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Social agitator Thomas Paine was an influential political writer whose support of revolution and republican government emboldened the American colonists to declare independence from England. In 1776, the corset-maker-turned-pamphleteer published the first of a sixteen-part series entitled The American Crisis. Paine's tract contained the stirring words "These are the times that try men's souls." Paine wrote the famous pamphlet to lift the spirits of the beleaguered Continental Army.
The effect of Paine's political writing was felt not only in America but also in England and France. After the American Revolution, Paine returned to his native Europe, where he supported the French Revolution. His political opinions ignited a storm in England and landed him in jail in France. During his lifetime, Paine's political views made him both tremendously popular and almost universally despised. In particular, his later writings about organized religion and deism offended many Americans. Shunned and penniless at the end of his life, Paine has only recently found his rightful place in history.
Paine was born into a poor English family on January 29, 1737, in Thetford, Norfolk, England. To help support his Quaker father and Anglican mother, Paine quit school at age thirteen and began training in corset making, his father's trade. Unhappy in his vocation, Paine left home and enlisted as a seaman in the Seven Years' War. Afterward, he traveled to London, where he became interested in science and mechanics. Paine held a variety of jobs, including customs official, preacher, and schoolteacher. At the urging of Benjamin Franklin, while Franklin served as a colonial official in England, Paine immigrated to America. Arriving in Philadelphia in 1774, Paine became the managing editor of Pennsylvania Magazine.
In January 1776, Paine published his first important pamphlet, Common Sense. A phenomenal success, the publication sold more than five hundred thousand copies. Paine urged the American colonies not only to protest English taxation but to go further and declare independence. He also recommended calling a constitutional convention to establish a new government. Paine's tract was extremely influential in convincing the colonists to cut their ties with England; embrace the Revolution; and embark upon a new, republican form of government.
Paine served in the Continental Army and experienced firsthand the miserable conditions of war. To boost the soldiers' morale after a retreat, he wrote the influential series The American Crisis. Under orders from General Washington, Paine's pamphlet was read aloud to encourage the troops. The American Crisis has been given credit for inspiring the American victory in the Battle of Trenton.
Paine was elected to the Continental Congress in 1777, as secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs. He resigned under pressure in 1779 after publishing confidential information about treaty negotiations with France.
"Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one."
After the United States' victory over England, Paine devoted his time to perfecting his inventions. In 1787, he returned to Europe to gather financial support and interest in his ideas for an iron bridge. While in England, Paine became caught up in the debate over the French Revolution. In 1791, he published the first part of The Rights of Man. It was a response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a vigorous denunciation of the events in France. Paine's The Rights of Man supported the revolution and upheld the dignity and rights of the common person. Controversial for its time, The Rights of Man sold two hundred thousand copies in England but Paine was forced out of that country under an indictment for Treason.
Paine moved to France. After obtaining French citizenship, he was elected to the National Convention in 1792. Because Paine protested the execution of Louis XVI, he was arrested and imprisoned by the radical Robes-pierre government. Barely avoiding the guillotine, he spent ten months in a Luxembourg prison before his release was won by James Monroe, U.S. ambassador to France. Paine wrote Letter to Washington in 1796, a critical look at the U.S. president's inability to quickly obtain Paine's freedom.
While in prison, Paine published in 1794 the first half of his most controversial work, The Age of Reason. The second half was printed in 1796, after his release. In The Age of Reason, Paine criticized organized religion and explained his own deist beliefs. Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that accepts the concept of God but views reason as the key to moral truths. Deism was confused by many of Paine's readers with atheism, the rejection of a belief in God. Because people mistook The Age of Reason for an atheist tract, Paine came under attack for his unorthodox religious views.
When Paine arrived in the United States in 1802, he was rejected by many of his former associates. His reputation was damaged by his misinterpreted deist beliefs and by his public criticism of the American hero George Washington.
Paine died June 8, 1809, in New York City, misunderstood and impoverished, with his role in the Revolutionary War downplayed by his detractors. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York. In 1819, political journalist William Cobbett made arrangements to have Paine reburied in England in a place of honor. Somehow, en route to England, Paine's remains were lost. They were never retrieved.
Paine's reputation as a political philosopher has been largely restored. He is remembered favorably for his rousing call to arms during the American Revolution and for his defense of republicanism and the rights of common people.
Aldridge, Alfred Owen. 1959. Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Ayer, A.J. 1988. Thomas Paine. New York: Atheneum.
Keane, John. 2003. Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York: Grove Press.