The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Paine, Thomas (1737-1809)

Thomas Paine was an agitator and a political pamphleteer with strong anarchist leanings. Paine enthusiastically participated in the American and French Revolutions as an advocate of individual rights and minimal government. He authored several of the most popular and influential works of the age, including Common SenseThe CrisisRights of ManAge of Reason, and Agrarian Justice.

Paine based his political philosophy on the belief that the central dynamic of domestic politics was the conflict between what he called state and society. He argued that society consisted of the “productive classes,” which included laborers, farmers, artisans, small merchants, and small manufacturers not holding government-chartered monopolies. The state, in contrast, consisted of government officials, standing armies, blue-water navies, aristocrats, established clergy, and holders of government-chartered monopolies, the “plundering classes” who used state power to live off the productive classes through taxation. Domestic politics, Paine believed, could be best explained as the conflict between these “two classes of men in the nation, those who pay taxes, and those who receive and live upon them.”

This domestic antagonism extended into foreign affairs as well. In Paine’s view, war was, in part, an attempt by the plundering classes to increase revenue through the conquest of territories whose productive members could be exploited. At the same time, these wars of conquest served to distract a nation’s own productive classes, with the aim of shifting their attention from internal exploitation to the enemy abroad. Finally, war was an attempt by the plundering classes to increase taxation in the territories already under their control by creating a crisis in which national humiliation or annihilation might result should increased taxes be resisted. In summary, war was perpetrated by the plundering classes at the expense of the productive classes to further their exploitation.

Paine urged societies to rebel against their states and set up republics. His conception of republicanism adumbrated the classical liberal vision of a self-ordering, commercial society consisting largely of self-interested individuals. Government’s role was confined to presiding over the clashing interests that occur in advanced commercial societies and not to attempting to promote virtue. Paine attributed social order not primarily to virtuous citizenry or a benign government, but to the “mutual and reciprocal interest” of individuals in society. He claimed that, during the American Revolution,

there were no established forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and the country was too much occupied in defense, to employ its attention to establishing new governments; yet during this interval, order and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe.

In this spontaneously generated order, virtue was highly desirable, but was not necessary to preserve civil peace. The danger to public order came not from individuals bereft of virtue, but from excessive governmental power. Because liberal governments would have minimal coercive power, it was not crucial that their politicians be particularly virtuous.

Liberal republics, Paine argued, are held together by commerce, rather than status or virtue. Commerce was beneficial to both the citizens and the state; it contributed to the wealth of nations and helped protect liberal governments from internal counterrevolution and invasions by despotic powers. International trade has a “civilizing effect” on all who participate in it; additionally, it would “temper the human mind” and help people “to know and understand each other.” Commerce encourages peace by drawing the world together into mutual dependency. Because consumer goods “cannot be procured by war so cheaply or so commodiously as by commerce,” liberal republics make every effort to avoid war because “war never can be in the interest of a trading nation.” Commerce encourages the establishment of a “pacific system, operating to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other.” Its salutary effects are substantial inasmuch as universal commerce would “extirpate the system of war” and go beyond the interests of particular states to serve the interests of humankind.

Despite Paine’s suspicions regarding the benefits of government intrusion into social relationships, he later advocated that it play a more active role in society. He called for a system of public education and supported the division and redistribution of large landed estates. However, he attributed the need for such reforms to previous abuses of state power in Europe and believed that they were unnecessary in the United States. The main thrust of his political philosophy remained a classical liberal one, and his life and writings consistently reflect that tradition in the nature of his support for the French and American Revolutions.


Further Readings

Aldridge, A. Owen. Thomas Paine’s American Ideology. Newark: University Press of Delaware, 1984.

Claeys, Gregory. The Political Thought of Thomas Paine. Winchester, UK: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Fruchtman, Jack. Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994.

Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995.

Originally published .