Although he has been called “The Father of the American Revolution,” Thomas Paine was perhaps the most unlikely man in the world to carry the torch of American independence.
An Englishman who was once employed by the same king he grew to despise, Paine had been a failure in almost every aspect of life. His first wife died in labor, and his short-lived marriage to his second wife ended in separation within just three years. His attempt to petition Parliament for better compensation and working conditions for himself and his fellow tax collectors fell on deaf ears, and he accumulated immense personal debt. Bouncing frequently between professions and failing businesses, he struggled to find his way in life. That was, of course, until he picked up the pen.
As I point out in my book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, Paine was a true enigma of his time, and the story of his life reads much like an unpredictable and elaborate novel. From meager beginnings as a working-class laborer, he became well-regarded among the world’s intellectual giants in both America and Europe. As an incendiary pamphleteer, he made friends with some of the most important people of his era – only to die broken, unpopular, and friendless. A one-time tax collector of the British crown, he achieved fame mostly through his persuasive ambush on Parliament for levying taxes against the American colonies.
Paine’s first published essay was a gigantic flop, but his most famous works were best-sellers that captivated the minds of nearly every literate American and European. He chastised hereditary monarchy in no uncertain terms, but desperately pleaded for the life of the deposed King Louis XVI at the height of the French Revolution. His friends perceived him as a brilliant purveyor of wisdom, while his enemies condemned him as a heretical charlatan. His words served as catalysts for two revolutions on the world stage, yet he came from a tiny, unremarkable village. Through it all, he was the most notorious radical of his age.
The are many other interesting facets of Paine’s life, but one that has often gone unmentioned by many other scholars was his capacity to elude an early death. On no less than seven occasions, the eminent writer’s life was almost cut short.
On one occasion, fate narrowly saved Paine from a fatal disaster in privateering – where crews of independently-owned warships loot commercial vessels that sailed under the flag of enemy countries. The daring young man nearly boarded the Terrible, a privateer commanded by Captain William Death, for a stint in the English Channel. Soon after the ship launched, it was obliterated in a three-hour battle by the Vengeance, a French privateer. Only 17 of the ship’s original crew survived, and more than 150 – including all of its officers and Captain Death himself – perished. Paine’s life was spared only because his father convinced him not to embark on a voyage.
In another close brush with death, Paine contracted typhoid fever during his first voyage to America in 1774. Several of his fellow crewmen did not make it through the journey, and Paine became so sick and disheveled that he had to be carried in a blanket from the docks of Philadelphia by John Kearsley, Benjamin Franklin’s doctor. His health recovered only after an agonizing six weeks at Kearley’s residence.
In yet another surprising twist of fate, Paine avoided an attempted homicide by Christopher Derrick, a former tenant.
Derrick, who had feuded with Paine over financial matters, approached Paine’s home in New Rochelle, New York in a drunken stupor on Christmas Eve, 1805. After making his way through the snow, he positioned himself by the window, where he could make out the likeness of Paine through a window. He took aim at the unsuspecting writer with his musket, then fired directly at him. The event rattled the elderly writer, who immediately ran out of the house with the neighbor’s boy. “I directly suspected who it was,” he wrote to a friend, “and hallowed to him by name,” such that “the party who fired might know I was on the watch.”
My book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, reveals what became of Derrick, Paine’s would-be assassin, as well as four other distinct situations where Paine escaped death through chance. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!