Americans generally remember Thomas Paine as the renowned writer of Common Sense, the most persuasive and popular case for American independence from the British crown. However, many may be unaware that the radical political agitator later returned to his native Europe, where his actions led him to be sentenced to execution in both England and France.
As I point out in my new book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, Paine worked feverishly throughout late 1791 and early 1792 to complete the follow-up to his stunningly successful defense of the French Revolution, The Rights of Man. Originally intended to be a response to his one-time friend Edmund Burke’s tract, The Reflections of the Revolution in France, Paine’s first volume was an explicit assault on monarchy and defense of republicanism.
The English government, headed by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, took notice. After Paine released The Rights of Man, Part Second, the crown’s crosshairs focused directly on him. Concerned that the writer’s work would encourage the French Revolution to spill into England, Pitt launched an unprecedented censorship campaign. Pitt issued a declaration that demanded an end to “wicked and seditious writings,” a thinly-veiled reference to Paine’s latest offering. In a meticulous effort, the kingdom’s law enforcement agents were dispatched throughout the country to gather information on the work’s printing and distribution network.
When its intimidation campaign failed to yield immediate results, Pitt’s government went so far as to ramp up its efforts to put pressure on Paine’s private life. In an attempt to force him into voluntary exile, agents shadowed him wherever he went, and even attempted to pressure local taverns to deny him patronage.
Paine’s friends ultimately persuaded the penman that it was in his best interests to flee the country to avoid prosecution for seditious libel. But not before Paine sent a scourging letter to Home Secretary Henry Dundas, who implemented the censorship regime. Pitt’s expertise was “confined to the means of extorting revenue,” and Dundas was little more than an aristocratic parasite “rolling in luxury at the expense of the nation,” Paine taunted. Most humorously, the firebrand signed his name in a manner that defied polite convention. “I am, Mr. Dundas, not your obedient humble servant,” Paine wrote, “but the contrary, THOMAS PAINE.” For issuing his provocative opinions within his recent pamphlet, he was charged with seditious libel, with a criminal trial set to take place in December of 1792.
Paine fled to Paris, where his celebrity led him to be appointed to the French republican government as a delegate of Calais. He contributed to the Girondin constitutional project – a botched attempt to adopt a new French constitution – which was interrupted by a coup that brought the Jacobins to power. Under Maximilien Robespierre, the faction suspended the existing constitutional framework, shelved Paine’s committee’s plans to replace it, and then assumed all legislative, executive, and judicial power over the country through the arbitrary Committee of Public Safety.
Paine’s candid attempt to spare the life of King Louis XVI, the deposed Bourbon monarch, likely riled the fervor of the Jacobins against him. Indeed, his knack for earning death sentences by way of his unconventional opinions caught up with him in France, just as it had in England. Paine was stripped of his honorary French citizenship, removed from the legislative assembly, and soon placed in jail during the Reign of Terror.
As Paine languished in prison, American Minister to France Gouverneur Morris refused to vouch for his American citizenship to free him from his condition. As a result, Paine spent eight months in bondage, where he developed a serious fever that nearly killed him. It was only through the good fortune of a jailer’s mistake that he escaped an early death yet again.
In my book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, I explain how Paine escaped death sentences in both England and France, and returned to public prominence once again. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!