Thomas Paine was an England-born political philosopher and writer who supported revolutionary causes in America and Europe. Published in 1776 to international acclaim, Common Sense was the first pamphlet to advocate American independence. After writing the The American Crisis papers during the Revolutionary War, Paine returned to Europe and offered a stirring defense of the French Revolution with Rights of Man. His political views led to a stint in prison; after his release, he produced his last great essay, The Age of Reason, a controversial critique of institutionalized religion and Christian theology.
THOMAS PAINE’S EARLY YEARS
Thomas Paine was born January 29, 1737, in Norfolk, England, the son of a Quaker corset maker and his older Anglican wife.
Paine apprenticed for his father but dreamed of a naval career, attempting once at age 16 to sign onto a ship called The Terrible, commanded by someone named Captain Death, but Paine’s father intervened.
Three years later he did join the crew of the privateer ship King of Prussia, serving for one year during the Seven Years’ War.
PAINE EMIGRATES TO AMERICA
In 1768, Paine began work as an excise officer on the Sussex coast. In 1772, he wrote his first pamphlet, an argument tracing the work grievances of his fellow excise officers. Paine printed 4,000 copies and distributed them to members of British Parliament.
In 1774, Paine met Benjamin Franklin, who is believed to have persuaded Paine to emigrate to America, providing Paine with a letter of introduction. Three months later, Paine was on a ship to America, nearly dying from a bout of scurvy.
Paine immediately found work in journalism when he arrived in Philadelphia, becoming managing editor of Philadelphia Magazine.
Paine’s most famous pamphlet, Common Sense, was first published on January 10, 1776, selling out its thousand printed copies immediately. By the end of that year, 150,000 copies – an enormous amount for its time – had been printed and sold. (It remains in print today.)
Common Sense is credited as playing a crucial role in convincing colonists to take up arms against England. In it, Paine argues that representational government is superior to a monarchy or other forms of government based on aristocracy and heredity.
Paine also claimed that the colonies needed to break with England in order to survive and that there would never be a better moment in history for that to happen. He argued that America was related to Europe as a whole, not just England, and that it needed to freely trade with nations like France and Spain.
‘THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN’S SOULS’
The terrible condition of Washington’s troops during the winter of 1776 prompted Paine to publish a series of inspirational pamphlets known as The American Crisis, which opens with the famous line “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
POLITICAL CAREER OF THOMAS PAINE
Starting in April 1777, Paine worked for two years as secretary to the Congressional Committee for Foreign Affairs and then became the clerk for the Pennsylvania Assembly at the end of 1779.
In March 1780, the assembly passed an abolition act that freed 6,000 slaves, to which Paine wrote the preamble.
Paine didn’t make much money from his government work and no money from his pamphlets – despite their unprecedented popularity – and in 1781 he approached Washington for help. Washington appealed to Congress to no avail, and went so far as to plead with all the state assemblies to pay Paine a reward for his work.
Only two states agreed: New York gifted Paine a house and a 277-acre estate in New Rochelle, while Pennsylvania awarded him a small monetary compensation.
Rights of Man
Paine published his book Rights of Man in two parts in 1791 and 1792, a rebuttal of the writing of Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke and his attack on the French Revolution, of which Paine was a supporter.
Paine journeyed to Paris to oversee a French translation of the book in the summer of 1792. Paine’s visit was concurrent with the capture of Louis XVI, and he witnessed the monarch’s return to Paris.
Paine himself was threatened with execution by hanging when he was mistaken for an aristocrat, and he soon ran afoul of the Jacobins, who eventually ruled over France during the Reign of Terror, the bloodiest and most tumultuous years of the French Revolution.
In 1793 Paine was arrested for treason because of his opposition to the death penalty, most specifically the mass use of the guillotine and the execution of Louis XVI. He was detained in Luxembourg, where he began work on his next book, The Age of Reason.
ATTACKING GEORGE WASHINGTON
Released in 1794, partly thanks to the efforts of President James Monroe, Paine became convinced that George Washington had conspired with French revolutionary politician Maximilien de Robespierre to have Paine imprisoned.
In retaliation, Paine published his “Letter to George Washington” attacking his former friend, accusing him of fraud and corruption in the military and as president.
But Washington was still very popular, and the letter diminished Paine’s popularity in America. The Federalists used the letter in accusations that Paine was a tool for French revolutionaries who also sought to overthrow the new American government.
THE AGE OF REASON
Paine’s two-volume treatise on religion, The Age of Reason, was published in 1794 and 1795, with a third part appearing in 1802.
The first volume functions as a criticism of Christian theology and organized religion in favor of reason and scientific inquiry. Though often mistaken as an atheist text, The Age of Reason is actually an advocacy of deism and a belief in God.
The second volume is a critical analysis of the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible, questioning the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Immediately following the Washington debacle, however, The Age of Reason marked the end of Paine’s credibility in the United States, where he became largely despised.
THOMAS PAINE’S FINAL YEARS
Still, newspapers denounced him and he was sometimes refused services. A minister in New York was dismissed because he shook hands with Paine.
In 1806, despite failing health, Paine worked on the third part of his Age of Reason, and also a criticism of Biblical prophesies called An Essay on Dream.
Paine died on June 8, 1809, in New York City, and was buried on his property in New Rochelle. On his deathbed, his doctor asked him if he wished to accept Jesus Christ before passing. “I have no wish to believe on that subject,” Paine replied before taking his final breath.
Paine’s remains were stolen in 1819 by British radical newspaperman William Cobbett and shipped to England in order to give Paine a more worthy burial. Paine’s bones were discovered by customs inspectors in Liverpool, but allowed to pass through.
Cobbett claimed that his plan was to display Paine’s bones in order to raise money for a proper memorial. He also fashioned jewelry made with hair removed from Paine’s skull for fundraising purposes.
Cobbett spent some time in Newgate Prison and after briefly being displayed, Paine’s bones ended up in Cobbett’s cellar until he died. Estate auctioneers refused to sell human remains and the bones became hard to trace.
Rumors of the remains’ whereabouts sprouted up through the years with little or no validation, including an Australian businessman who claimed to purchase the skull in the 1990s.
In 2001, the city of New Rochelle launched an effort to gather the remains and give Paine a final resting place. The Thomas Paine National Historical Association in New Rochelle claims to have possession of brain fragments and locks of hair.
Thomas Paine. Jerome D. Wilson and William F. Ricketson.
Thomas Paine. A.J. Ayer.
The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine. Paul Collins.
Rehabilitating Thomas Paine, Bit by Bony Bit. The New York Times.