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Thomas Paine was one of the most colorful and successful political pamphleteers during the age of the American and French Revolutions. He was among the first writers to realize the power of the press to bring about political and social reform. In his writings, Paine expressed his beliefs that man is rational and basically good but corrupted by society, that all men are equal, and that justice is dependent on a nation’s economic system. Though he was shunned at the end of his life for his later controversial views, Paine is still regarded as an important figure in American history.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Paine was born in Thetford, England, on January 29, 1737, the son of John Pain and his wife, Frances (Cocke). His Quaker father was a farmer and a corsetiere (a maker of women’s corsets). Paine was raised in poverty and had a miserable childhood. After attending local schools for seven years, Paine began an apprenticeship to his father at the age of thirteen. Unhappy, Paine ran away when he was sixteen years old to sail on a British privateer in the Seven Years’ War. (Called the French and Indian War in North America, this conflict was fought between the British and French in a number of locations across the globe. The British won, ending the French empire in North America.)
Returning to London, Paine finished his apprenticeship and briefly worked as a corsetiere, then held a minor government post and taught school for a short time. Later the owner of his own general store, he secured a post as an excise officer (a collector of taxes on goods produced and sold in a country). While holding these jobs, Paine was married to his first wife, Mary Lambert, who died in childbirth with their child in 1760, only a year after their marriage. After a second marriage, to Elizabeth Ollive in 1768, he continued his education by reading books, attending lectures, and conducting scientific experiments.
His First Pamphlets
Paine’s second marriage ended in separation because his wages as an excise officer were too low to support his family; another shop he owned did not produce enough income, either. At the request of other excise officers, Paine wrote a pamphlet in 1772 urging Parliament to raise their wages. When the idea was formally presented in 1773, Parliament was not persuaded and he was fired by his superiors. Divorced from his wife and forced to declare bankruptcy, Paine had to sell the family’s shop to escape imprisonment for debt.
Seeking a chance to become successful, Paine boldly called on Benjamin Franklin. This American politician was in London serving as the foremost American spokesman in Great Britain in this time period. Franklin was impressed by Paine, and gave him a letter of recommendation. Paine went to America, arriving in November 1774 to start a new life. There, Paine found work with printer Robert Aitken, who published Pennsylvania Magazine. Vaine began contributing essays to the periodical. Within a few months, Paine’s vigorous literary style had attracted more readers and circulation more than doubled. Paine’s essays called for an end not only to slave trade but also to slavery. He also attacked British colonial policies both in America and India. Encouraged by Franklin and Benjamin Rush to write a history of the dispute between England and the American colonies, Paine published the influential pamphlet Common Sense on January 10, 1776.
Impact of Common Sense
More than 500,000 copies of Common Sense circulated in the colonies, and long excerpts appeared in newspapers and magazines. The real importance of Common Sense lay not so much in its vigorous call for independence as in its call for leveling the old order and starting anew. Most Americans believed that governments evolved naturally from society, and the English government, for example, reflected the country’s social organization. This, Paine said, was wrong. For him, society and government were two different things. Paine called for independence, but he also urged Americans to reject the British model of government, which gave too much power to the king and the aristocrats. Common Sense had a profound influence on American opinion, and it helped convince Americans that they were fighting for essential human rights that could only come with independence.
Though independence had not yet been declared, a revolution had begun. General George Washington forced the British to abandon Boston and royal authority was collapsing in all the American colonies. Though independence was indeed declared in the summer of 1776, the situation for the colonists looked dire by the end of the year. The British had captured New York, and Washington’s army was driven through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. In December 1776, the British fleet threatened Philadelphia, and Congress fled to Baltimore. Paine was fighting in the fledgling Continental Army as a member of the Pennsylvania regiment. He accompanied Washington’s retreating army in what seemed to be the final moments of the struggle. Sitting by a campfire, Paine wrote a new pamphlet that addressed the problems of the moment, The American Crisis. On Christmas Eve, Washington had his troops assemble to listen to the first four essays of the pamphlet before they rowed across the Delaware River to surprise the British at Trenton.
Revolutionary War Activities
Paine’s pamphlet emphasized the importance of freedom, and rallied Washington’s troops. Their surprise victories in Trenton and Princeton rallied public opinion. Paine went on to publish fourteen Crisis essays over the next seven years. All were designed to strengthen American resolve and to comment on specific issues of a moment. The final number of the series, published on the eighth anniversary of the battle of Lexington, April 19, 1783, urged the American people to adopt a stronger central government that could protect liberty against a hostile world.
Later in the Revolutionary War, Paine served in a number of political positions, including secretary to Congress’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and as a clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. As clerk, Paine drafted the preamble to Pennsylvania’s law abolishing slavery in 1780. He had been advocating this cause since his first months in America. Paine continued to write on political questions, and spoke out against the establishment of a national bank and criticized the citizens of Rhode Island for scuttling the proposed five-percent import duty. Paine was committed to the independence of America, and he had little patience with local political grievances that he felt detracted from American unity and strength.
Influence in France
In the early days of the United States, Paine also focused his attention on scientific matters, trying to develop a smokeless candle and inventing an iron bridge that would not require piers to support its span. To perfect the bridge, Paine sailed for Europe in April 1787. He first went to England, then was invited by the Marquis de Lafayette to visit France. There, Paine met with Thomas Jefferson, then the American Minister to France. To Lafayette he offered advice on a new constitution in France, and in fact helped draft France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. When the Bastille fell on July 14, 1789—marking the beginning of the French Revolution that led to the end of the monarchy in France—Lafayette entrusted its key to Paine, who was to present it to Washington.
Returning to London, Paine was stunned to read Edmund Burke’s speech denouncing the French Revolution. Burke had supported the American cause, but believed the French Revolution was a mistake. Paine was outraged at Burke’s attack, outlined in Reflections on the French Revolution (1790). Paine responded with a vigorous defense, the two-part Rights of Man. Paine not only vindicated the French Revolution but also argued for the power of all people to construct whatever government they choose.
Shunned in Last Days
Because he criticized the British monarchy in print, Paine was charged with seditious libel in England. He fled to France, where he was elected to the French National Convention. He arrived in September 1792, days before the Convention declared France a republic, a decision Paine supported. However, Paine opposed the mob violence of the French Revolution as well as the execution of French king Louis XVI, and was labeled a traitor. Arrested on December 18, 1793, Paine narrowly escaped execution by the guillotine and nearly died in prison. The American minister to France, James Monroe, secured his release in November 1794.
Paine recovered from his imprisonment at Monroe’s home, where he completed two more pamphlets. He had begun writing The Age of Reason while in prison in France. This pamphlet was an attack on organized religion. Agrarian Justice called for redistribution of wealth by implementing heavy inheritance taxes on the wealthy to support social welfare programs. The Age of Reason led to accusations of atheism and alienated Paine from many Americans, including Samuel Adams, who otherwise supported his political views. Paine also criticized Presidents Washington and John Adams for their pro-British and anti-French policies. This led to further estrangement from many Americans. Still, President Thomas Jefferson invited Paine to return to the United States in 1802. Paine spent his last years ignored and in poverty on a farm in New Rochelle, New York, and in New York City, where he died on June 8, 1809.
Works in Literary Context
As a writer, Paine’s thoughts were rarely original. He mostly used ideas that already existed. What made him an admirable author was the way he combined those ideas and presented them in a language best understood by the common man. Paine’s sentences were simple and direct, and his arguments turned on one or two accessible principles and pursued persuasion through clarity and repetition. He chose references that would be available to common laborers and trades people. Sharing these standards, his major works differed from one another primarily in their focuses, which were often determined by the moment in which they were written. His writings were forceful and persuasive, affecting real change in the American colonies, the United States, France, and Great Britain. Paine defended liberty not only for the people in America, but also those in England and in France. Paine’s writings also reflected his support for humanitarian causes and social welfare policies as well as his belief in deism as opposed to the organized religions of his day. As a writer, Paine was greatly influenced by the times in which he lived, the ideas of the Enlightenment, his background as a Quaker, and such authors as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Baron de Montesquieu, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes.
Support of American Revolution
During the period of the American Revolutionary War, Paine published several works that supported the American cause and helped rally Americans when spirits and resources ran low. Common Sense is credited with almost single-handedly convincing the American colonies to enter into armed rebellion against Great Britain. In this work, Paine popularized the Enlightenment concept that government is a social contract that exists by the consent of the people for the protection of their natural rights. Attacking the idea of monarchy, Paine catalogued the abuses that the British king had imposed upon his American subjects, and he called for the establishment of a new government, independent of Britain. Equally popular and equally effective was the 13 parts of the essay series, The American Crisis. Issued at periods during the war when the patriot cause seemed desperate, these essays lifted the morale of soldiers and civilians alike and helped secure the revenues and determination needed to see the conflict through to a successful conclusion. After the war, with works such as The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, Paine set out to accomplish for the world what he had already accomplished for America.
Art of Persuasion
It is generally conceded that what distinguishes Paine from other writers of his time was his tremendous talent for persuasion. While Paine sometimes ignored the niceties of conventional grammar and was capable of subverting logic to suit his ends, in the works of Paine can be seen a truly extraordinary grasp of the principles of effective rhetoric. Speaking with conviction as a common man in the idiom of the common man, Paine at his best could generate a unique sense of identification between himself and his audience. Disavowing the complex neoclassical rhetoric of his day, Paine espoused a style that was forceful, direct, clear, and simple. Easily understood, his prose was carefully structured to move his audience to action. A master at the use of such rhetorical devices as parallelism, repetition, invective, rhetorical questions, and ethical appeals, Paine was able to garner widespread support for the causes he espoused.
Works in Critical Context
Few American writers have generated as much controversy as that surrounding Paine and his works. Revered as a folk hero during the American Revolution, Paine died an object of ridicule in the very country that his writings had done so much to establish. Nonetheless, Paine is considered among the most successful persuasive writers of all time. Even Paine’s most strident adversaries have been forced to admit that without him there might not have been an American Revolution. Yet by the time Paine died, he had fallen far from the pinnacle of his celebrity in revolutionary America. He was forgotten at best and despised at worst. Despite some isolated efforts to reassess his image in the nineteenth century, Paine’s reputation was not revitalized until the twentieth century, when scholars gradually developed a new view of the significance and complexity of Paine’s writings.
Published in early 1776, the pamphlet Common Sense reached its popular audience of skeptical artisans and farmers eager to read something that appealed to them in their language. Twenty-five editions of the pamphlet were printed during the year, spreading the argument for revolution to all classes offree people throughout the colonies. In Virginia, Edmund Randolph commented that with the diffusion of Common Sense, ”the public sentiment which a few weeks before had shuddered at the tremendous obstacles, with which independence was environed, overleaped every barrier.” As Common Sense enjoyed a circulation unprecedented in the eighteenth century, George Washington was one of many impressed by what he called Paine’s ”sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning.” Twentieth century writers were equally impressed by the power of Paine’s words. In Main Currents in American Thought: Volume 1:1620-1800, The Colonial Mind, Vernon Parrington commented, ”The amazing influence of Common Sense on a public opinion long befogged by legal quibble flowed from its direct and skillful appeal to material interests.”
The Rights of Man
With the publication of the first part of his pamphlet The Rights of Man, Paine secured his standing as a radical defender of human liberty. His pamphlet again appealed to readers of his time with its emotional, familiar style. Because his words came at the right moment, Paine’s message found a large and eager audience. According to historian Eric Foner in Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, The response to The Rights of Man can only be described as overwhelming.” Particularly in Britain, Paine captured the public imagination” by contrasting France’s new democracy—reputedly providing the people a voice in their government in addition to freedom of religion, for example—with the British regime. The publication of the second part of The Rights of Man broadened Paine’s appeal and furthered the controversy surrounding his opinions. Yet Olivia Smith in The Politics of Language, 1791-1819 also noted, ”Paine was not denounced as a vulgar author until he had written The Rights of Man.” Still, the pamphlet continued to affect radical thought in the nineteenth century. Twentieth-century authors also praised The Rights of Man, with Smith noting, There is more fullness to Paine’s writing than that of Common Sense or The Crisis. . . . A greater use of metaphor, a more vividly present narrator, and a keener awareness of his audience are the characteristics of Paine’s prose.”
- Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
- Fruchtman, Jack, Jr. Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994.
- Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York: Little, Brown, 1995.
- Meltzer, Milton. Tom Paine: Voice of Revolution. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.
- Parrington, Vernon. The Politics of Language, 1791-1819. New York: Clarendon Press, 1984.
- Smith, Olivia. Main Currents in American Thought: Volume 1:1620-1800, The Colonial Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
- Vail, John J. Thomas Paine. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
- Everton, Michael. The Would-Be Author and the Real Bookseller’: Thomas Paine and Eighteenth-Century Printing Ethics.” Early American Literature (2005): 79-110.
- Rago, Joseph. ”Doubting Thomas.” New Criterion (October 2006): 67-69.
- Thompson, Tommy R. The Resurrection of Thomas Paine in American Popular Magazines.” The Midwest Quarterly (Autumn 1991): 75-92.
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