Paine, intellectual, scholar, revolutionary, deist and idealist,
is widely recognized as one of the Founding Fathers of the United
States. A radical pamphleteer, Paine anticipated and helped foment
the American Revolution through his powerful writings, most notably
Common Sense, an incendiary pamphlet advocating independence from
advocate for liberalism, he outlined his political philosophy
in Rights of Man, written both as a reply to Edmund Burke's view
of the French Revolution and as a general political philosophy
treatise as well as Common Sense, a treatise on the benefits of
personal liberty and limited government, in which he considers
society a representation of human ideals, and government a necessary
was also noteworthy for his support of deism, taking its form
in his treatise on religion The Age of Reason, as well as for
his eye-witness accounts of both the French and American Revolutions.
was born on 29 January 1737, to impoverished parents: Joseph Paine,
a (lapsed) Quaker, and Frances Cocke Paine, an Anglican, in Thetford,
Norfolk, in eastern England. His sister Elizabeth died at seven
months. Paine, who grew up around farmers and other uneducated
people, left school at the age of twelve.
was apprenticed to his father, a corset maker, at 13, apparently
failing at this as well. At 19, Paine became a merchant seaman,
serving a short time before returning to England in April 1759.
There he set up a corset shop in Sandwich, Kent. In September
of that year, Paine married. Following a move to Margate, his
wife Mary Lambert died in 1760.
July 1761, Paine returned to Thetford where he worked as a supernumerary
officer. In December 1762 he became an excise officer in Grantham,
Lincolnshire. In August 1764 he was again transferred, this time
to Alford, where his salary was £50 a year. On 27 August
1765 Paine was discharged from his post for claiming to have inspected
goods when in fact he had only seen the documentation.
July 3, 1766 he wrote a letter to the Board of Excise asking to
be reinstated, and the next day the board granted his request
to be filled upon vacancy. While waiting for an opening, Paine
worked as a staymaker in Diss, Norfolk, and later as a servant
(records show he worked for a Mr Noble of Goodman's Fields and
then for a Mr Gardiner at Kensington). He also applied to become
an ordained minister of the Church of England, and according to
some accounts he preached in Moorfields.
15 May 1767 Paine was appointed to a position in Grampound, Cornwall.
He was subsequently asked to leave this post to await another
vacancy, and he became a schoolteacher in London. On 19 February
1768 Paine was appointed to Lewes, East Sussex. He moved into
the room above the 15th-century Bull House, a building which held
the snuff and tobacco shop of Samuel and Esther Ollive.
Paine became involved for the first time in civic matters, with
Samuel Ollive introducing him into the Society of Twelve, a local
élite group which met twice a year to discuss town issues.
In addition, Paine participated in the Vestry, the influential
church group that collected taxes and tithes and distributed them
to the poor.
March 26, 1771 he married his landlord's daughter, Elizabeth Ollive.
lobbied Parliament for better pay and working conditions for excisemen,
and in 1772 he published The Case of the Officers of Excise, a
21-page article and his first political work. In September 1774
Paine met Benjamin Franklin in London. Franklin advised Paine
to emigrate to the British colonies in America, and wrote him
letters of recommendation. Paine left England in October, arriving
in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 30. Just before he left,
Paine and his second wife, with whom he did not get along, were
was also an inventor, receiving a patent in Europe for the single-span
iron bridge. He developed a smokeless candle, and worked with
John Fitch on the early development of steam engines. This inventiveness,
coupled with his originality of thought, found a firm advocate
more than a century later in Edison who championed Paine and helped
rescue him from his relative obscurity.
Some believe Paine may have begun to form his early views on natural
justice while listening to the Puritan mob jeering and attacking
those punished in the stocks. Others have argued that he was influenced
by his Quaker father. In The Age of Reason – Paine's treatise
in support of deism – he wrote:
religion that approaches the nearest of all others to true deism,
in the moral and benign part thereof, is that professed by the
Quakers … though I revere their philanthropy, I cannot help
smiling at [their] conceit; … if the taste of a Quaker [had]
been consulted at the Creation, what a silent and drab-colored
Creation it would have been! Not a flower would have blossomed
its gaieties, nor a bird been permitted to sing.
advocated a liberal world view, considered radical in his day.
He dismissed monarchy, and viewed all government as, at best,
a necessary evil. He opposed slavery and was amongst the earliest
proponents of social security, universal free public education,
a guaranteed minimum income, and many other radical ideas now
common practice in most western democracies.
regard to his religious views, in The Age of Reason (begun in
France in 1793), Paine stated:
do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by
the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church,
by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My
own mind is my own church.
national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or
Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to
terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
described himself as a "Deist" and commented:
different is [Christianity] to the pure and simple profession
of Deism! The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists
in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity
in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything
moral, scientifical, and mechanical.
published an early anti-slavery tract and was co-editor of the
Revolution & The Declaration of Independence
Common Sense, Paine's pro-independence monograph published anonymously
on January 10, 1776, spread quickly among literate colonists.
About 120,000 copies are alleged to have been distributed throughout
the colonies which themselves totalled only a few million free
inhabitants. This work convinced many colonists, including George
Washington, to seek redress in political independence from the
Kingdom of Great Britain. The work was greatly influenced (including
in its name – Paine had originally proposed the title Plain
Truth) by the equally controversial pro-independence writer Benjamin
Rush, and was instrumental in bringing about the Declaration of
strength lay in his ability to present complex ideas in clear
and concise form, as opposed to the more philosophical approaches
of his Enlightenment contemporaries in Europe, and it was Paine
who proposed the name United States of America for the new nation.
When the war arrived, Paine published a series of important pamphlets,
The Crisis, credited with inspiring the early colonists during
the ordeals faced in their long struggle with the British. The
first Crisis paper, published on December 23, 1776, began with
the famous words:
are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the
sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service
of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love
and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily
conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder
the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
General Washington himself found it so uplifting that he ordered
it to be read to all his troops.
1778, Paine alluded to the then ongoing secret negotiations with
France in his pamphlets, and there was a scandal which resulted
in Paine being dropped from the Committee on Foreign Affairs.
In 1781, however, he accompanied John Laurens during his mission
to France. His services were eventually recognized by the state
of New York by a grant of an estate at New Rochelle, and he received
considerable gifts of money from both Pennsylvania and –
at Washington's suggestion – from Congress.
to Europe, Paine finished his Rights of Man on January 29, 1791.
On January 31 he passed the manuscript to the publisher Joseph
Johnson, who intended to have it ready for Washington's birthday
on February 22. Johnson was visited on a number of occasions by
agents of the government. Sensing that Paine's book would be controversial,
he decided not to release it on the day it was due to be published.
quickly began to negotiate with another publisher, J.S. Jordan.
Once a deal was secured, Paine left for Paris on the advice of
William Blake, leaving three good friends, William Godwin, Thomas
Brand Hollis and Thomas Holcroft, in charge of concluding the
publication. The book appeared on March 13, three weeks later
than originally scheduled. It was an abstract political tract
published in support of the French Revolution, written as a reply
to Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke.
book— which was highly critical of monarchies and European
social institutions— sold briskly but was so controversial
that the British government put Paine on trial in absentia for
seditious libel. He later published a second edition of the Rights
of Man which contained a plan for the reformation of England,
including one of the first proposals for a progressive income
was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, and he
was given honorary French citizenship. Despite his inability to
speak French, he was elected to the National Convention, representing
the district of Pas de Calais. He voted for the French Republic;
but argued against the execution of Louis XVI, saying that he
should instead be exiled to the United States of America: firstly,
because of the way royalist France had come to the aid of the
American Revolution; and secondly because of a moral objection
to capital punishment in general and to revenge killings in particular.
as an ally of the Girondins, he was seen with increasing disfavour
by the Montagnards who were now in power, and in particular by
Robespierre. A decree was passed at the end of 1793 excluding
foreigners from their places in the Convention (Anacharsis Cloots
was also deprived of his place). Paine was arrested and imprisoned
in December 1793.
protested that he was a citizen of America, which was an ally
of Revolutionary France, rather than of Great Britain, which was
by that time at war with France. However, Gouverneur Morris, the
American ambassador to France, did not press his claim, and Paine
later wrote that Morris had connived at his imprisonment (Morris's
biographers reject the accusation). Paine thought that George
Washington had abandoned him, and was to quarrel with him for
the rest of his life.
and fearing that each day might be his last, Paine escaped execution
apparently by chance. A guard walked through the prison placing
a chalk mark on the doors of the prisoners who were due to be
condemned that day. He placed one on the door that Paine shared
with three other prisoners, which happened to be open at the time.
The prisoners in the cell then closed the door so that the chalk
mark faced into the cell when they were due to be rounded up.
They were overlooked, and survived the few vital days needed to
be spared by the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794).
Paine was released in November 1794.
prison, convinced he would soon be dead, Paine wrote The Age of
Reason, an assault on organized religion combining a compilation
of inconsistencies he found in the Bible with his own advocacy
of Deism. A second part was written after his release from prison
and published in October 1795. The content of the work can be
briefly summarized in this quotation:
opinions I have advanced… are the effect of the most clear
and long-established conviction that the Bible and the Testament
are impositions upon the world, that the fall of man, the account
of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease
the wrath of God, and of salvation by that strange means, are
all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power
of the Almighty; that the only true religion is Deism, by which
I then meant, and mean now, the belief of one God, and an imitation
of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral
virtues—and that it was upon this only (so far as religion
is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness hereafter.
So say I now—and so help me God.
published his last great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, in the winter
of 1795-1796. In this pamphlet, he further developed ideas proposed
in the Rights of Man concerning the way in which the institution
of land ownership separated the great majority of persons from
their rightful natural inheritance and means of independent survival.
Paine's proposal is considered to be a form of Basic Income Gurantee.
The Social Security Administration of the United States recognizes
Agrarian Justice as the first American proposal for an old-age
pension. In Agrarian Justice Paine writes:
advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a
right, and not a charity… [Government must] create a national
fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived
at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling,
as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural
inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property;
And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every
person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others
as they shall arrive at that age.
1800, Paine purportedly had a meeting with Napoleon. However,
Paine quickly moved from admiration to condemnation as he saw
Napoleon's moves towards dictatorship. Paine remained in France
until 1802 when he returned to America on an invitation from Thomas
Derided by the public and abandoned by his friends on account
of his religious views, Paine died at 59 Grove Street in Greenwich
Village, New York City, on June 8, 1809. Although the original
building is no longer there, the present building has a plaque
noting that Paine died at this location. At the time of his death,
most US newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New
York Citizen, which read in part: "He had lived long, did
some good and much harm."
six mourners came to his funeral, two of whom were black, most
likely freedmen. A few years later, the agrarian radical William
Cobbett dug up and shipped his bones back to England. The plan
was to give Paine a heroic reburial on his native soil, but the
bones were still among Cobbett's effects when he died over twenty
years later. There is no confirmed story about what happened to
them after that, although down the years various people have claimed
to own parts of Paine's remains such as his skull and right hand.
Thomas Paine's writings had great influence on his contemporaries,
especially the American revolutionaries. His books inspired both
philosophical and working-class Radicals in the United Kingdom;
and he is often claimed as an intellectual ancestor by United
States liberals, libertarians, progressives and radicals. Both
Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Alva Edison read him with respect.
Edison said of Paine:
have always regarded Paine as one of the greatest of all Americans.
Never have we had a sounder intelligence in this republic…
It was my good fortune to encounter Thomas Paine's works in my
boyhood… it was, indeed, a revelation to me to read that
great thinker's views on political and theological subjects. Paine
educated me then about many matters of which I had never before
thought. I remember very vividly the flash of enlightenment that
shone from Paine's writings and I recall thinking at that time,
'What a pity these works are not today the schoolbooks for all
children!' My interest in Paine was not satisfied by my first
reading of his works. I went back to them time and again, just
as I have done since my boyhood days.
is a museum in New Rochelle, New York, in his honour and a statue
of him stands in King Street in Thetford, Norfolk, his place of
birth. The statue holds a quill and his book, The Rights Of Man.
The book is upside down.