What would you think if I told you that America’s banner-waver of the American Revolution – often described as a “tax revolt” – was actually a tax collector? Well, I don’t have to allege it, because it’s true.
As I point out in my new book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, the future penman experimented with several commercial pursuits in England as a young man. Originally intending to follow in his father’s footsteps making stays – which provided structure for women’s corsets – he also dabbled in privateering. As a privateer, Paine assisted independently-owned naval ventures in looting commercial vessels that sailed under the flag of enemy countries.
However, Paine’s most ironic employment venture was that of a British excise officer. Assigned to duty at English ports to collect taxes, Paine was employed by the British crown – the same institution he later berated in no uncertain terms. At the time, tax collection was a hazardous profession. Excisemen who uncovered acts of smuggling received special payments for their efforts, but they risked their lives to do so. This was because the collection of taxes always had the potential to spark violent outbursts, and Paine’s situation was especially dangerous, as the advent of alcoholic gin stimulated rampant smuggling along England’s coast.
Paine worked as an exciseman in Alford and Lewes, and discovered his affinity to radical politics in the latter town. Lewes was home to the Headstrong Club, an organization that held community dinners at the White Hart Inn, where food was followed by rigorous debate on the politics of the day. Though there are few records of the topics discussed, it is certain that he was exposed to radical Whig ideas, which quickly took root in his mind.
The most significant event that influenced Paine’s future as an excise officer was his authorship of an overlooked and unusual political petition. In 1772, Paine’s coworkers began to gripe about the typical grievances of their occupation. The group of tax collectors intended to bring their complaints to Parliament in hopes of producing a remedy for the monotony and lackluster working conditions of the profession. Needing a spokesman to articulate their concerns, they turned to Paine. In 1772, he prepared an official argument in the form of a pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise.
Within the tract – which contained the seeds of Paine’s budding writing talents – Paine wrote of the profession’s hardships. The pursuit made it impossible for tax collectors to support themselves and their families “with any proper degree of credit and reputation.” His argument on behalf of his peers made an unmistakable emotional assault against economic insufficiency, a theme that Paine would revisit in the future.
“Poverty,” he wrote, “begets a degree of meanness that will stoop to almost nothing.” He therefore urged Parliament to take the labor and fatigue of the excisemen into proper account, and raise their salaries accordingly. This solution would strengthen the consistency of tax collecting as “laws and instructions receive new force,” secure the excisemen “from the temptations of poverty,” and “out-root the present corruptions.”
My book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, reveals the effect of the petition, provides an account of the polemicist’s overshadowed time as an excise officer and explains why Paine left the profession for good. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!