On this day in 1737, Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, England. If we look to men like George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton as our founding fathers, we should look to Thomas Paine as the irritable, curmudgeonly, and morally judgmental grandfather of our nation. Paine’s political philosophy lies at the foundation of the American Republic. It strikes me as unlikely that America would have been prodded to revolution were it not for the political genius of this remarkable man.
As a young boy from a rural town, he managed to demonstrate intellectual ability at an early age. In an age when most farm-town boys were not educated at all, Paine earned a grammar-school scholarship and earned good grades. He was profoundly moved to pity when he saw a townsperson sentenced to time in the local stockade and developed a stern sense of justice as a result. He also listened to many arguments between his father, a Quaker, and his mother, an Anglican, concerning religion and morality. When he got older, he apprenticed himself to his father (a corset-maker) and then served for a time as a privateer.
After that, it was kind of downhill for young Tom. Upon his return to England from his maritime adventures (his ship earned fewer spoils than had been expected), he married and tried his hand at running his own corset-shop. His marriage ended sadly when his wife died in childbirth, and his business failed shortly thereafter. After that, he washed out as a customs officer, took employment in another corset shop and fared poorly there, applied for a job with the Church of England and that didn’t work out either, and could not make enough money to survive as a valet.
He started to come into his own, however, when he took a job as a schoolteacher at the age of thirty at a medium-sized school in Cornwall (the southwestern part of England). There, he found enjoyment and success using the political affairs of the day as a springboard to enliven his lessons with the boys placed under his care. His mind re-sharpened from the experience, he took another position collecting taxes, joined an intellectual salon, and began to become an important man in Cornwall’s civic life. He started a tobacco shop which enjoyed modest success as well. He argued passionately against slavery, admired the ancient Greeks and Romans for their successful republican governments, and published mental experiments with the idea of universal free education and a minimum wage. Though thought a radical for these advocacies, he lived in a time when radical ideas found purchase.
By 1772, he was making trips to London to petition Parliament about unfair labor conditions, taxes, and — for which he later became famous — relations between the mother country and her colonies in America. Finding himself spending more and more time in London, he eventually abandoned his other ventures, rarely returned to Cornwall to visit his wife, and found himself effectively a full-time political pamphleteer — the 1770’s equivalent of writing a blog for a living. He supplemented his income with tinkering and engineering, and came to own several patents for things like a single-span iron bridge and a (purportedly) smokeless candle.
On June 4, 1774, he met Benjamin Franklin, who was then in England as an emissary from the colonies to persuade Parliament to create a system of more meaningful local government in the colonies, and the two became good friends. Already sympathetic to the plight of the colonists, Paine agreed to visit the colonies with Franklin. This was, however, too much for Paine’s long-suffering and long-estranged second wife to take, and the two divorced as a result of Paine’s agreement to visit America.
After setting up shop in Philadelphia in early 1775, Paine wrote what would come to be his seminal work: the somewhat lengthy pamphlet Common Sense. Paine condemned the idea of hereditary monarchy, distinguished between “society” and “government” and declared that government ought to serve society and not the other way around, and issued a call for America to become independent — reminding the colonists that they had sufficient numbers, resources, and intelligence to stand on their own if only they could shake off the heavy yoke of British oppression. He used stirring rhetoric in his writing, always keeping his language plain and easy to understand. Some of his phrases still ring powerfully today: “These are the times that try men’s souls,” “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” “If we do not all hang together, we shall surely hang separately,” “That government governs best which governs least,” “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly,” and “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.“
Though Paine was raised in a Quaker household and did seek work with the Anglican Church, by the time he came to America he seems to have lost any his faith in at least organized religion, and found in America a place of relaxing and welcoming tolerance. He encouraged ecumencialism and stressed morality over the form of religious observance: “Every religion is good that teaches man to be good; and I know of none that instructs him to be bad. ” He was a great opponent of church and state co-mingling: “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.“
He was himself an avowed Deist, and by the time of his active writing career had affirmatively rejected Christianity altogether and adopted nothing in its place: “Is it not a species of blasphemy to call the New Testament revealed religion, when we see in it such contradictions and absurdities. … It is not a God, just and good, but a devil, under the name of God, that the Bible describes.” (Many of these quotes came not from Common Sense but a later work of his, The Age of Reason.)
Common Sense caught fire in the New World, quickly needing reprints and ultimately selling over 100,000 copies. Given that there were likely something like a million to a million and a half colonists in America at the time, and something like half of them could read at all, this was a remarkable feat of market penetration. That would be the equivalent of selling 30,000,000 books in today’s market.
Irascible, curmudgeonly, and seemingly incapable of diplomacy, he had managed to levy insults at nearly every political and social figure of his day. Paine made his mark on the world attacking his own King, and it was really downhill from there. During the Revolution, he was a poor keeper of secrets and wrote remarks that made their way to London and indicated that the Continental Congress sought funds from the Dutch Republic and France, creating an international incident for the would-be funders, delaying critical payments to keep the war going, and getting Paine kicked out of the revolutionary government.
After the Constitution was adopted, President Washington himself was seen as something of a sacred cow, who would only be attacked by proxy. People directed their criticism at either Vice President Adams, Secretary of State Jefferson, or Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton, depending on the aspect of Washington’s policy that they wished to criticize. But not Paine. He was one of the few Americans willing to directly criticize decisions of the Washington Administration, openly questioning the wisdom of the first President. Most other Americans thought Paine terribly uncouth, and something of an ingrate (Washington had stuck up for Paine during the troubled war years despite Paine’s indiscretions).
Paine stayed on in America until 1791, when he returned to London to oversee publishing another tract, The Rights of Man, advocating explicit limitations on the power of the British government not unlike those that had been enacted in America. Running afoul of the Royal censors with respect to this new pamphlet, he fled to France in the midst of the Revolution. He was tried for libel in absentia and found guilty; he also entered into a lively debate in correspondence with Sir Edmund Burke concerning the Revolution in France, and lived in post-revolutionary France for a time. He eventually became a great critic of Robespierre, calling him a fraud and a tyrant and getting arrested from time to time for his inability to stopper his acid pen.
Slated for execution, he narrowly escaped by the most bizarre of circumstances — the jailer marked the doors of prisoners slated for execution, but did not notice that Paine’s jail cell door was open at the time. When he shut the door, it appeared unmarked. This bought Paine four critical days, in which time Robespierre himself fell from grace and quite literally lost his head. Afterwards, Paine was a favorite of Napoleon but could not restrain himself from criticizing Napoleon’s turn towards tyranny. France’s First Consul turn up the political and legal heat on the British rabble-rouser, who accepted an invitation from President Jefferson to return to the United States.
At that point, Paine had managed to alienate the Hamiltonian Federalists, the Jeffesonian Republicans, the Jacobins and the Girondists in France, and the King, the Tories, and the Whigs in England. He died nearly friendless in 1809. As described by another remarkable American, Robert Ingersoll, in the 1890’s:
Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death, Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head – and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude – constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.
A poor remembrance indeed, the result of a prickly personality rather than a condemnation of the force of his ideas. Paine was also idolized by Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison, both of whom saw much to praise in his consistent and unflinching demand to apply rational thought to life and in particular to government. His principled stand for classical liberalism, human rights, and individual freedom drove him to his personal unpopularity, but also provided the driving force of the ideas that underlay the American Revolution. Let us remember him not for his failings of personality but rather for the nobility and power of his idealism.