Thomas Paine Analysis

The American Connection

Paine returned to London, where he met Benjamin Franklin, then acting as a representative of Great Britain’s North American colonies. Their connection proved fruitful, for Paine arrived in America in November of 1774 with a letter of introduction that led to a position with Robert Aitken, a bookseller who was launching a magazine. Aitken’s American Museum appeared in January, 1775, with Paine as a regular contributor and, after a brief while, its editor. Paine’s strong political views were quickly apparent as he wrote essays attacking slavery and discrimination against women, and defending republican government. When the Revolutionary War began, supporters of independence asked Paine for a statement of their cause. His pamphlet Common Sense appeared in January, 1776. It denounced the tyranny of monarchy and championed the rights of individuals and virtues of republican government. Paine claimed to have sold 120,000 copies in four months, but he set its price so low that he lost money on its publication.

In the fall of 1776 Paine joined the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to General Nathaniel Greene. His account of that fall’s military retreat—which opened with the immortal line, “These are the times that try men’s souls. . . .”—was the first of a series of pamphlets he titled The American Crisis. By the beginning of the following year, Paine was secretary to the Continental Congress. By the end of 1778 eight numbers of his series titled The Crisis had appeared.

Paine’s outspokenness soon caused him trouble, however. Using secret documents seen during his official duties, he openly denounced malfeasance in connection with a French loan. Although he was correct, his indiscreet use of his sources cost him his job. Because he had continued to sell his political tracts at prices below their production costs, he was reduced to a clerkship and had to petition Pennsylvania’s legislature for a loan to fund publication of his collected works. In November, 1779, Paine was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature. Over the following year he wrote three more pamphlets in The Crisis series. At the end of 1780 he resigned in order to write a history of the rebellion that he wished to take to England to expose the folly of Britain’s opposing American independence. Although Paine did reach France, he did not get to England. Nevertheless, his fame continued to grow.

After the American Revolution

In 1784 the state of New York showed its gratitude to Paine by giving him an estate at New Rochelle that it had confiscated from a Tory; the U.S. Congress gave him three thousand dollars in 1785. Paine seemed established and secure. Although he continued to write about politics, he became interested in an idea for an iron bridge that he visited Europe to promote in 1787. The bridge idea came to nothing, but he was still in Europe when the French Revolution began.

The appearance of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) prompted Paine to write the first part of The Rights of Man (1791). This with the second part which followed later in the year was one of the clearest statements of the principles which underlay the ideals of the French revolutionaries. When he tried to publish the second part of his work in London, his printer was indicted for publishing subversive material—a charge to which he pled guilty. A few weeks later Paine escaped to France—sailing literally minutes before he would have been arrested. British authorities claimed the second part of Paine’s work had been condemned because it was widely circulated—in contrast to the work’s first part, which had reached only people who would not be unduly influenced. However, the clear difference was that during the months between each part’s publication, respectable Englishmen had become concerned about the course of events in France. Paine refused to return to England for trial, making clear his indifference to certainty that he would be convicted in absentia. Further prosecutions of those selling and/or circulating The Rights of Man followed.

Reception in France

Meanwhile Paine was welcomed in France, made a citizen, and elected to the National Assembly. Following the abolition of the French monarchy in September, 1792, Paine was appointed to a committee to write a new constitution. However, he was soon in trouble because he openly opposed the execution of King Louis XVI. Initially protected by members of the Girondin Party, Paine became disillusioned with the Revolution. He began drinking heavily and withdrew from participation in the Convention, the body which had replaced the National Assembly. He was writing The Age of Reason when the fall of the Girondins and ascendancy of the Jacobins led by Maximilien Robespierre resulted in his arrest.

Fearing that he would be executed, Paine claimed U.S. citizenship, but the American ambassador to France, Gouverneur Morris, who had opposed the French Revolution, was uninterested in his case. Fortunately, a combination of illness and French governmental inefficiency protected Paine until James Monroe replaced Morris. Monroe’s intervention and Robespierre’s death combined to win Paine’s release and restoration to the Convention. Despite Monroe’s efforts, Paine was bitter about the paucity of American help in his hour of need and even denounced President George Washington.

The Age of Reason, which Paine finished while in prison, quickly attracted hostile attention. It was a defense of Deism, and it subjected the Bible to logical analysis. It was denounced as an atheist’s manifesto. In June, 1797, the book’s English publisher was convicted, and it became dangerous for anyone to publish Paine’s work in Great Britain for some years thereafter.

Although Paine continued to write political pamphlets, his star had waned in France; in 1802 he returned to his New York estate. Although he had a friendly interview with President Thomas Jefferson, his welcome was muted because many of his old friends had been offended by The Age of Reason. Charges of sexual misconduct and drunkenness circulated; the former charges were largely, if not wholly lies, but the latter charges had some validity. Financial problems followed and by 1808 Paine was petitioning Congress for money and selling his New Rochelle home.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Ayer, A. J. Thomas Paine. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Philosopher Ayer discusses Paine’s Common Sense and The Age of Reason.

Dyck, Ian, ed. Citizen of the World: Essays on Thomas Paine. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Deals with different aspects of Paine’s life and philosophy.

Fruchtman, Jack, Jr. Thomas Paine and the Religion of Nature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. A discussion of Paine’s conceptions of natural religion, democracy, and civil rights.

Kaye, Harvey J. Thomas Paine: Firebrand of the Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Biography furnishes a grasp of Paine’s background, career, beliefs, and accomplishments, as well as a sense of the social upheavals during his time in America, England, and France.

Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Powell, David. Tom Paine: The Greatest Exile. London: Croom Helm, 1985. Thorough account of Paine’s intellectual and revolutionary development.

Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973. Thorough account of Paine’s intellectual and revolutionary development.

Wilson, Jerome, and William Ricketson. Thomas Paine. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A detailed biography.