Congress sent Congressman Silas Deane (1737–1789) of Connecticut to ask France for help. Thus, Deane became America's first diplomat abroad.
Did you know …
- Paine's Common Sense was first published anonymously (without his name on it). Immediately a guessing game began. Could it have been written by Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) or Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)? John Adams (1735–1826) was another guess. Adams, a Boston lawyer and early leader of the Revolutionary movement, never liked Thomas Paine; he thought Paine was a troublemaker. About Common Sense, Adams wrote: "The Arguments in favour of Independence I liked very well." But Adams thought some of Paine's comments were "ridiculous," especially his arguments, based on the Old Testament of the Bible, that a monarchy was unlawful.
- Paine never accepted any payment for his published works because he said it would cheapen their value. But it hurt his vanity that no one knew who had written Common Sense, so when the second edition was published in January 1776, Paine signed it "by an Englishman."
- Thomas Paine was a self-educated Englishman, a rebel, and an inventor (a smokeless candle, an iron bridge). Historians say his sympathy for the poor and oppressed sprang from his Quaker upbringing. Quakers are members of the Society of Friends. The Society had a great deal of influence in colonial America. Members believed in peace, justice, charity, spiritual equality, and liberty for all.
- Thomas Paine was a great admirer of most Quaker beliefs, but he objected to their pacifism (pronounced PASS-uh-fizum), the belief that disputes between nations should and can be settled peacefully. In fact, he served as a soldier in George Washington's army for a short time before being appointed to a government post by a Continental Congress grateful for his writings on America's behalf.
- Thomas Paine was hugely successful in using the media to change people's minds. Today, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association (TPNHA) annually presents the Thomas Paine Award to a journalist whose work reflects Paine's ideals and commitment to free expression. As Paine said: "When opinions are free … truth will prevail." Past winners of the award include Mike Wallace (1918–), of the CBS News television program 60 Minutes; "Doonesbury" comic strip cartoonist/satirist Garry Trudeau (1948– ); CNN correspondent Charlayne Hunter Gault (1942– ); and New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis (1927– ).
Where to Learn More
Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Fruchtman, Jack, Jr. Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994.
Meltzer, Milton. Tom Paine: Voice of Revolution. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.
Paine, Thomas. Paine: Collected Writings. Edited by Eric Foner. New York: Library of America, 1995.
Thomas Paine National Historical Association. [Online] http://www.thomas-paine.com/tpnha (accessed on March 14, 2000).
Thomas Paine, a Lover of Mankind
Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was born in Thetford, England, on January 29, 1737, the son of a poor farmer and corset maker (a corset is a tight-fitting undergarment). He only attended school until age thirteen, then quit to work with his father. Not finding farming to his liking, Paine quit sometime between the ages of sixteen and nineteen and went to work aboard a privateer. A privateer is a privately owned ship authorized by a government during wartime to attack and capture enemy vessels. At that time England was at war with France. Paine had been brought up to believe in pacifism (the belief that disputes between nations should and can be settled peacefully). His service on the privateer marked a permanent break with that tradition of his youth. In those days, the officers of a ship exercised absolute power over crewmen. The cruelty Paine endured during his eighteen months at sea confirmed his early opinion that power corrupted the people who wielded it.
After leaving the privateer job, for the next twenty-four years, Paine worked a variety of jobs and was unhappy with them all. During these years, he lived in terrible poverty. His first wife died in 1760 and his second wife, whom he married in 1771, left him three years later because he could not support her. All the while, he was educating himself by reading books about politics and the natural sciences.
At some point, he met American statesman Benjamin Franklin in London, England, who suggested he go to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and look for work. In 1774, Paine took his advice and sailed for America. Using Franklin's name as a reference, Paine landed a job as a writer. A magazine published his essays attacking slavery and calling for the end of the slave trade. He received widespread recognition for this seventy-nine-page pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776.
Paine spent the rest of the Revolution serving with George Washington's army and writing The Crisis Papers, thirteen pamphlets describing the progress of the war. The first was published in December 1776, during one of the darkest moments of the Revolution. It was the dead of winter, and Washington's troops were starving, freezing, and without adequate clothing.
Paine's words were stirring and seemed to have a miraculous effect on Washington's troops. They rallied and won surprise victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey. Over the next seven years Paine continued to write and publish. His last Crisis Paper was published on April 19, 1783.
Paine seldom took money for his writings because he said it would cheapen their value. After the war was over, he held a number of political jobs and wrote on
political matters. The issues he embraced included the injustice of slavery, the inferior status of women in society, and the adoption of a strong central government. He also devoted some time to science and his inventions, including the smokeless candle and an iron bridge.
In the 1790s, Paine found himself caught up in quarrels over the French Revolution (1789–99), when the people of France revolted against their king, Louis XVI (1754–1793). Paine was enraged when British politician Edmund Burke wrote a book criticizing the people of France for their revolution. In response, Paine published The Rights of Man on March 13,1791. The book immediately created a sensation both in England and America.
Paine's book defended the French Revolution. The book offered an explanation of the reasons why Europeans were miserable, living as they did in desperate poverty, with no education. As he had done before the American Revolution, Paine spoke out against monarchy (absolute power of a nation by one person). He offered a plan for popular education, relief of the poor, pensions for aged people, and public work for the unemployed. England's leaders felt threatened by his proposals and feared his words would lead to a revolution. The British government ordered Paine's book banned and the publisher jailed. Paine himself was charged with treason, and an order went out for his arrest. But by then he was on his way to France. Paine was tried anyway, found guilty, and declared an outlaw.
In France, Paine was imprisoned for expressing his opinions but was rescued by James Monroe (1758–1831), the American minister to France.
During his last years, Paine continued to write. In one pamphlet, he criticized George Washington, by then a national idol. Many Americans were disgusted by that and he lost his popularity. He died in New Rochelle, New York, on June 8, 1809.
American writer, political leader, reformer
Thomas Paine was one of the first writers to realize the power of the press in bringing about political reform. Paine's writings greatly influenced the American Revolution (1775–83) and the French Revolution (1789–99). In them he expressed his beliefs that man is rational and basically good but corrupted by society, that all men are equal, and that justice is dependent on a nation's economic system.
Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1737. His father, Joseph Pain (Thomas later added the final "e" to his last name) was a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends. Quakers like young Paine's father distrusted both religious and governmental authority. Thomas's mother, Frances Cocke Pain, known for having been bad-tempered and a bit strange, was eleven years older than her husband.
His family was poor and young Thomas Paine received very limited schooling during his unhappy childhood. "Tom" Paine, as he was known, lived near the gallows where poor people were sometimes hanged for such offenses as stealing food to feed their families. On the other hand, wealthy people who committed serious crimes, such as murder, often went free; therefore, Paine came to learn that often there was one law for the rich and another for the poor.
At age thirteen, Paine went to work for his father, learning the difficult trade of making corsets, intricate under-garments of whalebone worn by wealthy women. Young Paine soon grew restless and went on to hold a variety of odd jobs. He went to sea at age nineteen. But after seeing what a hard life it was, he returned a few months later and went to work for a manufacturer in London, England.
In 1759, Paine wed Mary Lambert, who worked as a maid for a wealthy family. Little is known about the couple's marriage, but within a year Mary Paine died, leaving Paine a widower. Although some historians claim she and her baby died in childbirth, others point out that a great deal of mystery surrounded Mary Paine's death. Paine never wrote about this experience or about women in general.
Career failure, divorce, and the move to America
While working at various jobs, Paine read widely and educated himself in politics and science. He tried his hand at making a living by tracking down smugglers and trying to collect taxes from them. He lost this job when he published a paper arguing that higher wages for tax collectors would help stop corruption in the tax collecting service. For seventeen years he worked unsuccessfully at this and other jobs, including schoolteacher, tobacco shop worker, and grocer.
In 1771, Paine married Elizabeth Ollive, ten years his junior. He and Elizabeth separated three years later for reasons he never revealed, even to his friends. After that Paine had many close relationships with women but never remarried.
In 1774, the thirty-seven-year-old Paine met Benjamin Franklin see entry, who was then representing America's interests in England, and the great patriot advised Paine to relocate to America. Franklin, who wrote of "the genius in his eyes," provided the young man with letters of recommendation to show to possible employers in the New World.
Paine's writings spur on American independence
In 1774, the tall, muscular Paine sailed for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he found work as a journalist with the Pennsylvania Magazine. In 1775, he wrote a pamphlet criticizing slavery in America as unjust. In Philadelphia, he met the patriot Benjamin Rush see entry, who suggested that he write a pamphlet urging America to declare its independence from England. On January 10, 1776, Paine published the fifty-page pamphlet Common Sense. Fearing what might happen to him if he became known as the author of the pamphlet, Paine published it anonymously (without his name). Common Sense included a number of statements that would make the British consider Paine a traitor, including his reference to King George III see entry as "the Royal brute of Great Britain."
At that time, Americans were split on the question of whether or not to declare independence. Paine wrote in an easy-to-understand style that England was overtaxing them, that the English form of government with the king at its head was corrupt, and that there was little sense in an island thousands of miles away governing the American continent.
Joins army, works for U.S. Congress
Common Sense, a call to action, became wildly popular almost immediately, selling half a million copies. Historian James Stokesbury pointed out in A Short History of the American Revolution that "It was an astonishingly successful piece of propaganda, not less so because it convinced those who were already half-convinced anyway." (Propaganda is material used to persuade people to support a particular point of view.) Continental army general George Washington see entry himself said it turned the tide in favor of independence.
When the Revolutionary War started to go badly for the Americans in 1776, Paine joined the ill-equipped Continental army and took part in the retreat of George Washington and his troops across New Jersey away from the British army. That year, Paine also published the first of sixteen Crisis papers, which appeared between 1776 and 1783. The papers encouraged the practice of patriotism so eloquently that George Washington ordered that they be read to every American soldier for inspiration.
The Crisis began with the challenging first line, "These are the times that try men's souls." Paine continued, "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot [those who display their patriotism only in good times] will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny [absolute power], like hell, is not easily conquered…. The heart that feels not now, is dead; the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole… he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death."
In 1777, to give Paine some means of support, the U.S. Congress appointed him Secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs. He was forced to resign from the post in 1779 because he published some secret information.
Plagued by financial problems
For the next two years, Paine worked as a clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, using part of his salary to start a fund to help provide for needy soldiers. He also published a number of writings. Over the years, Paine's writings sold very well. But he always refused to accept profits from them because he said it would cheapen their value, and he wound up living in poverty after the American Revolution ended in 1783. He applied to the U.S. Congress for financial help, but his enemies there buried the request.
Paine was appreciated by many Americans for his eloquence and for his devotion to the cause of independence, but he was also widely criticized for some of his political and religious writings. In his book about Paine entitled Man of Reason, writer A. Owen Aldridge described Paine as "vain, opinionated and hypersensitive," traits that did not add to his popularity. Because of the contributions Paine had made to the United States, the state of Pennsylvania gave him some money and the state of New York provided him with a farm in New Rochelle, New York.
Paine lived quietly on his farm for a few years, working on several inventions that interested him. In 1787, Paine visited England and France to raise funds to build in America an iron bridge he had designed. Although it was eventually built, as a financial venture the bridge was a failure for Paine.
Publishes Rights of Man in France
In 1789, a revolution broke out in France. Paine supported the cause of the French rebels against King Louis XVI see entry, and he voiced that support in his book The Rights of Man, various editions of which were published in 1791 and 1792. Paine explained in his book the source of European discontent with their forms of government. He pointed out that they suffered from poverty, illiteracy (they were unable to read or write), unemployment, and frequent wars.
Rights was tremendously popular in England, France, and America, becoming one of the best-selling books of all time. It also enraged powerful people in England because it encouraged Englishmen to take up arms against their king. The British government put out a royal proclamation against Paine's writings, and a dummy of him was burned in London. Paine was charged with treason but he escaped imprisonment by fleeing to France in 1792.
The ups and downs of Paine's life in France
In 1792, when Paine arrived there, France was in the process of establishing a constitutional monarchy to limit the power of kings. Although he spoke no French, Paine was invited to take part in drawing up the new constitution. But then King Louis and Queen Marie-Antoinette tried to flee the country. They were arrested, tried for treason, and despite Paine's protests, beheaded.
Control of the French government then passed into the hands of Maximilien de Robespierre. Annoyed at Paine's protests over the execution of the king and queen, Robespierre had him imprisoned. He might have been executed himself, but future president James Monroe, then representing the United States in France, secured his release in late 1794 after Paine spent eleven months in prison. Paine was bitter that then-president George Washington had not gotten him released sooner, and he said so in a long Letter to George Washington, published in 1796.
Besides his interest in politics, Paine also had a strong interest in matters of religion. During his stay in prison, he began to write the book the Age of Reason, which defended religions that were based on rational thought (see box on p. 354). It was published in two parts in 1794 and 1796.
Unwelcome in America
In 1802, Paine returned to the United States at the invitation of patriots Thomas Jefferson see entry and James Monroe, both of whom admired him. Because of his writings, many Americans scorned Paine, holding him responsible for the period of large-scale murder that had occurred in France under Robespierre. History shows, however, that Paine had done his best to prevent the bloodbath.
Another matter in which Paine was misunderstood was in his religious beliefs. Although certain critics of his day blasted him for not believing in God, Thomas Paine was not an atheist, but a Deist, who celebrated man's reason, as were many leaders of the American independence movement, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
When he returned to America, Paine discovered that some people had all but forgotten him, while many old friends, such as Samuel Adams and Benjamin Rush, had abandoned him because of his criticism of organized religion. He continued to write on politics and in opposition to religious superstition.
Comes to a sad end
In his final years, Thomas Paine, now poverty-stricken, in poor health, and treated as an outcast, wandered from place to place. He wore old, sometimes soiled clothing, and drank too much alcohol. He died in New York City on June 8, 1809, at the age of seventy-two.
Although Paine was to live in history as a hero of freedom-loving people everywhere, a statement written about him at the time of his death read, "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." Paine was buried at his farm in New Rochelle. Ten years later, journalist William Cobbitt brought Paine's remains back to England for burial but the remains later disappeared.
For More Information
Aldridge, A. Owen. Man of Reason: the Life of Thomas Paine. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1959.
Boatner, Mark M, III. "Paine, Thomas." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 825-28.
Coolidge, Olivia. Tom Paine, Revolutionary. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969, pp. 187, 194.
Hawke, David Freeman. Paine. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Meltzer, Milton. Tom Paine: Voice of Revolution. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.
Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of the American Revolution. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1991, pp. 87, 115-16.
Vail, John. Thomas Paine. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.
Leemhuis, Benni. "A Biography of Thomas Paine." Based on The American Revolution—an.HTML project. [Online] Available http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/B/tpaine/paine.htm (accessed on 1/06/00).
Deism and Thomas Paine
The eighteenth century in France, England, and America, known as the Age of Enlightenment, provided new ways of thinking about the world, including the religious realm. Some Americans followed the lead of French thinkers who rejected traditional ideas about God as the source of all knowledge in the world, and turned instead to human reason. The religion of Deism flourished at the end of the Revolutionary War.
Deists adopted nature itself as a sort of impersonal god that served as the principle that organized all life. They rejected the idea that the Bible was the source of God's sacred word, as well as traditional images of God. Although the Deists were small in number, many members of traditional religions viewed them as a menace. They feared that a spread of Deism would mean losing the threat of divine punishment for sin, which might bring about the downfall of traditional religion and lead society into moral confusion or even chaos.
After Thomas Paine returned to America in 1802, the Deistical Society in New York, whose members shared his religious beliefs, hoped that he would stay with them and use his powers of writing to further their cause. Though he was happy occasionally to write for their journal, The Prospect, he desired to write for a larger audience. Near the end of his life, Paine was approached several times to reject the deistic beliefs that had caused him to suffer much scorn and embrace traditional Christianity, but he never did.
Paine, Thomas (1737-1809)
Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Background. Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, England, on 29 January 1737. The son of a corsetiere, he was apprenticed to his father for three years before running away at age 16 to sail on a British privateer in the Seven Years’ War. Returning to London, he worked as a corsetiere, held a minor government post, and taught school briefly before securing a post as an excise officer. His first marriage ended with his wife’s death; a second marriage ended in separation. Paine’s wages as an excise officer were too low to support his family; the family shop barely kept them alive. At the request of other excise officers, Paine drew up a memorial urging Parliament to raise their wages, presenting it in 1773. Parliament was not persuaded, and Paine’s superiors fired him. Paine had to sell the shop to escape imprisonment for debt.
Flight to America. He boldly called on Benjamin Franklin, who thought Paine might make a good “clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor” in Philadelphia. With this reference Paine landed in America in November 1774, determined to start his life anew. He found work with printer Robert Aitken, publisher of the Pennsylvania Magazine, which had six hundred subscribers. Within a few months Paine’s vigorous literary style had attracted more readers, and circulation increased to more than fifteen hundred. Paine’s essays called for an end not only to the slave trade but also to slavery, and he attacked British colonial policies both in America and in India. Encouraged by Franklin and Benjamin Rush to write a history of the dispute between England and her American colonies, Paine published Common Sense, on 10 January 1776.
Common Sense. More than one-half million copies of Common Sense circulated in the colonies, and long excerpts appeared in newspapers and magazines. The real importance of Common Sense lay not so much in its vigorous call for independence as in its call for leveling the old order and starting anew. Most Americans believed that governments evolved naturally from society, and the English government, for example, reflected the country’s social organization. This, Paine said, was wrong. Society and government were two different things. “Society in every state is a blessing; but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.... Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise.” Paine called for independence, but he also urged Americans to reject the British model of government, which gave too much power to the king and the aristocrats.
Model Governments. The whole premise of a balanced constitution, Paine said, was wrong. The British constitution worked only because the Commons were able to check the aristocrats and the king; if there were no king or aristocrats, it would be unnecessary to check the Commons. Americans should construct new governments that were not modeled on the British constitution: their governments should have a single-house legislature, and instead of having governors who could become tyrants, it should have the executive as a committee chosen by the legislature for a limited term. Pennsylvania adopted a government on Paine’s model. Common Sense had a profound influence on American opinion, and it helped convince Americans that they were not simply fighting for home rule or for their rights as English people. Instead they were fighting for essential human rights that could only come with independence. The Americans could make a break with the past, and with the British empire, and they should do it immediately.
The Crisis. Paine published Common Sense at a high-point of the American campaign. Though independence had not been declared, Washington had forced the British to evacuate Boston; royal authority was collapsing in all the American colonies; and an army led by Benedict Arnold was laying siege to Quebec. But by the end of 1776 the situation had changed. The Canadian expedition had failed; the British had captured New York; and Washington’s army was driven through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. In December 1776 the British fleet threatened Philadelphia, and Congress fled to Baltimore. Paine, enlisted in a Pennsylvania regiment, accompanying Washington’s retreating army in what seemed to be the final moments of the struggle, sat by the campfire and wrote a new pamphlet addressed to the problems of this moment. On Christmas Eve, Washington had his troops assemble to listen to the first four essays of Paine’s new pamphlet, The American Crisis (1776–1777), before they were rowed across the Delaware to surprise the British at Trenton.
The Times that Try Men’s Souls. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine began. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered;... the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.... [I]t would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.” Paine’s pamphlet rallied Washington’s troops, whose surprise victories at Trenton and Princeton in turn rallied public opinion. Paine would publish fourteen Crisis essays over the next seven years, all designed to strengthen American resolve and to comment on specific issues of a moment. His final number, published on the eighth anniversary of the battle of Lexington, 19 April 1783, declared that “The times that tried mens souls,’ are over—and the greatest and completest revolution the world ever knew, gloriously and happily accomplished.” Paine urged the American people to adopt a stronger central government that could protect their liberty against a hostile world.
After the Revolution. During the war Paine served in a number of political positions, as secretary to Congress’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, and as clerk of the Pennsylvania assembly. As clerk, in 1780 Paine drafted the preamble to Pennsylvania’s law abolishing slavery, a cause he had advocated in his first months in America. Paine continued to write on political questions, defending the Bank of North America and criticizing the citizens of Rhode Island for scuttling the proposed five percent impost duty. Paine was committed to the independence of America, and he had little patience with local political grievances that he felt detracted from American unity and strength. Paine also turned more attention to scientific matters, trying to develop a smokeless candle and inventing an iron bridge that would not require piers to support its span. To perfect the bridge Paine sailed for Europe in April 1787. He expected to be gone for about one year, but he would not return to America until 1802. After visiting his mother and British Whigs Edmund Burke and Charles Fox, Paine was invited by the Marquis de Lafayette to visit France. Paine met with Thomas Jefferson, American minister to France, and Lafayette, offering advice on a new constitution for France, and Paine helped draft France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. When the Bastille fell in 1789, Lafayette entrusted its key to Paine, who was to present it to George Washington (the key now hangs at Mount Vernon).
Paine and Burke. On a visit to London in 1790 Paine was stunned to read Edmund Burke’s speech denouncing the French Revolution. Burke, who had warmly and bravely supported the American cause, believed that the French Revolution was a mistake. Governments, Burke believed, evolved from the social customs and traditions of a people. Without a government to restrain men from injuring one another, the French would collapse into anarchy and ultimately tyranny. Paine was outraged at Burke’s attack, and later in the year, when Burke published his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790), Paine responded with a vigorous defense, Rights of Man (1791–1792). Paine not only vindicated the French Revolution but also argued for the power of all people to construct whatever kind of government they chose. This was the fundamental premise of Common Sense, and Paine held true to the revolutionary cause. Paine won the long-term historical argument: men and women can form their own governments. But for France, Burke was a far more able prophet since the French Revolution became a bloody reign of anarchy followed by military dictatorship.
Arrest. Paine was charged with seditious libel in England, and he fled to France, where he was elected to the French Convention. He arrived in September 1792, days before the Convention proclaimed France a republic. Paine welcomed this, but he opposed the execution of Louis XVI, fearing it would give England a pretext to declare war on France. When the radical Jacobins overthrew Paine’s more moderate faction, he stopped attending the Convention, and he was arrested on 18 December 1793. He narrowly escaped the guillotine and nearly died in prison. The American minister to France, James Monroe, secured Paine’s release in November 1794.
Final Pamphlets. Paine recovered from his imprisonment at Monroe’s home, writing two more pamphlets: The Age of Reason (1794–1795), an attack on organized religion, and Agrarian Justice (1797), a call for the redistribution of wealth. The Age of Reason brought down on Paine the charge of atheism as he tried to demonstrate that the Bible was not divinely inspired but was the work of men intent on maintaining power. He tried to demolish the institutional church, which he felt had conspired with wealth and privilege to oppress humankind. The attack on religion alienated Paine from many Americans, including Samuel Adams, who supported his political views. He also criticized Presidents Washington and Adams for their pro-British and anti-French policies, which led to his further estrangement from many Americans. President Thomas Jefferson invited Paine to return to America in 1802, and Paine spent his last years on a farm in New Rochelle, New York. Paine died on 8 June 1809. Two decades later English journalist William Cobbett had Paine’s body exhumed, to be reburied in England. Cobbett’s plans for a suitable memorial to Paine fell through, and Paine’s body disappeared.
Bernard Bailyn, Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence (New York: Vintage, 1992);
Philip S. Foner, editor, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 volumes (New York: Citadel Press, 1945).
PAINE, THOMAS. (1737–1809). British author and revolutionary. Thomas Paine was born at Thetford, an inland Norfolk town, on 29 January 1737, the son of a Quaker stay maker and tenant farmer. He was later confirmed in the Church of England, his mother's faith, although his father forbade him to learn Latin and Greek when he entered the local grammar school at seven. He showed some ability at mathematics and literature and absorbed the seagoing stories of one of the masters, before leaving at eleven to be apprenticed to his father. Early in the Seven Years' War, when he was about twenty, he joined the privateer King of Prussia for one or possibly more voyages. At around this time he also worked for a London stay maker, thus combining the prim with the semi-piratical. In the spring of 1758 he was employed by a Dover stay maker, and in 1759 he set up on his own account in Sandwich. Here he seems to have become a Methodist lay preacher, at a time when Methodism was an evangelical movement within the Church of England. He married Mary Lambert in September and, when his business began to fail, moved with her to Margate where in 1760 she died in childbirth. In 1762, after training in Thetford, he entered the excise service only to be dismissed two years later for malpractice. He had to return to stay making until he was reinstated in 1766. While waiting for a posting he taught in two London schools, and in February 1768 he accepted an excise job in Lewes, Sussex. There, though a poor public speaker, he was prominent in the town debating society and wrote some poems and other literary pieces. He lodged at first in the High Street with the family of the innkeeper Samuel Ollive, with whom he set up a tobacco mill to supplement his excise pay. After Ollive died in 1769, he started a shop with Ollive's widow and in 1771 married her daughter, Elizabeth.
Up to this time he appears to have been some sort of Whig, but he began to move in a radical direction by writing his first political pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise, which argued for higher salaries. Toward the end of 1772 he travelled up to London with a petition signed by three thousand excise men, and although his lobbying was ignored by both ministers and Parliament, he associated with Oliver Goldsmith, moved in scientific circles, and probably met Benjamin Franklin. He returned to Lewes in April 1773 to find his businesses in ruins. Twelve months later he was sacked by the excise board for neglect of duty and forced to sell the tobacco mill. In May he and Elizabeth parted, and in June their separation became formal. In October, with a letter of introduction from Franklin in his pocket, he took ship for America.
Soon after his arrival in Philadelphia on 30 November 1774, he met Franklin's son-in-law, Richard Bache, and went into partnership with the bookseller Robert Aitkin to found the Pennsylvania Magazine. One of Paine's contributions, an argument against slavery, led to a meeting with the physician Benjamin Rush, who in the autumn of 1775 encouraged Paine to write a pamphlet in favor of independence. Common Sense, "written by an Englishman," appeared in Philadelphia on 10 January 1776, price two shillings. It was unique in that it was written for an audience wider than the educated elite and in that it articulated radical notions already abroad but until then never so directly or plainly expressed. Paine argued that society, in its natural origins, was free and without government. As vice crept in laws, governments became a necessary evil at best, repressive tyrannies at worst. The earliest, most nearly natural, and least repressive form of government was republican, whereas monarchy was a later invention that enslaved the people. Paine claimed that in "the early ages of the world, according to the Scripture chronology there were no kings; the consequence of which was there were no wars"; this was breathtakingly specious and misleading, but Paine, of course, was dealing in effects, not facts. Having established that monarchical Europe was corrupt and war-ridden, he went on to argue that even the British constitution was no more than a mongrel blend of republican freedoms with monarchical and aristocratic remnants. It was now America's divinely appointed destiny, her duty to the world, to break free of this old world corruption and establish a pure free republic. "O receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind!"
While hardly original, and assailable on many counts, this brilliant piece of propaganda reduced argument for independence to a formula anyone could understand. Appearing on the very day of news of the king's rejection of American petitions, it turned disappointment into outright hostility to monarchy, especially among artisans whose notion of a republic was quite different from that of grandees like Washington. Pirate editions appeared within three weeks, (120,000) copies of Paine's version alone were sold within three months, and total sales may have reached 500,000 in America and abroad. There were immediate counter-blasts from those who (like James Chalmers) opposed independence and those who (like John Adams) disliked Paine's kind of republic: a united republic with a single legislature elected on the widest possible franchise. As "The Forester," Paine found himself composing replies to these criticisms and becoming drawn into both local provincial politics and the politics of the Continental Congress. He may even have helped to draw up Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, passed by Congress on 4 July 1776.
A few days later, having committed himself to the war of words, Paine now tried to join in the shooting war with a company of Philadelphia volunteers marching to join the "flying camp," Washington's mobile strategic reserve, forming at Amboy, near New York. William Howe, of course, did not attack until late August, so Paine became a headquarters secretary. Even after Howe struck, like so many unfit flying camp soldiers Paine saw little or nothing of the front line. He became aide-de-camp to Nathanael Greene at Fort Lee, where most of the garrison was from flying camp units, and wrote propaganda reports, playing down major defeats, playing up minor successes, and explaining away Washington's blunders. He escaped across the Delaware in 1776 and returned to Philadelphia to find revolutionary morale in collapse. He immediately began writing a series of propaganda essays, starting with The American Crisis, brilliantly designed to stiffen rebel resolve in adversity. More practically, he became secretary first to a mission to the Susquehanna Indians and, beginning in March 1777, to the congressional committee on foreign affairs. In September, with Washington defeated at Brandywine and Howe's army at the gates of Philadelphia, Paine fled from the city and soon after became the Pennsylvania observer with Washington's army.
With France's entry into the war early in 1778, and with Congress's return to Philadelphia in June, Paine began to believe that victory was assured. In October he revived American Crisis number 6, shortly followed by number 7, to attack the Carlisle mission's peace proposals. His secretarial duties with the foreign affairs committee, while not demanding, and probably intended merely to provide him with a living, gave him an inflated idea of his political importance, which led him to accuse Silas Deane of profiteering in collusion with French interests. The dispute seriously embarrassed the French government, and in January 1799 Congress forced him to resign. Short of income, Paine took a job in a merchant's office before entering a bitter dispute over America's Newfoundland fishing rights, which he defended. In November he returned to respectability with appointment as clerk to the Pennsylvania assembly. In May 1780, driven by his belief that rich and poor had a common stake in victory, he made a first move toward establishing the Bank of North America to raise funds for the war. In 1781 he was dissuaded from going home to stir up revolution in Britain and took part in a successful mission to France instead. Later in the year he once again combined conviction with pecuniary need by writing for Congress a series of tracts demanding more powerful federal government. He was probably getting money from the French as well, so Crisis number 11 decried the notion that America could possibly make peace separately from her Bourbon allies.
In 1784 he was rewarded with a confiscated Loyalist estate and grants from the federal and Pennsylvania governments. He divided his time between a property in Bordertown, New Jersey, and New York City, writing in support of the independence of the Bank of North America, dabbling in scientific experiments, and developing plans for an iron bridge across the Schuylkill River. When the cost of the bridge turned out to be beyond American resources, he took his models to Europe in the spring of 1787, eventually persuading a Rotherham firm to put a scaled-down version across the Thames. The bridge, erected in May 1790, was a failure by the autumn, but Paine was already launched on a new journalistic project—the defense of the French Revolution.
He answered Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (November 1790) with The Rights of Man (21 February 1791), a muddled scissors-and-paste job that nevertheless became immensely popular. In April 1791 he returned to France, where he joined the Girondins (also called the Brissotins after their leader, Brissot de Warville) as a republican publicist. Returning to Britain in February 1792, he brought out a much more coherent second part of the Rights of Man, which credited the American Revolution with sparking the revolt against European despotisms and suggested a union between a republican Britain and France. Already rewarded with French citizenship, Paine prudently retired to Paris in September, where he became a member of the Convention, was briefly imprisoned under the Jacobins, and wrote The Age of Reason, an attack on organized religion. In 1796 he bitterly attacked Washington, who he thought had abandoned France. He returned to America in 1802 and died there on 8 June 1809.
Paine was a man of humble origins in an age when aristocratic connections mattered, who failed in both business and the service of the state. Combined with a modest education, a talented pen, and a gift for polemic, it is hardly surprising that he turned a prolific, radical pamphleteer. Against that accomplishment must be set his alcoholism, laziness, inordinate vanity, and carelessness with money. Neither a systematic philosopher nor a careful historian, he never let facts get in the way of his grand polemic. Nevertheless, his capacity to articulate and popularize radical ideas turned him into perhaps the greatest propagandist of the age of revolution.
Conway, M. D. The Life of Thomas Paine. Vol. 1. London: Routledge/Thoemmes, 1996.
Philp, Mark. Paine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
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More than any other writer of the late eighteenth century, Thomas Paine articulated the democratic aspirations of that revolutionary age. His contribution lay less in the originality of his ideas than in his ability to articulate those ideas in a style that resonated with the experiences of ordinary people. Paine's best-selling pamphlets in support of the American and French Revolutions—Common Sense and The Rights of Man—transformed this former stay maker, sailor, and tax collector into an international symbol of democratic radicalism. To his supporters, he was the heroic leader of a popular movement to eradicate artificial privilege and inequality. His many detractors on the other hand—like John Adams, who once referred to him as a "mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf"—worried that Paine's scathing attacks on all forms of traditional authority threatened to engulf the Atlantic world in anarchic mob rule. But whether they hated him or loved him, by the 1790s there were few people in the Atlantic basin who had not at least heard of Thomas Paine.
Paine was born and raised in Thetford, about seventy-five miles from London. At the age of twelve he followed his father into the trade of stay making (stays were the whalebone pieces that gave corsets their shape and stiffness). After a short stint as a sailor aboard a privateer, Paine moved to Sandwich in 1758 where he set up his own stay making shop and married Mary Lambert. Mary and their newborn child died in 1760, and for the next eight years Paine held various jobs in the south of England until finally finding steady work in 1768 as an excise officer in Lewes. That town, with its tradition of political radicalism extending back to the 1640s, transformed this disgruntled laborer into an articulate and radicalized activist.
Several strands of British oppositional thought underlay Paine's political vision. First, his Quaker upbringing taught him to distrust orthodox authorities and instead follow his own "inner light." Second, during a short stay in London in his twenties, Paine associated with a group of artisans who, in the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, regularly attended public lectures on scientific topics. At these lectures Paine was introduced to the fundamental Enlightenment tenet that the natural and social worlds operated according to a set of universal laws that any person could discover through the use of their rational faculties. The anti-authoritarian implications of this Newtonian worldview—if reason was universally shared then religious and political leaders had no special access to "the truth"—remained an unchanging feature of Paine's life's work. Finally, thanks to his participation in political debating societies in Lewes and elsewhere, Paine became steeped in Whig opposition thought, which advocated parliamentary reforms to limit the government's power and make it more responsive to the citizenry.
Arriving in Philadelphia only a few months before the battles of Lexington and Concord, Paine encountered a large community of politicized citizens who already spoke his transatlantic language of religious dissent, Enlightenment rationality, and Whig republicanism. After honing his journalistic skills for a year as the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, Paine wove these ideological threads together to produce the most widely read pamphlet of its day, Common Sense. As an idealistic transplant with few ties to any particular locality, Paine was perfectly situated to articulate a sweeping vision of a unified American state that had a world-historical mission to establish representative government and create the conditions for widespread economic prosperity. With rude swipes at the king, whom he referred to as "the Royal Brute," and inspirational assertions that the colonists had the unprecedented opportunity to "begin the world anew," Paine channeled the inchoate rage and unvoiced aspirations of ordinary Americans into a growing movement for national independence. When Common Sense was published in January of 1776 few Americans had publicly broached the issue of independence. By July of that year, however, the popularity of Paine's pamphlet and the force of its arguments played a major role in pushing a hesitating Continental Congress toward declaring independence. During the war Paine produced, at George Washington's request, a series of Crisis papers that boosted the morale of the Continental Army. At the same time he also worked with a diverse coalition of urban and rural radicals in Pennsylvania to write the Revolution's most democratic state constitution.
In the early years of the war, Paine succeeded because he served multiple constituencies. The leadership class needed his abilities as a publicist, and the Patriot rank-and-file appreciated his support for democratic measures that furthered their political and economic interests. By the 1780s, however, Paine found himself at odds both with many Patriot
leaders and with urban radicals. Paine was unusual in the 1780s in that he endorsed both highly democratic political arrangements and free-market economics. Most supporters of the free market were established leaders who had little interest in democratizing politics, whereas most supporters of democratic politics were skeptical of the free market and advocated price controls and other economic restrictions to protect laborers from the vagaries of the market. Paine's amalgam of democracy and free-market capitalism would eventually become mainstream in the nineteenth century. When he decided to return to England in 1787, however, he left America having alienated a good number of his former allies.
Paine reemerged on the world stage in 1790 when he wrote The Rights of Man to defend the French Revolution against the British statesman Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Paine's pamphlet, the second part of which was issued in 1792, sold an estimated 300,000 copies throughout Europe and America. In the context of America's heated partisan battles of the 1790s, Paine's outspoken support for international revolution made him one of the most controversial figures of the decade. Republicans used his writings to show that any true American patriot should support both the French Revolution and continued democratization at home. The Federalists, especially after Paine's attack on organized religion (The Age of Reason) was published in 1795, argued that the Republicans' association with Paine showed that they were too radical to be trusted with political power. In the summer of 1798, in the midst of the Quasi-War with France and immediately following passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, some Federalists went so far as to claim that Paine was part of an international conspiracy to overthrow all religion, abolish private property, and eliminate national governments. By the time Paine returned to America in 1802, very few Americans would publicly associate themselves with him. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson was viciously criticized for granting Paine passage from France on a navy warship and warmly receiving him at the White House. Paine died in 1809, a poor and publicly reviled man.
His American detractors were right in claiming that Paine had become more radical during his time in Europe, but he was hardly the bloodthirsty, atheistic anarchist they claimed. In 1793, as a member of the French National Assembly, Paine allied himself with a moderate faction and argued against the execution of the king; when the Jacobins took power, they had Paine imprisoned for almost a year. The tract he wrote in jail, The Age of Reason, affirmed his belief "in one God" and his hopes for "happiness beyond this life." So although he was neither an anarchist nor an atheist, Paine's writings of the 1790s did extend his vision of democracy into increasingly radical and uncharted territory. In the second part of The Rights of Man he argued that the government should institute a progressive taxation system (with a top tax rate of 100 percent) to discourage great inequalities of wealth. He also advocated state pensions for poor men and their widows not as a matter "of Charity, but of right." A few years later, in Agrarian Justice, Paine argued that because modern commercial society had created an increasingly "hereditary" class of poor people by robbing them of their right to a portion of the earth, the state had a duty to compensate every citizen for this loss. Most of his contemporaries regarded such ideas as perversions rather than logical extensions of the democratic ideal. But future American radicals would look back to this phase of Paine's career as a source of ideas and inspiration for their own struggles to create a more democratic and egalitarian world.
See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Citizenship; Continental Congresses; Declaration of Independence; Democratic Republicans; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; European Influences: The French Revolution; Federalists; Founding Fathers; Government; Jefferson, Thomas; Politics: Political Thought; Politics: Political Pamphlets; Quasi-War with France; Radicalism in the Revolution .
Foner, Eric, ed. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings. New York: Library of America, 1995.
Fruchtman, Jack. Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom. Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994.
Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York: Grove Press, 2003.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born journalist and Revolutionary propagandist. His writings convinced many American colonists of the need for independence.
Thomas Paine came to America in 1774, an unknown and insignificant Englishman. Yet 2 years later he stood at the center of the stage of history, a world figure, an intimate of great men, and a pamphleteer extraordinary.
Paine was born in Thetford, England, on Jan. 29, 1737, the son of a poor farmer and corsetmaker. He attended the local school until, at the age of 13, he withdrew to help his father. For the next 24 years he failed or was unhappy in every job he tried. He went to sea at 19, lived in a variety of places, and was for a time a corsetmaker like his father, then a tobacconist, grocer, and teacher. His first wife died in 1760, a year after their marriage; he married again in 1771 but separated 3 years later. His appointment as excise collector in 1762 was lost in 1765 because of an improper entry in his reports. Reinstated a year later, he was dismissed again in 1774, probably because he wrote a petition to Parliament for higher salaries for excisemen.
Journalist in America
Paine's move to America resulted from a London meeting with Benjamin Franklin, who provided letters of introduction. Paine arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774 and began writing for the Pennsylvania Magazine, of which he became editor for 6 months. His contributions included an attack on slavery and the slave trade. His literary eloquence received recognition with the appearance of his 79-page pamphlet titled Common Sense (1776). Here was a powerful exhortation for immediate independence. Americans had been quarreling with Parliament; Paine now redirected their case toward monarchy and to George III himself—a "hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh." The pamphlet revealed Paine's facility as a phrasemaker—"The Sun never shined on a cause of greater worth"; "Oh ye that love mankind … that dare oppose not only tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!"—but it was also buttressed by striking diplomatic, commercial, and political arguments from separation from Britain.
Common Sense was an instantaneous success. Newspapers in other colonies reprinted all or part of it. It was translated into German and reprinted in England, Scotland, Holland, and France. Its American sale of 120, 000 copies in 3 months gave it a circulation equivalent to over 6 million today. It was hailed by George Washington for working a "powerful change" in sentiment toward Britain. Clearly, it prepared Americans for the Declaration of Independence a few months later.
For the remainder of the Revolution, Paine's energies remained with the American cause. He served with Washington's army during the retreat across the Jersies; the soldiers' dispiritment lay behind his powerful The Crisis papers, 13 of which appeared between December 1776 and April 1783. Again Paine's phrasemaking was impressive: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will … shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." In later papers Paine attacked Tories, profiteers, inflationists, and counterfeiters.
Paine made little money from his journalistic successes. For 2 years he was secretary to Congress's Committee on Foreign Affairs. When he lost that post in 1779 for disclosing confidential data, Pennsylvania, whose 1776 Constitution he had helped establish, appointed him clerk of the Assembly. In this capacity he wrote the preamble to the state's law abolishing slavery. When Washington appealed for supplies, Paine organized a solicitation, contributed $500 from his own meager salary, and helped organize the Bank of North America to finance the supplies. However, his trip abroad to solicit additional funds lost him his Assembly clerkship.
On April 19, 1783, Paine concluded his Crisis series on a note of expectation: "'The times that tried men's souls' are over—and the greatest and completest revolution the world ever knew, gloriously and happily accomplished." Fears for the American union, however, belied Paine's optimism. He had appealed to Virginia in a pamphlet, Public Good (1780), to surrender its western land claims to the national government so that Maryland would ratify the Articles of Confederation. In letters in the Providence Gazette and Country Journal (November 1782 to February 1783) he urged Rhode Island to approve a national tariff to give Congress adequate financial resources.
England and France
After the Revolution, Paine lived rather quietly on the farm in New Rochelle that Congress had granted him and in Bordentown, N.J. He was working on several inventions. One, a pierless iron bridge to cross the Schuylkill River, took him abroad in 1787 to secure advice from the French Academy of Sciences and English technical assistance. Though he made the warm acquaintance of Edmund Burke, the two fell out when, in 1790, Burke published his attack on the French Revolution and defense of hereditary monarchy. Paine's reply, The Rights of Man (1791, 1792), vigorously defended republican principles and virtually called Englishmen to arms to overthrow their monarchy.
The new publication was a journalistic success, with 200, 000 copies sold within a year, including French and German translations. The English government proscribed it as seditious and outlawed Paine. He escaped imprisonment by fleeing to France, where he took part in drawing up a new French constitution.
Elected a member of the National Convention, Paine irritated French radicals by protesting the execution of Louis XVI. During the Reign of Terror he was imprisoned. His 11-month confinement was ended by the intercession of the American minister, James Monroe, but Paine publicly expressed bitterness at Washington's failure to secure earlier release in a Letter to George Washington (1796).
Paine's most controversial writing was The Age of Reason (1794, 1795), a direct attack on the irrationality of revealed religion and a defense of deism. Despite Paine's unequivocal affirmation of a belief in the Creator, the book was denounced as atheistic, was suppressed in England, and evoked countless indignant responses. Like his other writings, its circulation was phenomenal, with French, English, Irish, and American editions. Modern critics recognize the book as one of the clearest expositions of the rationalist theism of the Enlightenment and a reservoir of the ideology of the Age of Reason.
Return to America
When Paine returned to America in 1802, he was attacked for his criticism of Washington and his denunciation of traditional Christianity. He was ostracized by former friends such as Sam Adams and Benjamin Rush, harassed by children in New Rochelle, N.Y., deprived of the right to vote by that city, and even refused accommodations in taverns and on stages. Even his wish to be buried in a Quaker cemetery was denied. He was interred on his farm on June 10, 1809, two days after his death. In a bizarre finale his remains were exhumed by William Cobbett, who planned to rebury them with ceremony in England, but the project failed, and the remains, seized in a bankruptcy proceeding, disappeared.
Posterity did better by Paine. New Rochelle erected a monument on the original gravesite; England hung his picture in the National Portrait Gallery and marked his birthplace with a plaque; France erected a statue of him in Paris; and Americans placed his bust in the Hall of Fame at New York University. But Paine's real monument was the enormous impact of his writings on his own age and their enduring popularity. Expressive of the Enlightenment's faith in the power of reason to free man from all "tyrannical and false systems … and enable him to be free, " Paine's vision of universal peace, goodness, and justice appeared even more revolutionary as nationalistic aspirations and bourgeois complacency replaced the enthusiasm and cosmopolitanism of the 18th century.
There is no definitive edition of Paine's writings. Moncure D. Conway, ed., The Writings of Thomas Paine (4 vols., 1894-1896), the most scholarly version, omits a great deal. The most complete edition is Philip S. Foner, ed., The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine (2 vols., 1945), but it omits several pieces and is inaccurate and incomplete in other respects. The best single volume is Harry H. Clark, ed., Thomas Paine: Representative Selections (1944; rev. ed. 1961), which contains Clark's illuminating analysis of Paine's ideas, his literary style, and a critical bibliography of writings about Paine.
Most biographies of Paine are inadequate. Alfred O. Aldridge, Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine (1959), is impartial, incorporates the latest scholarship, and corrects many errors which appear in the standard biography, Moncure D. Conway, Life of Thomas Paine (2 vols., 1892). Conway's work, upon which most other biographers have drawn, is partisan and adulatory but was extensively researched and contains most of the materials for a reconstruction of Paine's life. Among the later, popular biographies which add little to Conway's work are S.M. Berthold, Thomas Paine (1938); Frank Smith, Thomas Paine (1938); and William E. Woodward, Tom Paine (1945). The semifictionalized Citizen Tom Paine (1943) by Howard Fast is one-sided and deals largely with the years 1774 to 1787. Frederick J. Gould, Thomas Paine (1925), is brief and reasonably well balanced. Hesketh Pearson, Tom Paine: Friend of Mankind (1937), humanizes Paine by accentuating some of his failings. □
First published on December 19, 1776; excerpted from Common Sense and Other Political Writings, 1953
"These are the times that try men's souls."
One of the greatest writers of the Revolutionary era was Thomas Paine (1737–1809), whose Common Sense is described in chapter 1. Paine was born and raised in England. He tried his hand at several different jobs before he turned to writing. He had only been in America for a few months when he was first asked to use his writing talent in the cause of American independence. His first effort, Common Sense, was quite successful. Two years after his arrival in America, Paine wrote the first of The Crisis papers.
Paine joined General George Washington's (1732–1799) army in New Jersey in December 1776. By then, Washington was a desperate man. He had just been soundly defeated in New York and forced to flee across New Jersey, with British soldiers hot on his heels. As they passed through New Jersey, both British and American soldiers looted and pillaged New Jersey farms and homes. On December 8, Washington's army crossed the Delaware River and set up camp on the Pennsylvania shore.
Americans were shocked, disgusted, and angry at the reports they heard about the defeat in New York and the soldiers' activities in New Jersey. Public support for the war for independence was on the verge of collapse.
It was winter and conditions were very bad for the soldiers. Thousands deserted what they saw as a lost cause; those who remained were poorly armed and clothed. A few lucky ones slaughtered cows and covered their feet with bloody cow hides, but most of the men were virtually shoeless. The soldiers' terms of duty would expire at the end of December (they only signed on for six months or a year). If Washington could not rally his dejected army, he could not count on anyone signing up again. On December 17, 1776, Washington wrote to his brother: "Your imagination can scarce extend to a situation more distressing than mine…. I think the game is pretty near up…."
The American cause seemed doomed. But Washington had formed a daring plan, one that very few people thought could succeed. He would transport his army in boats across the Delaware River for a surprise attack on King George III's (1738–1820) hired German soldiers, who were camped in Trenton, New Jersey. As the soldiers prepared, Paine, at Washington's request, at once began writing the series of essays calledThe Crisis. Their purpose was to inspire hope and to remind people of what they were fighting for: freedom. Paine then hurried to nearby Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his first paper was published in the Pa. Journal on December 19, 1776.
On December 23, in a freezing snowstorm, just as Washington's men were climbing into boats for the crossing of the Delaware River, Washington had Paine's inspiring words read to his men. The following excerpt of The Crisis reminded Washington's soldiers and all Americans that even though times were desperate, those who rallied now would deserve the highest "love and thanks" of every man and woman. Paine reminded soldiers that they were fighting against the worst kind of tyranny, and that the harder the fight, the greater the triumph. He further reminded them that to submit to British taxes and to the British army sent to enforce the payment of those taxes, would make Americans nothing more than slaves.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from The Crisis:
- Paine truly believed that America would form a superior system of government and that America could not be conquered. His conviction is clear in his encouraging words to the American people. Throughout The Crisis papers, Paine repeatedly attacked the fainthearted, the "summer soldiers" and "sunshine patriots."
- More than any other Revolutionary-era writer, Paine expressed his ideas in language for the common people. He liked to portray the struggle for independence as a simple struggle between good and evil. Naturally, the colonists were on the good side.
Excerpt from The Crisis
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks ofman and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us that, the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph…. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but "to bind us in all cases whatsoever," and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. (Paine, p. 55)
What happened next …
Paine's first Crisis paper had a bracing effect on Washington's men. On December 25, in freezing sleet and rain, twenty-four hundred soldiers marched to Trenton and surrounded the town as the German soldiers lay sleeping, worn out from their Christmas celebrations. The Germans were soon forced to surrender. General Washington called the victory "a glorious day for our country." On January 3, 1777, Washington followed up his stunning success by taking Princeton, New Jersey. He then retired for the winter in Morristown, New Jersey.
Paine continued to write his Crisis papers until 1783, when a peace treaty was signed ending the Revolutionary War. The topics he covered in the papers were wide ranging. He suggested that the property of people who remained loyal to the British be taken away and sold for the benefit of the new American nation. He also suggested that people take oaths of loyalty to the new American government.
Paine showed his solidarity with Continental soldiers in deeds as well as words. In 1779, seeing that the soldiers were at the end of their rope because of lack of adequate food and supplies, Paine took five hundred dollars out of his own pocket to start a fund for the neediest soldiers. In 1781, he went on a mission to France to get help for the Continental Army. The clothing and ammunition he brought back were a tremendous morale booster.
Did you know …
- Thomas Paine would not take any money for The Crisis. He believed passionately in the American cause, and although he was very poor, he said taking money for writing his essays would take away from their worth.
- In 1787, four years after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, Paine traveled to England and France. He hoped to get foreign money to build an iron bridge (his own invention) over a river in Pennsylvania, but instead he found himself caught up in politics abroad, especially the French Revolution (1789–99). By the time he returned to America in 1802, he had been almost forgotten by the American people. He died in 1809 in poverty and was buried on the grounds of his farm in New Rochelle, New York. The farm had been a gift from the state of New York for his contributions to the American Revolution.
Where to Learn More
Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
"The Crossing" (video). A dramatization of George Washington's perilous gamble of crossing the Delaware River and attacking the British forces at Trenton. Based on the novel by Howard Fast. Made for cable television, 2000.
Davis, Burke. George Washington and the American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1975.
"Documents on the American Revolution." Including descriptions of battles, camp life, naval operations, and action on the western frontier. [Online] http://www.hillsdale.edu/dept/History/Documents/War/EMAmRev.htm (accessed on April 6, 2000).
Fruchtman, Jack, Jr. Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994.
Meltzer, Milton. Tom Paine: Voice of Revolution. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.
Meltzer, Milton, ed. The American Revolutionaries: A History in Their Own Words, 1750–1800. New York: HarperTrophy, reprint edition, 1993.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense and Other Political Writings. Edited by Nelson F. Adkins. New York: Macmillan, 1953.
Paine, Thomas. Paine: Collected Writings. Edited by Eric Foner. New York: Library of America, 1995.
Thomas Paine National Historical Association. [Online] www.thomas-paine.com/tpnha (accessed on March 14, 2000).
"The Turn of the Tide" in The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. Bicentennial edition. Edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris. New York: HarperRow, 1975.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was by all odds the most influential revolutionary pamphleteer of the Anglo-American world of the late eighteenth century, a figure of international importance. His pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, 13 months after he arrived in Philadelphia from his native England, crystallized the sentiment that led to the Declaration of Independence. His series of papers, The American Crisis, stiffened patriot resistance during the war, in “the times that try men’s souls.” The Rights of Man, published in 1791 and 1792, was written after his return to England in 1787 in response to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. This pamphlet stimulated the radical reform movement in England and the Jeffersonian Republican party in the United States and led to the prosecution of Paine in England for sedition and to his election to the French National Assembly. In France from 1792 to 1802, his role in the revolution was minimal; allied to the Girondins, he was imprisoned by the Jacobins during 1794, barely escaping execution. His chief work in France, however, The Age of Reason, which appeared in 1794 and 1795, was probably the most popular deist attack on revealed religion ever written.
Paine’s mind was “speculative but unscholarly” (Clark  1961, p. xxix), and he was almost completely self-educated. His thought was to a great degree shaped by the experiences of his first 37 years in England, where as a poor staymaker (his father’s craft) and excise collector he developed an impassioned hatred of a “system of government” he held responsible for “the mass of wretchedness” in society (Complete Writings,vol. 1, pp. 404-405). The Quakerism of his father contributed to his humanitarianism and nonconformism. Newtonian science, which he learned from popular lectures in London, gave him confidence in natural law and rationalism as well as a lifelong interest in scientific improvement. (His most notable scientific contribution was the perfection of an iron bridge.) Thereafter he absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment that were prevalent among his acquaintances in the advanced political groups of his day: in the United States the Philadelphia circle of Franklin, Jefferson, and Rush; in England the reform circle of Tooke, Godwin, and Priestley; in France the moderate republican circle of Condorcet and Brissot.
Paine is generally classified neither as a political theorist nor as an original thinker but as a popularizer who brought the ideas of the Enlightenment to the ordinary man in a lucid and trenchant style. His originality lay in pushing the critique of established unnatural institutions and ideas beyond the immediate consensus of enlightened opinion and in a radical direction. Thus, Common Senserejected not only King George in and any colonial tie to England but all monarchy, arguing for a broadly based republican form of government. The Rights of Man, in defending the French Revolution, advocated a republic for England, irreverently rejected the constitutionalism that was the basis of the Whig rationale of reform, and exposed the government as a class instrument through which the rich profited from war and the poor were exploited by taxes. In the famous fifth chapter of Book 2 of The Rights of Man and in Agrarian Justice, published in 1797, Paine proposed a program—poor relief, public education, old-age pensions, unemployment projects, etc., all to be financed by progressive inheritance and income taxes—that anticipated the welfare state. The Age of Reason, with its book-by-book expose of the inconsistencies of the Old Testament and the New Testament, indicting the obscurantism of Christianity as “an engine of power” which “serves the purpose of despotism” (Complete Writings, vol. 1, p. 600), transformed deism from an aristocratic to a democratic creed.
Paine returned to the United States in 1802, and in his last years was unjustifiably denounced as a Jacobin and an atheist, which opprobrium long characterized orthodox American political and religious opinion of him. His ideas had a brief revival in American labor and reform movements, but his fame was kept alive primarily by agnostics and freethinkers. In England, by contrast, The Rights of Man became “a foundation text of the English working class movement” until about 1880 (Thompson  1964, pp. 31, 90). From the point of view of conservatives, Paine, because of his optimistic view of human nature and his failure to grapple sufficiently with the kinds of political institutions necessary to guarantee the rights of man, epitomizes the “naivete” of the Enlightenment. He has had a continuing appeal to anarchists for his antistatist tendencies and to liberals and socialists for his radical egalitarianism.
Aldridge, Alfred O. 1959 Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Brinton, Crane 1934 Thomas Paine. Volume 14, pages 159-166 in Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner.
Clark, Harry H. (1944) 1961 Introduction. In Thomas Paine, Thomas Paine: Representative Selections. New York: Hill & Wang.
Conway, Moncure D. (1892) 1893 The Life of Thomas Paine: With a History of His Literary, Political and Religious Career in America, France and England.2 vols. New York: Putnam.
Kenyon, Cecilia M. 1951 Where Paine Went Wrong. American Political Science Review 45:1086-1099.
Paine, ThomasThe Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. 2 vols. Edited by Philip S. Foner. New York: Citadel, 1945.
Palmer, Robert R. 1942 Tom Paine: Victim of the Rights of Man. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 66:161-175.
Thompson, Edward P. (1963)1964 The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Pantheon. → See especially Chapter 4 on “The Free-born Englishman” and Chapter 5 on “Planting the Liberty Tree.”
(b. January 29, 1737; d. June 8, 1809) Political pamphleteer, radical advocate of American independence.
Thomas Paine, who was born into a Quaker family in Thetford, England, was a soldier in the Continental Army and author of Common Sense, the most influential pamphlet calling for American independence. He was a radical advocate of republican principles in both the American and French Revolutions.
Paine left the local grammar school at age thirteen, became an apprentice in his father's corset factory, went to sea briefly at age sixteen, returned to apprenticeship, and later became a tax collector but was dismissed from that job. Impoverished, separated from his wife, and with few prospects, Paine immigrated to Philadelphia in 1774 at the urging of Benjamin Franklin whom he had met by chance in London.
Paine became a printer and political propagandist, advocating, among other things, the abolition of slavery. In 1774 he became involved in the protests against English "tyranny" and in December, 1776 was with Washington's beleaguered army. Facing defeat, Paine wrote an inspirational pamphlet, The Crisis, that boosted the morale of the troops and rallied patriots to the cause. The opening lines have become embedded in American culture: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered."
In January, 1776 Paine published his most important work, Common Sense, which made the case for American independence. While some leaders of the resistance still thought that reconciliation with Britain was possible, Paine argued that America should not only become independent but more importantly, should create a new form of government based on radical republican principles. Paine's ridicule of monarchy and aristocratic rule reflected his Quaker egalitarianism and the influence of Enlightenment belief in human reason and social progress. His ideas struck a popular nerve, shown by the initial production of over 100,000 copies of Common Sense. Historian Eric Foner observed, "The success of Common Sense reflected the perfect conjunction of man and his time, a writer and his audience, and it announced the emergence of Paine as the outstanding political pamphleteer of the Age of Revolution" (Foner, 87).
Something of a gadfly, more adept at tearing down than building up, Paine did not involve himself in creating the republican institutions he had idealized. Although he wrote more pamphlets, later compiled as The American Crisis, to boost morale during the war with England, he devoted part of his time to experiments in making smokeless candles and iron bridges. Restless, he returned to England in 1787 to pursue these two enterprises.
In 1790, with the French Revolution moving toward the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, Paine resumed his role as a pamphleteer advocating radical republicanism. In response to criticism of the revolution in France by British statesman Edmund Burke, who had been his friend, he wrote his finest work on democratic philosophy, The Rights of Man (1790–1791). In this pamphlet, which was banned by the British government, Paine argued against hereditary government, even suggesting the abolishment of the House of Lords. He held that all men over the age of 21 should have equal political rights. He also proposed such extreme innovations as progressive taxation, family allowances, old age pensions, and maternity grants. Outlawed for sedition, Paine went to France to escape arrest. Despite the ban, The Rights of Man became one of the most important political pamphlets in British history among the working and rising middle classes.
Paine became a French citizen and a member of the National Convention, but proved to be more republican than radical. In 1793 he voted against the execution of Louis XVI and was put in jail in 1794 by the Jacobins. Fearing that he might not have long to live, Paine spent his time in prison completing The Age of Reason (1794–1796), in which he expressed his Deist religious convictions more vehemently than had eighteenth-century Deists whose writings were addressed to scholars. Because he wrote for common people and tactlessly ridiculed Christian beliefs in addition to presenting arguments against them, this book aroused a storm of protest.
Returning to the United States from France in 1802, Paine discovered that his attack on Christianity had made him an outcast. Upon his death in 1809 a new generation of Americans ignored Paine's passing and his contributions to the Revolution. Only in the latter part of the twentieth century did Paine, the radical pamphleteer whose words helped lead America to independence, republicanism and democracy, become an important part of the nation's culture and revolutionary tradition.
Fast, Howard. Citizen Tom Paine. New York: Grove Press, 1983.
Foner, Eric, ed. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings. New York: Library of America, 1995.
Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. London: Grove Press, 1995.
John P. Resch
Social agitator Thomas Paine was an influential political writer whose support of revolution and republican government emboldened the American colonists to declare independence from England. In 1776, the corset-maker-turned-pamphleteer published the first of a sixteen-part series entitled The American Crisis. Paine's tract contained the stirring words "These are the times that try men's souls." Paine wrote the famous pamphlet to lift the spirits of the beleaguered Continental Army.
The effect of Paine's political writing was felt not only in America but also in England and France. After the American Revolution, Paine returned to his native Europe, where he supported the French Revolution. His political opinions ignited a storm in England and landed him in jail in France. During his lifetime, Paine's political views made him both tremendously popular and almost universally despised. In particular, his later writings about organized religion and deism offended many Americans. Shunned and penniless at the end of his life, Paine has only recently found his rightful place in history.
Paine was born into a poor English family on January 29, 1737, in Thetford, Norfolk, England. To help support his Quaker father and Anglican mother, Paine quit school at age thirteen and began training in corset making, his father's trade. Unhappy in his vocation, Paine left home and enlisted as a seaman in the Seven Years' War. Afterward, he traveled to London, where he became interested in science and mechanics. Paine held a variety of jobs, including customs official, preacher, and schoolteacher. At the urging of benjamin franklin, while Franklin served as a colonial official in England, Paine immigrated to America. Arriving in Philadelphia in 1774, Paine became the managing editor of Pennsylvania Magazine.
In January 1776, Paine published his first important pamphlet, Common Sense. A phenomenal success, the publication sold more than five hundred thousand copies. Paine urged the American colonies not only to protest English taxation but to go further and declare independence. He also recommended calling a constitutional convention to establish a new government. Paine's tract was extremely influential in convincing the colonists to cut their ties with England; embrace the Revolution; and embark upon a new, republican form of government.
Paine served in the Continental Army and experienced firsthand the miserable conditions of war. To boost the soldiers' morale after a retreat, he wrote the influential series The American Crisis. Under orders from General Washington, Paine's pamphlet was read aloud to encourage the troops. The American Crisis has been given credit for inspiring the American victory in the Battle of Trenton.
Paine was elected to the continental congress in 1777, as secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs. He resigned under pressure in 1779 after publishing confidential information about treaty negotiations with France.
"Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one."
After the United States' victory over England, Paine devoted his time to perfecting his
inventions. In 1787, he returned to Europe to gather financial support and interest in his ideas for an iron bridge. While in England, Paine became caught up in the debate over the French Revolution. In 1791, he published the first part of The Rights of Man. It was a response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a vigorous denunciation of the events in France. Paine's The Rights of Man supported the revolution and upheld the dignity and rights of the common person. Controversial for its time, The Rights of Man sold two hundred thousand copies in England but Paine was forced out of that country under an indictment for treason.
Paine moved to France. After obtaining French citizenship, he was elected to the National Convention in 1792. Because Paine protested the execution of Louis XVI, he was arrested and imprisoned by the radical Robes-pierre government. Barely avoiding the guillotine, he spent ten months in a Luxembourg prison before his release was won by james monroe, U.S. ambassador to France. Paine wrote Letter to Washington in 1796, a critical look at the U.S. president's inability to quickly obtain Paine's freedom.
While in prison, Paine published in 1794 the first half of his most controversial work, The Age of Reason. The second half was printed in 1796, after his release. In The Age of Reason, Paine criticized organized religion and explained his own deist beliefs. Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that accepts the concept of God but views reason as the key to moral truths. Deism was confused by many of Paine's readers with atheism, the rejection of a belief in God. Because people mistook The Age of Reason for an atheist tract, Paine came under attack for his unorthodox religious views.
When Paine arrived in the United States in 1802, he was rejected by many of his former associates. His reputation was damaged by his misinterpreted deist beliefs and by his public criticism of the American hero george washington.
Paine died June 8, 1809, in New York City, misunderstood and impoverished, with his role in the Revolutionary War downplayed by his detractors. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York. In 1819, political journalist William Cobbett made arrangements to have Paine reburied in England in a place of honor.
Somehow, en route to England, Paine's remains were lost. They were never retrieved.
Paine's reputation as a political philosopher has been largely restored. He is remembered favorably for his rousing call to arms during the American Revolution and for his defense of republicanism and the rights of common people.
Aldridge, Alfred Owen. 1959. Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Ayer, A.J. 1988. Thomas Paine. New York: Atheneum.
Keane, John. 2003. Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York: Grove Press.