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Creator: Thomas Paine

"We have it in our power to begin the world again."
Thomas Paine

Some very important and influential historical figures are only known by most people for doing one thing. This man is one such example.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born Americannote  political activist, author, Enlightenment figure, propagandist, and radical. He was born the son of a corsetmaker, and died one of the most hated figures of his time. About a century after he died, he had an enormous growth in popularity and his accomplishments started to get some recognition.

Pain (he hadn't added the 'e' yet) meant to join Captain William Death on his ship "The 'Terrible'", but was stopped from doing so by his father. Death influenced Pain's writings.

In 1760, Pain's wife and first child died during childbirth, and his corset business went under. This drove a depressed Pain to drink, and he started voicing his opposition to British politics and especially the monarchy during his drunken fits. Within a few years, he had added the -e- and his situation improved somewhat. Concurrently, this was the beginning of Paine's involvement in radical politics. He started writing campaign songs for politicians and writing articles in favor of reforms, such as higher pay for excise officers. After gaining a reputation in England for being a rabble-rouser and a drunkard, Benjamin Franklin, impressed by his writing skills, invited Paine to the other side of the Atlantic in 1774.

Most of you probably know him for writing the pamphlet Common Sense in 1776 during the early period of The American Revolution. Paine used very, very blunt arguments in favor of not just rebelling against Great Britain, but fighting for independence. Until then, even the most passionate colonist rebels, such as John Adams, were not prepared to argue for independence, but Paine used beautiful speech and direct, confrontational arguments that swayed many colonists in favor of independence. The pamphlet sold hundreds of thousands of copies in just a few months (in fact, in proportion to the population of the time, it is the most circulated book in American history), and it even caught the attention of the aristocrats in Europe. Not so coincidentally, the Declaration of Independence was passed only a few months later. Paine also wrote a series of equally-popular papers known as The American Crisis papers, which George Washington had read to all of his militia soldiers to rally them when times got tough. Paine had to write these anonymously because these actions were more or less treasonous. It has been said by many historians that America probably wouldn't have won if it wasn't for Paine; Adams once said that "Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain."

Now, here's what then happens to Paine that most history books don't mention.

Paine was named the secretary of the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs by the Continental Congress in 1777. However, he started publicly releasing information proving that certain members of the Congress were using war funds to gain personal profit. In the process, he also leaked certain information to the public about just how they were getting these funds from France, so he was kicked out in 1779. Paine then served as an aid to general Nathanael Greene and raised funds to help improve conditions for the militia. Additionally, he was one of the first people to realize that the Articles of Confederation would be an ineffectual disaster, and he called on the other Founding Fathers to hold a national convention and create a strong national government.

After the Revolution, he then turned his eyes back to Europe, moving back to Great Britain in 1787. He tried to get the Englishmen to rebel against the monarchy and create a democracy, but he only ended up gaining the disapproval of many of his former allies. However, many historians have linked Paine's writings during this time with paving the way for later laws that made the country more democratic, such as the Reform Bill of 1832. During this time, the French Revolution started across the Channel, and many intellectuals in Great Britain wrote passionate pieces against the actions of the revolutionaries. Paine, however, was sympathetic to them, and he wrote the book Rights of Man in 1791 defending their actions. He also wrote some pretty scathing things about statesman Edmund Burke, who famously supported the American revolutionaries but argued strongly against those of France. This led to Paine fleeing to France before he could be captured, and he was convicted in absentia for seditious libel. Paine never returned.

In France, Paine was quickly declared an honorary citizen for his support of the French Revolution and, despite not speaking French, was even elected to the French National Convention in 1792. Maximilien Robespierre, however, grew to hate Paine (especially after Paine argued on moral grounds against executing King Louis XVI) and had him imprisoned in 1793 during the Reign of Terror. During this time, Paine began to write The Age of Reason, a pamphlet that advocated Deism while also criticizing organized religion, especially the Christian Church and the Bible. This, coupled with his earlier support of the French Revolution, led to Paine getting dismissed by most other intellectuals and leaders of the time. However, this was the first time many commoners were introduced to Deism, which up until then was largely discussed by the upper class, and the theological philosophy saw a notable upsurge in popularity. Paine survived in prison long enough for Robespierre to get betrayed and executed himself, and the American Minister to France, future President James Monroe, then secured his release.

For some reason, though, Paine continued to live in France for a few more years. He wrote an infamous open letter where he declared that George Washington was the head of a wild conspiracy that was responsible for his imprisonment. At this point, Paine's loss-of-favor with his former allies turned to outright hatred. He continued writing controversial and radical pamphlets, most notably 1795's Agrarian Justice. In this pamphlet, Paine introduced a concept that is now called "guaranteed minimum income," a sort of welfare program where all citizens and families are legally guaranteed to a sufficient living income. He also gave the world an early argument for providing welfare for the elderly and public education for children. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson invited him back to America. Paine, however, was widely disliked by this period, and spent his last few years living alone and with little money. Only six people attended his funeral. Most newspapers throughout the nation printed a line from a New York paper's obituary: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." Over a century later, though, Paine's legacy saw a resurgence in popularity, with some people even declaring him to be the English Voltaire.

Works by Thomas Paine

  • Common Sense (1776)
  • The American Crisis (Series; 1776-1783)
  • Rights of Man (1791)
  • The Age of Reason (1793-1794)
  • Agrarian Justice (1797)

Tropes that apply to Thomas Paine

  • The Alcoholic: Paine really, really loved drinking.
  • Almighty Janitor: One source memorably called him "a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination."
  • The American Revolution: There probably wouldn't have been much of an American Revolution without Paine. For this reason, he's considered to be one of the most important Founding Fathers.
  • Beige Prose: Compared to many other philosophers of the time. There's no denying that Paine immediately got to the point.
  • But Not Too Foreign: There is some debate among historians as to whether Paine should be counted as an American or an Englishman. Usually, which side you are on depends on which side of The Pond you are on. Paine seemed to consider himself American, for what it's worth.
  • Contrived Coincidence: He missed the guillotine because the guard in charge of rounding up that morning's list of condemned convicts missed the red X marked on Paine's prison door.
  • Dead Artists Are Better: Dismissed at the time of his death for his attacks on the Church, but currently one of the most acclaimed thinkers of his age.
  • Deadpan Snarker: From Common Sense: "Small islands not capable of protecting themselves are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island."
  • Deism: He was a famous advocate of it, particularly in his book The Age of Reason.
  • The Extremist Was Right: The most radical of the major Founding Fathers and the one who convinced much of the public to embrace independence.
  • For Great Justice: The point of all of his writings. He never even accepted money for them since he believed spreading the ideals of his works was more important.
  • The French Revolution
  • Good Republic, Evil Empire: Paine definitely believed this overall.
  • Green Around the Gills: He was so sick when his ship landed in America that Franklin's own personal physician had to carry him off the boat.
  • Justice Will Prevail: The basic theme of all of his writings was that eventually the people of the Earth will free themselves of all of the shackles of corrupt society and be free to choose their own destiny.
  • Lonely Funeral: Only six people attended his.
  • One Pamphlet Author: History, especially American history, mostly remembers him as "that guy who wrote Common Sense."
  • Only Sane Man: He was this when he argued that killing King Louis XVI was immoral and it went against the principles of the Revolution. Too bad he was ignored; after this, the French Revolution started to get really violent.
  • Pet the Dog: He was one of the earliest abolitionists in American history. He is generally held to be the author of the anonymously-written 1775 article "African Slavery in America," but this has been disputed.
    • Paine was also sympathetic to the Iroquois people, and he was impressed by their society.
  • Renaissance Man: Not only was he a writer and philosopher, but he was also an inventor. He designed iron bridges as a hobby (he even received a patent for one) and he invented a smokeless candle. Paine was interested in steam power, and he was one of the earliest people to suggest creating a boat powered by steam.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: He's on the Enlightenment side of the spectrum.
  • Rousing Speech: Washington read parts of Common Sense and The American Crisis to his troops to rally them to keep on fighting.
  • Take That: His work is full of these. Common Sense notably has some great jabs at Great Britain.
  • Un-Person: In his lifetime he witnessed his importance being dismissed and his contributions basically being forgotten, though eventually this changed.

Thomas JeffersonAuthorsBenjamin Franklin

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