Thomas Paine

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What are some specific observations or reactions to the work of Thomas Paine?

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Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was an important writer and political figure in the eighteenth century. Born in England to a Quaker father and an Anglican mother, he received his education from a grammar school, which would have included reading, writing, and arithmetic—although his father would not allow him to study Latin—which was a normal part of the curriculum. His father was a stay-maker, a trade that would have given him a modest income, placing him in an economic class above that of peasants or agricultural workers but not making him a member of the gentry. It was this class of dissenters (people who were not members of the Church of England) and tradespeople that were the main impetus toward reform, including calls for greater religious liberty, broadening the political franchise, and reducing the concentration of power and wealth.

Paine himself was a rebellious youth; he had an erratic and colorful early life which included running away from home to work as a sailor on a privateer, teaching school, preaching in a Methodist chapel, and working for the government as an excise officer. His first major publication was a 1772 pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise, which asked for higher pay. This marked the beginning of a long career publishing on issues of politics, religion, and social justice. In 1774, he obtained letters of introduction to Benjamin Franklin and moved to America where he wrote, among other things, the enormously successful 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, which advocated for an American Revolution.

The first important thing we can observe is that even after he obtained a certain degree of success as a writer, allowing him the possibility of a degree of financial security, his innate restlessness and rebelliousness always seemed to take over and get him in trouble. His writing very much reflects his character in that it is always writing against the status quo, and his usual viewpoint is that of the outsider or underdog protesting against something. Unlike the gradualism of Burke, Paine's work is characterized by impatience, advocating immediate and radical change, an intellectual bent that reflects his personal temperament.

Paine distrusted religion both because he saw it as opposed to reason and because, especially in England where the Church of England was an established state religion, he saw churches as allied to oppressive political regimes. His objections to links between "throne and altar" was one shared by members of the European Enlightenment. In Europe, the Roman Catholic Church often had close ties to absolute monarchies. Paine's writing on religion should thus be seen in two contexts: first in a philosophical context which is grounded in admiration for science and reason and sees Biblical stories (especially those with miraculous components) as absurd, and secondly, a political context in which religion is viewed as politically oppressive.

Much of Paine's writing seems motivated by a fierce desire for social justice. Whether supporting the American and French Revolutions, opposing absolute monarchy, opposing church hierarchies and establishments, or opposing slavery, Paine's work is passionate. Although he advocates reason and science and constantly emphasizes their importance, his emotional tone is one of strong conviction rather than scientific neutrality.

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