‘I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine.’ So wrote John Adams in 1805. In an age of political pamphleteering, Paine had become the most influential pamphleteer of all. His writings remain classic statements of the egalitarian, democratic faith of the Age of Revolution.
Paine’s origins lay among the lower orders of eighteenth-century England. The son of a Quaker corset maker, he practiced his father’s trade and then worked as an excise tax collector. His father’s religion undoubtedly influenced Paine’s humanitarianism, and a strong interest in Newtonian science helped him develop a hatred for governments that rested on hereditary privilege.
Paine immigrated to Philadelphia in 1774 and soon became acquainted with advocates of political change. In January 1776, he published Common Sense, the first pamphlet to advocate American independence. It outlined ideas that would remain central to Paine’s thought: the superiority of republican government over a monarchical system, equality of rights among all citizens, and the world significance of the American Revolution. Paine transformed the struggle over the rights of English people into a contest with meaning for people everywhere. In a world ‘overrun with oppression,’ America would be ‘an asylum for mankind.’
Common Sense sold perhaps 150,000 copies in 1776, a tribute to both the persuasiveness of Paine’s argument and the clarity and power of his literary style. Addressing a mass audience unfamiliar with legal precedents, classical learning, and complex rhetoric, Paine strove for simplicity. The message conveyed by his style was of a piece with his democratic politics: to understand the nature of politics, all it takes is common sense.
For the next several years, Paine threw himself into the struggle for independence, writing the Crisis papers (which begin with the famous phrase, ‘These are the times that try men’s souls’) to bolster the morale of Washington’s army. He also took part in the movement that produced in Pennsylvania the era’s most democratic state constitution.
Returning to Europe in 1787, Paine soon entered the political debate launched by the French Revolution. His Rights of Man defended the revolution against the attacks of Edmund Burke and proffered a new vision of the republican state as a promoter of the social welfare, advocating such policies as progressive taxation, retirement benefits, and public employment. An even greater success than Common Sense, Rights of Man transformed English radicalism, linking demands for political reform with a social program for the lower classes.
Charged with seditious libel for advocating an end to monarchy in Britain, Paine fled to France, where he became one of a handful of foreigners elected to the National Convention. His opposition to the execution of the king alienated the Jacobins, and when they came to power, Paine found himself in prison. After his release in 1794, he produced his last great pamphlets: The Age of Reason, an exposition of deism and an attack on the basic principles of Christianity, and Agrarian Justice, a call for land reform.
After his return to America in 1802, Paine came under constant assault by evangelical Christians for his deist writings. Only six mourners attended the funeral of the man who had once inspired millions to think in new ways about the world. But Paine’s writings became part of the intellectual foundation for nineteenth-century radicalism.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.