Last Updated on January 29, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2513
Article abstract: Paine was a participant in both the American and French revolutions, and, through his writings, he attempted to foment revolution in England as well. He was interested in the new scientific ideas of his age, spent considerable energy on the design of an iron-arch bridge, and tried to resolve the age-old conflicts between science and religion by espousing Deism.
Thomas Paine was born February 9, 1737, in Thetford, England. His father, Joseph Pain (the son later added a final “e” to his name), was a Quaker staymaker. Working as a craftsman, he provided whalebone corsets for local women. Paine’s mother, Frances Cocke, the daughter of a local attorney, was an Anglican, older than her husband and of difficult disposition. As a daughter died in infancy, the Pains then concentrated all of their efforts on their son. Thomas was taught by a local schoolmaster from the age of seven to thirteen and then apprenticed to his father to learn the trade of a staymaker. This was clearly not entirely to his liking, as he managed at one point to run away and spend some time at sea. Upon his return, he practiced his craft in various places in England. In 1759, Paine married Mary Lambert, but his wife died a year later. Dissatisfied with his occupation, he tried others, including a brief stint at schoolteaching and perhaps also preaching. Still seeking his niche in the world, Paine returned home for a time to study for the competitive examination to become an excise collector. He passed the exam and obtained positions collecting customs revenues from 1764 to 1765 and from 1768 to 1774. He was twice dismissed from his posts for what higher authorities saw as laxity in the performance of his duties. The second dismissal came after Paine participated in efforts to obtain higher wages for excisemen, during the course of which he wrote a pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of the Excise (1772).
The time he spent on these endeavors, as well as his arguments, contributed to the loss of his position. Paine was married to Elizabeth Ollive in 1767, and, while continuing as an exciseman, he also helped her widowed mother and siblings run the family store. By 1774, the business was in bankruptcy, Paine and his wife had separated, and he was without a government position, with little prospect of regaining one. It was at this point in his life that Paine, so far a failure at everything he had tried to do, obtained a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin and moved to America.
Paine arrived in the Colonies at an auspicious moment. A dispute over “taxation without representation,” simmering between England and her colonists since the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, had led to the Boston Tea Party and then to the passage of the so-called Intolerable Acts. Paine obtained a position as editor for the new Pennsylvania Magazine, published in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, American feelings had boiled over, and the Revolutionary War had begun. As an author, Paine had finally found where his true talents lay. In January of 1776, he wrote Common Sense, a pamphlet attacking the king, advocating independence, and outlining the form of government that should be adopted. The work was a tremendous success, a consequence of its timely arguments as well as its clear, forceful language. Reprinted in numerous editions, passed from hand to hand, it reached an audience of unprecedented size. At age thirty-nine, Paine had at last achieved a measure of success. He went on to become the leading propagandist of the American Revolution.
During the war, Paine served as secretary to a commission on Indian affairs and as secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs of the Second Continental Congress. He resigned, under pressure, from the second position during a bitter political debate over the actions of Silas Deane. He later served as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Assembly and participated in a diplomatic venture to France, seeking additional help for the fledgling nation. He is best known, however, for his continued efforts to promote the American cause. By 1783, he had written a total of sixteen Crisis papers as well as other pamphlets. In the Crisis papers, with ringing language meant to stir the soul and bolster the war effort, he appealed to patriotic Americans to rally to the cause.
As the war came to a conclusion, Paine turned his efforts to providing some measure of financial security for himself. He appealed to the national Congress and a number of state legislatures for compensation for his previous literary efforts on behalf of the American cause. He was ultimately granted a small pension by Congress, land by the New York legislature, and money by the Pennsylvania government. The Virginia legislature refused to come to his aid after he wrote a pamphlet, The Public Good (1780), arguing that all the states should cede their Western land claims to the national government. In this work and others, Paine’s talents were utilized by those who wanted to bolster the powers of the central government. In 1786, he wrote a pamphlet, Dissertations on Government; the Affairs of the Bank; and Paper Money, in which he defended the Bank of America, chartered by Congress and the state of Pennsylvania as an instrument to raise money for the government and to aid commerce. In the course of this work, he condemned paper money, maintaining that anything but gold or silver was a dangerous fraud. Always interested in science and new technology, he also busied himself with designing an iron-arch bridge that would be able to span greater distances than was possible with existing methods. Unable to obtain sufficient money or interest for his project in the United States, he left for France in 1787 and from there made several trips to England, primarily to raise support for a workable model.
Paine arrived in France just as the French Revolution began to unfold, although this drama did not at first engage his attention. With the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Paine again took up his pen for a radical cause, producing, in two parts, The Rights of Man (1791, 1792). Whereas the conservative Burke emphasized the value of traditions and claimed that all change should come about gradually, Paine argued for government based on consent, defended revolution as a corrective remedy for unjust government, suggested ways to bring revolution to England, and proposed an early form of social welfare. The second part of The Rights of Man led to his being tried and convicted in absentia in England for seditious libel. Paine barely escaped arrest by the English authorities and took passage to France, where he became intimately involved in the course of the French Revolution.
When Paine returned to France in 1792, it was as an elected delegate to the French Assembly. There he was caught up, and ultimately overcome, by the tide of the revolution. Paine associated with the political representatives of the middle and upper classes, with literary figures, and with those who spoke English, never having mastered French sufficiently to converse without a translator. Despite his attacks on monarchy in his previous writings, the depths of French radicalism, the swiftness of change, and the quick trial and execution of the king all went beyond what he could support. Associated with the Girondist faction of French politics and an object of increasing antiforeign sentiment, Paine was arrested after the Jacobins achieved power; he subsequently spent ten agonizing months in jail while prisoners around him were carted off to the guillotine. Once the virulence of the revolution ran its course, Paine seemed less of a threat to those in power. As a result, a new American minister to France, James Monroe, was able to appeal for his release from prison, arguing that Paine was an American, rather than English, citizen.
While in prison, Paine began the last work for which he achieved fame, or, in this case, infamy: The Age of Reason (1794). The first part of this book was an attack on religion and a defense of Deism, while the second part was specifically aimed at Christianity and included numerous pointed refutations of biblical passages. It was a work that sparked in rebuttal many pamphlets in England and the United States and was also the source of much of the hostility directed against Paine in later years.
Paine’s spell in prison had undermined his health and warped his judgment, although he had never been astute in practical politics. Remaining in France, even though after 1795 he was no longer a member of the French Assembly, he wrote a pamphlet attacking George Washington and meddled in American foreign policy. In 1802, after an absence of fifteen years, he returned to the United States, taking up residence in, among other places, Washington, D.C., and New York City. He wrote letters and a few pamphlets, but he was anathema to the Federalists and a political liability to the Republicans. He died on June 8, 1809, in New York City, and his body was taken to the farm in New Rochelle, which the New York government had given him years before, and buried. Some time after his death, his bones were clandestinely dug up by an Englishman who took them off to England hoping to exhibit them; they ultimately disappeared.
Thomas Paine said that his country was the world, and his life illustrates the truth of this statement. His numerous pamphlets and books zeroed in on the main issues of his time, while the clarity and strength of his language have given his works an enduring appeal. He wrote in support of freedom from arbitrary government and against what he saw as outdated religious superstitions. In addition, he was an active participant in two major revolutions, as well as a friend and acquaintance of major figures in three countries. He was also the center of some controversy, at times difficult to tolerate, exhibiting a disinclination to bathe, a lack of care about his apparel, a propensity to drink, and a tendency to impose on the hospitality of friends for months, and even years, at a time. He was a complex and interesting individual who sparked debate in England, America, and elsewhere among his contemporaries—debate which has continued among historians since his death.
Paine’s interest for Americans, though, stems primarily from his authorship of Common Sense and the Crisis papers. He has frequently been described as the right man in the right place at the right time. The first pamphlet sold 120,000 copies in three months and went through twenty-five editions in 1776 alone. It met the needs of the moment and substantially helped push Americans toward independence. In it, Paine attacked monarchy as being “ridiculous” and George III for being the “Royal Brute of Great Britain.” He thought it absurd for England, an island, to continue to rule America, a continent. Paine maintained not only that it was “time to part” but also that it was America’s obligation to prepare a refuge for Liberty, “an asylum for mankind.” After independence was declared, Paine, in the first of his numerous Crisis papers, noted that in “times that try men’s souls,” the “summer soldier” or the “sunshine patriot” might “shrink from the service of his country,” but the true patriot will stand firm, conquer tyranny, and obtain the precious prize of freedom.
These stirring words, more than anything else he did or wrote in his long and controversial life, assured Paine’s place in history. Simply put, he was the most important propagandist of the American Revolution. As such, his later sojourns in England, France, and ultimately back in the United States constitute merely an interesting postscript to his real contribution to American history.
Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1959. This scholarly work, based on research in England and France, attempts to give a fair assessment of a complex man. Although the book at times is laudatory, Aldridge basically sees Paine’s life as a tragedy.
Clark, Harry Hayden. “Toward a Reinterpretation of Thomas Paine.” American Literature 5 (May, 1933): 133-145. Argues that Paine was less influenced by Quakerism than previous writers thought and also was less radical. Clark examines the growth of Paine’s mind, pointing to the influence of science and Deism and noting the extent to which Paine defended laissez-faire economics.
Conway, Moncure Daniel. The Life of Thomas Paine. 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892. The best nineteenth century biography, written by the first scholar to do extensive research on Paine, this is still a useful work. Conway also published a collection of Paine’s writings.
Dorfman, Joseph. “The Economic Philosophy of Thomas Paine.” Political Science Quarterly 53 (September, 1938): 372-386. Examines the economic ideas expressed in Paine’s major pamphlets and his other ideas that had economic implications, downplaying their radicalism.
Edwards, Samuel. Rebel! A Biography of Tom Paine. New York: Praeger, 1974. This is a popular biography that covers all of Paine’s life. It defends the achievements of Paine’s early years, emphasizing his radicalism, but is more critical of the older Paine, noting his eccentric behavior. Edwards accepts as fact some scandalous stories about Paine.
Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. This scholarly biography of Paine concentrates on his American years and on his radicalism. Foner analyzes Paine’s political and economic thought and emphasizes the degree to which he was consistent throughout his life.
Hawke, David Freeman. Paine. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974. The most complete biography of Paine. Hawke downplays Paine’s radicalism, noting that he frequently was only reflecting the ideas of his times, and emphasizes the degree to which he wrote pamphlets for pay. This is a scholarly work that portrays Paine with all of his warts.
Jordan, Wintrop D. “Familial Politics: Thomas Paine and the Killing of the King, 1776.” Journal of American History 60 (1973): 294-308. This article discusses the appeal of Common Sense and its significance in preparing the way for a republic by attacking the idea of monarchy in general and the “brute” George III in particular.
Paine, Thomas. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. Edited by Philip S. Foner. New York: Citadel Press, 1945. An accessible and well-prepared edition of Paine’s works; Foner also edited a paperback edition of Paine’s major pieces.
Penniman, Howard. “Thomas Paine—Democrat.” American Political Science Review 37 (April, 1943): 244-262. Concerning the economic and political ideas in Paine’s writings after 1791, this article emphasizes the degree to which Paine was a radical and a democrat.
Robbins, Caroline. “The Lifelong Education of Thomas Paine (1737-1809): Some Reflections upon His Acquaintance Among Books.” American Philosophical Society Proceedings 127 (October, 1983): 135-142. Robbins argues that Paine, no scholar, read books primarily for information and also learned from friends and associates.
Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1973. This defensive work was written by an Englishman and emphasizes Paine’s years in England. Offers some new information on Paine’s early years but on the whole is a rambling account.