Thomas Paine

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Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737June 8, 1809), intellectual, scholar, and idealist, is widely recognized as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A radical pamphleteer, Paine anticipated and helped foment the American Revolution through his powerful writings, most notably Common Sense, an incendiary tract advocating independence from Great Britain. An advocate for liberalism and constitutional republican government, he outlined his political philosophy in The Rights of Man, written both as a reply to Edmund Burke's view of the radical revolution in France and as a general political philosophy treatise. Paine was also noteworthy for his support of deism, taking its form in his treatise on religion The Age of Reason, as well as for his eye-witness accounts of both the French and American Revolutions.



Paine was born on January 29, 1737, to impoverished parents: Joseph Paine, a (lapsed) Quaker, and Frances Cocke Paine, an Anglican, in Thetford, Norfolk, in eastern England. His sister Elizabeth died at seven months. Paine, who grew up around farmers and other uneducated people, left school at the age of twelve. He was apprenticed to his father, a corset maker, at 13, apparently failing at this as well. At 19, Paine became a merchant seaman, serving a short time before returning to England in April 1759. There he set up a corset shop in Sandwich, Kent. In September of that year, Paine married. Following a move to Margate, his wife Mary Lambert 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 transfered, this time to Alford, where his salary was £50 a year. On 27 August 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 for a Mr Gardiner at Kensington). He also applied to become an ordained minister of the Church of England, and according to some accounts he preached in Moorfields.

On 15 May 1767 Paine was appointed to a position in Grampound, Cornwall. He was subsequently asked to leave this post to await another vacancy, and he became a schoolteacher in London. On 19 February 1768 Paine was appointed to Lewes, East Sussex. 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 became involved for the first time in civic matters, with Samuel Ollive introducing him into the Society of Twelve, a local élite group which 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.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

On March 26, 1771 he married his landlord's daughter, Elizabeth Ollive.

Paine lobbied Parliament for better pay and working conditions for excisemen, and in 1772 he 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.

Paine was also an inventor, receiving a patent in Europe for the single-span iron bridge. He developed a smokeless candle, and worked with John Fitch on the early development of steam engines. This inventiveness, coupled with his originality of thought, found a firm advocate more than a century later in Edison who championed Paine and helped rescue him from his relative obscurity.


Some believe Paine may have begun to form his early views on natural justice while listening to the Puritan mob jeering and attacking those punished in the stocks. Others have argued that he was influenced by his Quaker father. In The Age of Reason – Paine's treatise in support of deism – he 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 revere their philanthropy, I cannot help smiling at [their] conceit; … if the taste of a Quaker [had] been consulted at the Creation, what a silent and drab-colored Creation it would have been! Not a flower would have blossomed its gaieties, nor a bird been permitted to sing.

Paine advocated a liberal world view, considered radical in his day. He dismissed monarchy, and viewed all government as, at best, a necessary evil. He opposed slavery and was amongst the earliest proponents of social security, universal free public education, a guaranteed minimum wage, and many other radical ideas now common practice in most western democracies.

With regard to his religious views, in The Age of Reason, Paine stated:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

He described himself as a "Deist" and commented:

How different is [Christianity] to the pure and simple profession of Deism! The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical.

Paine published an early anti-slavery tract [1] and was co-editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. [2], [3]

American Revolution

Common Sense, published 1776
Common Sense, published 1776

Common Sense, Paine's pro-independence monograph published anonymously in January 1776, spread quickly among literate colonists. As many as half a million copies are alleged to have been distributed throughout the colonies which themselves totalled only a few million free inhabitants. This work convinced many colonists, including George Washington, to seek redress in political independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. The work was greatly influenced (including in its name – Paine had originally proposed the title Plain Truth) by the equally controversial pro-independence writer Benjamin Rush, and was instrumental in bringing about the Declaration of Independence.

Paine's strength lay in his ability to present complex ideas in clear and concise form, as opposed to the more rhetorical philosophical approaches of his Enlightenment contemporaries in Europe, and it was Paine who proposed the name United States of America for the new nation. When the war arrived, Paine published a series of important pamphlets, The Crisis, credited with inspiring the early colonists during the ordeals faced in their long struggle with the British. The first Crisis paper, published on December 23, 1776, began with the famous words:

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; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

General Washington himself found it so uplifting that he ordered it to be read to all his troops.

In 1778, Paine alluded to the then ongoing secret negotiations with France in his pamphlets, and there was a scandal which resulted in Paine being dropped from the Committee on Foreign Affairs. In 1781, however, he accompanied John Laurens during his mission to France. His services were eventually recognized by the state of New York by a grant of an estate at New Rochelle, and he received considerable gifts of money from both Pennsylvania and – at Washington's suggestion – from Congress.

French Revolution

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Returning to Europe, Paine finished his Rights of Man on January 29, 1791. On January 31 he passed the manuscript to the publisher Joseph Johnson, who intended to have it ready for Washington's birthday on February 22. 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 appeared on March 13, 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, prudently, already left for Paris, on the advice of William Blake.

He wrote a second part of the Rights of Man, which contains also a plan for the reformation of England, including one of the first proposals for a progressive income tax.

Paine was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, and despite being a foreigner he was elected to the National Convention, representing the district of Pas de Calais. He voted for the French Republic; but argued in the assembly against the execution of Louis XVI, saying that he should instead be exiled to the United States of America: firstly, because of the way royalist France had come to the aid of the American Revolution; and secondly because of a moral objection to capital punishment in general and to revenge killings in particular. That was enough to bring Paine – who had never been noted for his diplomacy – into conflict with the increasingly out-of-control revolutionary leaders; although he was also imprisoned for being an enemy alien, since Great Britain had declared war on France.

Paine protested that he was an American citizen; but Gouverneur Morris, the American ambassador to France, refused to admit this. Morris, despite claims of official instructions, appears to have been acting on his own, for private motives; but Paine thought that George Washington had abandoned him, and was to quarrel with him for the rest of his life.

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 cell 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, he further developed ideas proposed in the Rights of Man concerning the way in which the institution of land ownership separated the great majority of persons from their rightful natural inheritance and means of independent survival. The Social Security Administration of the United States recognizes Agrarian Justice as the first American proposal for an old-age pension. In Agrarian Justice Paine writes:

In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity… [Government must] create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property; And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

In 1800, Napoleon purportedly had a meeting with Paine and stated that "a statue of gold should be erected to him in every city of the earth". However, Paine quickly moved from admiration to condemnation as he saw Napoleon's moves towards dictatorship. Paine remained in France until 1802 when he returned to America on an invitation from Thomas Jefferson.

Last years

Derided by the public and abandoned by his friends on account of his religious views, Paine died at 59 Grove Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, on June 8, 1809. At the time of his death, most US 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, two of whom were black, most likely freedmen. A few years later, the agrarian radical William Cobbett dug up and shipped his bones back to England. The plan was to give Paine a heroic reburial on his native soil, but the bones were still among Cobbett's effects when he died over twenty years later. There is no confirmed story about what happened to them after that, although down the years various people have claimed to own Paine's skull, or his right hand.


Thomas Paine's writings had great influence on his contemporaries, especially the American revolutionaries. His books inspired both philosophical and working-class Radicals in the United Kingdom; and he is often claimed as an intellectual ancestor by United States liberals, libertarians, progressives and radicals. Both Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Alva Edison read him with respect. There is a museum in New Rochelle, New York, in his honour, and a statue of him stands in King Street in Thetford, Norfolk: his place of birth; the statue holds a quill and his book, The Rights Of Man; the book is upside down.

See also

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