Thomas Paine was an Englishman from a humble background. He was a revolutionary who shaped the events of European and American history. He was renowned for articulating his thoughts and presenting them in clear, easy-to-understand and action-provoking pamphlets. He played a leading role in the American and French revolution through his works, Common Sense and Rights of Man, respectively. He is one of the Founding Fathers of Republicanism, whose works birthed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
PAINE’S EARLY LIFE
Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, England, on the 29th of January, 1736. He had little formal education, but learnt to read, write and perform basic arithmetic. When he was 13, he began to learn the art of stay-making from his father. Paine’s detractors misinterpreted his father’s occupation to refer to female corsets stay-making, in a bid to deride him. But the stays they made were the thick rope stays used in sailing ships.
Paine’s early life was characterized by repeated failures. He had two failed marriages in 15years. He was dismissed twice in 12years from his job as an excise officer for false discharge of his duties and being absent from his post without permission. He went on to be unsuccessful in subsequent ventures.
Hopeless, beaten and broke, in London, Paine was introduced to Benjamin Franklin by George Lewis, who then advised him to seek greener pastures in America and even provided him with letters of recommendation (including one to Richard Bache, Franklin’s son-in-law)
Paine arrived in Philadelphia in November 30, 1774 and Bache helped him secure a job as an editor with Pennsylvania Magazine, the following year.
PAINE’S LANDMARK ACTIVITIES/WORKS
Upon his re-instatement as an excise officer in the summer of 1772, Paine published his first pamphlet, The Case of The Officers of the Excise. It was a 21-page article that advocated an increase in the salaries of excise officers. Perhaps, this publication was part of the reasons for his final termination as an excise officer.
As an editor with Pennsylvania Magazine, Paine published several other articles anonymously or using pen names. One of his significant works at this time was African Slavery in America, where he strongly condemned African slave trade.
Paine arrived in Philadelphia, America, at a time when the American revolutionary war was reaching its peak. After the first military engagement at the battles of Lexington and Concord, in April 19, 1775, Paine argued that it was justifiable for the American colonies to revolt against a government that imposed taxes on them, but did not give them a right to being represented in the Parliament at Westminster. Paine went on to publish his ideas about the American Revolution in January 10, 1776, in his pamphlet, Common Sense
Common Sense was a 50-page pamphlet that presented the American colonists with a commonsensical argument for a revolt from British colonization and rule. Common Sense was crafted in a compelling way that forced the reader to make a stand immediately. Rather than adopting the learned and complex style of writing used by other pamphleteers at the time, Paine resorted to very clear and concise writing – a feature of the all-encompassing democratic society he dreamed of. It was no wonder the pamphlet sold over 500,000 authorized copies few months after its release. Common Sense was the most read pamphlet of the American Revolution, being read even in taverns and gatherings of common people, spreading the ideas of a republic government, fueling yearnings for independence and encouraging recruitment into the Continental Army.
As the war raged, Paine volunteered to work with the Continental Army as a Personal Assistant to General Nathanael Greene. Even though he wasn’t exactly a man of war, he contributed to the patriotic cause with his pen. He published The American Crises in 1776, a series popular for the prologue, “These are the times that try men’s souls”. So morale-boosting were the wordings of this publication that George Washington had the first pamphlet read aloud to motivate his soldiers who were already demoralized and on the brink of being defeated.
In April 1787, Paine returned to England to kick-start his plan to build a bridge across the Schuykill River in Philadelphia. But being an innate revolutionary, he soon became interested in the French Revolution that broke out in 1789. Between March 1791 and February 1792, Paine published numerous editions of his Rights of Man, where he supported the French revolution and defended it against the attacks of Edmund Burke in his own publication, Reflections on the Revolution. However, Paine went on to expound the fundamental reasons for restlessness in Europe, citing arbitrary government, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and war. He canvassed for a republic and representative kind of government (as against the monarchical rule that existed in England and France at the time) and outlined social programs to alleviate the sufferings ravaging the commoners.
This didn’t go down well with members of the ruling class. The British government banned the book from being published further and Paine was indicted for treason and an order went out for his arrest. But he was already on his way to France, having been elected to a seat in the National Convention. Paine was tried in absentia, found guilty of seditious libel, and declared an outlaw.
In France, Paine was warmly received. He continued to support the revolution, abolition of monarchy and establishment of the French Republic. But he decried the terror meted out to the royalists, the erstwhile ruling class of France. He opposed the execution of deposed King Louis XVI, recommending he should be exiled to the US instead; firstly, because of the way the French royalists supported the American Revolution; and secondly because of a moral objection to capital punishment in general and to revenge killings in particular. Because of this, he was imprisoned when Maximilien Robespierre took over the reins of power. Paine was in prison from December 28, 1793 to November 4, 1794, and narrowly escaped execution by a fortunate mistake of the gaoler.
While in prison in 1794, Paine published the first part of his publication, Age of Reason, and the second part in 1796, after his release. In his book, he acknowledged the presence of a Supreme Being, but he promoted reason and free thought, castigated organized religion, especially Christianity, claiming it fostered corruption and was used for political ends. As usual, the book was controversial and portrayed him as an Atheist.
Paine’s last pamphlet was Agrarian Justice, published in the winter of 1795, where he opposed the agrarian law and unjust inequalities in land ownership.
Paine also found time to pursue engineering and inventing ventures. Even though some of his inventions never went beyond the planning stage, a few are still worthy of note; He developed a crane for lifting heavy objects and the smokeless candle. He was also fascinated with bridges and went on to pioneer the building of the Sunderland Bridge, which was the second iron bridge ever built and the largest in the world at the time.
DEATH AND LEGACY
After his release from prison, Paine remained in France until 1802 when he returned to America, following an invitation from Thomas Jefferson who had met him before in Paris and admired his works. But when he got to America, he was dismayed to discover that his revolutionary services to the country had been forgotten and he was now regarded as an infidel and world-class controversialist. His works, especially Age of Reason and Agrarian Justice had won hum more enemies than friends.
He died in June 1809, in New York City, and was buried in New Rochelle. Only six mourners attended the funeral of a man who provoked millions to struggle for freedom and think from new perspectives. On Paine’s obituary, the New York Citizen wrote the line, “He had lived long, did some good and much harm”. This historical view of Paine was held for more than a century after his death, until in January 1937, when the Times of London referred to him as “The English Voltaire” and on May 18, 1952, Paine’s image was sculpted and placed in the New York University Hall of Fame.