Thomas Paine Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

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.

Early Life

Thomas Paine was born January 29, 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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2513 words.)