Last reviewed: June 2018
January 29, 1737
Thetford, Norfolk, England
June 8, 1809
New York, New York
Thomas Paine was the son of Frances Cocke and Joseph Paine. After grammar school, at the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed in his Quaker father’s trade as a corset maker until he left home at nineteen. After that, he was briefly a privateer, a schoolmaster, a grocer, and a tobacconist. He also worked as an exciseman to patrol the coastline against smugglers; during this time he was twice discharged, the second time from lobbying at Parliament for higher salaries for excisemen. He was twice married, first, to Mary Lambert, who died within a year of their marriage in 1759, and then, in 1771, to Elizabeth Ollive, from whom he was legally separated in 1774. He met Benjamin Franklin at Westminster, who gave him letters of introduction when Paine left for America in 1774. Thomas Paine.
After his arrival at Philadelphia, Paine edited The Pennsylvania Magazine, contributed articles to the Pennsylvania Journal on recent inventions, in which he was widely read, and wrote miscellaneous papers. Publication of Common Sense in 1776 established his fame and probably sold 500,000 copies at a loss. He urged America’s moral obligation to the world to seek independence for its own sake and to free the almost uncontaminated continent from monarchy by the establishment of a strong federal republic. Enlisting in the Continental army in the same year, he began The American Crisis essays with the phrase “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Common Sense was one of the first decisive calls in the Colonies for independence and revolution. The logic and language influenced the writing of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. The sixteen essays collected in The American Crisis rallied the public and the demoralized army during the dark period of the revolution between 1776 and 1780. George Washington, knowing that Paine’s potent voice could lend persuasion and articulation to the cause of independence, ordered the pamphlet to be read to all the troops. Paine was the most influential propagandist of the American Revolution.
While he was secretary of the Continental Congress, 1777–79, Paine became needlessly embroiled in disputes concerning the administration of secret French aid and was dismissed from his post at the request of the French. Clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, 1779–81, he resigned to undertake a brief mission to France. After the Revolutionary War, New York gave him a farm at New Rochelle, and Pennsylvania gave him £500 for his services.
While living in New Rochelle and in Bordentown, New Jersey, in the years 1782–87, he continued his writings for efficient taxation, against paper money, and for federal supervision of western lands occupied by Virginia.
He also experimented in the construction of iron bridges, which led him to England in 1787. His bridge was successful in all ways except financially. Paine was welcomed in England by Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke and in France by Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Condorcet. In reply to Burke’s condemnation of revolutionary France, Paine published in 1791 to 1792 his Rights of Man, in which he urged an English revolution to establish a republic as the only way to guarantee equal, individual rights of liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. This book sold about 200,000 copies and led to Paine’s being banished from England.
Although he did not speak French, Paine took advantage of his honorary French citizenship to gain election to the French Convention. Associated with the Girondists, he played a minor role, except for speaking against the execution of Louis XVI. That led to his being arrested and deprived of citizenship during 1793–94, until he was freed at James Monroe’s insistence. Living in Paris until 1802 with the Bonneville family, he published there the epitome of deism, The Age of Reason, in which he discounted the Trinity, claims for biblical consistency, and the paternity of Christ, while stoutly asserting the existence of a god. He also wrote the unjust Letter to George Washington, in which he accused the president of having connived at his arrest in France.
These two last publications made Paine anathema to the Federalists and an embarrassment to the Republicans, whose states-rights cause he embraced upon his return to the United States in 1802. His last years, spent in New York and New Rochelle, where he was cared for by Madame de Bonneville, were plagued with illness. After he died on June 8, 1809, he was buried on his farm because consecrated ground was denied him. In 1819, William Cobbett transferred his remains to England.
Despite his tarnished reputation during the two decades before and after his death, Paine later came to be admired not only as a talented revolutionary propagandist but also as a champion for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. In fact, Paine first made his name as a propagandist in the United States by writing about slavery as “murder, robbery, lewdness, and barbarism.” He was the first American to advocate the freedom of slaves as equal citizens.
Paine’s writing was the most powerful of his day. The power of his writing came from his convictions and his clear, honest style. As Thomas Jefferson observed, Paine wrote with “simple and unassuming language.” Even critics of his time, such as James Cheetham, admired his inspiring and persuasive writing, which spurred the American Revolution to its successful conclusion.