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Born: 1737, Thetford, Norfolk, England

Died: 1809, New Rochelle, NewYork

Major Works: Common Sense (1776), The Crisis (1776-83), Public Good (1780), The Rights of Man (1791-92), The Age of Reason (1794-96), Dissertation on First Principles of Government (1795)

Major Ideas

The rights of humankind originate at birth.

Government should exist only for the security, happiness, and unity of humankind.

Republican government is based on reason and engenders freedom; government by hereditary succession is based on ignorance and reduces people to slavery.

Equality of natural property and the right of suffrage are essential for a free society.

The unrestrained communication of ideas, the right to reform, and freedom of religious belief are all natural rights.

God is the first cause of all things; only by exercising reason can humankind discover God.

A defender of human rights, political independence, and intellectual freedom, Thomas Paine contributed to the revolutionary activities in late eighteenth century America, France, and England. Representing Enlightenment thought, Paine voiced ideas that have become commonplace. Paine's philosophical contributions are held in esteem less for their innovative nature than for their rhetorical power At the center of radical political thought, Paine was still able to engage the masses with his simple and succinct style.

Paine's sensitivity to the populace may be due in part to his own humble background. Born in a small village in Norfolk Paine was apprenticed to his Quaker father's staymaker's shop, where he learned the trade of making women's corsets by inserting steel or whalebones into their fabric. In 1757, Paine was sent to London to serve as a journeyman staymaker, and in 1759 he opened his own staymaking shop in Sandwich There he met and married Mary Lambert, a maid in service to a woollen-draper's year, wife. Within a year however, Mary died.

Paine's first experience with political polemics evolved from his job first assumed in 1762, as an exciseman. Losing this position in 1765 for stamping goods and collecting duties on goods he had not examined, Paine busied himself with odd jobs: staymaking, teaching and preaching. Although he was reinstated in the Excise Service with a job in Lewes in 1768, Paine pursued a rigorous self-education and became interested in politics. He bought a tobacco and grocery shop and married the former shopowner's daughter, Elizabeth Ollive. Both business and marriage failed. In 1774, Paine separated from his wife and was dismissed as an exciseman for inattention to his post. Rallying for excisemen seeking higher salaries, in 1772 Paine wrote The Case of the Officers of Excise. He spent an entire winter in London, away from his post, distributing copies of his pamphlet to members of Parliament. The cause failed, but Paine was hooked on politics and reform.

While in London, Paine met Benjamin Franklin, agent for Pennsylvania, whose letters of introduction enabled him to go to Philadelphia in 1775. In the colonies, Paine wrote scientific and political articles for magazines and newspapers, including the bold attack African Slavery in America, and he edited the Pennsylvania Magazine. His anonymous essay Common Sense, which challenged the American colonies to declare their independence from Britain, was a tremendous success in America and France. In 1776, almost 100,000 copies sold in America.

As the war commenced, Paine enlisted in the American army, soon becoming the aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene. A series of sixteen essays appearing from 1776 through 1783, The Crisis, promoted morale during the war and presented the colonial cause to Europe. Appointed secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs in 1777, Paine obtained from France much-needed supplies, loans, and military assistance. His public attack on Silas Deane, following a controversy over the commission on French supplies, led to his dismissal.

After the war, Paine supported the Pennsylvania Constitution, and in 1780, he was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He fashioned legislation providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves in Pennsylvania, urged equal rights for women, established the Bank of Pennsylvania, opposed Virginia's claim to unlimited land in the West, and advocated a stronger central government. His services were repaid with 500 dollars from Pennsylvania and a farm in New Rochelle from New York.

An engineer, Paine designed a single-arch bridge he hoped to build across the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. In April 1787, he returned to France to develop and finance this bridge 'and found himself at the center of the French Revolution. Back in London in 1791, he joined the pamphlet war, initiated by Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, with The Rights of Man, a defense of the French Revolution and a challenge to England to revolutionalize its aristocratic institutions. Paine became an instant hero to English radical thinkers; the Constitutional Society, of which he was a member, ordered 25,000 copies of his pamphlet. By 1792, when part 2 was published, however, the radical fervor in England had been calmed by strict sedition and treason laws. Paine was charged with sedition, and a mob burned his effigy. Although Paine fled to France before his trial began in 1792, he was found guilty in absentia of seditious libel and exiled from Britain.

In France, Paine again rendered his services to the new French republic. He was chosen a delegate to the French National Convention and appointed, despite his inability to speak French, to the Committee of Nine to frame a new French Constitution. His association with the moderate Girondists and his argument for sparing the life of Louis XVI made his position. After England and France went to war in 1793, foreigners at the French Convention were denounced. Paine was arrested and imprisoned at Luxembourg. Assuming he would be put to death, as many of his inmates were, Paine spent ten months in prison writing The Age of Reason, his attack on the superstition and irrationality of institutionalized religion. James Monroe, the American ambassador to France, finally secured Paine's release in 1794 on the grounds that he was an American citizen. Paine bitterly blamed George Washington for the length of his prison term; in a vituperative letter published in 1795, Paine criticized Washington's military and political s trategies. Although Paine was reelected to the French Assembly in 1794, his recovery from a fever contracted while in prison prevented him from active participation.

Paine's return to America in 1802 was not a triumphant one. He was known as the notorious author of The Age of Reason, with its denouncement of Christianity, and of the Letter to George Washington, with its defacement of a founding father. Only Thomas Jefferson really renewed friendship with Paine. Spending his last years quietly in New York City or on his nearby farm in New Rochelle, Paine died in 1809. His request for a grave in a Quaker cemetery was refused, so he was buried unceremoniously on his farm.

Catalyst to the American Revolution

Paine rallied the American colonies to seek independence from Great Britain, and he chastised the wickedness and inhumanity of the institution of slavery. Outspoken about English atrocities in Africa, India, and the Caribbean, Paine, in 1775, joined the first antislavery society in America. In African Slavery in America (1775) Paine argues that the slave, the proper owner of his freedom, has a right to reclaim it, however often it is sold. This mental revolution, freeing humankind from the shackles of prejudice, permeates all of Paine's polemics.

Advocating a new method of thinking and a new era of politics, Paine in Common Sense outlines the disadvantages and limitations of America's continued attachment to Britain. America constitutes an asylum for persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe; thus Europe, not England, is actually the parent country of America. Britain, Paine argues, naturally wants to maintain colonial ties with America for British protection and commercial interests. Separation, not reconciliation, from England represents the only course of action for America to pursue.

Paine encourages immediate action and provides a plan of representative government to employ once independence is achieved. Arguing that a government of our own is our natural right, Paine demands that the crown be demolished and scattered among the people whose right it is, for in America, the law is king. The war debt America contracts, Paine debates, is nothing compared to the work it will accomplish. In almost every article of defense, America abounds: natural resources, knowledge, and character, especially resolution and courage. America has an opportunity to begin government at the right end--to form articles of government and then elect men delegated to execute them afterwards.

Paine's optimism in the American spirit continues through the Crisis essays. The first, read by Washington to the troops freezing along the Delaware River just before their battle with the Hessians at Trenton in December 1776, emphasizes that what Britain has done to the colonies constitutes slavery. In "The American Crisis," Paine reminds the colonies that America will never be happy until she gets clear of foreign dominion and that America is justified in waging this "defensive" war against the tyranny of aristocracy. The inspiring rhetoric of "these are the times that try men's souls" reminds weary rebels that "tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered."

In other Crisis essays, Paine establishes or articulates myths shaping the American character. He argues that Americas superior mental abilities and talents are reflected m the size of its country. Geography is a powerful justification for American independence. Americas eternal youthfulness will undermine the European reverence for the past and tradition. America is morally and ethically right in maintaining isolationist policies with other European countries engaged in war. Just as children grow into adults independent of their parents, America has weaned itself from child-parent connections with Europe. Citing the success of the American Revolution, Paine concludes in 1783 that "the times that tried men's souls are over," and that the revolution was "an honor to the age that accomplished it."

The value of liberty and the dignity of human-kind were the principles on which the American Revolution were based. Characterizing what makes the American Revolution unique, Paine, in the Letter to the Abbe Raynal (1782), explains that "our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution more extraordinary than the political revolution" and we "enjoy a freedom of mind, we felt not before." Paine maintains that American prejudices as well as oppressions underwent mental examination, and only those consistent with reason and benevolence were retained. This kind of "total reformation," of expanded mind and heart as well as politics, accounts for American success. This kind of revolution is still wanting in England.

Paine's voice continued to be heard during the early days of the American republic. Calling for a Continental Convention to form a Continental Constitution, Paine argues in Public Good (1780) that only the United States, not Virginia or any other individual state, can outline new states and incorporate them into the Union. In Crisis Extraordinary (1780), Paine proposes raising taxes to meet war expenses, and in Six Letters to Rhode Island (1782- 83), he convinces Rhode Island to abandon its claims of total state sovereignty and to ratify a revision in the Articles of Confederation allowing Congress to regulate commerce.

When a committee of the Pennsylvania Assembly tried to deprive the Bank of North America of its charter in 1785, Paine supported the bank and opposed the issuing of paper money. Demonstrating how the whole community derived benefit from the bank, Paine alleges in the 1786 tract Dissertations on Government, the Affairs of the Bank, and Paper Money that it is the office and duty of government to give protection to the bank. Issuing paper money, warns Paine, reduces the value of currency. Since every generation must be free to act for itself, Paine encourages the making of all future contracts, laws, and treaties with time constraints. "To give limitation is to give duration," Paine concludes.

Contributions to the English Unrest

The Rights of Man (1791) places a system of individual talent, production, and merit in opposition to Burke's adherence to hereditary aristocracy. Part 1, dedicated to George Washington, refutes the infallibility of the Parliament of 1688 to bind posterity forever and Burke's assumption that the British government was regulated by a constitution. Paine advocates radical reform in the British government so the living might exercise their natural rights.

Paine defends the French Revolution as a revolt against despotic principles of government rather than as an overthrow of specific individuals. Individuals entering into a constitution with each other to produce a government is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise and the only principle on which they have a right to exist. This procedure had been followed by the American and French people, but in England the government still presides over the people in the metaphors of crown and Parliament.

Paine traces the origin of monarchy to thievery and usurpation. There is no English origin of kings, Paine contends; "kings" are descendants of the Norman line in the right of conquest. The titles assumed by nobility are mere nicknames, and primogeniture is a monster that defies every law of nature. Aristocracy is thus kept up by family tyranny and injustice. The state church of Britain is established by law and is strongly characterized by persecution. Before bad governments can be reformed, Paine expounds, the nefarious principles on which they rest must also be changed.

In part 2 (1792), dedicated to Lafayette, Paine defends freedom of speech. Arguing that publications merely investigate principles of government and invite humankind to reason and reflect, Paine warns that humankind cannot be told not to think or read. The opinion of the world is changed with respect to systems of government, and until humankind thinks for itself, prejudices not opinions result. He foresees government founded on morality, on a system of universal peace, and on the indefeasible hereditary rights of man.

Comparing the old, repressive systems of government with the new, democratic forms, Paine especially praises the American system of representation, offers guidelines for the framing of a constitution, and suggests a plan for improving the condition of Europe. His plan addresses the English national debt, establishes universal education, initiates a progressive tax, provides pensions for the elderly and ill, increases pay for soldiers, abolishes poor-rates, disbands the navy, and stimulates employment. Optimistically, Paine projects future revolutions produced with quiet operation, determined by reason and discussion. Recommending an alliance among England, France, and America, Paine hopes for a confederated Europe in which all the chains of slavery and oppression are broken and all wars cease. "The present age," rallies Paine, "will hereafter be called the Age of Reason, and the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world."

Paine's response to the English charge of seditious libel, Letter Addressed to the Addressers on the Late Proclamation (1792), again points out the dangers of restricting reading and thinking. He reiterates that principles have no connection with time, nor characters with names. Finally, he challenges England to hold a national convention to investigate and to debate the best reforms.

In Agrarian Justice (1795), Paine claims that every person has been born to the common property of the earth. The idea of landed property commenced with cultivation and created poverty. Carefully, Paine points out that the fault lies not in the present possessors of land but in the system itself. He proposes a revolution in the system of property and offers a plan reimbursing every person, twenty-one years and older, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance. Based on the principle of justice, not charity, the plan would benefit all without injuring any.

Paine's economic theories also appear in the Decline and Fall of the English System of Finance (1796), in which he demonstrates the cause-effect relationship between war and the national debt. Paine predicts Britain will go bankrupt if reform in its financial system does not soon occur.

Reactions to the French Revolution

As a "citizen of France" and a representative to the French National Convention, Paine wrote An Essay for the Use of New Republicans in their Opposition to Monarchy (1792). He defines monarchy as absolute power vested in a single person and royalty as a creation exacting from its victims excessive taxation and willing submission. Paine's attack again blames the system of hereditary succession for oppression rather than particular kings.

Since systems are at fault, Paine strongly pleads against the execution of Louis XVI. Reasons for Preserving the Life of Louis Capet (1793), a speech to the National Convention, encourages the French to avoid new calamity and reminds them of Louis's assistance to the American Revolution. He recommends that Louis and his family be imprisoned until the end of the war and then exiled, perhaps to America, where he may learn that the true system of government consists of fair, equal, and honorable representation. As France has been the first of European nations to abolish royalty, Paine further challenges her also to be the first to abolish the punishment of death and to find a milder and more effectual substitute An avidity to punish, Paine warns is dangerous to liberty.

By 1795 discouraged that more European revolutions had not occurred Paine pleads in the Dissertation on First Principles of Government for suffrage based on age, not property. He cautions: "It is possible to exclude men from the right of voting, but it is impossible to exclude them from the right of rebelling against that exclusion." Although it is impossible for property to be distributed equally, property is better regulated when rights, including those of voting, are secure. He strongly opposed the restrictions on suffrage contained in the new French Constitution.

Paine also distinguished between the means needed to overthrow despotism in order to establish liberty and the means used after that despotism is overthrown. He believed that if a constitution had been established in France in 1793, violence would have been prevented. Lacking a constitution, France established a revolutionary government without principle or authority. Paine reminds France: "The moral principle of revolutions is to instruct, not to destroy."

The Age of Reason

Paine's attack on institutionalized Christianity in The Age of Reason (1794-96) comprises his most controversial work. He disavows any superstitions or false systems of theology and government that deny morality and humanity. His attack, stimulated by the disestablishment of the French Roman Catholic church in 1792, focuses on national institutions of churches and restrictive systems of dogma. Paine clearly professes his belief in one God and defines humankind's religious duties by doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make its fellow creatures happy. He hoped that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.

Infidelity, explains Paine, is professing to believe what you do not believe. To be happy, humankind must be mentally faithful to itself. God communicates through nature to each individual, not through revelation transmitted by the spoken or written word. Such "revelation" is not the best evidence on which to base faith. The Christian tradition, explains Paine, is based on ancient mythology and Jewish fables. Further, the authority on which the Bible rests is tenuous. The Old Testament offers a history of wickedness that corrupts and brutalizes humankind. The New Testament provides only detached anecdotes of Jesus, and its theory of redemption represents pecuniary justice. Paine challenges readers to rely on God's gift to them--reason--to discover God.

God, Paine defines, is the first cause of all things, and we behold God in creation-the true theology. Present theology is merely the study of human opinions and fancies concerning God. An imposed system of thought, like Christianity, restricts individual discoveries about God and becomes a powerful weapon of control. Systems of religion employ mystery, miracle, and prophecy to obscure the reflection of God human reason is capable of perceiving.

Additionally, Paine substitutes bold educational reforms to replace those connected to restrictive theological systems. Present learning, he alleges, involves knowledge of things to which language gives names. He advocates abolishing the study of dead languages and instituting the study of science and philosophy. The Christian system promotes ignorance because it restricts learning to a reinforcement of its rigid dogmas. The Reformation begun by Luther was the first break in the long chain of despotic ignorance. Free thought and liberty go together. Every person of learning is finally his own teacher, and every person has the right to follow the religion he or she prefers. All nations and religions, Paine concludes, believe in a God; the things on which they disagree are the redundancies annexed to that belief. As a deist and a skeptic, Paine disbelieves all institutionalized dogma; he affirms instead. "My own mind is my own church."

Further Reading

Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1959. Still a valuable and readable biography.

____. Thomas Paine's American ideology. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984. Tracing the intellectual background of Puritans, Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, the study focuses on Paine as an individual thinker from 1775-83 and on Common Sense, The Crisis, Letter to Abbe Raynal. Includes an excellent bibliography.

Ayer, A. J. Thomas Paine. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Offers critical analysis of Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason, but comparisons and tertiary commentary about other political situations are a distraction. Chapters 2 and 4 provide helpful background about political thought of the Enlightenment and Burke.

Butler, Marilyn, ed. Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Comparative essays about radical attempts to stimulate an English revolution during the 1790s, with emphasis on Paine's contributions to that movement.

Conway, Moncure D. The Life of Thomas Paine: With a History of His Literary, Political, and Religious Career in America, France, and England. Edited by Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner. London: Watts, 1909; Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft, 1974. Still considered the definitive biography. Despite favoritism toward Paine, it offers the best study of Paine's French period.

Dyck, Ian, ed. Citizen of the World: Essays on Thomas Paine. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988. George Spater's five essays in this volume offer a provocative overview and good introduction to Paine scholarship. J. F C. Harrison's essay provides a succinct but excellent discussion of religious thought and influence.

Edwards, Samuel. Rebel! A Biography of Tom Paine. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974. Includes critical and analytical commentary on Paine's life, works, and thoughts.

Fennesy, R. R. Burke, Paine, and the Rights of Man: A Difference of Political Opinion. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963. Comparative study of the ideological debate over human rights and the attempt to generate political reforms in England. Good discussion of Paine's political ideas, 1737- 90. Excellent bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Readable and well-researched, this study focuses on Paine's American activities prior to 1790.

Hawke, David Freeman. Paine. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Valuable and comprehensive biography.

Powell, David. Tom Paine: The Great Exile. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985. Good introductory biography, but provides limited critical apparatus. Powell gives more attention to the events of Paine's life than to his ideas.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Random House, 1963. An excellent discussion of the Burke/Paine controversy and Paine's impact on the English reform movement is found on pp. 89-122.

Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine His Life, Work, and Times. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973. A solid discussion of Paine's political and religious ideas, placed in the context of other radical thinking of the day. The biography includes limited bibliographical citations.

Wilson, Jerome D., and William F Ricketson. Thomas Paine. Twayne United States Authors Series, No. 301. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. Excellent survey of Paine's life and major works. Includes annotated bibliography.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
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Date:Jan 1, 1999
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