Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737–June 8, 1809) was a widely recognized intellectual, scholar, and idealist who is considered to be one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. As a radical pamphleteer, Paine impacted the American Revolution with his powerful writings, most famously Common Sense, his revolutionary tract advocating independence from Britain. Paine was notable for his belief in deism and his writings on the French Revolution.
Paine was born in eastern England, in Thetford, Norfolk. His father, Joseph Paine, was a corseter and Quaker, while his mother, Frances "Cocke" Paine, belonged to the Church of England. Paine's sister Elizabeth died at seven months old, and he grew up around farmers and other common people, and at the age of twelve, failed out of school. He began work as an apprentice with his father at age thirteen, but failed at this as well. At age 19, Paine became a sailor, where he served a very short time before returning to England in April 1759, setting up a corset shop in Sandwich, Kent. In September 1759, Paine married; after moving to Margate, his wife died in 1760.
In July 1761, Paine returned to Thetford where he worked as a supernumerary officer. In December 1762, he became an excise officer in Grantham, Lincolnshire; in August 1764 he was again transferred, this time to Alford, where his salary was £50 a year. On August 27, 1765, Paine was discharged from his post for claiming to have inspected goods when in fact he had only seen the documentation. On July 3, 1766, he wrote a letter to the board of excise asking to be reinstated, and the next day the board granted his request to be filled upon vacancy. While waiting for an opening, Paine worked as a staymaker in Diss, Norfolk, and later as a servant (records show he worked for a Mr. Noble of Goodman's Fields and then a Mr. Gardiner at Kensington). He also applied to become an ordained Minister of the Church of England, and according to some accounts preached in Moorfields.
On May 15, 1767, Paine was appointed to a position in Grampound, Cornwall. He later was asked to leave to await another vacancy, and was a schoolteacher in London at this time. On February 19, 1768, Paine was appointed to Lewes, Censored page; he moved into the room above the 15th century Bull House, a building which held the snuff and tobacco shop of Samuel and Esther Ollive. Here Paine first became involved in civic matters, with Samuel Ollive introducing him into the Society of Twelve, a group of town elites who met twice a year to discuss town issues. In addition, Paine participated in the Vestry, the influential church group that collected taxes and tithes and distributed them to the poor.
Paine lobbied Parliament for better pay and working conditions for exisemen, and in 1772 published The Case of the Officers of Excise, a 21-page article and his first political work. In September 1774, Paine met Benjamin Franklin in London. Franklin advised Paine to emigrate to the British colonies in America, and wrote him letters of recommendation. Paine left England in October, arriving in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 30. Just before he left, Paine and his second wife, with whom he did not get along, were legally separated.
It is thought by some that, at a relatively early age, Paine may have begun to form his early views on natural justice while sitting in the Quaker Meeting House in Thetford, listening to the mob jeering and attacking the unfortunates convicted to be punished in the stocks outside. There have been some historians who have argued he was strongly influenced in his views by his father. In his deistic tract The Age of Reason, Paine writes:
The religion that approaches the nearest of all others to true Deism, in the moral and benign part thereof, is that professed by the Quakers... Though I reverence their philanthropy, I cannot help smiling at the conceit, that if the taste of a Quaker could have been consulted at the creation, what a silent and drab-colored creation it would have been! Not a flower would have blossomed its gayeties, nor a bird been permitted to sing.
Paine advocated a liberal world view, which was radical at the time. He had no use for royalty, and viewed government as a necessary evil. He opposed slavery and was an early supporter of social security, public education, genuinely unconditional grant and many other ideas that came to fruition decades later. He was a Deist and outspoken critic of organized religion.
Paine published an antislavery tract and became co-editor of Pennsylvania Magazine. As a republican, Paine soon became an articulate spokesman for the American independence movement. Paine's pro-independence pamphlet Common Sense, published on January 10 1776, quickly became well known to every literate colonist. It is claimed that as many as half a million copies may have been distributed in a country with only a few million inhabitants.
Legend tells that Paine was tarred and feathered at one time in New Jersey, but no proof exists of this legend. Many scurrilous tales about Paine were circulated, first by the British during the time of the American Revolution, and later by his political opponents.
Thomas Paine used his powerful ability to present ideas common to his time in clear form, in contrast with highly philosophical approaches used by his colleagues.
Common Sense convinced many Americans, including George Washington, to seek redress in political independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Benjamin Rush had a great influence on this work, as well as its name (Paine had proposed the title Plain Truth). It was instrumental in bringing about the Declaration of Independence. Paine also has the distinction of being the man who proposed the name United States of America for the new nation.
During the Revolutionary War Paine published a series of pamphlets called The American Crisis that served to inspire Americans during the long struggle. The first Crisis paper, published December, 1776, began with the immortal line, "These are the times that try men's souls". Following a series of military failures, morale was wavering among the Patriot army. The first Crisis paper was so uplifting that Washington had it read to all of his troops.
He was also an inventor, receiving a patent in Europe for the single span iron bridge, working with John Fitch on steam engines, and developing a smokeless candle.
Paine finished his Rights of Man on 29 January 1791. On 31 January he passed the manuscript to publisher Joseph Johnson, who intended to have it ready for Washington's birthday on 22 February. Johnson was visited on a number of occasions by agents of the government; sensing that Paine's book would be controversial, he decided not to release it on the day it was due to be published. Paine quickly began to negotiate with another publisher, J.S. Jordan. Once the deal was secured, Paine left for Paris, leaving three good friends, William Godwin, Thomas Brand Hollis and Thomas Holcroft, in charge of the final arrangements. The book appeard on 13 March, 3 weeks later than planned. It was an abstract political tract published in support of the French Revolution, written as a reply to Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke. The book — which was highly critical of monarchies and European social institutions — was so controversial that the British government put Paine on trial in absentia for seditious libel. Paine had already (prudently) left for Paris.
Although Paine was an enthusiatic supporter of the French Revolution, as a member of the National Convention, he opposed the execution of Louis XVI and advocated he be exiled to the USA instead. That was enough to bring Paine — who was never noted for his diplomacy — into conflict with the increasingly out-of-control revolutionary leaders. Imprisoned and sentenced to death by Robespierre, Paine escaped beheading apparently by chance. A guard walked through the prison placing a chalk mark on the doors of the condemned prisoners. He placed one on Paine's door — but because a doctor was treating Paine at that moment, the prison door was open. When the doctor left, the door was swung closed, such that the chalk mark faced into the cell. Later, when the condemned prisoners were rounded up for execution, Paine was spared because there was no apparent chalk mark on his cell door.
In prison, convinced he would soon be dead, Paine wrote The Age of Reason, an assault on organized religion. A second part was written and published after his release from prison. The content of the work can be briefly summarized in this quotation:
- The opinions I have advanced... are the effect of the most clear and long-established conviction that the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world, that the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty; that the only true religion is Deism, by which I then meant, and mean now, the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues—and that it was upon this only (so far as religion is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness hereafter. So say I now—and so help me God.
Paine published his last great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, in the winter of 1795-1796. In this pamphlet, Paine further developed ideas proposed in the Rights of Man as to how the institution of land ownership separated the great majority of persons from their rightful natural inheritance and means of independent survival. The U.S. Social Security Administration recognizes Agrarian Justice as the first American proposal for an old-age pension .
Paine died at 59 Grove Street in Greenwich Village, in New York City on June 8, 1809. At the time of his death, most U.S. newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New York Citizen , which read in part: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." Only six mourners came to his funeral.
Thomas Paine's writings have greatly affected Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, as well as his other contemporaries such as George Washington. There is a museum in New Rochelle, New York in his honor, and a statue of him stands in King Street in Thetford, Norfolk, his place of birth.
- There are only five statues of Thomas Paine in the world
- The Major & Minor Works, and Letters of Thomas Paine