Thomas Paine, Revolutionary

In the summer of 1774, Thomas Paine arrived in London out of work and out of sorts. Recently dismissed as an officer in the excise tax corps, Paine had petitioned Parliament the previous winter hoping to secure a wage increase for himself and his fellow excisemen. The stuffed shirts ignored him. When he returned to his home town of Lewes , his supervisor, wishing to get rid of a troublemaker, fired him for taking an unauthorized leave of absence. Two months later he and his second wife peacefully ended their marriage.

Firing Paine came at a steep price. Not only did it hurt his marriage, it cost the British their American colonies.

One can hardly accuse them of overlooking Paine's potential as a revolutionary. At 37, he was only nine years short of the average life expectancy for a male of his economic background. And what was his resume? A series of menial jobs he had failed at with boring regularity, scant formal education, no family name or connections, no wealth, and two brief marriages. He even spelled his last name without the e, a fitting moniker for such a contentious character. Add to that a love of tavern debates, and it is little wonder his life had been a plodding trip to nowhere.

Ben Franklin, Pennsylvania's diplomat in London at the time, happened to meet Paine at a science lecture one evening. He liked him immediately and offered to write letters of introduction for Paine to take to Franklin 's friends in Philadelphia . Paine probably viewed the colonies as most of the English did, as the one spot on earth where a man's talents, not his ascribed social status, set the limits on his achievements.

Paine accepted Franklin 's offer and boarded a ship bound for America in autumn of 1774. After eight weeks of seasickness and a deadly 'putrid fever,' he arrived in Philadelphia on November 30. He was so sick when the ship docked he had to be carried off on a stretcher. After convalescing under the care of a Tory physician, he took a job as writer - editor of a new monthly publication, The Pennsylvania Magazine. His first article, 'The Magazine in America ,' appeared on January 24, 1775 .

'While proud antiquity, like a skeleton in rags, parades the streets of other nations,' Paine wrote, 'their genius, as if sickened and disgusted with the phantom, comes hither for recovery.' [1] Thus began, however immodestly, Paine's lifelong love affair with America .

'Whatever may be our political state,' he added, 'our happiness will always depend on ourselves.' We have to be free to run our own lives. But the carnage at Lexington and Concord would soon deepen the split in this view. Freedom to Tories meant the freedom accorded to loyal subjects of the crown. To radicals it could only mean the freedom that existed in a state of nature -- the autonomy of each individual no government had the right to violate. Thus, the clash among colonists was over the origin of freedom -- whether it came from the state or from nature.

Paine had found his home - a forum for his views and a country suffering from a growing identity crisis. The articles he wrote left no question on which side of the crisis he stood.

During 1775, he called for the abolition of slavery:

Certainly one may, with as much reason and decency, plead for murder, robbery, lewdness, and barbarity, as for slavery . . . [we should] immediately discontinue and renounce it, with grief and abhorrence. [2]

He lampooned the practice of bestowing titles, referring to the king as 'The Honorable plunderer of his country, or the Right Honorable murderer of mankind':

[Titles bewitch people] to admire in the great, the vices they would honestly condemn in themselves. This sacrifice of common sense is the certain badge which distinguishes slavery from freedom; for when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon. [3]

He even explored freedom in marriage. He criticized the practice of binding two people together by a nuptial ceremony under the 'ordinance of an infinitely wise and good God':

Sure of each other by the nuptial band, they no longer take any pains to be mutually agreeable; careless if they displease, and yet angry if reproached; with so little relish for each other's company anybody else's is welcome, and more entertaining. Their union thus broke, they pursue separate pleasures; never meet but to wrangle, or part but to find comfort in other society. [4]

In contrast to the traditional view of marriage, Paine offered his readers a suggestion he heard from an 'American savage':

Whereas in ours, which have no other ceremony than mutual affection, and last no longer than they bestow mutual pleasures, we make it our business to oblige the heart we are afraid to lose; and being at liberty to separate, seldom or never feel the inclination.

As one of the first writers to show respect for women, he wrote an article in August, 1775 deploring their treatment:

Affronted in one country by polygamy, which gives them their rivals for their inseparable companions; enslaved in another by indissoluble ties, which often join the gentle to the rude, and sensibility to brutality . . . . Who does not feel for the tender sex? . . . . Man with regard to them, in all climates, and in all ages, has been either an insensible husband or an oppressor. [5]

In an article he signed 'A Lover of Peace,' Paine defended the right and the necessity of people to take up arms in self-defense:

Could the peaceable principle of the Quakers be universally established, arms and the art of war would be wholly extirpated: But we live not in a world of angels . . . . [The] peaceable part of mankind will be continually overrun by the vile and abandoned, while they neglect the means of self defense. [6]

Near the end of 1775, he was once again out of work following a dispute with his publisher over Paine's insistence on an employment contract. In the closing months of the year, he dedicated himself to writing a pamphlet about the colonies' relationship with England . He called it Plain Truth, but Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of Paine's new friends, suggested a different title: Common Sense. Rush also suggested a printer, since few of them would touch anything so incendiary.

Paine's pamphlet rolled off Robert Bell's press in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776 for a price of two shillings. The cover said, 'written by an Englishman' -- only a handful of people knew he was the author. Because it was addressed to 'the inhabitants of America ' and was written in direct language without references to obscure points of law or history that only an Adams or a Jefferson might understand, his essay reached a broad audience. This was one key to its influence. Most writers who expounded on the conflict wrote in a pedantic style. Paine laid it out the only way he knew how, straight and forceful. Artisans, teachers, bakers, soldiers -- anyone who was literate could understand it.

Common Sense was a work of shocking audacity. It pulled no punches.

Paine took the sacred notion of a king, long positioned as a close second to God in the minds of most Europeans, and shredded it:

[C]ould we take off the dark covering of antiquity and trace [kings] to their first rise, we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang; whose savage manners or preeminence in subtlety obtained him the title of chief among plunderers . . . .

[M]onarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes . . . .

In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and to give away places . . . . Of more worth is one honest man to society . . . than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived. [7]

He demolished the idea of reconciliation with England :

. . . [To] say that reconciliation is our duty, is truly farcical . . . .

Much has been said of the united strength of Britain and the colonies, that in conjunction they might bid defiance to the world . . . . [But] what have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe . . . .

[Any] submission to, or dependence on, Great Britain tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship . . . . Europe is too thickly planted with kingdoms to be long at peace . . . .

Men of passive tempers look somewhat lightly over the offenses of Great Britain , and . . . are apt to call out, Come, come, we shall be friends again for all this . . . .

[But I ask,] has you house been burnt? Has your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? . . . . [If] you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant . . . .

I mean not to exhibit horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumbers, that we may pursue determinately some fixed object . . . .

Every thing that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'TIS TIME TO PART. [His caps]

Paine anticipated several objections to independence. One was the 'infant state of the colonies.' They were too young to go out on their own. But he notes that 'the bravest achievements were always accomplished in the nonage of a nation.' As a nation grows, 'men become too much absorbed [in trade] to attend to anything else.'

With the increase of commerce England has lost its spirit. The city of London , notwithstanding its numbers, submits to continued insults with the patience of a coward. The more men have to lose, the less willing are they to venture. The rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel.

Separating from England meant the colonies would no longer be subject to British law. What, if anything, would replace it? Paine's contempt for government led him to include only 'hints' in Common Sense, 'that they may be the means of giving rise to something better.'

Even in its best state, government 'is but a necessary evil,' Paine wrote. The necessity, he believed, arises from the need for security (property protection). We should choose the form of government that 'appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit . . . .'

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature . . . viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.

Though Common Sense was loaded with intellectual ammunition, it was its sheer daring that inspired people. The king and Parliament were 3,000 miles away -- who needs them? Though there were exceptions, like Edmund Burke, who called for repeal of the laws that incited the colonies to rebellion and warned that 'a great many redcoats will never rule America ,' British leadership was thoroughly corrupt. They were not our protectors, they were our oppressors. Common Sense:

[ Great Britain ] did not protect us from our enemies on our account; but from her enemies on her own account, from those who had no quarrel with us on any other account . . . .

Before Common Sense, some people were acknowledging the likelihood of independence, but it was a position forced on them, as it were, by the king's militance. Their view wasn't: ' Independence is good for us, so let's leave the empire.' It was more like: 'We have little choice but to be independent, since the king's trying to destroy us.' Common Sense made independence a rallying cry, rather than a reluctant choice.

Paine thought 'that nothing can settle our affairs [with Great Britain ] so expeditiously as an open and determined DECLARATION FOR INDEPENDENCE.' [His caps] No country would act as mediator or ally until we did. Until then, other countries would see us as rebels and helping us might induce Britain to return the favor sometime. A declaration listing our grievances to the world, while assuring countries 'of our peaceable disposition towards them . . . would produce more good effects to this continent, than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain.'

The effect of Common Sense was sweeping, immediate, and lasting. As one historian has noted, 'it was pirated, parodied and imitated, and translated into the language of every country where the new republic had well-wishers. It worked nothing short of miracles . . . .' [8]

By the third edition, which appeared in February, 1776, the pamphlet carried the author's name -- with an ending e.

Paine joined the army in July and traveled with Washington 's troops as General Nathanael Greene's aide-de-camp. In late December, when the American cause was all but dead, Paine authored what would become the most quoted of all his works. Washington ordered it read to his soldiers on Christmas Day before crossing the Delaware for the Battle of Trenton. It provided a shot of inspiration the men, and the country, desperately needed:

These are the times that try men's souls . . . . Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. [9]

Paine stayed with the army in various capacities throughout the war, then sailed to England in 1787, intending to return to the United States the following year. But he authored more radical tracts, getting in trouble with the English ministry for Rights of Man and Christians everywhere for Age of Reason, got swept up in the French Revolution, was imprisoned by Robespierre, and didn't set foot in America again until 1802.

He had scarcely unpacked when he got involved in party wars between the Republicans and Federalists. As a close friend of Republican President Jefferson, he came under constant attack in the Federalist press. After ignoring it for awhile, sometimes finding it amusing, he finally 'lashed out at the Federalists, in effect for plotting a new tyranny to bring down the federal union established in 1787.' [10] In one of his seven letters To the Citizens of the United States, Paine contended that:

[A] faction, acting in disguise, was rising in America ; they had lost sight of first principles. They were beginning to contemplate government as a profitable monopoly, and the people as hereditary property . . . .

But let them go on; give them rope enough and they will put an end to their own insignificance. There is too much common sense and independence in America to be long the dupe of any faction, foreign or domestic. [11]

Paine died on the overcast morning of June 8, 1809 and was buried on his small farm in New Rochelle , NY . Only a handful of neighbors and friends attended his funeral; there were no VIPs, no eulogies, no notices in the press.

Robert Ingersoll in 1870 offered these words in his memory:

He had more brains than books; more sense than education; more courage than politeness; more strength than polish. He had no veneration for old mistakes -- no admiration for ancient lies . . . . He saw . . . hypocrisy at the altar, venality on the bench, tyranny on the throne; and with a splendid courage he espoused the cause of the weak against the strong, of the enslaved many against the titled few. [12]


1. The Magazine in America, Philip S. Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, Citadel Press, NY, 1945, Vol. II,' p.1109-1113

2. African Slavery in America , Philip S. Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, vol. II, p. 15-19

3. Reflections on Titles, Philip S. Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. II, p.33-34

4. Reflections on Unhappy Marriages, Philip S. Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. II,' p.1118-1120

5. An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex, Philip S. Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. II, p. 34-38.

6. Thoughts on Defensive War, Philip S. Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. II, p. 52-55

7. Common Sense, The Thomas Paine Reader, Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick, ed., Penguin Books, 1987, New York , NY . p. 65-115

8. Trevelyan, George, History of the American Revolution; quoted in The Thomas Paine Reader, Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick, ed., Penguin Books, 1987, New York , NY . p. 10

9. The American Crisis, The Thomas Paine Reader, Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick, ed., Penguin Books, 1987, New York , NY . p. 116-123

10. Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life, 1995, Grove Press, New York , NY . p. 471

11. The Thomas Paine Reader, Foot and Krammick, ed. p. 504

12. On Thomas Paine, Robert Green Ingersoll,

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George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.