Tom Paine – Restless Hero2

Portrait of Tom Paine

Most Americans have heard of Tom Paine and know that he authored the pamphlet “Common Sense” during our revolutionary era; however, that is about all they know about this very interesting and complex man. Tom Paine was without a doubt an American hero despite his obvious flaws.

Paine was born in Thetford, England on 29 January 1737. He had a limited education and spent his early years drifting from one failure to another including two failed marriages. Paine was unhappy with every job and his situation seemed hopeless.  At this point he met Benjamin Franklin in London who gave him letters of introduction in America. I can’t figure out how Paine met Franklin, but Franklin apparently saw something in him that nobody else did. The only thing I can think of that they had in common was that Paine was an inventor, as was Franklin. 

Tom Paine arrived in Philadelphia on 30 November 1774 when the conflict between England and the colonists was really heating up. Initially he helped Robert Aitkin found and edit the “Pennsylvania Magazine”, and during the 18 months they worked together, he published numerous articles and poetry anonymously. Paine, however, was convinced that the American cause should not be just a revolt against taxes, but should be a demand for complete independence and severance of all ties with England.  

After the bloodletting at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Paine acted on his beliefs and this is when he became essential to the establishment of our country. Most of the citizens of the colonies were not convinced that independence was the way to go. They felt an accommodation could be found to restore peace and they sure feared war with the most powerful army in the world. Paine put his ideas into print by publishing the 50-page pamphlet “Common Sense”. The first copies came off the press on10 January 1776, and sold more than 120,000 copies within a few months.  This is amazing since the total population of the colonies was probably only about 2,500,000 and many were on the frontier.  (“Common Sense” is still on the market today and has sold more copies than any other publication in American history.) 

“Common Sense” was not written in the polite style of colonial times and it appealed to raw passion. He wrote:  it is “absurd that a continent to be perpetually governed by an island” and that any American who favored reconciliation has “the heart of a coward and the spirit of a sycophant”. The common man could understand these words and understand them they did!!!  This publication was the single most important thing that reversed public opinion and turned our people into patriots.  The common man now dared to hope for real freedom.  The “Declaration of Independence” was ratified on 4 July 1776, and Americans became “citizens” and not “subjects. It was said that Paine had “lit the fuse” of revolution.

Page 1, American Crises 1-Swann Galleries
Page 1, American Crises 1-Swann Galleries

During the war Paine served as volunteer aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene, but he was a lousy soldier. His real contribution to the war effort consisted of 16 “Crisis” papers issued between 1776 and 1783. The first was published on 19 December 1776 and contained some of the most stirring words in American history. It opens with the following: 

“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 his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. 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: It is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right not only to tax but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.” 

At that time, Washington’s army was at Valley Forge and we all know that the army was suffering mightily because of the cold, a lack of winter uniforms and shoes, and a severe shortage of food.  Morale was bad and the army was gradually disintegrating.  When Washington read “Crisis Number 1” he was so moved by it that he ordered it read to all the troops. The effect of these words on the troops cannot be quantitatively determined, but when combined with the American victory at Trenton a few hours later, many soldiers whose enlistments were to expire on 1 January reenlisted. We should never underestimate the power of words.—Winston Churchill certainly knew this. 

In 1777 Congress appointed Paine Secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs and things were looking up, but he was forced out in 1779 after he used classified information to expose profiteering by a member of Congress.  Once again Paine was broke and unemployed, but he was rescued when he was appointed Clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania.  Shortly, Paine saw that the Army’s morale was still very bad because of few pay days and fewer supplies, so he donated $500.00 of his salary to start a fund to help.  He accompanied John Laurens to France where they obtained money, clothing and ammunition which helped the Army.  Paine also appealed to the states for more funds and he was calling for a national convention to replace the ineffective Articles of Confederation with a “continental constitution”. 

At the end of the Revolutionary War, Tom Paine was again broke because of his generosity and the fact that he never accepted profits from his writings so that common Americans could afford them.  Washington and Congress backed financial assistance for him, but it was defeated by his enemies in Congress.  Finally, Pennsylvania gave Paine £ 500 and New York gave him a farm in New Rochelle.  He moved to the farm and contented himself with inventing. 

In 1787 Paine travelled to Europe to promote his invention of a single-arch iron bridge, but he was soon distracted when his focus turned to the French Revolution, which he strongly supported.  He anonymously published a warning about the British Prime Minister’s efforts to engage in another war with France, and he was irate about Edmund Burke’s attack on the French uprising.  He rushed to answer Burke’s publication by authoring the “Rights of Man” in March 1791.  This work became another sensation with eight editions published, which were also widely distributed in America.  Burke replied and Paine published the “Rights of Man, Part II”.  Unfortunately, Paine had crossed the line in Europe by laying out a case against all monarchies pointing out that Europe’s problems of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and war were all because of the arbitrary rule of monarchs.  The English monarchy understandably saw this as encouraging revolution, so the books were banned, the publisher was jailed, and Paine was charged with treason and ordered arrested.  The English were too late, however, because Paine was enroute to France having been elected to their National Convention.  In England, Paine was tried in absentia, found guilty of sedition, declared an outlaw, and the “Rights of Man” was permanently banned. 

As usual, things did not go well for Paine in France. He did not speak the language, and although he supported revolution, he opposed the terror against the royalists.  He argued against the execution of King Louis XVI which earned him a prison stay and death sentence when Robespierre took power. He was imprisoned from December 1793 to November 1794 when Robespierre fell from power.  Paine was ill when he was released but was readmitted to the National Convention. 

Paine had not been idle in prison writing the “Age of Reason”.  Parts II and III were published after his release. These publications opposed organized religion and earned him a reputation as an atheist, which was untrue.  In 1797 he published “Agrarian Justice” on property ownership inequities, which earned him even more enemies. 

Tom Paine Monument, New Rochelle, NY-wikipedia
Tom Paine Monument, New Rochelle, NY

In September 1802 Paine returned to America to find his services to the country had been largely forgotten.  He was now regarded as the world’s greatest infidel.  Again, he was broke and seriously ill, but continued his attacks on privilege until his death in 1809.  He was buried at his New Rochelle farm.  There he lay pretty much forgotten for ten years until William Cobbett exhumed his bones and took them to England, supposedly for a more fitting burial. This was actually an attempt to cash in on Paine’s life,  but it backfired and the bones were lost and never found. 



When Paine died, the New York obituary noted: “He had lived long, did some good and much harm”. This was the accepted evaluation until 30 January 1937 when “The Times” of London referred to him as “the English Voltaire”.  On 18 May 1952 a bust of Paine was placed in the New York University Hall of Fame. 

Paine was often very caustic, made many errors of judgement, and in later life espoused many ideas incompatible with our founding principles.  Paine was a thinker, not a doer.  He had trouble getting along, and never held jobs or appointments very long.  He publicly vilified George Washington because he thought Washington should have gotten him released from French prison.  This alone made him very unpopular in America.  Despite all this, Paine was essential to the success of “This Glorious Cause”, which Washington called our Revolution.  Paine deserved better.  He should be remembered as an equal with the most revered American revolutionaries, but as often happens, he was nearly forgotten because of the numerous enemies he made along the way.  Let me finish with an 1806 Paine quote that really summarizes his life:   

“My motive and object in all my political works, beginning with Common Sense, the first work I ever published, have been to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principles of government, and enable him to be free.

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