Jul 4, 2000
A Right to Rebel: A Biography of Thomas Paine
Agitator and pamphleteer par excellence, Thomas Paine was involved in both the American and French Revolutions.
Like nobody before, Thomas Paine stirred ordinary people to defend their liberty. He wrote the three top selling literary works of the 18th century, which inspired the American Revolution, issued an historic battle cry for individual rights and challenged the corrupt power of government churches. His radical vision and dramatic, plainspoken style connected with artisans, servants, soldiers, merchants, farmers and laborers alike. Paine’s work breathes fire to this day.
His devastating attacks on tyranny compare with the epic thrusts of Voltaire and Jonathan Swift, but unlike these authors, there wasn’t a drop of cynicism in Paine. He was always earnest in the pursuit of liberty. He was confident that free people would fulfill their destiny.
He provoked explosive controversy. The English monarchy hounded him into exile and decreed the death penalty if he ever returned. Egalitarian leaders of the French Revolution ordered him into a Paris prison—he narrowly escaped death by guillotine. Because of his critical writings on religion, he was shunned and ridiculed during his last years in America.
But fellow Founding Fathers recognized Paine’s rare talent. Benjamin Franklin helped him get started in Philadelphia and considered him an “adopted political son.” Paine served as an aide to George Washington. He was a compatriot of Samuel Adams. James Madison was a booster. James Monroe helped spring him from French prison. His most steadfast friend was Thomas Jefferson.
Even bitter Federalist foes like James Thomson Callender acknowledged Paine’s contributions. “As a political gladiator,” Callender wrote, “his merit is of the highest kind. He knows, beyond most men, both when and where to strike. He deals his blows with force, coolness and dexterity.”
Paine was a prickly pear—vain, tactless, untidy—but he continued to charm people. Pioneering individualist feminist Mary Wollstonecraft: “he kept everyone in astonishment and admiration for his memory, his keen observation of men and manners, his numberless anecdotes of the American Indians, of the American war, of Franklin, Washington, and even of his Majesty, of whom he told several curious facts of humor and benevolence.”
Despite his blazing intelligence, Paine had some half-baked ideas. To remedy injustices of the English monarchy, he talked about “progressive” taxation, “universal” education, “temporary” poor relief and old age pensions. He naively assumed such policies would do what they were supposed to.
Yet in the same work containing these proposals—Rights of Man, Part II—Paine affirmed his libertarian principles again and again. For example: “Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished.”
Paine stood five feet, 10 inches tall, with an athletic build. He dressed simply. He had a long nose and intense blue eyes. His friend Thomas Clio Rickman noted that “His eye, of which the painter could not convey the exquisite meaning, was full, brilliant, and singularly piercing. He had in it the ‘muse of fire.’”
Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1737 in Thetford, England. His mother Francis Cocke came from a local Anglican family of some distinction. His father Joseph Pain was a Quaker farmer and shoemaker. Although Thomas Paine wasn’t a practicing Quaker, he endured some of the intolerance directed against Quakers.
Paine took a while to find his calling. He left school at age 12 and began apprenticeship as a Thetford corset maker, but he didn’t like it. Twice he ran away from home. The second time, in April 1757, he joined the crew of the King of Prussia, a privateer which didn’t find much booty. He tried his hand as a English teacher and Methodist preacher. Paine’s most puzzling decision was to become an excise tax collector. He witnessed the resourcefulness of smugglers, resentment against tax collectors and the pervasiveness of government corruption.
With a couple brief interludes, Paine was a loner. Believing that marriage should be based on love, not social status or fortune, he wed Mary Lambert, a household servant, in September 1759, but within a year she died during childbirth. In March 1771, he married again—Elizabeth Ollive, a 20-year-old blond-haired teacher. While trying to earn a living as a grocer and tobacconist, he went bankrupt in early 1774. Most of his possessions were auctioned April 14th. Two months later, Paine and his wife went their separate ways.
Intellectually curious, Paine liked to browse in bookstores, attend lectures on scientific subjects and meet thoughtful people. He befriended a London astronomer who introduced him to Benjamin Franklin, then representing colonial interests in England. Franklin seems to have convinced Paine that he could make a better life in America, and Franklin provided a letter of introduction to his son-in-law in Philadelphia.
Paine arrived November 30, 1774. He rented a room at Market and Front streets, the southeast corner—from which he could see the Philadelphia Slave Market. He spent spare time in a bookstore operated by Robert Aiken. Paine must have impressed the bookseller as a lively and literate man, because he was offered the job of editing Aiken’s new publication, The Pennsylvania Magazine. Paine produced at least 17 articles. He vehemently attacked slavery and called for prompt emancipation.
Then came the Battle of Lexington, at dawn April 19, 1775. British Major John Pitcairn ordered his troops to fire on American militiamen gathered in front of a meeting house, killing eight and wounding ten. The outraged Paine resolved to defend American liberty.
In early September, he began making notes for a pamphlet. He probably started writing around November 1st. He worked at a wobbly table, scratching out the words with a goose quill pen on rough buff paper. The manuscript proceeded slowly, because writing was always difficult for Paine. He discussed the evolving draft with Dr. Benjamin Rush whom he had met at Aiken’s bookstore. The draft was completed in early December. Paine got comments from astronomer David Rittenhouse, brewer Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin (who had returned from London). Paine thought of calling his pamphlet Plain Truth, but Dr. Rush recommended the more earthy Common Sense.
Dr. Rush arranged for the pamphlet to be published by Robert Bell, a Scotsman who had become a noted Philadelphia publisher, colorful auctioneer and underground supporter of American independence. Priced at 2 shillings, the 47-page Common Sense—written anonymously “by an Englishman”—was published on January 10, 1776. Paine signed over royalties to the Continental Congress.
With simple, bold and inspiring prose, Paine launched a furious attack on tyranny. He denounced kings as inevitably corrupted by political power. He broke with previous political thinkers when he distinguished between government compulsion and civil society where private individuals pursue productive lives. Paine envisioned a “Continental union” based on individual rights. He answered objections from those who feared a break with England. He called for a declaration to stir people into action.
Common Sense crackled with unforgettable lines. For example: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness…The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth…Now is the seed-time of Continental union…We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth…O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!…We have it in our power to begin the world over again…The birthday of a new world is at hand.”
The first edition sold out in a couple weeks. Soon rival editions began appearing. Printers in Boston, Salem, Newburyport, Newport, Providence, Hartford, Norwich, Lancaster, Albany and New York issued editions. Within three months, Paine estimated that over 120,000 copies had been printed. Dr. Rush recalled that “Its effects were sudden and extensive upon the American mind. It was read by public men, repeated in clubs, spouted in Schools, and in one instance, delivered from the pulpit instead of a sermon by a clergyman in Connecticut.” George Washington declared that Common Sense offered “sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning.”
Paine’s incendiary ideas leaped across borders. An edition appeared in French-speaking Quebec. John Adams reported that “Common Sense was received in France and in all Europe with Rapture.” There were editions in London, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Common Sense was translated into German and Danish, and copies got into Russia. Altogether, some 500,000 copies were sold.
Before the publication of Common Sense, most colonists hoped grievances with England could be resolved. Then suddenly, this pamphlet inspired increasing numbers of people to speak out for independence. The Second Continental Congress asked Thomas Jefferson to serve on a five-person committee which would draft the declaration Paine had suggested in Common Sense.
“Thomas Paine’s Common Sense,” reflected Harvard University historian Bernard Bailyn, “is the most brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution, and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language. How it could have been produced by the bankrupt Quaker corset-maker, the sometime teacher, preacher, and grocer, and twice‑dismissed excise officer who happened to catch Benjamin Franklin’s attention in England and who arrived in America only fourteen months before Common Sense was published is nothing one can explain without explaining genius itself.”
When Independence brought war, Paine enlisted as a military secretary for General Daniel Roberdeau, then for General Nathaniel Greene, and by year‑end 1776 he was with General George Washington. The untrained, poorly-paid Americans, typically serving for a year, were routed by well‑trained British soldiers and ruthless Hessian mercenaries.
In the evenings, Paine began writing a new pamphlet by the campfires. When he returned to Philadelphia, he brought his manuscript to the Philadelphia Journal which published it on December 19th as an eight-page essay, American Crisis. On Christmas Day 1776, George Washington read it to his soldiers. Paine’s immortal opening lines: “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.” Within hours, Washington’s fired-up soldiers gained a much-needed battle victory against British forces in Trenton.
Paine wrote a dozen more American Crisis essays. They dealt with military and diplomatic issues as Paine promoted better morale. In the second essay, published January 13, 1777, Paine coined the name “United States of America.”
After the British surrendered at Yorktown, Paine was broke. He wanted a government stipend for what he had done to help achieve American Independence. New York State gave him a 300‑acre New Rochelle farm, about 30 miles from New York City, which had belonged to a British loyalist. Congress voted Paine $3,000 for war‑related expenses he had paid out of pocket.
In France, he renewed his friendship with Marquis de Lafayette who had helped win the victory at Yorktown. Lafayette introduced Paine to the Marquis de Condorcet, a French mathematician and influential libertarian. In England, Paine met Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke, both of whom had opposed the war against America.
The outbreak of the French Revolution, in July 1789, horrified Burke who began writing his counterrevolutionary manifesto, Reflections on the Revolution in France which appeared November 1, 1790. It defended monarchy and aristocratic privilege.
Meanwhile, Paine, who had been working on a new book about general principles of liberty, learned the gist of Burke’s manifesto and decided to revise his book as a rebuttal. He moved into a room at the Angel Inn, Islington, where he could concentrate on the project. He started work November 4th. He worked steadily, often by candlelight, for about three months. He finished the first part of Rights of Man on January 29, 1791—his birthday. He was 54. He dedicated the work affectionately to George Washington, and it was published on Washington’s birthday, February 22nd.
While Burke impressed people with purple prose, Paine replied with plain talk. He lashed out at tyranny. He denounced taxes. He denied the moral legitimacy of the English monarchy and aristocracy. He declared that individuals have rights regardless what laws might say. Paine embraced The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which affirmed, in part: “The right to property being inviolable and sacred, no one ought to be deprived of it, except in cases of evident public necessity, legally ascertained, and on condition of just indemnity.”
The first printing sold out in three days. The second printing, within hours. There was a third printing in March 1791, a fourth printing in April. Some 200,000 copies sold in England, Wales and Scotland. Another 100,000 copies were sold in America.
Rights of Man convinced many people to support the French Revolution and dramatic reform in England. On May 17, 1792, the government charged him with seditious libel which could be punished by hanging. Excise tax collectors ransacked Paine’s room. He fled to Dover and boarded a boat for Calais, France in September 1792. An arrest warrant reached Dover about 20 minutes later.
Elected as Calais representative to the National Convention which was supposed to carry out reforms, he was an ideological ally of the so-called “Girondins” who favored a republican government with limited powers. His adversaries were the ruthless, xenophobic Jacobins. Incredibly, Paine was considered suspect because he was born in England—even though he could be hanged if he returned there. In the middle of the night before Christmas 1793, Jacobin police hauled him away to Luxembourg Prison. Paine was held without trial in a cell about 10 feet long by eight feet wide. On July 24, 1794, Paine’s name was added to the list of prisoners who would be beheaded, but prison guards mistakenly passed by his cell when they gathered the night’s victims. Three days later, July 27, 1794, rebels beheaded Maximilien‑Francois-Marie-Isdore de Robespierre, the most fanatical promoter of Jacobin violence, and the worst was over.
Before Paine was imprisoned, he started his most controversial major work, Age of Reason, and he continued writing behind bars. While he commended Christian ethics, he believed Jesus was a virtuous man, and he opposed the Jacobin campaign to suppress religion, he attacked the violence and contradictions of many Bible stories. He denounced the incestuous links between church and state. He insisted that authentic religious revelation came to individuals rather than established churches. He defended the deist view of one God and a religion based on reason. He urged a policy of religious toleration.
Age of Reason had a big impact, in part, because Paine wrote it with his dramatic, plainspoken style which stirred strong emotions. The book became a hot seller in England, and government efforts to suppress it further spurred demand. Age of Reason was much sought after in Germany, Hungary and Portugal. There were four American printings in 1794, seven in 1795 and two more in 1796. People formed societies aimed at promoting Paine’s religious principles.
U.S. minister to France James Monroe demanded that government officials bring Paine to trial or release him. By November 6th, gray-bearded and frail, Paine was free at last. In 1801, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte invited Paine to dinner, hoping for insights about conquering Britain. Paine recommended peace, the last thing Napoleon wanted to hear about, and they never met again.
Paine returned to America on September 1, 1802. He was 65. A Massachusetts newspaper correspondent observed: “Years have made more impression on his body than his mind. He bends a little forward, carries one hand in the other behind, when he walks. He dresses plain like a farmer, and appears cleanly and comfortably in his person…His conversation is uncommonly interesting; he is gay, humorous, and full of anecdote—his memory preserves its full capacity, and his mind is irresistible.”
After Napoleon gained control of Louisiana in 1800, and the Mississippi was closed to American shipping, Paine encouraged President Jefferson to propose purchasing the Louisiana territory. While Federalist Alexander Hamilton thought Napoleon would never go for the idea, Paine knew Napoleon needed cash. In May 1803, Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory to the United States for $15 million.
Although Federalist critics savaged President Thomas Jefferson for defending Paine, he courageously invited his friend to the White House. When Jefferson’s daughters Mary and Martha made clear they would rather not associate with Paine, Jefferson replied that Paine “is too well entitled to the hospitality of every American, not to cheerfully receive mine.”
During Paine’s last years, he was broke as his health deteriorated, and he lived in pitiful squalor. He moved into the home of his friend Marguerite de Bonneville at 59 Grove Street, New York City, and there he died at about eight in the morning, June 8, 1809. Mme. de Bonneville arranged for burial at his New Rochelle farm because no cemetery would take him.
Paine didn’t rest in peace. A decade later, English journalist William Cobbett secretly dug up the casket and shipped it to England. According to some accounts, he thought that by making it part of a shrine, he could inspire large numbers of people to push for reform of the government and the Church of England. But people weren’t much interested in Paine’s bones. When Cobbett died in 1835, they were dispersed with his personal effects and lost.
Paine remained a forgotten Founder for decades. Theodore Roosevelt summed up the prevailing view when he referred to Paine as a “filthy little atheist.” The first big biography didn’t appear until 1892. There still isn’t an authoritative edition of Paine’s complete work.
The American bicentennial helped revive interest in Paine. Paperback collections of his major writings became widely available for the first time, and at least eight biographies have appeared since then.
Perhaps a new generation is rediscovering this marvel of a man. He didn’t have much money. He never had political power. Yet he showed how a single-minded private individual could, by making a moral case for natural rights, arouse millions to throw off their oppressors—and how it could happen again.
Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.