Thomas Paine was born January 29, 1737 in Thetford,
England, the son of a Quaker corset maker unhappily
married to an Anglican attorney's daughter. Apprenticed
into corset making at age 13, he entered into
a monotonous occupation with scant hope of rising
Paine left home at age 19 for a brief career
as a privateer when a war broke out in 1756. Barely
educated in youth (his grammar was never perfect),
Paine loved ideas, absorbed insights from eclectic
sources. Quaker concepts inspired his views on
the sanctity of the inner citadel in consciousness,
for instance. After he left school to apprentice
the feminine-waist constriction trade, he devoted
his free time to abstract learning, his spare
cash paying for books, lectures, scientific apparatus.
Such explorations suggest why he never hit it
big in business. He read widely, worked his way
into mathematics, worked on "mechanical contrivances"
of various kinds. Historians have noted how his
self-directed learning patterns immersed him into
the ideas and issues of his age without his intelligence
being filtered or routed by the rigors of classical
education. Paine could think outside the lines.
Yet a person of ideas still must feed, clothe
and house the body. From 1757 to 1774, Paine successively
worked in various towns as a corset maker, tax
collector, school teacher, with side ventures
as a tobacconist and grocer.
Along the way, Paine married twice, both marriages
childless. He'd met Benjamin Franklin and Franklin
was impressed enough to give Paine letters of
introduction, asking his friends in Philadelphia
to help this "ingenious, worthy young man." In
October 1774, at age 37, Paine sailed from England
to Philadelphia. With Franklin's letters, he landed
in freelance journalism, contributing to Pennsylvania
Magazine for most of his livelihood. He covered
diverse subjects, specializing in the latest inventions.
Social issues interested him the most, however,
such as his 1775 article advocating the abolition
of slavery. He helped found one of the earliest
Thomas Paine first published Common Sense
anonymously in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776.
His 47-page pamphlet, selling for two shillings,
urged an immediate declaration of independence
from the English crown as a practical measure
that would unite the colonies, secure French and
Spanish military and economic aid, and fulfill
America's moral duty to the world as a nation
of free people. A continent could not stay tied
to a distant island. If the colonies free themselves
and declare a democracy under natural laws, responsible
to nature's God, their example would inspire the
Paine likely consulted with his friend Franklin
about the pamphlet, but the work was his own,
published at his own risk. The pamphlet sold 120,000
copies within three months and his biographers
have fixed total sales as high as a half million
copies –impressive the total population of the
13 colonies was about 2.5 million people. Word
soon spread that Paine was the author of Common
Sense, giving him his greatest acclaim at
age 40, and perhaps the greatest sense of fulfillment
in his entire life, as he saw his writings inspire
American to declare for freedom.
Paine then enlisted in the American army before
the retreat across New Jersey, and served as an
aide to a general under Washington. As war dragged
on, public support faded and freezing troops fled
from Valley Forge, Paine sat alone leaning over
a drumhead, goes the legend, and wrote the first
in a series, The American Crisis, opening
with the immortal words, "These are the times
that try men's souls."
The work was read aloud at every Army campfire
and the hearths in many homes. A series of eleven
more Crisis papers (plus four special editions)
were published during the war. Topics included
stopping American Tories from helping the British
and a need for federal and state taxes to fund
the war effort.
Paine was rewarded for his efforts. In April
1777, Congress appointed him a secretary to its
foreign affairs committees, including work on
Indian Affairs. He sabotaged his secure position
during the Beaumarchais war supplies scandal as
he confirmed government corruption by publishing
confidential documents, making it seem France
had supplied the American rebels despite its peace
accord with England. Forced to resign by political
pressure, Pennsylvania appointed him clerk of
the state assembly. He contributed $500 of his
$1700 salary to a fund for relieving Washington's
weary army. In 1780, he wrote and published Public
Good, expanding on the themes in Common
Sense to oppose Virginia's claims on western
In 1781 Paine joined John Laurens on a trip to
France to raise more military support funds, returning
with needed army stores. Paine was not paid for
such foreign service, but his expenses were covered.
When peace came and independence was won, Thomas
Paine was again a poor man.
Compensating the hero of the Revolution, Congress
voted £3000 in thanks, Pennsylvania £500, and
New York gave him a confiscated Tory estate in
New Rochelle. He re-published Common Sense
in 1791, adding a lengthy appendix, earning added
income. At the back, he tacked on a peevish letter
to the Quakers, which angered many Pennsylvanians,
A difficult personality, losing friends faster
than he could influence people, still a restless
spirit now with coins in his pocket, Paine returned
to England in 1887 seeking investors to construct
an iron bridge, his own invention. Paine was in
Yorkshire, talking about the benefits of modern
technology, when the French masses stormed the
Bastille. His bridge eventually did get built,
although Paine lost money in the process.
Paine visited Paris in late 1789 to observe the
new regime for himself, then he returned to London
to spread his views about democracy. A tale of
travel between the two cities for the next three
years, Paine cast himself as an agent for world
revolution, debating in parlors and in print over
the virtues and vices of the French and American
revolutions, the merits of monarchies, and the
human capacity for self rule.
In defense of the French Revolution, Paine wrote
and published The Rights of Man. Guided
by his ideals more than the facts of "Madame Guillotine"
and "The Terror" under Robespierre, Paine declared
that governments exist to guard the natural rights
of the individuals unable to ensure their rights
without government's help. Four key rights are
liberty, property, security, and resistance to
oppression. In Part I, he argued for a republic
governed under a constitution with a bill of rights,
elected leaders serving limited terms, and a judiciary
accountable to the general public. He called for
equal suffrage for all men and the end of social
divisions by virtue of birth or rank or economics
or religion. In Part II, Paine suggested social
legislation to remove class inequities.
Paine's fervent hope was that Rights of Man
would inspire in England the same revolutionary
thirst for independence from monarchy as Common
Sense inspired in America. Instead, despite
selling about 200,000 copies by 1793, the pamphlet
was suppressed by the government of William Pitt,
who was unable to get his hands on Paine (still
a British citizen), since Paine was safe in France.
Pitt had Paine tried in absentia before
the loyalists, convicting Paine of treason. England
outlawed its native son in December 1792.
Paine had been in France since August when he'd
joined Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and select
others being made French citizens by the Assembly.
In September, four departments elected Citizen
Paine to the Convention, and he sat for the Pas
de Calais. Paine did not speak French, so his
speeches had to be read for him by translators,
rendering him ineffective in the Assembly. His
temperament made relations testy at best.
Paine ceased attending the Assembly when the
politics changed, retreating with his friends
to rural Faubourg St. Denis. He lived in peace
until the Assembly stripped away his citizenship,
depriving him of membership in the Convention,
removing his legal immunity. A law allowed citizens
of nations at war with France to be arrested,
and Englishman Paine was imprisoned on December
28, 1793. Outlawed in England, he was arrested
in France for being English.
Like many enemies of the Revolution left to vanish
behind bars, Paine never went to trail. Confined
in the Luxemborg prison, he persuaded his jailers
to provide pen, ink and paper. He began writing
The Age of Reason. Paine was freed after
almost a year in prison once the new United States
minister to France, James Madison, claimed him
as an American citizen. Weak from illness and
nearly penniless on his release at age 57, Paine
was sheltered by James Monroe while his health
returned. French citizenship and a seat in the
Convention restored him and, in July 1795, Paine
rose in the French Assembly to declare his faith
in the Rights of Man.
The first copy of The Age of Reason to
arrive in America, destined for Paine's printer
for U.S. publication, was lent to Jefferson with
awareness the printer was waiting. Passing the
copy to the printer, Jefferson scribbled a genial
note to offset the tome's "dryness," he later
said. In his note, he remarked the pamphlet was
useful as an antidote for "political heresies"
of the time. This slam by deist Republican Virginian
Jefferson was aimed at his political rivals, the
Unitarian Federalist John Adams family of Massachusetts.
Unexpected by both Paine and Jefferson, the note
was published as an official preface. Incensed
Federalists vented outrage. John Quincy Adams,
writing as "Publicola" in the Columbian Sentinel,
condemned Paine for his principles and Jefferson
for his indiscretion.
John Adams subsequently was elected second U.S.
President in 1797 and Jefferson was elected third
President in 1801. In that year, Jefferson offered
Paine free passage home on a public vessel. Returning
to America on the private ship Maryland,
landing in a political firestorm as a reviled
figure. Never an easy man to love, Paine's Letter
to Washington and The Age of Reason
had effectively alienated his remaining allies
and patrons. Rather then being welcomed into the
debate between a centralized or decentralized
national government, according to Henry Adams,
Paine was "regarded by respectable society, both
Federalist and Republican, as a person to be avoided,
a person to be feared."
Now age 64, the social outcast retired alone
to New Rochelle and lived his waning life in obscurity.
Thomas Paine died at age 70 in New York on June
8, 1809. He did not expect a Christian burial
in sacred ground after The Age of Reason. Paine
was buried in a corner of his new Rochelle farm.
A decade later in 1819, one of Paine's harshest
critics, William Cobbett, apparently moved to
atone for his attacks, had Paine's bones dug up
and transported to England for re-burial under
a patriotic monument that Cobbett planned to build.
Cobbett died in 1835 with the memorial never erected.
His English probate court assigned the old bones
to a receiver. The fate of Paine's mortal remains
today remains a mystery.