"It was the cause of America that made me an author. The force with which it struck my mind, and the dangerous condition in which the country was in, by courting an impossible and an unnatural reconciliation with those who were determined to reduce her, instead of striking out into the only line that could save her..."
Thomas Paine was an intellectual and a revolutionary who was instrumental in guiding the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Perhaps best known for writing Common Sense and The Rights of Man, his writings were some of the most widely read in the American Colonies.
Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, England on January 29, 1737. He was born to Joseph and Frances Paine. His father was a Quaker, and a staymaker in Thetford. His mother was the daughter of an attorney in Thetford, and a member of the Church of England. His parents has married in Euston Parish near Thetford on June 20, 1734. He had a sister who was born the year after him, but it is thought that she likely died at a young age.
Paine went to school in town, his teacher was William Knowle, and he learned arithmetic, reading and writing. His father's beliefs led him away from the traditional study of Latin, and his tendency as a child was more toward science. He also was known to have a natural talent for poetry, but as it entertained the imagination, it was discouraged. While he was in school, Paine read a history of the Virginia colony, and he became enthralled from then on with the idea of seeing the colonies across the ocean. Paine's father held to Quaker traditions, and believed that it was very important to instruct his son on moral principles and ethics. Paine saw as a young boy a country corrupted by greed that used torture and inflicted cruel punishments on prisoners of the state. Passing the gallows on the way to the schoolhouse, Paine heard the plaintive appeals of the people held there, and the shouts of the terrorized.
When Paine was 13, he went to work in his father's shop making stays. As a teenager, he dreamed of making a life onboard ship on the high seas. In 1756, war was declared on France and Paine took to the seas onboard the privateer King of Prussia, under Captain Mendez. There is very little information about what happened while he was at sea. When he returned, he went to work in London with a staymaker there, and in 1759, he opened his own shop as a staymaker in Sandwich, Kent. On September 27 of that year, he married Mary Lambert, who died only a year later.
His business was not doing well, and so he sought employment as an exciseman. He found that the work was arduous, and the compensation inadequate. He remarried Elizabeth Ollive on March 26, 1771, and worked in her father's tobacco shop. The following year, he wrote his first pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise, which sought to clarify the plight of the overworked exciseman. The writing was an indicator of what would follow in his later work; his words were clear, direct, and strong. He hoped to make a case before Parliament, and presented his work to Oliver Goldsmith with the hopes of having it reviewed and discussed. He worked the entire winter to make his case heard, but, disappointed, he returned to his house to find his business was suffering and his debts were considerable. In 1774, he was dismissed from his post. In that year, he and his wife separated, although the reasons behind it remind a mystery. Paine had been known to say that he did have a reason for doing so, but that he would never say what that was.
After the separation, Paine went back to London, where he began to explore his interest in the sciences alongside Benjamin Franklin. He also developed friendships with Oliver Goldsmith and David Williams, and went to Parliament to listen to and participate in the arguments there regarding new policy. It was at this point that Paine longed for a change in his circumstances, and his friend Benjamin Franklin encouraged him to travel to America, and gave him letters to recommend him to friends and family in Philadelphia. Franklin stayed in England.
Upon arrival in Philadelphia, Paine presented his letters to Franklin's son-in-law, Richard Bache. He did well for himself in Philadelphia, establishing himself as the editor of The Pennsylvania Magazine. He wrote many of the articles himself, and the circulation of the publication grew significantly. He wrote about inventions coming out of England, and was quickly befriended by scientists in Philadelphia. In 1775, Paine wrote an essay called African Slavery in America, which was the first essay published in the United States in favor of emancipating the slaves and quitting the practice of enslaving African people. From that work:
"As these people are not convicted of forfeiting freedom, they have still a natural, perfect right to it; and the governments whenever they come should, in justice set them free, and punish those who hold them in slavery.
So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all, abstracted from the barbarous usage they suffer, and the many evils attending the practice; as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents, and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incests, and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty Masters must answer to the final Judge.
If the slavery of the parents be unjust, much more is their children's; if the parents were justly slaves, yet the children are born free; this is the natural, perfect right of all mankind; they are nothing but a just recompense to those who bring them up: And as much less is commonly spent on them than others, they have a right, in justice, to be proportionably sooner free.
Certainly, one may, with as much reason and decency, plead for murder, robbery, lewdness and barbarity, as for this practice. They are not more contrary to the natural dictates of conscience, and feeling of humanity; nay, they are all comprehended in it.
It is important to underscore how monumental this position was at this point in American history. Prior to Thomas Paine, no one had to completely urged the total abolishment of slavery. Some specific instances of cruelty had come to light, and some had criticized certain elements of the slave trade, but quitting it entirely had never been so advocated before. Had his views been put to practice, the atrocities would have ended then, and the American Civil War, which occured 85 years later after the states had firmly established their practices, would likely have never happened. Later articles took on subjects such as cruelty to animals and women's rights. He argued that women had been subservient to men for so long, and stated that such a disparity did not naturally exist and therefore should not exist among social rights, either.
On April 19, 1775, the Lexington Massacre occured in Massachusetts, where British troops attacked a small gathering of American minutemen, killing several and wounding many more. After this event, Paine published in his magazine, "the British crown would not be worth wearing if robbed of so principal a jewel as America. The principal jewel of the crown actually dropped out at the coronation." This is thought to be his first hint at the idea of independence for the colonies. At this time, even George Washington still fervently pledged his allegiance to the British monarchy. Washington was appointed commander of the army during that year, still avowing never to entertain ideas of independence. In the Pennsylvania Journal on October 18, 1775, Paine wrote, "I hesitate not for a moment to believe that the Almighty will finally separate American from Britain. Call it Independence, or what you will,if it is the cause of God and humanity it will go on."
Later in 1775, Paine began work on "Common Sense," his organized argument for freedom for the colonies. Originally, it was published anonymously, on January 10, 1776. It only hinted on the title page, "written by an Englishman." The sales of the pamphlet were extraordinary. Within three months, over one hundred thousand copies ad been sold. George Washington himself was convinced after having read it to join the cause.
The gravity of Paine's writing in "Common Sense," lies in its clarity; he defines his terms brilliantly, and seeks to have his reader understand the origins, purpose, and distinctions of government. His criticism of English government is apparent; he argues that a "check" is necessary on the monarchy which has been put in place by the House of Commons. The existence of hereditary titles pulled the government out of the hands of the people, and yet the existence of the House of Commons suggested that they might be more worthy of confidence than the monarchy.
"I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence; I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be so; that every thing short of that is mere patchwork, that it can afford no lasting felicity; that it is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when, a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.
He argues that a declaration be immediately drafted, and states his reasons why it is necessary to do so. While the colonies struggle under British rule, no foreign nation would look to offer aid and strengthen the ties between the colonies and Britain, for it would have negative consequences for them to do so. He concludes in a simple, yet eloquent comparison: avoiding the necessity of declaring independence can be likened to putting off an unpleasant duty with the hope that it might become easier in the future when in fact it only begins to feel more difficult to undertake.
Shortly after writing "Common Sense," Paine was appointed Secretary to the Committee of the United States on Foreign Affairs. It was his job to perform the basic duties of a clerk. He was forced to resign this position based on a quarrel he had with a delegate to France named Silas Deane. He worked during the war to promote the Continental Army, encouraging resistance.
When the war came to an end, Paine found himself in a precarious position financially. His connections among the friends of Benjamin Franklin supported him, and the new Continental Congress rewarded him $3,000 for his efforts. He also was gifted a farm in New Rochelle, New York. In the aftermath of the war, and during the establishment of the new system of government, Paine did not play as an active of a role as he had prior to it through his revolutionary propaganda.
Restless, he eventually left for Europe in 1787, splitting his time over the next four years between England and France. He starting working on a design for a type of iron bridge, and tried to find financial support for it. The Academy in Paris approved the design, which brought him to settle in France to work on it. Paine spent time with Thomas Jefferson while in Paris, and they maintained communication on the subject of the American Constitution and a "Bill of Rights" which both men thought should be added to it. While in Europe, Paine also worked on designs for a planing machine and several other designs.
While in London, Paine became aware of a pamphlet being published by an acquaintance of his, Edmund Burke, called Reflections on the French Revolution, which was highly critical of the revolutionaries and defended the British monarchy. In two parts, Paine published his influential text, Rights of Man, in response to criticism of the revolution in France. The ideas in the work were very similar to those in Common Sense; he spoke about the problems he felt were inherent in any form of hereditary government. In 1792, after publishing the second half of Rights of Man, he was made a citizen of France and was elected to the National Convention. Paine did not speak French, and had to have his speeches read for him and text translated. Due to these things, his effect on the convention wasn't very notable.
His moderate stance on many issues caused many of the extremists to suspect him, and as The Reign of Terror began in 1793, he was imprisoned by Maximilien Robespierre into the next year. He began work on The Age of Reason while in prison, which focused more on his views on religion and its effects on society. A stauch deist, Paine did not hesitate to make his criticism of Christianity and the Old Testament known in the work. In 1794 after the end of the Terror, James Monroe, the American minister, was able to obtain a release for Paine from prison.
Paine returned to the United States in 1802 on invitation from Thomas Jefferson. The presidency of John Adams had ended, taking with it one of Paine's major foes. His final years saw him ostracized and vilified by his critics in the United States and abroad. The "Age of Reason" so vividly dreamed of by Paine had been replaced in the United States by The Second Great Awakening, a time of religious revivalism that rejected the ideas of Thomas Paine. During 1802, he wrote open letters to the American public that were harshly critical of Federalism. He believed that the politicians in control of the government had taken advantage of profit opportunities created for them within the new system and were exploiting those possibilities for their personal gain. The years after saw him outcast from the political and intellectual "in" crowd that he used to be part of. In 1803, it was Paine who advised Jefferson during negotiations for The Louisiana Purchase, recommending that not only New Orleans be bought, but that the entire territory could be had due to the financially desperate situation France was in. He fell into poor health, no doubt caused in part by accelerating alcoholism. He died on June 8, 1809, and was buried in a corner of his farm in New Rochelle, New York. It has been said that on his deathbed, Paine retracted all of the criticisms he made of Christianity in The Age of Reason, stating:
"I would give worlds, if I had them, if The Age of Reason had never been published. Oh Lord, help me! Christ, help me! Stay with me! It is hell to be left alone."1
The work of Thomas Paine has been dismissed as mere propaganda by some, and, conversely, his work has been hailed as being responsible for helping shape the United States of America. Its importance is hard to ignore, but due to the political climate that existed during the time, it was viewed as intentionally inflammatory by many of his contemporaries. His work contains several central ideas.
- Social Reform and Workers' Rights: Paine's earliest writing was known for his defending average working men and women. He believed that workers should be compensated fairly, believing very strongly that a minimum wage ought to be established. He believed that all people deserve equal opportunities, and that any artificial construct that existed to the contrary that was caused or created by government should be abolished. This included the existence of slavery, and the absence of women's sufferage.
- Natural Rights: Paine believed that all people had certain rights that were naturally their own. From Common Sense, he believed those were liberty, property, security, and the resistance of oppression. He believed that the function of government was to protect those rights. He believed these rights to be independent of law (i.e., not removeable by law), yet should be protected by law. He thought that provisions should be made in a nation's constitution that named these rights directly, and that it ought to be precisely defined how the government should protect them.
- Democracy: Paine believed, mostly as a result of his dislike for the monarchy in his native England, that a democracy was the type of government most likely to defend the rights of the people. He believed that it should be created so that it would accurately mirror the ideas and concerns of its citizens.
- Deism: In his later work, most notably The Age of Reason, Paine expressed his belief that a single God existed that should be known through insight, reason and experience. He did not believe that the Bible was the word of God, but that people should seek to have their own personal understanding of God's nature rather than looking to it for their knowledge of him.
Ingersoll, Robert G. Thomas Paine. 1892. http://www.thomaspaine.org/bio/ingersoll1892.html
Kaye, Harvey J., Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Hill and Wang. 2005.
Paine, Thomas, African Slavery in America. 1775. http://www.thomaspaine.org/Archives/afri.html
Paine, Thomas, Common Sense and Other Writings. 2005.
Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man. 2005.
1Hart, Benjamin. Faith & Freedom. 1988. pp. 307-308.