by George F. Smith, Mises.org
When Thomas Paine’s ship pulled into Baltimore harbor on October 30, 1802, a large gathering of friends and admirers were waiting at dockside to welcome him back. Others stood by as well, some filled with loathing, merely to observe a famous figure. Since leaving the United States in 1787 to find a builder for his iron bridge, Paine had authored some of the most incendiary tracts of the 18th century, had been imprisoned and narrowly escaped Robespierre’s guillotine, and was widely reported to be a drunk and an atheist.
When he journeyed to Federal City on November 5 to pay his respects to the country’s third president, he found that he needed an alias and help from a presidential aide to get a room at Lovell’s, the city’s only hotel. As he later wrote a friend and future biographer, Thomas Clio Rickman,
You can have no idea of the agitation which my arrival occasioned. From New Hampshire to Georgia (an extent of 1,500 miles), every newspaper was filled with applause or abuse.
The source of the abuse was the Federalist press, a collection of newspaper editors and writers who were the big-government allies of Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson, the new president, had unseated Federalist John Adams and many of his congressional cohorts in what Jefferson called the “Revolution of 1800.”
The party of war, taxes, and privileges for the rich, coupled with a strong loyalty to England – which it sought to emulate in all its corrupt glory – had been thrown out in favor of one promising to be bound by the “chains of the Constitution.” The Democratic-Republicans (or simply the Republicans, as Jefferson’s party was called) sought to disentangle government from people’s lives, both within the country and abroad.
Paine had been staying in France since his release from prison in late 1794 and had been frustrated in his wish to return to America by the possibility of capture by British warships. The English had convicted him in absentia of seditious libel for Rights of Man, Part the Second and other political writings, and they were determined to intercept and hang him if he ever set sail again. When England and France signed the Treaty of Amiens on March 25, 1802, inaugurating a year’s respite from war, it was once again safe for Paine to be at sea, and he left Le Havre on September 1.
Contrary to Federalist rumors that Jefferson wanted Paine back in the states to help defend his administration from Federalist attacks, Paine himself apparently saw his return as a well-earned retirement opportunity. He had turned 65 in 1802 and still suffered lingering bouts of pain and fever from his ten-month incarceration under Robespierre. As the 18th century’s most influential political pamphleteer, Paine’s reputation was born with the American Revolution he was largely responsible for creating, and he wanted to spend his last years among people with whom he shared a passion for liberty.
But there was never to be any lasting peace for a firebrand like Paine, whose immense popularity with commoners made life uncomfortable for politicians, priests, and pundits everywhere.
The Struggle to Find Home
Paine grew up in mid-18th century England under “a criminal code that would hang a te