"We have it in our power to begin the world again."
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. Though Paine remained imprisoned, up-to six months after Robespierre's fall.
For some reason, though, Paine continued to live in France for a few more years. Despite his antagonism with Robespierre, he became equally critical of the people who deposed him, opposing their compromises to the Constitution placed by him. He also met Napoleon during this time. Together they discussed an invasion of England, for which he wrote a pamphlet
. 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. He was not without his reasons, the order of his arrest, written in Robespierre's own hand, stated that he was arrested for the interest of "America and France" which considering that Gouvernor Morris refused to intervene and continued to do so after Robespierre's downfall, proved in the opinion of Paine, and some historians, complicity on the part of the American government to get him guillotined. 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. Because of this, the Social Security website credits Paine as the first American to promote the idea of a welfare system.
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. In the run-up to the Louisiana Purchase, Paine wrote a letter to Jefferson strongly advocating the idea of peacefully purchasing the land from France, which helped sway Jefferson in favor of it. Only six people attended his funeral after he died in 1809. 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
. American history textbooks are beginning to give Paine proper credit for spreading support for democratic ideals and egalitarianism in our earliest days and recognize how ahead of his time several of his ideas were.
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 did consider himself American, for what it's worth.
- Contrived Coincidence: He missed the guillotine because the door to his cell had been left open because of the heat, thus causing the guard in charge of rounding up that morning's list of condemned convicts to miss the red X on it marking Paine for death.
- 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 and abandon any idea of supporting monarchy.
- 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: He left England for France and was invited by the Girondins, a moderate-republican party with an internationalist bent but also corrupt, incompetent and war-mongering, which put Paine on the opposite side of the Jacobins, who were fanatic and nationalist but also competent and anti-war. He was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror and Paine later discovered that under his warrant, Robespierre had written "Detained for the interests of France and America" which led to his attack on George Washington for conspiring to get him killed. Some historians have argued that the French ambassador Gouverneur Morris who despised Paine was the real conspirator, he made no efforts to argue for his release, and it was only after the next ambassador, James Monroe arrived, several months after Robespierre's downfall, that Paine was released.
- There is also a question of Poor Communication Kills. Paine did not speak or read French, and made no effort to learn the language. This put him at the mercy of the English-speaking intellectual elite of the Girondins while putting him out of the touch with the everyday French people, and so the populist Jacobins. This is probably likely, since Paine actually advocated for many of the things the Jacobins supported, the major exception being that he was okay with worldwide 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.
- Not So Above It All: While usually considered a man of peace and all-around rationalist saint, while he lived in France, Thomas Paine wrote articles proposing an "invasion to America" including discussing possible vulnerable routes and points of entry in a newspaper. Later, he discussed invading England with Napoleon and wrote articles on the same.
- 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.
- In theory, it seems like this, in practice, Paine who was supported by the Girondins came to France because he agreed with their ideas of "world revolution" and supported their war against Austria, on the belief of invading other nations and setting up republics. Maximilien Robespierre opposed the war because it went against the ideas of consolidating the nascent French republic and it was that war, which Paine supported, that led to the revolution becoming violent and made the King's death not only inevitable but necessary as most historians point out.
- Pet the Dog: Paine is arguably one of the very few people in history who can claim to have Values Resonance views on almost every major issue. In so, so many ways, Paine was really ahead of him time. Here's a count:
- Paine believed that the only reason why government should exist is to protect the rights of its citizens, something completely normal now that was considered to be a radical idea in his age.
- 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" which argued that not only should the Atlantic slave trade be ended, but that slavery itself was morally wrong and that slaves should be emancipated. This has been disputed, but the consensus is that it was him.
- Paine was also sympathetic to the Iroquois people, and he was impressed by their society.
- Since he held very unorthodox religious views, he valued freedom of religious thought a lot more than other Americans of his time.
- One of the reasons why Paine was against the execution of Louis XVI is because he argued that the death penalty is morally wrong by default. Though this argument was made before by none other than Maximilien Robespierre who pointed out that while he did oppose the death penalty before, the King qualified as a special exemption on account of the circumstances, which Paine had ignored, and later justified executions as an emergency measure to win the war which Paine had supported.
- While not a vegetarian, Paine did believe that cruelty to animals was rather horrible. During a time when most people didn't bother to think that animals have feelings.
- He lived in a time when the major countries of Europe would go to war with each other just to increase their own power rather than any real concern over national defense. Disgusted, Paine suggested that every country should drastically reduce their military until it was only large enough for immediate defense. This, he believed, would lead to world peace. He also believed it would be a good idea to create a world peacekeeping organization to prevent wars from breaking out - yes, he predicted the United Nations over a century and a half before it was created. However, Paine was also a warmonger who agitated for "world revolution" calling for the French armies to invade England and America (which Robespierre and the Jacobins were initially against), foolishly believing that foreigners would embrace what Robespierre eloquently called "armed missionaries".
- Unlike the majority of the other Founding Fathers, Paine did not believe that non-landholders should be barred from the vote, warning that this was tyranny waiting to happen and realizing that praising republican values but not letting everyone be represented was hypocritical. There's also his (really ahead of his time) support for creating welfare programs to help the poor and elderly as well as his support for public education systems. Compare this to others like Alexander Hamilton or John Jay, both of whom actively distrusted those who weren't in the upper class.
- He also held shockingly progressive views regarding women for his time. Before he even wrote Common Sense, he wrote an article criticizing the ways women are oppressed in society and defending their rights at a time when most men thought they had none. There's credible reason to believe he helped inspire Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism, to write A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
- In short, Paine was probably in possession of a time machine, though such radical ideas weren't all that unusual at the time. Paine may have agitated against slavery but the Jacobins in France, at the height of the Reign of Terror, actually abolished slavery for the first time in world history
- Renaissance Man: Not only was he a writer and philosopher, but he was also an inventor. He designed iron bridges as a hobby, and some think he might have designed the first one used for general travel.note Paine also tried to invent a smokeless candle and a type of motor which used gunpowdernote , but these failed. 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 firmly 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.
- Trope Namer: Thomas Paine is the first person known to say the words "United States of America" together. Yes, he named the country.
- Un-Person: In his lifetime he witnessed his importance being dismissed and his contributions basically being forgotten, though eventually this changed.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: In his book The Age of Reason Paine wrote that, assuming it happened, the rising of the dead described in the Gospel of Matthew at Jesus' death must have been this, since no one appears to have written down any other accounts about it. Nor does it say what happened afterward-did they return home to their families, attempt to reclaim their property, or just go back into their graves quietly?