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Thomas Paine - One of America's Founding Fathers

Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2020

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Birth: February 9, 1737
Death: June 8, 1809 (age 72)
Colony: Pennsylvania
Occupation: Author, Politician
Significance: Authored Common Sense (1776)

Thomas Paine Portrait located in the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery

Early Life and Career Struggles

Thomas Paine was born near the eastern coast of England to a Quaker family of modest means. Paine was briefly educated as child, but his formal education had concluded by the age of 12 since Paine was apprenticed to his father as a staymaker (a maker of corsets). 

After the conclusion of his apprenticeship, Paine briefly worked as a privateer before returning to England and settling in London. Paine then moved to Sandwich and attempted to work his trade as a staymaker, but he had little business success. While in Sandwich, Paine also married his first wife, Mary Lambert, in 1759. After Paine’s business collapsed, he and Mary moved to Margate, but while there, Mary died during childbirth along with their child.

After Mary's death, Paine moved around quite a bit, trying his hand at various careers but never finding much success. In 1771, Paine married again, this time to Elizabeth Ollive who was the daughter of his landlord when he lived in Lewes, England. But Paine was unable have any more success in his private life than with career, and the marriage quickly fell apart, and they separated within five years.

While working as a tax collector in Lewes, Paine finally began to have some success, though not as a tax collector. Over time, Paine had become very interested in politics and had joined a debating club. Paine was committed to the idea that ordinary people were treated unfairly in English society, and that the English Government and laws, seemed designed to repress them. Paine also found that he was successful in communicating that message, as he successfully convinced his fellow tax collectors in Lewes that they deserved better working conditions and higher salaries. Paine's coworkers ended up sending Paine to London in 1772 to petition their case to Parliament. While in London, Paine had a chance meeting that would change his life, when he met American Statesman Benjamin Franklin.

Paine and Benjamin Franklin

In 1772, Franklin was still in London as the Colonial representative of the Colony of Pennsylvania, fighting for the rights of American colonists in the years preceding the America Revolutionary War. Franklin happened to be in attendance when Paine gave a fiery speech on behalf the Lewes tax collectors. After the speech, Franklin sought out Paine, and the two discussed politics. Franklin also extolled the virtues of his adopted hometown of Philadelphia and suggested that Paine move there. Paine first returned to Lewes, but after the dissolution of his marriage and being fired from his job, Paine decided to return to London.

In London, Paine continued to advance his political theories, attending lectures and participating in coffee house debates. Paine also began to develop a close friendship with Benjamin Franklin that would endure for the rest of Franklin’s life. Eventually, Paine decided to listen to Franklin and traveled to Philadelphia. After securing letters of introduction from Franklin, Paine set sail for Philadelphia, arriving in November of 1774.

Common Sense

Paine arrived in Philadelphia just as tensions with Great Britain were becoming explosive. Whereas in England Paine felt like a lone voice railing against British injustice, in America Paine was suddenly one of thousands speaking out and protesting against the British government. Paine quickly became enmeshed within Philadelphia’s community of patriots and within a year of his arrival to Philadelphia, Dr. Benjamin Rush had convinced Paine to write a pamphlet in order to lay out the reasoning as to why America should declare its independence. Released on January 10, 1776, and titled Common Sense, Paine’s fiery pamphlet denounced the corrupt British Government and the injustices that they had brought upon American Colonists.

Perhaps the most powerful part of Common Sense though was how Paine tied the actions of the British to the suffering of the common man. To many regular people in America, a lot of the taxes and restrictions that the British Parliament had passed, were seemingly irrelevant to their lives. To many, these seemed like the problems of the wealthy and the powerful, and there was little hope that their lives would improve much regardless of who was running America. However, not only did Paine lay out why Americans should declare their Independence, he also presented a radical new vision for what that independence should look like.

Paine showed that declaring independence was not just a necessary action to right a grievous wrong, it was an opportunity to create a new type of country that would not just benefit the wealthy, but everyone. Paine did not want to just declare independence from Great Britain, he wished to declare independence from the entire British system. Paine denounced the very idea of monarchy and pointed out how absurd it was that any common man should consent to one. While pointing intense criticism at King George and the British Monarchy, Paine also advocated for a new America where everyone had a voice regardless of their wealth, where anyone could vote or hold office, regardless of their economic station in life.

Before Common Sense was published, there were already many patriots who wanted Independence, but few were happy about it. Independence felt like something that the British had forced them into. Paine’s writings changed that. It became the most published pamphlet during the American Revolutionary Era, and it began to actually get people excited about the prospect of declaring independence.  

The Revolutionary War

After Independence was declared, Paine continued to advocate for his vision of a new American nation in a series of pamphlets entitled The American Crisis. These pamphlets were designed to inspire Americans to not give up and continue fighting for this vision of what America could be. George Washington himself found Paine’s words so powerful that he had them read to his soldiers, especially the following passage:

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 by 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. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

Paine also served in the Colonial government during the American Revolution, most prominently on the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs where his natural distrust of the wealthy and the powerful caused Paine to clash with other members on the Committee such as Robert Morris. This eventually led to Paine’s resignation from the Committee. But Paine continued to work on behalf of the Revolution, writing pamphlets and even traveling to France and obtaining French loans and supplies. At the conclusion of the Revolution, Congress recognized Paine's services with a payment of $3,000, and the State of New York gifted Paine a farm estate.

French Revolution and Later Years

After the Revolutionary War, Paine, inspired by Benjamin Franklin and his many varied scholarly pursuits, began focusing on topics besides politics, including engineering and architecture. Paine saw Franklin regularly during these years and discussed many topics. Paine even became very interested in designing a new style of bridge that would span greater distances. In 1787, a bridge he designed was actually built across the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Paine would also work to develop a smokeless candle and help to design early steam engines.

But in the end, everything was secondary to politics and when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Paine could not resist the temptation to sail to Paris and get involved. In 1791, Paine published Rights of Man to defend the French Revolution to English audiences and continued his attacks against monarchies and the wealthy elite. The book was wildly popular among the working class population of England and became a best seller. Paine continued to write pamphlets where he advocated for progressive taxes to pay for social programs to increase the welfare of the common man. Paine’s writings were inflammatory in England, and Paine would be charged with libel, tried in absentia and sentenced to death, though Paine was never executed.

In France, Paine was granted French citizenship along with many heroes of the American Revolution such as Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Paine was even elected to France’s National Convention, France’s new government. Despite not speaking French, Paine was chosen to help write the French Constitution.

In late 1793, Paine was arrested in France, and he narrowly escaped execution when the American Minister to France, James Monroe, was able to get Paine released into his custody. After his release, Paine was critical of George Washington for not working to get him released sooner and also released a new pamphlet titled The Age of Reason which became incredibly controversial due to Paine's negative stance toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. When Paine returned to America in 1803, he found that his criticisms of George Washington and Christianity had left Paine a much less popular figure than when he last lived in America. Isolated in his final years, Paine died in 1809 with barely a public mention or tribute of his passing.

Paine In Philadelphia

Thomas Paine primarily lived in Philadelphia from 1774 to 1787, and that period of time arguably represented the most successful years of Paine’s life and the time in which he became an internationally recognized political figure. It was during this time that his pamphlet Common Sense was published at a printing shop that was located on Third Street, just South of Walnut Street in Philadelphia. While the printing shop no longer stands today, a plaque commemorates this incredibly important site in America's history. While in Philadelphia, Paine worked on the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs which held meetings at Independence Hall. Today Independence Hall is viewed on the Constitutional Walking Tour!

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