The Perennial Patriot... Thomas Paine, the son of a corset-maker, was one of the most influential writers of the American and French Revolutions, more than a century ahead of his time, and still as revolutionary today as he was then. Born January 29th, 1737 in Thetford, England, he failed at almost everything he tried for decades.
When he was 12, he failed out of school. He apprenticed to his father, went to sea as a mercenary at 19, and returned to England to open a shop as a master corset-maker. The shop soon failed and shortly after he married his first wife, she became pregnant. A few months later, both she and the baby died in childbirth. In 1768, he became a tax officer in England and was fired twice. He also worked as a school teacher in London and as an ordained Minister for the Church of England while between jobs. In 1771, he married his landlord's daughter and wrote “The Case of the Officers of Excise” which argued for a pay raise for tax officers. He was legally separated from his second wife in 1774, but in the same year, had his first stroke of good luck. At 37, he met Benjamin Franklin in London who wrote him a letter of recommendation to assist in his emigration to Pennsylvania.
Sea voyages were dangerous at the time and he came close to death because the ship's water supply was contaminated. Five passengers had died of typhoid and Franklin's personal physician had to carry him off the ship. It took six weeks for him to recover, but was hired as a writer for the Pennsylvania Magazine. He was appointed editor the following year.
In his first article in March 1775, he attacked slavery. Five days later the first anti-slavery society was formed. (Later, in 1779, he introduced an act for the abolition of slavery into the Pennsylvania Assembly, the first Proclamation of Emancipation in America). His second article (April, 1775) attacked the practice of dueling. His August article was an argument titled “The Rights of Women.” In another article, he was the first to write “the United States of America." And in January of 1776, although he had been in America for only a year, he wrote “Common Sense” under a pseudonym because of its treasonous contents. It first words
It was a powerful argument for American Independence that inspired the American Revolution. In terms of population of the Colonies at that time, it sold more copies and had greater circulation than any book in American history. Percentage-wise today, it was read by more people than watch the Super Bowl each year. (120,000 copies in the first three months, and 500,000 in the first year.) He donated all of the profits to the Continental Army. He said...
”As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author.”
And its first paragraph has become iconic...
“These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."
These words inspired General Washington into action . . . with the pamphlet being read aloud to the Continental army on December 23, 1776, two days before the Battle of Trenton . . . to bolster morale and resistance among patriots, as well as shaming neutrals and loyalists toward the cause. (Thomas Paine even joined the Continental Army for a brief time.)
At the end of the American Revolution, Paine left America for England where he received European patents for both a smokeless candle and an iron bridge, but his career as a revolutionary writer was far from over.
Of his constant travels, he wrote... ”Where Liberty is not, there is my country."
In 1781, Paine traveled to France with Col. John Laurens seeking assistance for the Revolution. He returned to Boston the same year doing what no others had been able to do: bringing 2,500,000 livres in silver, and a convoy ship carrying clothing and military equipment for the Continental Army.
From 1791-92, in response to criticism of the French Revolution, he wrote “The Rights of Man” which later became the basis for the rights the English enjoy today. He is still considered by England to be one of the top 50 most important Englishmen in history. At the time though, he was labeled an outlaw for his anti-monarchist views and fled to France. “Common Sense” had been published there in French and was immensely popular and he was quickly elected to the National Convention despite not being able to speak French.
|But in 1793, he was imprisoned for defending the life of Louis XVI. He said, |
"I am not the personal enemy of kings. Quite the contrary.
No man wishes more heartily than myself to see them all in the happy and honorable state of private individuals; but I am the avowed, open and intrepid enemy of what is called monarchy; and I am such by principles which nothing can either alter or corrupt, by my attachment to humanity, by the anxiety which I feel within myself for the dignity and honor of the human race."
Execution of King Louis XVI
|While imprisoned, he wrote the first part of what would later become his most famous work at that time, “The Age of Reason”. In it, he argued his belief in Deism, a single God, and the evil of organized religion;|
“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
“There is a happiness in Deism, when rightly understood, that is not to be found in any other system of religion. All other systems have something in them that either shock our reason, or are repugnant to it, and man, if he thinks at all, must stifle his reason in order to force himself to believe them.”
“But in Deism our reason and our belief become happily united. The wonderful structure of the universe, and everything we behold in the system of the creation, prove to us, far better than books can do, the existence of a God, and at the same time proclaim His attributes.”
In 1794, he was released and narrowly escaped execution, thanks to the efforts of James Monroe, the U.S. Minister to France, who would later become President. He stayed in France until 1802 when he returned to America on a personal invitation from Thomas Jefferson.
Unfortunately, his life in America until his death in 1809 was one of great difficulty. His contributions to the American Revolution had been essentially erased by the enemies he had made through his writings: Slave holders hated him; members of organized religion called him an atheist; he was blamed for the cruelties of the French Revolution; and the Federalists hated him for advocating the rights of the people and small, local government rather than a powerful, centralized government. He continued to write powerful criticism of the Federalists including Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, to name only a few. About President Washington, he said...
”The character which Mr. Washington has attempted to act in the world is a sort of nondescribable, chameleon-colored thing called prudence. It is, in many cases, a substitute for principle, and is so nearly allied to hypocrisy that it easily slides into it.“
Devoid of friends and abandoned by the public he spent a lifetime sacrificing for, he died on June 8, 1809 at the age of 72 in Greenwich Village, New York City. Only six mourners came to his funeral. His obituary, reprinted nationally, simply read... ”He had lived long, did some good and much harm."
As Robert G. Ingersoll wrote of his funeral for the North American Review in August, 1892...
“In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead -- on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head -- and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude -- constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.”
|He was buried in New Rochelle, New York, on the grounds of a loyalist estate given to him by Congress after years of petitioning for compensation. His remains were later disinterred by an admirer, William |
Thomas Paine Death Mask
| ||Cobbett, who wanted them returned to England. Upon Cobbett's death, Thomas Paine's bones were later discovered as part of Cobbett's estate. Their whereabouts are unknown today, but some of Cobbett's friends' descendants claim to have his skull and right hand.|
Thomas Paine's legacy as the perennial patriot is that his words, like his life, were unafraid to tackle complex questions with honesty and reason, despite social taboos, personal fear, or dangerous consequences. With a rare grace, he navigates centuries of accepted ideas to find truths that are relevant to every thinking soul, independent of the time in which they live.
James Monroe expressed best the significance of Thomas Paine when he wrote to Congress in 1794...
"The services Thomas Paine rendered to his country in its struggle for freedom have implanted in the hearts of his countrymen a sense of gratitude never to be effaced as long as they shall deserve the title of a just and generous people."
Written by Matt Fitzgibbons
The American Deists, Walters, Kerry S. 1992, University Press of Kansas
A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus's Great Discovery to the War on Terror by Larry Schweikart
Thomas Paine National Historical Association
World Union of Deists (A Collection of Hard to Find Thomas Paine Writings)
ThomasPaine.org (Additional Useful Links)
Comment on Thomas Paine as a Great American Patriot
You can also experience Matt Fitzgibbons three songs listed at USA Patriotism!
Remember The Americans (with video) | I'll See You Again (with video) | For the Heroes
Other Great American Patriots || Poem > Patriots Among Us || Great American Patriot Nomination Form