OLL's February Birthday: Thomas Paine (February 9, 1737 – June 8, 1809)
This month’s featured birthday anniversary is the Anglo-American author and political activist Thomas Paine. Best known for his tremendously influential Rights of Man, he wrote many other important books and pamphlets, while also being a tireless supporter of the American and French Revolutions.
Paine was born into a Quaker family in Thetford, England. He received a solid four year education, somewhat unusual for the time, at the local grammar school, after which at age 13, he apprenticed in his father’s corset-making shop. A few years later, at age 19, he went to sea as a privateer, returning to England in 1759 to open a corset shop of his own in Kent. The same year he married a woman named Mary Lambert, who died in childbirth soon thereafter, along with the couple’s baby. His corset shop having in the meantime gone out of business, Paine went to work, off and on, as an excise officer from 1761-1767. Following a very patchy career, he tried his hand as a schoolteacher, first in London and then in Lewes, Sussex, a town with a strong republican tradition going back to the time of the English Civil War. It was there that he first got involved in civic life, sitting on the town council. He rented rooms over a grocery store in town and became friendly with the grocer and his family. In 1771, he married the grocer's daughter, Elizabeth Olive, and took over the family business.
Once again Paine showed little business acumen, and by 1774 the business was bankrupt and the family deeply in debt. To settle accounts, Paine sold off most of the family’s possessions and shortly thereafter officially separated from Elizabeth. He moved to London where, through friends at the Royal Society, he met Benjamin Franklin with whom he quickly established a deep and lasting friendship and who suggested that Paine emigrate to the British American colonies. Franklin clearly did not have to work too hard to persuade Paine to do so, as Paine embarked shortly thereafter on a harrowing trip to North America. He finally arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774, extremely ill, and was taken off the ship by Franklin’s personal physician.
Shortly after his arrival in Philadelphia, Paine was appointed editor of a newly launched periodical, Pennsylvania Magazine. Under his astute leadership, the magazine quickly became the most widely circulated publication in the British North American colonies. Contrary to the wishes of its founder (but probably contributing to its popularity), Paine wrote editorials on all sorts of political matters, among them calls for the abolition of slavery and, with increasing urgency, independence for the Thirteen Colonies. Paine’s arrival in the Colonies, of course, occurred only a few months before the lethal demonstration in Lexington, Massachusetts that sparked the American War of Independence.
Paine immediately threw himself into the revolutionary struggle. His pamphlet Common Sense (1776) with its plucky and fearless call for American independence was tremendously influential among the colonists and brought him the friendship of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. After the war broke out, his series of pamphlets, The American Crisis, was so inspirational that General Washington ordered that they be read to the troops. While Paine joined the revolutionary army, serving as aide-de-camp of the famous general Nathaniel Greene, his real contribution to the war effort was in his writing and diplomatic activity, especially his fund-raising in France.
After the American victory, he returned to Great Britain (staying with Edmund Burke, who had also supported the American cause), but left in the summer of 1789 for France. Excited by the revolution there, he arrived in Paris and was immediately hailed as an American revolutionary hero. He returned to Great Britain shortly thereafter, just in time to read Reflections on the Revolution in France (November 1790) by Burke, his old acquaintance and fellow-supporter of American independence. Stung by Burke’s critique of the French revolutionaries, Paine wrote what turned out to be his most famous and influential work, Rights of Man.
Rights of Man was so successful, that Paine published a follow-up in February 1792. This second part quickly surpassed all sales projections, selling over a million copies. By this time, Paine had emerged as a leading figure among the English radicals and had been granted French citizenship (he was already an American citizen too) in gratitude for his on-going support of the revolution. All this made him increasingly unpopular with the British authorities and he escaped for France mere hours before his arrest.
Upon arrival in France, he was promptly elected to the Convention which had just taken power (even though he could not speak French). He worked on the constitution for the new French Republic, but conspicuously argued for the exile of the deposed King Louis XVI to America rather than for his execution (much to the disgust of Marat, who saw this as a reflection of Paine’s Quaker sentimentalism). Marat was not alone in his suspicions of Citizen Paine who, as an ally of the Girondists, made himself even more suspect in the eyes of Robespierre and the Jacobins. Paine was duly arrested and spent a year in prison, narrowly avoiding the guillotine (at least in part through the intercession of James Monroe, American minister to France and future President of the United States of America).
Upon his release in November 1794, he continued writing, publishing, among other things, Agrarian Justice (1797) a call for land reform and economic equality. He had in the meantime, just before his arrest, published The Age of Reason, a Deist attack against established Christianity. He also engaged in a number of arguments with American political figures, especially those in the Federalist Party, whom he accused of being pro-British and of having monarchist sympathies. Importantly, he also published a stinging open letter aimed at President Washington himself, largely because Washington had not personally intervened on Paine's behalf while he was in prison.
Paine briefly supported Napoleon Bonaparte, who tried to enlist him as an ally, but had by then grown disenchanted with the course of the revolution and returned to America in 1802. He settled on a small farm in New Rochelle, NY, which had been, many years previously, granted to him by the grateful new country. Unfortunately for him, he was surprised to find out that the Age of Reason had made him profoundly unpopular among the Christian citizens of this new republic, who turned out to be generally more devout than he had thought. His open letter against Washington did not make him many friends either. Paine found himself increasingly isolated and embittered and he died in poverty in Greenwich Village, NY in 1809. His body was brought to New Rochelle, where he had (in his will) requested that it be buried in the Quaker cemetery, but the local congregation refused and he was instead buried on his farm. Only six people attended his funeral, including two anonymous Black men.
Ten years later, his bones were dug up and brought back to England by the radical reformer William Cobbett who hoped to use them as symbols for parliamentary reform, and the basis for a grand memorial of some kind. Unfortunately, Cobbett’s plans went nowhere and the bones were eventually lost. Thomas Paine is commemorated instead by statues in Paris and Thetford and, of course, by his writings.