Thomas Paine

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.

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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.

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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.

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Further Reading on Thomas Paine

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.