In 1787 Paine went to England and while there wrote The Rights of Man (2 parts, 1791 and 1792), defending the French Revolution in reply to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Its basic premises were that there are natural rights common to all men, that only democratic institutions are able to guarantee these rights, and that only a kind of welfare state can secure economic equity. Paine's attack on English institutions led to his prosecution for treason and subsequent flight to Paris (1792). There, as a member of the National Convention, he took a significant part in French affairs. During the Reign of Terror he was imprisoned by the Jacobins from Dec., 1793 to Nov., 1794 and narrowly escaped the guillotine. During this time he wrote his famous deistic and antibiblical work The Age of Reason (2 parts, 1794 and 1795), which alienated many. His diatribe against George Washington, Letter to Washington (1796), added more fuel to the persisting resentment against him. At the invitation of the new president, Thomas Jefferson, Paine returned to the United States in 1802. However, he was practically ostracized by his erstwhile compatriots; he died unrepentant and in poverty seven years later. An idealist, a radical, and a master rhetorician, Paine wrote and lived with a keen sense of urgency and excitement and a constant yearning for liberty.
See his writings ed. by M. D. Conway (1894-96, repr. 1969); P. Foner, ed., The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine (2 vol., 1945); and representative selections ed. by H. H. Clark (1944, repr. 1961); biographies by D. F. Hawke (1974), A. Williamson (1974), J. Keane (1995), and C. Nelson (2006); studies by P. Collins (2005), H. J. Kaye (2005), and C. Hitchens (2007).
Thomas Paine, detail of a portrait by John Wesley Jarvis; in the Thomas Paine Memorial House, New elipsis
Learn more about Paine, Thomas with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737 – June 8, 1809) was an English pamphleteer, revolutionary, radical, inventor, and intellectual. He lived and worked in Britain until age 37, when he emigrated to the British American colonies, in time to participate in the American Revolution. His principal contribution was the powerful, widely-read pamphlet Common Sense (1776), advocating colonial America's independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and of The American Crisis (1776–1783), a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series.
Later, he greatly influenced the French Revolution. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791), a guide to Enlightenment ideas. Despite not speaking French, he was elected to the French National Convention in 1792. The Girondists regarded him an ally, so, the Montagnards, especially Robespierre, regarded him an enemy. In December of 1793, he was arrested and imprisoned in Paris, then released in 1794. He became notorious because of The Age of Reason (1793–94), the book advocating deism and arguing against Christian doctrines. In France, he also wrote the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1795), discussing the origins of property, and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income.
He remained in France during the early Napoleonic era, but condemned Napoleon's dictatorship, calling him "the completest charlatan that ever existed". In 1802, he returned to America at President Thomas Jefferson's invitation.
Thomas Paine died, at age 72, in No. 59 Grove Street, Greenwich Village, N.Y.C., on June 8, 1809. His burial site is located in New Rochelle, New York, where he had lived after returning to America in 1802. His remains were later disinterred by an admirer looking to return them to England; his final resting place today is unknown.
He attended Thetford Grammar School (1744-1749) that selected pupils on ability, at a time when there was no compulsory education. At age thirteen, he was apprentice to his corset-maker father; in late adolescence, he enlisted and briefly served as a privateer, before returning to Britain in 1759. There, he became a master corset maker, establishing a shop in Sandwich, Kent. On September 27, 1759, Thomas Paine married Mary Lambert. His business collapsed soon after. Mary became pregnant, and, after they moved to Margate, she went into early labour, in which she and their child died. In July 1761, Paine returned to Thetford to work as a supernumerary officer. In December 1762, he became an excise officer in Grantham, Lincolnshire; in August 1764, he was transferred to Alford, at a salary of £50 per annum.On August 27, 1765, he was fired as an Excise Officer for "claiming to have inspected goods he did not inspect." On July 31, 1766, he requested his reinstatement from the Board of Excise, which they granted the next day upon vacancy. While awaiting that, he worked as a stay maker in Diss, Norfolk, and later as a servant (per the records, for a Mr Noble, of Goodman's Fields, and for a Mr Gardiner, at Kensington). He also applied to become an ordained minister of the Church of England and, per some accounts, he preached in Moorfields. In 1767, he was appointed to a position in Grampound, Cornwall; subsequently, he was asked to leave this post to await a vacancy, thus, he became a schoolteacher in London. On February 19, 1768, he was appointed to Lewes, East Sussex, living above the fifteenth-century Bull House, the tobacco shop of Samuel Ollive and Esther Ollive. There, Paine first became involved in civic matters, when Samuel Ollive introduced him to the Society of Twelve, a local, élite intellectual group that met semestrally, to discuss town politics. He also was in the influential Vestry church group that collected taxes and tithes to distribute among the poor. On March 26, 1771, at age 34, he married Elizabeth Ollive, his landlord's daughter. From 1772 to 1773, Paine joined excise officers asking Parliament for better pay and working conditions, publishing, in summer of 1772, The Case of the Officers of Excise, a twenty-one-page article, and his first political work, spending the London winter distributing the 4,000 copies printed to the Parliament and others. In spring of 1774, he was fired from the excise service for being absent from his post without permission; his tobacco shop failed, too. On April 14, to avoid debtor's prison, he sold his household possessions to pay debts. On June 4, he formally separated from wife Elizabeth and moved to London, where, in September, a friend introduced him to Benjamin Franklin, who counselled emigration to British colonial America, and gave him a letter of recommendation. In October, Thomas Paine emigrated from England to America, arriving in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774. He barely survived the transatlantic voyage, because the ship's potable water was bad, and typhoid fever had killed five passengers. On arriving to Philadelphia, he was too sick to debark. Benjamin Franklin's physician, there to welcome Paine to America, had him carried off ship; Paine took six weeks to recover his health. Moreover, Thomas Paine was an inventor, who received a European patent for a single-span iron bridge; developed a smoke-less candle, and worked with inventor John Fitch in developing steam engines. Mechanical aptitude and intellectual originality made him saint of Thomas Edison's devotion.
Thomas Paine has a claim to the title The Father of the American Revolution because of Common Sense, the pro-independence monograph pamphlet he anonymously published on January 10, 1776; it quickly spread among the literate, and, in three months, 120,000 copies sold throughout the American British colonies (with only two million free inhabitants), making it a best-selling work in eighteenth-century America. Paine's original title for the pamphlet was Plain Truth; Paine's friend, pro-independence advocate Benjamin Rush, suggested Common Sense instead.
The strength of Common Sense was not in the originality of its ideas, but rather in the simplicity of its style. Paine was a pioneer in a new style of political writing suitable to the kind of democratic society he envisioned. Common Sense rendered complex ideas intelligible to average readers, with clear, concise writing unlike the formal, learned style favored by many of Paine's contemporaries. Many were shocked by Paine's undisguised hostility to the British monarchy; the pamphlet labeled King George III as "the Royal Brute of Great Britain".
Common Sense was immensely popular, but how many people were converted to the cause of independence by the pamphlet is unknown. Paine's arguments were rarely cited in public calls for independence, which suggests that Common Sense may have had a more limited impact on the public's thinking about independence than is sometimes believed. The pamphlet probably had little direct influence on the Continental Congress's decision to issue a Declaration of Independence, since that body was more concerned with how declaring independence would affect the war effort. Paine's great contribution was in initiating a public debate about independence, which had previously been rather muted.
Loyalists vigorously attacked Common Sense; one attack, titled Plain Truth (1776), by Marylander James Chalmers, said Paine was a political quack and warned that without monarchy, the government would "degenerate into democracy". Even some American revolutionaries objected to Common Sense; late in life John Adams called it a "crapulous mass". Adams disagreed with the type of radical democracy promoted by Paine, and published Thoughts on Government in 1776 to advocate a more conservative approach to republicanism.
In the early months of the war Paine published The Crisis pamphlet series, to inspire the colonists in their resistance to the British army. To inspire the enlisted men, General George Washington had The American Crisis read aloud to them. The first Crisis pamphlet begins:
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.
In 1778, he alluded to continuing secret negotiation with France in his pamphlets, the resultant scandal cost him expulsion from the Committee on Foreign Affairs, however, in 1781, he accompanied John Laurens on his mission to France. Eventually, after much pleading from Paine, New York State recognised his political services with an estate, at New Rochelle, and money from Pennsylvania and from the Congress, at Washington's suggestion. In the Revolutionary War, he served as an aide to General Nathanael Greene. His later years established him as "a missionary of world revolution".
Returning to London, Paine wrote Rights of Man completing the work on January 29, 1791. On January 31, he gave the manuscript to publisher Joseph Johnson for publication on February 22. Meanwhile, government agents visited him, and, sensing dangerous political controversy, he reneged on his promise to sell the book on publication day; Paine quickly negotiated with publisher J.S. Jordan, then went to Paris, per William Blake's advice, leaving three good friends, William Godwin, Thomas Brand Hollis, and Thomas Holcroft, charged with concluding publication. The book appeared on March 13, three weeks later than scheduled.
The Rights of Man was an abstract political tract supporting the French Revolution, replying to Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke. The seditious book greatly critical of monarchies and European social institutions sold well, but the British government tried Paine in absentia.
In summer of 1792, he answered the sedition and libel charges thus: "If, to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy . . . to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce, and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libellous . . . let the name of libeller be engraved on my tomb". In February 1792, in the second edition of the Rights of Man, he proposed the reformation of England, including a progressive income tax.
Paine was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, and was granted, along with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and others, honorary French citizenship. Despite his inability to speak French, he was elected to the National Convention, representing the district of Pas-de-Calais. He voted for the French Republic; but argued against the execution of Louis XVI, saying that he should instead be exiled to the United States: firstly, because of the way royalist France had come to the aid of the American Revolution; and secondly because of a moral objection to capital punishment in general and to revenge killings in particular.
Regarded as an ally of the Girondins, he was seen with increasing disfavour by the Montagnards who were now in power, and in particular by Robespierre. A decree was passed at the end of 1793 excluding foreigners from their places in the Convention (Anacharsis Cloots was also deprived of his place). Paine was arrested and imprisoned in December 1793.
Before his arrest and imprisonment, knowing that he would likely be arrested and executed, Paine wrote the first part of The Age of Reason, an assault on organized "revealed" religion combining a compilation of inconsistencies he found in the Bible with his own advocacy of Deism. In his "Autobiographical Interlude," which is found in The Age of Reason between the first and second parts, Paine writes, "Thus far I had written on the 28th of December, 1793. In the evening I went to the Hotel Philadelphia . . . About four in the morning I was awakened by a rapping at my chamber door; when I opened it, I saw a guard and the master of the hotel with them. The guard told me they came to put me under arrestation and to demand the key of my papers. I desired them to walk in, and I would dress myself and go with them immediately."
Paine protested and claimed that he was a citizen of America, which was an ally of Revolutionary France, rather than of Great Britain, which was by that time at war with France. However, Gouverneur Morris, the American ambassador to France, did not press his claim, and Paine later wrote that Morris had connived at his imprisonment. Paine thought that George Washington had abandoned him, and he was to quarrel with Washington for the rest of his life. Years later he wrote a scathing open letter to Washington, accusing him of private betrayal of their friendship and public hypocrisy as general and president, and concluding the letter by saying "the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any, He was also vehemently opposed to Washington owning slaves.
While in prison, Paine escaped execution apparently by chance. A guard walked through the prison placing a chalk mark on the doors of the prisoners who were due to be condemned that day. He placed one on the door of Paine's cell, but did not notice that the door was open. After the door was closed, the mark was hidden inside the cell. Hence, he was overlooked, and survived the few vital days needed to be spared by the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794). Paine was released in November 1794 largely because of the work of the new American Minister to France, James Monroe.
In 1800, Paine purportedly had a meeting with Napoleon. Napoleon claimed he slept with a copy of Rights of Man under his pillow and went so far as to say to Paine that "a statue of gold should be erected to you in every city in the universe. Paine discussed with Napoleon on how best to invade England and in December 1797 wrote two essays in which he promoted the idea to finance 1000 gunboats to carry a French invading army across the English Channel. In 1804 Paine returned to the subject, writing To the People of England on the Invasion of England advocating the idea.
On noting Napoleon's progress towards dictatorship, he condemned him as: "the completest charlatan that ever existed". Thomas Paine remained in France until 1802, returning to to America only at President Jefferson's invitation.
Paine returned to America in the early stages of the Second Great Awakening and a time of great political partisanship. The Age of Reason gave ample excuse for the religiously devout to dislike him, and the Federalists attacked him for his ideas of government stated in Common Sense, for his association with the French Revolution, and for his friendship with President Jefferson. Also still fresh in the minds of the public was his Letter to Washington, published six years before his return.
Paine died at the age of 72, at 59 Grove Street in Greenwich Village, New York City on the morning of June 8, 1809. Although the original building is no longer there, the present building has a plaque noting that Paine died at this location. At the time of his death, most American newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New York Citizen, which read in part: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." Only six mourners came to his funeral, two of whom were black, most likely freedmen. The great orator and writer Robert G. Ingersoll wrote:
Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death, Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. 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.
"In the summer of 1803 the political atmosphere was in a tempestuous condition, owing to the widespread accusation that Aaron Burr had intrigued with the Federalists against Jefferson to gain the presidency. There was a Society in New York called "Republican Greens," who, on Independence Day, had for a toast "Thomas Paine, the Man of the People", and who seem to have had a piece of music called the "Rights of Man". Paine was also apparently the hero of that day at White Plains, where a vast crowd assembled".
A few years later, the agrarian radical William Cobbett dug up and shipped his bones back to England. The plan was to give Paine a heroic reburial on his native soil, but the bones were still among Cobbett's effects when he died over twenty years later. There is no confirmed story about what happened to them after that, although down the years various people have claimed to own parts of Paine's remains, such as his skull and right hand.
Thomas Paine developed his natural justice beliefs in childhood, while listening to a mob jeering and attacking the town folk being punished in the Thetford stocks. Also, he might have been influenced by his Quaker father. In The Age of Reason the treatise supporting deism he says:
The religion that approaches the nearest of all others to true deism, in the moral and benign part thereof, is that professed by the Quakers . . . though I revere their philanthropy, I cannot help smiling at [their] conceit; . . . if the taste of a Quaker [had] been consulted at the Creation, what a silent and drab-colored Creation it would have been! Not a flower would have blossomed its gaieties, nor a bird been permitted to sing.
He was an early advocate of republicanism and liberalism, dismissing monarchy, and viewing government as a necessary evil. He opposed slavery, proposed universal, free public education, a guaranteed minimum income, and other ideas then considered radical.
In the second part of The Age of Reason, about his sickness in prison, he says: ". . . I was seized with a fever, that, in its progress, had every symptom of becoming mortal, and from the effects of which I am not recovered. It was then that I remembered, with renewed satisfaction, and congratulated myself most sincerely, on having written the former part of 'The Age of Reason'". This quotation encapsulates its gist:
The opinions I have advanced . . . are the effect of the most clear and long-established conviction that the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world, that the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation, by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty; that the only true religion is Deism, by which I then meant, and mean now, the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues and that it was upon this only (so far as religion is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness hereafter. So say I now and so help me God.
About religion, The Age of Reason says:
He also wrote An Essay on the Origin of Free-Masonry (1803-1805), about the Bible being allegorical myth describing astrology:
Nevertheless, he described himself as "Deist", saying:
How different is [Christianity] to the pure and simple profession of Deism! The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical.
Paine was once often credited with writing "African Slavery in America", the first article proposing the emancipation of African slaves and the abolition of slavery. It was published on March 8, 1775 in the Postscript to the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser (aka The Pennsylvania Magazine and American Museum). Citing a lack of evidence that Paine was the author of this anonymously published essay, scholars no longer consider this one of his works.
His last, great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, he published in winter of 1795, further developing the ideas in the Rights of Man, about how land ownership separated the majority of people from their rightful, natural inheritance, and means of independent survival. Contemporarilly, his proposal is deemed a form of basic Income Guarantee. The U.S. Social Security Administration recognizes Agrarian Justice as the first American proposal for an old-age pension; per Agrarian Justice:
In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity . . . [Government must] create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property; And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.
Thomas Paine's writing greatly influenced his contemporaries and, especially, the American revolutionaries. His books inspired philosophic and working-class radicals in the U.K., and U.S. liberals, libertarians, democratic socialists, social democrats, anarchists, freethinkers, progressives, and radicals often claim him as intellectual ancestor.
Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison respectfully read his works. Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, reports that he (Lincoln) wrote a defence of Paine's deism in 1835, and friend Samuel Hill burned it to save Lincoln's political career; and of him, Thomas Edison said:
I have always regarded Paine as one of the greatest of all Americans. Never have we had a sounder intelligence in this republic . . . It was my good fortune to encounter Thomas Paine's works in my boyhood . . . it was, indeed, a revelation to me to read that great thinker's views on political and theological subjects. Paine educated me, then, about many matters of which I had never before thought. I remember, very vividly, the flash of enlightenment that shone from Paine's writings, and I recall thinking, at that time, 'What a pity these works are not today the schoolbooks for all children!' My interest in Paine was not satisfied by my first reading of his works. I went back to them time and again, just as I have done since my boyhood days.
At war's end, the Congress gave Thomas Paine a farm in New Rochelle, New York, for services rendered. On it are the Thomas Paine Cottage, the Thomas Paine Historical Society museum, and the man's grave. In the U.K., a statue of Thomas Paine (quill pen and inverted copy of Rights of Man in hand), stands in King Street, Thetford, Norfolk, his birth place. Moreover, in Thetford, the Sixth form is named after him. At Bronx Community College, there is a bust of Thomas Paine in their Hall of Fame of Great Americans, and there are statues of Paine in Morristown and Bordentown, New Jersey, and in the Parc Montsouris, in Paris. The town of Diss has a Thomas Paine Street. In Paris, there is a plaque in the street where he lived from 1797 to 1802, that says: "Thomas PAINE / 1737–1809 / Englishman by birth / American by adoption / French by decree". Yearly, between 4 and July 14, the Lewes Town Council celebrates the life and work of Thomas Paine.