Who Is Thomas Paine? What Did Thomas Paine Do?
Who Is Thomas Paine? What Did Thomas Paine Do? Information about Thomas Paine’s biography, life story, works, and writings.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Anglo-American pamphleteer, political scientist, and religious thinker, who issued the first public call for the American colonies to declare their independence from Britain. During the course of the revolution, he dedicated his pen to proclaiming the American cause throughout Europe and to keeping spirits high at home. When a subsequent revolution broke out in France, he used in its behalf principles identical to those in his American writings, becoming an international spokesman for political equality, natural rights, and civil liberties. Inspired by events in France, he applied to religion the principles of natural reason that formed the basis of his political works, developing a system of deism based on science and abstract morality.
Life. Paine was born in Thetford, England, on Jan. 29, 1737. After a checkered career as a corset maker, schoolmaster, itinerant preacher, and customs inspector, he immigrated to America, arriving in Philadelphia in November 1774. With a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, who at the time was an agent for the colonies in England, Paine was employed for six months as managing editor of a new periodical, the Pennsylvania Magazine, to which he contributed miscellaneous poems and essays.
American Revolution. At first an advocate of reconciliation in the contest with Britain, Paine adopted the doctrine of separation as a result of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and brought out his pamphlet Common Sense, calling for independence, in January 1776. Common Sense, which sold more than 100,000 copies in three months, had a profound impact on public opinion and on the deliberations of the Continental Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia.
During the Revolution, in the black days following Washington’s forced retreat across New Jersey and the Delaware River in December 1776, Paine’s writing revived the flagging morale of the troops and the civilian population. On December 19, while serving in the Continental Army, he published the first of a series of propaganda pieces, entitled The American Crisis, which begins, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The inspiration generated by the pamphlet is credited with contributing to the American success at the Battle of Trenton.
In April 1777, largely because of his writings, Paine was elected secretary of the Congressional Committee of Foreign Affairs. However, he was forced to resign two years later when it was discovered that he had released in a newspaper article privileged information concerning treaty negotiations with France. After the war, Paine conducted various scientific experiments and invented a method of constructing an iron bridge. In an attempt to promote the bridge, he returned to Europe in 1787, living in England and France.
French Revolution. In 1791, Paine published the tile first part of The Rights of Man—a. defense of the French Revolution in reply to the attack by Edmund Burke. (The second part was issued in 1792.) As a result, Paine left England, where he was subsequently declared a traitor and outlawed, and went to France, where he was granted citizenship and, in September 1792, elected to the National Convention. In the convention, Paine associated with such moderates as Condorcet and voted against the execution of Louis XVI. He thereby aroused the suspicion of the radical majority and was arrested by the Committee of General Safety, which confined him in the Luxembourg prison from December 1793 to November 1794.
While in prison, Paine worked on the statement of his religious beliefs, The Age of Reason (Part I, 1794; Part II, 1796). It opens with the words: “I believe in one God and no more, and I hope for happiness beyond this life.” For generations, The Age of Reason was misunderstood and assailed as an atheistic tract, when, in fact, it is an expression of deistic principles, accepted by Franklin, Jefferson, and other 18th century intellectuals. •
In 1796, Paine also issued a public letter to George Washington, voicing his disillusionment with Washington’s failure to have used official channels to secure his release from prison. In the following year, Paine published Agrarian Justice, a proposal for a broad government-sponsored welfare program covering youth and old age, based on notions he had set forth in Philadelphia before the American Revolution.
In 1802, Paine left France and went to the United States, where he devoted his major efforts to newspaper articles jointly defending the administration of President Jefferson and the political principles espoused in 1776. During this period he advised James Monroe in his negotiations for the purchase of Louisiana and suggested to President Jefferson that the United States should serve as a mediator between France and the Negro republic of Haiti. Paine died in New York City on June 8, 1809, and was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, N. Y. In 1819, William Cobbett, an English journalist, exhumed Paine’s body for reburial in England, but all trace of it has since been lost.
Influence. Paine’s vast influence is due in large measure to his luminous literary style, noted for its striking metaphors, colloquial vigor, and rational directness. From a long-range perspective, the importance of Common Sense lies in its insistence that America adopts a new system of republican government rather than simply rejecting British rule, and that the American Revolution was a philosophical movement based on natural rights and not just a change of government. Later, it helped formulate the policy of American noninvolvement in European political affairs and as an instrument in the independence movement in Latin America.
The Rights of Man, by defending the dignity of men in all countries against those who consider the average person to be merely one of the “swinish multitudes,” transcends national boundaries. In the United States, it fostered sympathy for France, helping to check a growing anti-French sentiment during the Federal period and reducing pressure for war with France. In England, it circulated among republican clubs and became a classic document in the working-class movement.