Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an Anglo-American Enlightenment thinker whose radical ideas were taken up by revolutionaries in both the American Revolution (1765-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799). A Founding Father through his influence on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Paine's most famous works include Common Sense (1776), Rights of Man (1791 and 1792), and Age of Reason (1794 and 1795).
Thomas Paine was born on 29 January 1737 in Thetford in the county of Norfolk, England. Thomas' mother was Anglican and his father a Quaker. Thomas had no formal education, an unusual history for someone whose work would be so influential in the last quarter of the 18th century. Paine earned a living making corsets as his father had done. He married and opened his own business but then suffered the double tragedy of his wife's death and the financial failure of his shop. Thomas now struggled to settle in a career, shifting between positions that included working as a customs clerk, shop assistant, and teacher. In 1771, he married again. Three years later, Thomas found himself unemployed and estranged from his wife. It was time for a change. Paine was encouraged by a new acquaintance, one Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), to take the fateful step in 1774 to leave England and start a new life in North America, then the site of a number of British colonies.
Life in North America seemed a lot easier than it had been in England. Paine secured a teaching job and then worked as a journalist for the Pennsylvania Magazine, where he wrote, for example, articles denouncing slavery. In January 1776, Paine published a pamphlet titled Common Sense. The rather mundane title hid the pamphlet's ultrarevolutionary content since here Paine called for nothing less than the total independence of the Thirteen Colonies from British rule. This was the first public work to make such a call, and it sold like hot cakes, with around 100,000 sales. He proposed a republican system as the best form of government to replace the current British monarch, George III of Great Britain (r. 1760-1820). Paine forcefully argued that the colonies must free themselves from what he called "the Royal Brute of Britain" (Robertson, 710). Common Sense "has often been credited with shifting opinion in that direction [i.e. rebellion]" (Chisick, 306).
In Common Sense, Paine argues against the idea of the separation of powers as advocated by such thinkers as Montesquieu (1689-1757), that is the separation of the executive, legislative, and judiciary. Paine argued that this system would not work since none of the branches could be trusted in themselves, never mind trusted with checking another part of government. Paine argued for a single general assembly but this was viewed as too simplistic a solution. Founding Father and future U.S. President John Adams (1735-1826) once described Paine as "very ignorant of the Science of Government" (Robertson, 714).
Through 1776, Paine wrote several more pieces of literature in support of independence, a cause which was then flagging somewhat. Chief amongst these works was the Crisis papers, which famously began with the line "These are the times that try men's souls" (Chisick, 306). The Thirteen Colonies did, of course, split from Britain when they signed the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776.
Paine might have been popular with radicals and revolutionaries, but he failed to blend in with the new establishment. He was very much an outsider in political affairs, perhaps this was why his work had such appeal to those without any representation at all.
Whether because of his social origins, excessive independence, or some other reason, Paine was unable to fit into the elite of landed proprietors and businessmen who now ruled the newly independent United States of America. Though remaining on good personal terms with figures as important as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, he retired to a property given him by the State of New York to farm and work on inventions.
Rights of Man
It was one of Paine's inventions that took him back to England in 1787. He had been working on an engineering project that permitted the construction of iron bridges using a single span. The bridge idea was eventually a success, but it was Paine's political views that were about to create another storm. Paine became friends with the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), but the two men were poles apart when it came to Enlightenment thought.
Paine wrote his celebrated Rights of Man, part one, in 1791. It was just as successful as Common Sense had been and also sold 100,000 copies, mostly in cheap editions which made the work affordable to the very people Paine was writing about. The work was written in response to Reflections on the Revolution in France by Burke (published in 1790), who supported religion's role in maintaining social order and who disapproved of the passionate overthrowing of time-tested institutions in France. Paine notes that, by being too reverent to the past, "Mr Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living" (Robertson, 740).
Part two of Paine's work came out in 1792. Paine now attacked just about every level of society, but especially the monarchy and aristocracy. He was opposed to any form of privilege and believed that the less well-off should be assisted by the state with free education, pensions, and even maternity payments. Paine believed that a more equal society would be a less corrupt one since he noted that "Where there are no distinctions there can be no superiority; perfect equality affords no temptation" (Robertson, 715). To this end, he wanted to scrap noble titles and do away with the House of Lords in England with its legislators whose qualification was only that their fathers had also been legislators. According to Paine, monarchs had a similarly impoverished set of qualifications to hold their positions of power.
Even more radical than these were Paine's ideas on electoral reform. Paine suggested that all men should have the right to vote. He contended that "every civil right grows out of a natural right, which must never be invaded by authorities, whose sole function was to strengthen them" (Yolton, 459). Paine's radical views necessitated his departure from England lest he face a trial for treason.
Paine moved to France in 1792 in the hope that it was in that country where he would witness a revolution in liberty and a fairer distribution of a nation's wealth. Paine's radical reputation preceded him, and he was well-received by those who already had their revolution in full swing. Paine was awarded French citizenship and elected to the Convention as a representative for Pas de Calais (although he spoke only a limited French). The Convention had just drafted a new constitution. Paine even attended sessions of the Convention and regularly participated, presumably with the aid of a translator, on the Committee for the Constitution. Paine wanted to see the abolition of the monarchy in France, but he stopped short of calling for the execution of Louis XVI of France (r. 1774-1792).
In the longer term, Paine found France as uncomfortable as England. Paine strongly disapproved of the direction the French Revolution was taking, especially when the Terror began, the state-sponsored persecutions that saw the revolution reach a bloody climax in 1793-4. Paine lamented in a private letter written in May 1793:
I now despair of seeing the great object of European liberty accomplished; and my despair arises not from the combined foreign powers, not from the intrigues of aristocracy and priestcraft, but from the tumultuous misconduct with which the internal affairs of the present revolution are conducted.
As the state carried out mass executions and imprisonments, Paine found himself caught up in the net of hysteria, and he was imprisoned between 1793 and 1794. Paine credited his escape from prison and a death sentence by guillotine to divine providence (the jailers had passed unnoticed the chalk sign on his cell door which indicated he was due for execution). Disillusioned, perhaps, but Paine still believed that "the revolutions of America and France have thrown a beam of light over the world, which reaches into man" (Robertson, 741).
Age of Reason
After he regained his liberty, Paine was able to direct his pen at a new enemy: the Christian church, particularly the Catholic Church. Paine was, like many contemporary enlightened thinkers, such as David Hume (1711-1776) and Voltaire (1694-1778), a deist, that is, someone who believes in the existence of God but only as a creator who is not available for communication or interaction in the world he has created, meaning that organised religion is rather pointless. Paine defended his beliefs by pointing out that "all of us are infidels according to our forefathers' belief" (Gottlieb, 81).
In his Age of Reason, written while in prison in France but published in two parts in 1794 and 1795, Paine attacked the interference of the church in worldly affairs, he stoutly defended the principles of the Enlightenment, and, above all, as the title suggests, he champions the value of reason. Paine was positive about private religious beliefs since he saw these as an inalienable right. Further, he advocated more than toleration for diverse religious views:
Toleration is not the opposite of Intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of with-holding Liberty of Conscience, and the other of granting it. The one is the pope armed with fire and faggot, and the other is the pope selling or granting indulgences.
Paine wrote another piece outlining his vision of how society should organise itself in Agrarian Justice, published in 1796. This work was well ahead of its time and called for a system of progressive taxation that could fund a fairer society, repeating his ideas in Rights of Man for a system of state social security which allowed the state to fulfil one of its primary functions according to Paine: to look after the welfare of its citizens. Paine returned to America in 1802, but he was not popular due to his Age of Reason, the colonists not being sympathetic to attacks on the Christian religion.
Major Works by Paine
The most important works by Thomas Paine include (with publication dates indicated in brackets):
Common Sense (1776)
Rights of Man, part 1 (1791)
Rights of Man, part 2 (1792)
Age of Reason, part 1 (1794)
Age of Reason, part 2 (1795)
Agrarian Justice (1796)
Death & Legacy
Paine's final years were spent in relative obscurity. He died in New York on 8 June 1809. His funeral was a peculiarly low-key affair for a man whose work had helped inspire two momentous revolutions. The radical was not even permitted to rest in peace since William Cobbett, another radical thinker, took it upon himself to exhume his remains and transport them to England as part of a memorial monument. Unfortunately, Cobbett managed to lose Paine's remains somewhere along the way.
Paine's legacy is that, as his adoption by revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic amply indicates, he was one of the first thinkers to move away from the usual preoccupations of the highly educated enlightened philosophers and instead address the issues of the Enlightenment with direct reference to a section of the population hitherto ignored: the working man. The historian H. Chisick summarises as follows Paine's unique contribution to Enlightenment thought:
…his voice remains distinctive…reflecting…the life experiences of an unquestionably intelligent man who came to his politics by way of labor disputes, a varied working life, a tavern debating society and positions as teacher and journalist that were the lot of so many at the fringes of the enlightened community. From that background, and with the resources of his own personality, Paine was able to address both the learned of his age and the artisanal levels of the population on issues from which the latter had been largely excluded. His achievement is a remarkable one, and marks the democratic and radical limits of Enlightenment thought. (308)