Thomas Paine
pamphleteer, agitator, and writer
1737 - 1809

Thomas Paine was a famous pamphleteer, agitator, and writer on politics and religion. His writings greatly influenced the political thinking of the leaders of the Revolutionary War in America, and he became a famous figure in Paris during the French Revolution. "I know not," wrote former President John Adams in 1806, "whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Thomas Paine."

Paine's opinions and personality aroused strong feelings in others. Some admired him greatly, but others hated him fiercely. Many historians regard Paine as a patriot who did much for America and asked nothing in return. He stated clearly and concisely political ideas that others accepted and supported, if necessary, to the point of death. Yet Paine died a social outcast.

Paine was born in Thetford, England, on Jan. 29, 1737. His family was poor, and he received little schooling. He began working at the age of 13. At 19, he went to sea for a time. Later, he served as a customs collector in London, but was discharged. His first wife died, and he was separated legally from his second wife. Paine was alone and poor in 1774. But he gained the friendship of Benjamin Franklin, then in London, who advised him to go to America.

Paine arrived in America with letters of recommendation from Franklin. Paine soon became contributing editor to the Pennsylvania Magazine, and began working for the cause of independence. In 1776, he published his pamphlet Common Sense, a brilliant statement of the colonists' cause. This pamphlet demanded complete independence from Great Britain and the establishment of a strong federal union. It also contained a brilliant attack on the idea of monarchy and inherited privilege. Paine asserted that the Revolutionary War would begin a new era in world history. "The birthday of a new world is at hand," he wrote. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other colonial leaders read it with approval, as did hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans. Common Sense became the most widely circulated pamphlet in American history to that time.

In December 1776, Paine followed Common Sense with a series of pamphlets called The Crisis. The first of these pamphlets began, "These 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. ... Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered." Washington had the pamphlet read aloud to his soldiers. Paine's bold, clear words encouraged the Continental Army during the darkest days of the war.

Paine served as a soldier in 1776. He also worked with a group of Pennsylvanians to create a democratic constitution for the state. In April 1777, he became secretary to the Congressional Committee of Foreign Affairs. His honesty in exposing questionable actions by Silas Deane, American commissioner to France, made him enemies, and Paine was forced to resign his position.

Paine went to France in 1787 and then to England. While in England in 1791 and 1792, he published his famous Rights of Man, replying to Edmund Burke's attack on the French Revolution. William Pitt's government suppressed this work, and Paine was tried for treason and outlawed in December 1792. But he had returned to France.

The National Assembly of France made Paine a French citizen on Aug. 26, 1792. He became a member of the National Convention. But his friends, members called the Girondists, lost power in the Convention. Then he was expelled from the Convention, deprived of his French citizenship, and imprisoned for more than 10 months. The American minister, James Monroe, claimed him as an American citizen and obtained his release.

While in prison, Paine worked on Age of Reason. It stated his views on religion, and many people called it the "atheist's bible." It began: "I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life." Although Paine believed in God, he disagreed with many accepted church teachings and saw the established churches of Europe as obstacles to social change. His unorthodox views on religion made him one of the most hated men of his time.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson arranged for Paine's return to the United States. Paine found that people remembered him more for his opinions on religion than for his Revolutionary War services. During his last years, Paine was poor, ill, and a social outcast. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, but 10 years later his body was removed to England. The location of his grave is unknown.

See also:
Thomas A. Edison writes about Thomas Paine
Letter from Thomas Paine to George Washington
Contributor: Eric Foner, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Columbia Univ.

Additional resources

Claeys, Gregory. Thomas Paine. Unwin, 1989.

Farley, Karin C. Thomas Paine. Raintree Steck Vaughn, 1994.

Hawke, David F. Paine. 1974. Reprint. Norton, 1992.

Vail, John. Thomas Paine. Chelsea Hse., 1990. Younger readers.

Wilson, Jerome D., and Ricketson, W. F. Thomas Paine. Rev. ed. Twayne, 1989.


Use Browser « Back Button To Return To Last Page Visited
Copyright (1998 - 2000): Concord Learning Systems, Concord, NC.
All rights reserved. For details and contact information:
See License Agreement, Copyright Notice.