Yesterday in history – on Jan. 29, 1737 – Thomas Paine was born. An unlikely English-born banner-waver for the cause of American independence, he emigrated to America in 1774, and became editor of one of Philadelphia’s leading publications.
Born to the poor artisan class, Paine had an Anglican mother and Quaker father, and was raised in the latter faith. After following in his father’s footsteps for a time by producing stays for women’s corsets, he became a privateer that plundered ships sailing under the French banner during the Seven Years War. Fate narrowly saved Paine from one an early demise in one privateering stint, when his father convinced him not to embark upon Captain William Death’s Terrible. It was soon after the Terrible launched its mission that it was obliterated in a three-hour battle by the Vengeance, a French privateer. Only 17 of the ship’s original crew survived, and over 150 – including all of its officers and Captain Death himself – perished.
Paine’s first wife, Mary Lambert, and his child died in labor, making Paine a widower at 23 years old. Overcome with agony, he decided to abandon stay-making and create a new life for himself elsewhere. In 1762, Paine became an exciseman for the English crown, collecting taxes on behalf of the king – a true irony considering his fierce patriot loyalties in opposition to Britain’s scheme to tax the American colonies via the Stamp Act. Throughout most of this period, he lived in Lewes, where his memory persists. The town throws an annual summer festival in his honor, contains a statue of his likeness, and his home serves as a memorial to his memory.
The future penman remarried in in Lewes, where he became involved in his local community. It was here he first became a Whig – an opponent of monarchical absolutism and defender of traditional English rights. In Lewes, he also first became aquatinted with Thomas “Clio Rickman,” a lifelong friend and future biographer. In 1772, he was chosen by his fellow exciseman to draft a petition to Parliament calling for better working conditions and compensation, a project that culminated his first written essay. The grievances were largely ignored, and Paine narrowly avoided bankruptcy by selling his home in Lewes.
After a chance liaison with Benjamin Franklin in London, the renowned American endorsed Paine’s decision to immigrate to Philadelphia. There, he found work as the editor of the Pennsylvania magazine, one of the city’s leading publications. Soon enough, he became caught up against the greatest controversy of the day – the imperial crisis between the American colonies and British Tories over the supremacy of British Parliament and England’s constitutional system.
American patriots had disavowed allegiance to the Parliament, declaring the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, Sugar Act, Declaratory Act, and later Tea Act an unconstitutional subversion of precepts as old as the Magna Carta. The common bond between the American colonies and the English system, they argued, was through the king rather than an all-powerful Parliament with a general legislative power that could supplant the colonial legislatures.
In late 1775, Paine set out to write “Common Sense,” a tract that argued the following:
1) That many traditional rights were naturally bestowed, and preexisted government.
2) That legitimate government depends on the consent of the governed, and that governmental establishments were based on contractual relationships between individuals.
3) That the incendiary British policy toward the colonies had violated the colonial charters and the British constitutional system itself.
4) That the American colonies could not be reasonably represented in British Parliament, nor could any empire judiciously govern the American colonies.
5) That the British claim to the right to bind the colonies “in all cases whatsoever” and to supplant the will of the colonial legislatures was contemptuous, malignant, and unauthoritative.
6) That the British royal line derived from a bastard foreigner who gained power only through military prowess and a successful invasion of the British Isles in 1066.
7) That a free people could withdraw from an illegitimate government, as such a government ceased to possess the ability to demand compliance.
8) That new American states should setup republican governments with written constitutions and a enact a continental charter.
Paine authored the tract anonymously, and devoted the proceeds to clothing for the Continental Army. In quick order, the pamphlet became a smashing success, selling thousands of copies in a time where the explicit call for secession from the British crown was a truly radical sentiment. At the time, many hoped for a British-American settlement that included concessions on both sides, but where political independence was unthinkable. Even still, prominent American patriots such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Charles Lee took notice, and heaped praises upon the work and its author.
After Paine became known as the author, he enlisted in the continental army, where he served the revolutionary cause as an aide-de-camp for patriot general Nathanael Greene. In this cause, he became good friends with future president George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army. Paine was involved in several early American military blunders, such as the evacuation of Fort Lee. He penned a series of letters, “The American Crisis,” designed to arouse the spirits of Continental soldiers during their most trying times, and his words were read to army by George Washington.
After his time in the Continental Army, Paine became Secretary of the American Committee for Foreign Affairs, where he supported the aim securing a political alliance with France. In this service, he became America’s first whistleblower of sorts when he exposed the financial wrongdoing of Silas Deane, who skimmed money from a clandestine Franco-American arms procurement operation.
After blowing the cover on Deane’s corruption, conservative opponents of Paine condemned the Englishman for compromising their aspirations, and organized to remove him from his position as secretary. Ultimately the Franco-American alliance was solidified nonetheless in 1778. Years later, when Deane’s misconduct became more well-known, some of his political opponents, including Robert Morris, made amends with Paine.
In his writings, Paine was an outspoken slave abolitionist, much like fellow Whig peer James Otis. One of the first essays he chose to publish for the Pennsylvania Magazine, “African Slavery in America,” was a tirade against the institution and its pernicious effects in America. According to the article, “such wicked and inhuman” inclinations encouraged the English to enslave thousands, using many as conscripts for use in war. The work unambiguously conceived of slavery as an affront to God. It would be a mistake to perpetuate the practice in America, declared the writer, because slaves “have still a natural, perfect right” to freedom.
In another 1775 article, Paine complained that Americans had engaged “in the most horrid of all traffics, that of human flesh.” Consequently, slavery had “ravaged the hapless shores of Africa, robbing it of its unoffending inhabitants to cultivate her stolen dominions in the West.” He yearned for God to bless the Americas through legislation “which shall put a stop to the importation of Negroes for sale, soften the hard fate of those already here, and in time procure their freedom.”
Paine’s opinions on slavery served to inspire many of his radical political allies – including those in Pennsylvania –to enact gradual emancipation laws within their states. Following Pennsylvania’s innovative emancipation act in 1780, a series of cases in Massachusetts led the state’s highest court to conclude that slavery was an inhumane practice that violated the Massachusetts constitution in 1783. The same year, New Hampshire adopted a state bill of rights that was similarly interpreted to have ended slavery.
In 1784, Connecticut and Rhode Island adopted gradual emancipation acts, both of which contained provisions similar to their antecedents in Pennsylvania. As the dominos fell, an entire region in North America put slavery upon a path of extinction. At the time, no such similar measure existed in Britain, France, Prussia, India, Russia, or China, making the American states the first true pioneers of manumission in world history.
In the next years, Paine devoted his pen to defending hard money at a time where paper bill of credit sparked an inflationary crisis in the American colonies. Congress’ rapidly-debased Continental currency was essentially worthless by the 1780s, and many states passed debtor-friendly laws that allowed repayment of debts in unbacked fiat.
In a radical pitch that put him at odds with much of American’s landed aristocracy, his pamphlet “Public Good,” proposed incorporating all of American’s western territories into a single trust to be in Congress, a meeting place of state ambassadors. Despite the outcry by those with lofty western land claims, this idea largely came to fruition under of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance.
Paine fell again on hard times, but was eventually given several grants by the states for his service to the cause of American independence, including a swath of property confiscated from British Tories in New Rochelle, New York. Until late in life, he mostly rented the property, and it fell into a state of disrepair. In the late 1780s, the writer delved deeply into a trade he found natural talent in – engineering.
His pursuit of an iron bridge – a revolutionary construct for the time – brought him to England and France, where he promoted his idea to financiers. Though he produced several models, and eventually a temporary bridge, his attention was drawn back from bridgebuilding into politics once more upon the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Paine’s former friend, Edmund Burke, released “Reflections of the Revolution in France” in 1790, decrying the French Revolution for its violence, and denying the authority of free people to choose government. Far from establishing “a right by the revolution to elect our kings,” he wrote, “the English nation did at that time most solemnly renounce and abdicate it, for themselves and for all their posterity forever.”
Paine drafted his magnum opus, “The Rights of Man,” as a response. Within, he argued as before that all free people have a right to alter or abolish their government, that monarchy was merely a form of slavery that bound all generations into an immoral political arrangement that put them at the mercy of a single family, that the monarchical system had inspired wars of usurpation and conquest that had operated against the will of the kingdom’s subjects.
Paine’s fiery work caught of British agents in London, and he was driven from the country from William Pitt the Younger’s brutal campaign of censorship against English Whigs. After he fled the country, he was tried for seditious libel in London for the words within his republican treatise, defended by patriot lawyer Thomas Erskine, and tried and convicted by a stacked jury of Tories, and sentenced to be executed.
As the greatest selling republican manifesto of all time, The Rights of Man made Paine a celebrity in France, where he was shockingly elected to represent Calais in France’s new republican Legislative Assembly. He generally aligned with the Girondins, and set out to impart his vision into France’s new prospective constitution, where he worked closely with fellow radicals such as the Marquis de Condorcet. The task was cut short though, when a massive controversy over what to do with the deposed monarch, King Louis XVI. Despite a broad Jacobin-led coalition of those that insisted the king must be put to death, Paine spoke against such a sentence.
According to the firebrand, the French Republic’s qualms laid at the feet of the Bourbon system generally, rather than Louis as its modern embodiment. Extralegal killings of political retribution would only sow permanent seems of disdain, he argued, and making the king into a powerless private citizen would reveal to the world the merits of republicanism.
Paine lost the argument, and Louis was put to death in 1793. His opposition to the sentence, and denunciation of Jacobin agitator Jean-Paul Marat made him into a political target of the faction, which sought to have his political influence removed. After a violent Girondin purge claimed the lives of many of his closest French allies, Paine was imprisoned in Luxembourg under the Reign of Terror. For nearly a year, he languished in prison as he petitioned for release as an American citizen.
Washington’s Foreign Affairs Minister in France, Gouverneur Morris, took issue with Paine’s political positions and did little to press his case. While in prison, Paine nearly died of a deep, debilitating fever that left him unable to converse. During the height of the bloody Jacobin crusade against “counterrevolutionaries,” he was nearly executed, escaping such a fate only due to a jailer’s mistake. After the downfall of Maximilien de Robespierre under the Thermidorian Reaction, Paine was released at the behest of Morris’ successor, James Monroe, who successfully secured the penman’s release.
Resentful toward his old friend Washington, he penned a scathing leather that explicitly called the president’s character into question. Paine felt betrayed personally by the Virginian, who he felt left him to rot in prison so as to avoid riling the indignation of monarchist Britain, with which he and the Federalists were attempting to establish closer political ties.
Washington was “treacherous in private friendship” as he was “a hypocrite in public life,” Paine wrote, “and the world will be puzzled to decide” whether the man was “an apostate or an impostor.” As he saw it, posterity would look back and wonder whether Washington “had abandoned good principles, or whether” he “had any” in the first place. Washington never responded to the letter, though Paine went so far as having it published into a pamphlet to be printed in Philadelphia. The two never reconciled, and Paine never forgave his former friend.
In the next years, Paine devoted his time to “Agrarian Justice,” a pamphlet that argued all living people were due a “citizen’s dividend” from cultivated land. Because land was bestowed to humanity in the commons by our creator, he argued, a land tax should serve as the basis of a social safety net to benefit all within a community. The work was in many ways an extension of the second parts of The Rights of Man, which called for a proto-welfare system that would provide aid to the poor and elderly, funded through a progressive income tax in germ.
His most controversial tract ever, “The Age of Reason” – eventually released in three volumes – was an overt denunciation of orthodox religion, divine revelation, and the miraculous aspects of Christianity. Paine argued that God was merely a clockmaker creator that made the natural world and refused to intervene with its natural development. Though he found merit in many of the moral lessons of the Bible, he denied its legitimacy as a sacred text and foundation for salvation. Like his political beliefs, the work attracted a hotbed of controversy, especially in the midst of a Second Great Awakening in America. The tract put him at odds with many former Whig friends, including Samuel Adams.
Before Napoleon Bonaparte’s ascension to power in France through the Coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799, the ambitious general was enamored with Paine and his ideas. At one point in 1797 at a private meeting, the Corsican showered the writer with praises. “A statue of gold should be erected to you in every city in the universe,” he told Paine. Bonaparte even went so far as to tell the man he slept at night with a copy of The Rights of Man under his pillow. The general was impressed by Paine’s thorough plans for a French invasion of England, which would be accomplished through a swift-moving fleet of gunboats rather than traditional naval forces. The general briefly proposed appointing Paine to a provision English government should the plans succeed, and entertained launching such a plan for years, but the project never came to fruition. After Bonaparte established a deep-seeded cult of personality around himself, and usurped the authority of the French Directory, Paine called him “the completest charlatan that ever existed.”
Aligning himself with the Jeffersonian Republicans, Paine denounced the Federalist program, including the Jay Treaty, Neutrality Proclamation, and the Alien and Sedition Acts, and believed Adams to be a closet monarchist. Upon the invitation of Jefferson, Paine finally returned to America in 1803, where he planned to continue his writing and promote his iron bridges. In his last years, he remained a lighting rod for his condemnation of Washington and the publication of The Age of Reason, but maintained a cordial relationship with Jefferson, Monroe, and some others.
By the time of his death, he was completely friendless, and no longer commanded the universal admiration of Americans as he once had. His funeral was attended by only six people, including two free black men. A decade after his death, his body was dug up from his property in New York by William Cobbett, a British radical that intended to bring it to England for burial. While still in his possession at the time Cobbett’s death in 1835, his bones have been lost to time, with several conflicting legends of their whereabouts.