Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born Pennsylvanian citizen note 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- to his name 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 not just of rebelling against Parliament in the King's name, but actually fighting for full independence. Until then even the most dedicated rebels, such as John Adams, weren't talking about independence - but Paine used beautiful speech and direct, confrontational arguments that swayed many of the richest and most powerful colonists in favor of it. 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 non-religious book in the USA's history), and it even caught the attention of many European countries' intellectuals and nobles (the two overlapped, particularly in Russia). Not so coincidentally, the colonies agreed upon a formal Declaration of Independence just a few months later. Paine also wrote a series of equally-popular papers known as The American Crisis papers, which famed rebel leader 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 constituted treason. Franco-Spanish military might and Dutch finance may have won the colonies their independence (albeit as a united-ish country), but they wouldn't have fought for it in the first place 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 states' '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' of the USA (landed, monied aristocrats and businessmen) to hold an international convention and subordinate their countries to a strong central government.
After the Revolution he turned his eyes back to Europe, moving back to Great Britain in 1787. He tried to inspire a revolution against the country's constitutional democracy, but only ended up gaining the disapproval of many of his former allies. Many historians have noted the influence of Paine's writings in this period upon strengthening the liberal cause in Britain, later allowing the passage of laws which made the country more democratic - such as the Reform Bill of 1832, which gave every MP a constituency of similar population and at one stroke eliminated the infamous 'rotten boroughs' which had plagued the system for centuries. In 1789 The French Revolution broke out across the Channel, and many intellectuals in Great Britain initially wrote passionate pieces sympathetic to the revolutionaries, but the political elite saw the events in France as an invitation for homegrown radicalism and mounted a backlash. Paine wrote his The Rights of Man in 1791 as a rebuttal to Edmund Burke's famous critique in his Reflections on the Revolution in Francenote . Paine took Burke's criticism as a form of betrayal since Edmund Burke supported the American revolution but argued against the French for its far more radical and thorough democratic framework. Paine was charged with seditious libel and forced to flee England before he could be arrested and stand trial for it and was found guilty for failing to attend the trial in absentia. He never returned to England again. In France, Paine was declared an honorary citizen for his support of the French Revolution and was even elected to the French National Convention in 1792.
He served on the Constitutional Committee headed by the Girondins, the pro-war faction of the Revolution who, like Paine, advocated for war against neighboring powers to "spread the Revolution"note . Paine didn't speak French and did not really make a great effort to learn the language which made him dependent on the English-speaking multilingual elite of the Girondins rather than the Jacobins who were populist and Parisian in base, ironically putting the famous radical (by Anglo-American standards) to a moderate position. Paine did not win himself favors when he argued against executing King Louis XVI and instead suggested he be sent to America as a noble hostage. During the Reign of Terror, Paine along with many English expats trapped in France was placed under arrest and imprisoned at the Palais de Luxembourg, and while in prison, he began to write The Age of Reason, a pamphlet that advocated Deism while also criticizing organized religion, particularly Christianity and the Bible. He had actually began work for this before his arrest and was conducting research at Saint-Denis when he was captured. This highly controversial book earned Paine a good deal of condemnation since it put forth criticism of traditional Christianity in an accessible manner for the common man and this meant that it would eventually be read by a far bigger public than other anti-religious pamphlets put forth by Voltaire and Denis Diderot, among others. He remained imprisoned for the entirety of the Terror, and was released six months after Thermidor, upon the arrival of the new American ambassador to France, future President James Monroe.
Paine continued to live in France until 1802. Despite his imprisonment during the Terror, Paine was critical of the Directory government that followed. He was especially disappointed by the post-Thermidor Constitution which reversed many of the proposals in the 1793 Constitution (finished by the Jacobins but based on the groundwork done by the Girondin Committee on which Paine had served), chiefly universal male suffrage and lack of property restrictions. He also met Napoleon during this time and 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 Maximilien Robespierre's own hand, stated that he was arrested for the interest of "America and France" which considering that then-ambassador 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 guillotinednote . 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 paid 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. Paine's other activities during this period involved founding several deist temples and societies in France.
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. Indeed, it is a fine thing to see Paine finally getting proper credit for spreading support for democratic ideals and egalitarianism in English-language culture, and for The Frogs and their wacky Revolutionary ideals to finally be seen in their contemporary international context.
He ended at #34 in 100 Greatest Britons.
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."
- 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, especially since the English charged him with sedition and chased him to France and he refused to return ever again to England (and never did).
- 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 Christianity, 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."
- 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.
- Fantastic Legal Weirdness: Paine wondered briefly if the risen saints mentioned by the Gospel of Matthew tried to reclaim their property and spouses in The Age of Reason.
- 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.
- 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's often portrayed as this for opposing the execution of Louis XVI as immoral and against the principles of the Revolution. In actual fact, Paine was an ally of the Girondins and came to France because he agreed with "world revolution" and supported their war against Austria, on the belief in invading other nations and setting up republics 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 time.
- 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 had feelings or even felt pain.
- 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. That said, when Paine served on the 1792 Girondin Constitution Committee, he and others did not put the vote for women into the lists.
- In short, Paine anticipated a lot of modern liberal ideas though as noted by Eric Hobsbawm, while he was undoubtedly radical in an Anglo-American context, he was fairly moderate on other issues. Paine may have agitated against slavery but the Jacobins in France, at the height of the Reign of Terror, actually abolished slavery, the first European country to do so in the modern era.
- 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 gunpowder.note , 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 was 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?