Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737-June 8, 1809) is considered to be a "Founding Father" of the United States. As a pamphleteer, Paine had a significant impact upon the American Revolution. He is also notable for his writings regarding the French Revolution.
English by birth, Paine was raised in Norfolk among farmers and other common people. His formal education was minimal. His major accomplishment as a young man was to be fired twice in four years from his job as collector of excise taxes. His first recorded writing was a short article in favour of better salaries and working conditions. His mother was a member of the Church of England, and his father was a Quaker. There have been some historians who have argued he was strongly influenced in his views by his father. In his deistic tract 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 apprenticed as an exciseman in Grantham in Lincolnshire from December 1762 before serving as exciseman for Alford from August 1764. He was sacked for claiming to have inspected goods when in fact he had only seen the documentation. His appeal to be re-instated was successful and he was appointed to a position in Grampound in Cornwall on 15 May 1767. He asked for leave to await another vacancy and was appointed to Lewes on 19 February 1768. He had lodgings in the 15th Century Bull House. He was a member of the Headstrong Club, a debating club at the White Hart Inn. Paine petitioned Parliament on behalf of the Excisemen for better pay but was unsuccessful and was sacked. After a failed marriage, the bankruptcy of his shop and being fired as an Exciseman he left Lewes looking for a fresh start.
After meeting Benjamin Franklin in London, Paine emigrated to America in September 1774 where he published an antislavery tract and became co-editor of Pennsylvania Magazine. No great fan of the British Monarchy, Paine soon became an articulate spokesman for the American independence movement. Paine's pro-independence pamphlet Common Sense, published on January 10 of 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 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.
In 1791, Paine published Rights of Man, an abstract political tract published in support of the French Revolution. 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. 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 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.
There is a museum in New Rochelle, New York in his honor.