Thomas Paine

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2263

Thomas Paine 1737-1809

(Born Thomas Pain) English pamphleteer and essayist.

Thomas Paine, a largely self-educated Englishman who was a corset-maker by trade, has been recognized as a primary force in the American Revolution since its instigation in 1775; he was similarly influential in the French Revolution, sparked in 1789. Several commentators have credited Paine with turning the tide of American opinion from tepid colonial discontent to the revolutionary conviction necessary for independence. Unlike other leading men of the revolution, such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, Paine enjoyed none of the advantages of wealth, such as social status and extensive formal education. Paine, however, turned his disadvantages into advantages, positioning himself as the spokesman of the American populace—a population he moved profoundly with the publication of the pamphlet Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America early in 1776, a work that was in itself revolutionary in its vernacular style and directness. Because of his many writings and efforts on behalf of newly-emerging democratic governments, Paine has become emblematic of the modern struggle for human rights and social justice. He was also considered to be ahead of his time in his critiques of slavery, unfair labor practices, gender inequality, and even cruelty to animals.

Biographical Information

Paine was born in the small village of Thetford in England on January 29, 1737. His father was a Quaker and a middle-class tradesman—he made stays for women's corsets. At a time when only upper-class men received an extensive formal education, Paine had only six years of the typical English curriculum—English, Latin, Greek, mathematics—before he had to go to work with his father in the family business. At nineteen (some biographers say sixteen), he joined in England's war effort against France, signing on with the privateer ship The King of Prussia. In 1757, he began supporting himself as a staymaker, living for two years first in London, then Dover, then Sandwich, where he married Mary Lambert in 1759; within a year, she passed away. Paine began his career as a civil servant in 1761, when he became an excise officer—a customs official—in Lincolnshire, a post he held with only one brief interruption until 1774. He married again in 1771, to Elizabeth Ollive of Lewes. It was also during this year that he began to display evidence of his future calling, when he took up the cause of excise officers who felt they received an unfair wage. Paine wrote a pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise (1772), to argue on their behalf and, in 1772-1773, went to London to lobby Parliament, unsuccessfully, for consideration. All he won for his effort, however, was a permanent dismissal from his post in 1774. That same year, he and his wife opted for a separation.

On the verge of bankruptcy, Paine went to London, where he became acquainted with Benjamin Franklin, who convinced him to try his luck in the British colonies in North America. Paine began his American career in Philadelphia, where he became a writer for a monthly periodical called the Pennsylvania Magazine. (Paine added the "e" to his surname after his arrival in America.) Paine had never stopped pursuing his education. He read everything he could find and attended lectures in every city in which he lived. He socialized with men more learned than himself, many of them scholars, and consulted with them informally as tutors. Paine's early success at the Pennsylvania Magazine—he became editor in 1775—was largely due to his style, which was uncommonly accessible to a general readership. Nonetheless, Paine left the journal, it is believed, in the fall of 1775. He was, all the same, already at work on his first significant work, a slim pamphlet called Common Sense. Published in January of 1776, it captured in succinct and persuasive prose otherwise unexpressed revolutionary sentiment. Although military conflict between Great Britain and the colonies had begun in the spring of the previous year, most Americans still sought some form of reconciliation with England. Common Sense, as most commentators since have argued, laid to rest the colonial mindset, replacing it with the fervent desire for national independence. The work sold over 100,000 copies in its first two months, and, published anonymously, was assumed to be the work of men much more well-known and well-educated than Paine, including John Adams and Franklin.

Without employment in 1776, Paine dedicated his body as well as his pen to the revolutionary cause, joining up with the Pennsylvania militia. He continued writing to his very broad, enthusiastic audience, penning sixteen pamphlets under the title The Crisis, or The American Crisis, the first of which appeared at the end of 1776. The publication of these pamphlets continued through to April 1783, when the war ended. Paine left the army at the beginning of 1777, convinced that he was not serving the revolution best in that capacity. Instead he became a commission secretary to several government bodies, including the Continental Congress. He served the Congress until 1779, when political complications forced him out of that position; he was then elected clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Despite his successes as a pamphleteer and his many positions, Paine found himself once again penniless at the war's end in 1783: he had given all his profits from his publications to support the war. The states of Pennsylvania and New York and the new nation, via Congress, made him several gifts of cash and land. By the end of the decade Paine had become involved in many new projects, including a passion for bridge design; the latter took him to France in 1787, just as the revolutionary fervor there was mounting. He remained in Paris until July of 1791, serving the French Revolution in many capacities, even though he did not speak the language at all.

Edmund Burke, a prominent English statesman, published his influential criticism of France, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in 1790. Many defenders of France published responses, but the most significant of these replies was Paine's, the first part of which appeared in 1791. Completed in 1792, Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke's Attack on the French Revolution sold millions of copies in France and England. As with Common Sense, this publication made Paine both revered and despised in his homeland. Consequently, Paine's attempt to resettle in London was cut short; he fled in 1792, just ahead of the officers seeking his arrest on charges of high treason. He was convicted in absentia. Taking sanctuary in France, Paine was elected to several positions in the National Assembly and appointed to the committee responsible for framing the new constitution. The tenor of the French Revolution, however, diverged from Paine's values as it moved into a bloodthirsty phase commonly known as the "Terror," during which "enemies of the people"—both members of the former ruling class and less radical revolutionaries—were imprisoned and guillotined. Speaking against the planned execution of Louis XVI, the deposed king, Paine found himself incarcerated by the end of 1793, where he remained until James Monroe, the American ambassador to France, secured his release late in 1794. Restored to his position in the French government soon after, Paine remained in France until 1802. He produced his last significant pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, in 1797.

Paine immigrated to America again in 1802, although his reputation with Americans had been greatly damaged by several of his publications from the previous decade: The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Famous Theology (1794-1795), which critiqued organized religion and struck many readers as blasphemous, and the Letter to George Washington, President of the United States of America, on Affairs Public and Private (1796), which viciously attacked a man revered by Americans. Nonetheless, he remained in the United States until he passed away, largely unnoticed, on June 8, 1809.

Major Works

Although Paine produced articles and pamphlets almost nonstop after his arrival in colonial America, certain works stand out for their influence both at the time of their publication and over the ensuing centuries. Some, including Common Sense and Rights of Man, have become almost legendary, inspiring activists engaged in causes years after Paine's death; President Abraham Lincoln, for example, read Paine's works as he fought to end slavery in the United States.

Paine's writings share a generally consistent viewpoint and goal; although scholars can chart some changes in Paine's thinking, the framework of his perspective remained stable over the years. His style also remained largely the same, always remarkable for its difference from the dominant prose of the era, which consisted of complex sentences proposing complex arguments, written by highly-educated men for an audience of other highly-educated men. Paine, on the other hand, wrote to the broad mass of people in England and America, most of whom would have only as much as, if not less than, his six years of formal schooling. Consequently, his sentences were much more simple and direct, and his arguments turned on one or two accessible principles and pursued persuasion through clarity and repetition. He avoided the allusions and metaphors typical of prose for the highly literate, and chose instead references that would be available to common laborers and tradespeople. Sharing these standards, his major works differed from one another primarily in their focuses, which were often determined by the moment in which they were written.

Common Sense not only marks the real starting point of Paine's career as a pamphleteer in 1776, it also typifies his work. Rather than proposing any new political philosophies, Common Sense was remarkable for gathering up, in a sharp and powerful statement, the scattered strands of revolutionary thought. Once presented to the American public in this form, these arguments for America's need to cut itself free, both politically and economically, from the monarchy of the British Empire, instigated the drive to independence. A no-holds-barred critique of monarchy, Common Sense argued that Americans owed no loyalty to King George III or any hereditary ruler. Historians also credit Paine with maintaining the revolutionary spirit throughout the war years, from 1776 to 1783, with the many issues of The American Crisis, each of which offered further critiques of England and justifications for the American fight. The first issue began with the now legendary declaration that "These are the times that try men's souls."

With Rights of Man, published in 1791 and 1792 as a reply to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paine's criticisms of hereditary government became their most explicit and demanding. His attacks on the monarchy and the aristocracy, meant to inspire the English populace to their own acts of revolution, also roused the ire of the ruling classes: unlike his previous works, this one was declared treasonous and caused his exile from England. Part I offers an explanation of the purpose of government, which Paine saw as essentially democratic—that is, it could exist legitimately only by the consent of the governed. Part II constituted an undisguised call for English subjects to topple the monarchy and create a constitutional democracy. In The Age of Reason, Paine turned his anti-establishment gaze on religious institutions, arguing that organized religions perpetuate oppression and ignorance. He espoused, instead, a deistic faith based on reason and consistent with a scientific view of nature. Many of the views he expressed shared the basic assumptions of other thinkers of the era; nonetheless, Paine incurred much more anger than did other rationalists, particularly with his direct efforts to refute many of the central tenets of Christianity. Although some critics would consider this his final significant work, other major works include Agrarian Justice, written in 1797, which most clearly articulates Paine's economic views. Written in the context of land reform debates in post-revolutionary France, the pamphlet suggests methods to eliminate the exploitation of laborers and to achieve a more equal distribution of wealth.

Critical Reception

By the time Paine passed away, he had fallen far from the pinnacle of his celebrity in revolutionary America. Even in the land where he had contributed the most directly to the success of the nation, he had become forgotten at best and despised at worst. He had contributed to this fall himself in a variety of ways, particularly with the publication of The Age of Reason and the Letter to George Washington, but his loss of public favor was also due to certain detractors. James Cheetham, most prominently, cemented an unpopular image of Paine with a biography published in 1809; that work set Paine's image for at least another century. Despite some isolated efforts to reassess Paine's image in the nineteenth century, and the admiration of some respected readers, including Abraham Lincoln, Paine's reputation held its taint through even the beginning of the twentieth century, when Theodore Roosevelt repeated the old charge that Paine was a "filthy little atheist."

It remained for scholars in the twentieth century to rediscover Paine and his work. Such scholars gradually developed a new view of the significance and complexity of Paine's writings. For these critics, discussions generally turned on several key issues. Early in this century, for example, there was still considerable debate about Paine's originality as a political thinker, many critics seeking to undermine his value by pointing out that the content of his works was largely derivative. More recently, however, it has become commonplace to find Paine's significance in his ability to articulate those ideas in original and fundamentally "democratic" language. Scholars such as Olivia Smith, for example, identify Paine as the progenitor of a written vernacular that addressed and even helped bring into being a mass audience. A changing perception of Paine may also be due simply to the passage of time: political and religious views that once shocked even other revolutionaries now strike many readers as comfortably progressive and self-evident.

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Principal Works