Depending on whether you reckon by the Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar, Thomas Paine was born late in January or early in February of 1737, in Thetford, England, a small town about eighty-five miles north-northeast of London. His father, Joseph Paine, was a corset maker and a Quaker. His mother, Frances, was the daughter of a local attorney and a member of the Church of England.
Young Thomas attended the Thetford Grammar School until he was twelve years old; then he went to work as an apprentice to his father, learning the corset-making trade, which he quickly learned to loathe. Within a couple of years, he had begun running away from home, searching frantically for some way to escape corset making.
Maybe he could go to sea?
At sixteen, in 1753, he brought it off. He shipped out on a privateer — a private warship authorized by the English government to attack and loot commercial vessels sailing under the flag of any nation with whom England was legally at war. England was then at war with France in North America in the conflict Americans know as the French and Indian War, which would evolve in a couple of years into the Seven Years' War, a truly worldwide war that included battles in such far-flung places as Europe, Africa, India, South America, and the Philippines as well as North America.
All the major European powers of the period participated in the Seven Years' War. More than a million people lost their lives in it. And the map of the world underwent major changes as a result. Canada passed from France to England. Florida passed from Spain to England.
But when Thomas Paine signed on as a crewman on a privateer in 1753, all this was in the future. For the next few years, he and his fellow crewmen concentrated on robbing whatever French commercial vessels they could locate. And they seem to have done pretty well for themselves. The costs of commissioning privateers were borne by private investors, who hoped to make a profit from the value of the goods seized by their crewmembers. Politicians liked them, too. They argued that privateering was less destructive and wasteful than conventional warfare, since the privateer's goal was to capture ships rather than sink them. Also, and more to the point, privateering was a way of mobilizing armed ships and sailors without spending public money or commissioning naval officers.
Craig Nelson, author of the 2006 book Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, told WNYC interviewer Leonard Lopate in 2007 that Thomas Paine's brief career as a privateer was a definite financial success.
When Paine was a young man, he made a lot of money during the Seven Years' War working as a pirate. And he took two years off and really educated himself in the ideas of the Enlightenment, primarily the theories of Isaac Newton. And this self-education (which also Benjamin Franklin and George Washington did) is really what made him a figure of his time. He was able to impress very successful, very famous men — starting with Franklin, most importantly.
Dabbling in Ideas
In the early years, he failed at everything he tried. Paine's meeting with Franklin was still some years in the future, however. For now, he had his education to get on with. He moved to London and spent his two years hanging around bookshops and discussing ideas with the often rather widely read and knowledgeable types he met in such places — something that became a lifelong habit for him. In 1759, at the age of twenty-two, he married a servant girl.
By then, his two years as a full-time student behind him, he had gone back to corset making. It was work he knew. It enabled him to pay the bills. But he didn't like it any better than he had as a teenager. After his wife and their infant child both died less than a year after his marriage, he began struggling once more to put corset making behind him. He tried working as a cobbler, a cabinetmaker, a schoolteacher. He failed at everything he tried.
He wasn't as expert a worker in leather or wood as he was at making corsets, much as he hated it. And since his work wasn't so expert in those trades, his inability to get along with people raised further problems for him. As Harvard historian Jill Lepore put it recently in an article on Paine in the New Yorker, “Even at his best, Paine was rough and unpolished.” He was plainspoken, direct, tactless, blunt. People might put up with that from a man whose work was of the very highest quality. But they wouldn't put up with it from a man whose work was only average. Nor were headmasters and fellow teachers too keen on it. As Craig Nelson put it in that 2007 interview on WNYC,
He made a lot of people mad. He was something of a hard-nosed kind of guy, when it came to philosophical purity, so he made a lot of enemies.
Paine was plainspoken, tactless, blunt, but he was also insightful, even brilliant.And so it was that in 1762, at twenty-five, Paine turned to thievery once again, this time as a tax collector for the English government. To his credit, he hated that occupation at least as much as he hated sewing whale bones into corsets, and fortunately an opportunity to escape another despised line of work soon presented itself. He was living in London, in a boardinghouse operated by an elderly tobacconist who owned and managed his own tobacco shop. The tobacconist, whose health was not good, died. Paine married the man's daughter and took over the tobacco shop. But his new career was short-lived. He lost the shop and had to go back to tax collecting and corset making.
Coming to America
By the summer of 1774, he had had enough. He was thirty-seven years old and poor as the proverbial church mouse. He had been forced to sell almost everything he owned to pay his debts. He and his second wife had split up and gone their separate ways. He had no prospects but more corset making and more tax collecting. Willing to try almost anything else, he presented himself to Benjamin Franklin, who was living in London at that time as a sort of lobbyist or diplomat seeking to influence English policies that affected the colony of Pennsylvania. Paine talked with the sixty-eight-year-old Franklin and made a major impression on him. As I say, Paine was plainspoken, tactless, blunt, but he was also insightful, even brilliant. He asked Franklin for a letter of recommendation to someone in the American colonies who might provide him with work of some sort. Then he packed up what few possessions he could still call his own and boarded a ship for America.
The voyage over did not go well. According to Jill Lepore, Paine had “sickened with typhus during the journey.” He
arrived in Philadelphia in December, 1774, so weak that he had to be carried off the ship. What saved his life was a letter found in his pocket: “The bearer Mr Thomas Pain is very well recommended to me as an ingenious worthy young man.” It was signed by Benjamin Franklin. It was better than a bag of gold.
Paine recovered his health with the aid of a Philadelphia doctor who was a friend of Franklin's. With the aid of his letter from Franklin, he also found work, mostly as a schoolteacher and as a freelance writer for local magazines and newspapers. And he quickly slipped into his old habit of hanging around bookshops. It was in this way that he met Robert Aitken, a Scot who had come to Philadelphia five years before and set up as a bookseller and bookbinder. In 1774, the year of Paine's arrival on the scene, Aitken had added a print shop to his establishment.
Life as Editor
Eventually, he would produce the first English-language bible printed in the colonies. For now, however, in 1774, he had decided he wanted to establish a new magazine, which he would call the Pennsylvania Magazine. He hired Thomas Paine as editor.
Under Paine's editorship, the new magazine quickly earned a remarkable degree of influence in the colonies, and Paine himself was able to meet and befriend such men as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, John Randolph, and Samuel Adams, with all of whom he seems to have talked at length. The more he talked and listened, the more convinced he became that the American colonists needed to act swiftly and decisively, lest the opportunity for full independence from England pass them by.
He quit the Pennsylvania Magazine after less than a year as editor to write a pamphlet he hoped would make his case as persuasively as it could be made. It was published in January 1776 under the title Common Sense. It was a huge success. It sold like hotcakes, in both its original edition and in pirated editions issued by printers throughout the colonies. “By April of 1776,” according to Howard Fast,
almost every adult in the thirteen colonies had read or had read to him some part of the booklet. In December of 1775, only wild-eyed radicals called for independence; six months later only the most conservative elements — and few they were — of the American popular front stood out against independence. In that six-month period, the country united itself, tightened itself, and set its face solidly against the enemy, the loose alliance of thirteen far-flung colonies becoming a solid coalition. And by testimony of many, not a little of this was due to the slim book Tom Paine wrote.
Paine was, Fast wrote, “catapulted overnight … to a position as foremost protagonist of the rebel cause.”
By the end of the year, Paine had become, as Jill Lepore puts it, the first “embedded journalist” in American history. You might also describe him as the first syndicated columnist. He was following General Washington's ragtag Continental Army, which had dwindled, in the mere year and a half of its existence, from twenty thousand enthusiastic soldiers to what Fast calls “a few hundred beaten and hopeless men.” And Paine got to know those men very well. “He lived with the men,” Fast writes, “marched with them, spoke with them, pleaded with them.”
The idea was that he would work up his experiences with the Continental army in a series of articles, “The American Crisis,” which would appear simultaneously in major newspapers throughout the colonies. Although, according to Fast, “Paine never admitted how bad things were,” he saw very clearly indeed just how bad they really were. He knew, from bitter personal experience, that, as Fast puts it, “December of 1776 seemed close to the end.” And so it was that in December of '76, camped in New Jersey with Washington and his troops, Paine wrote the first of his syndicated columns about the war, the first of his so-called “Crisis Papers,” the one that begins, famously,
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.
A few paragraphs on, Paine stressed his firm opposition to any initiation of force against the English by the American colonists, even as part of an effort to win the independence he himself so fervently supported. “Not all the treasures of the world,” he wrote,
could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to 'bind me in all cases whatsoever' to his absolute will, am I to suffer it? What signifies it to me, whether he who does it is a king or a common man; my countryman or not my countryman; whether it be done by an individual villain, or an army of them? If we reason to the root of things we shall find no difference; neither can any just cause be assigned why we should punish in the one case and pardon in the other. Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.
Howard Fast reports that “Washington read this essay” and “was tremendously moved and ordered it to be read aloud to the assembled brigades.” Thereafter, it appeared in the newspapers. Then it was independently printed in dozens of editions in dozens of cities, “folded and sold as a pamphlet” and “posted everywhere as a bill. It was memorized by thousands, and the phrases 'summer soldier' and 'sunshine patriot' were on every tongue. It became the battlecry of the day.” Altogether, according to Fast, it “had, if anything, more of a success than Common Sense.”
After the War
Flash forward a few years. It's now 1783. The war is over. Paine, now forty-six years old, is given a three-hundred-acre farm that had been seized from loyalists during the war years. It's near New Rochelle, NY, on Long Island Sound northeast of New York City on the way to Connecticut. He lives there a few years, then travels to France in 1787 and to England in 1788. He has almost as big a name and almost as many fans in those countries as he has in the United States. It was Paine, by the way, who came up with the phrase “United States of America” and suggested it, in one of his “Crisis Papers” as a name for the new nation to be created when the colonies had won their independence.
It was in London in 1791 that Paine, now in his mid-fifties, would meet the radical journalist, novelist, editor, bookseller, and writer of children's books William Godwin, who was at that time working on his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners. The Enquiry was published in 1793 and went on to be widely considered what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls “the founding work of philosophical anarchism.”
At the same time, Paine met Mary Wollstonecraft, a freelance journalist and translator, who would publish her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 and thus make a very plausible case for herself as the founder of individualist feminism. Later in the 1790s, Godwin and Wollstonecraft would marry. Their daughter, Mary Shelley, would become world famous as the author of the novel Frankenstein.
Interestingly, back in the late 1950s, Robert LeFevre, a major figure in the early years of the modern libertarian movement, argued that Frankenstein was really a fable about what happened when man invented the state — that is, coercive government. “Government alone, of all man's inventions, is capable of independent life,” LeFevre wrote. “Government alone, like Mrs. Shelley's terrifying creation of the monster born in Frankenstein's mind, has the power and the ability to turn upon its creators and destroy them.” And given the atmosphere Mary Shelley grew up in, the kinds of political ideas she had heard voiced since before she was old enough to remember, it just may be that LeFevre's interpretation of her novel was something she herself actually intended, if only subconsciously.
In any case, Godwin and Wollstonecraft first met Thomas Paine at a dinner held in his honor to celebrate the publication of his latest book, The Rights of Man, in which he argued for legal and political equality for women — and for something very close to philosophical anarchism. Earlier, in Common Sense, Paine had written that “some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them,” yet, “society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”
In The Rights of Man, fifteen years later, he wrote that the
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. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.
By way of example, Paine pointed out that
for upwards of two years from the commencement of the American War, and to a longer period in several of the American States, there were no established forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and the country was too much occupied in defence to employ its attention in establishing new governments; yet during this interval order and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe.… The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act: a general association takes place, and common interest produces common security.
It is not true, according to Paine, “that the abolition of any formal government is the dissolution of society,” for in fact the abolition of formal government “acts by a contrary impulse, and brings [society] the closer together.” For
it is but few general laws that civilised life requires, and those of such common usefulness, that whether they are enforced by the forms of government or not, the effect will be nearly the same.
To no one's surprise, The Rights of Man was suppressed by the English government. By the beginning of 1792, it had become a crime to be found with a copy of The Rights of Man in one's possession. A warrant was issued for Paine's arrest. He had written The Rights of Man in defense of the French Revolution, in reply to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which the famed member of Parliament, who had supported the American revolution, severely criticized the French one. The Rights of Man was very popular in France. Paine himself was at least as famous there as he was in England or even America. So Paine fled England for France.
They threw him in prison on trumped-up charges of being a foreigner trying to wreak havoc in France.When he arrived, he was celebrated as a hero of the revolution and elected to the National Assembly, the body that had conferred honorary French citizenship upon him only a month earlier. But if Paine had problems getting along with people and was making enemies in England and English-speaking America, imagine the difficulties he confronted in a country where he didn't even speak the language. According to his biographer, Craig Nelson, his biggest mistake in the France of the early 1790s was choosing not to affiliate with the Jacobins, the faction that controlled the revolution during the Reign of Terror.
Paine became involved with a group that we know as the Girondins, the group that came to power between Lafayette and Robespierre. And the Girondins were purged by Robespierre and his followers, and Paine was among them. But because he was so popular — and his writings were so popular across Europe, and because he was associated with the American colonists — the French didn't know what to do with him during the Reign of Terror. So finally, they threw him in prison on trumped-up charges of being a foreigner trying to wreak havoc in France — and, I think, left him there to die. (This is something they did when they didn't know that they should chop someone's head off.)
Age of Reason
And so it was that Paine wrote his last book, The Age of Reason, in prison. The Age of Reason, as Craig Nelson explained back in 2007 to WNYC interviewer Leonard Lopate, is about religion.
During the Age of Reason period, it was very common for people to be a religion that was called deism, where because of Newton's theories about math underlying the cosmos, people believed that what was called a First Being, or Providence, or the Invisible Hand, had created the world, but you couldn't pray to him, and there wasn't really a reason to have a church, and this is what Paine and Jefferson and Robespierre and Napoleon and almost every significant person of the 18th century believed in. This is what the Age of Reason is about, frankly. But after that, when deism fell out of favor, it was termed as an argument for atheism.
The accusation that Paine's arguments were arguments for atheism was spread far and wide by the clergy and other officials and employees of the churches Paine regarded as unnecessary and inadvisable. The minions of organized religion caused Paine a good deal of trouble and torment during his last years on this earth. But as Craig Nelson notes, The Age of Reason sold very well indeed, just as his earlier books had done.
He was the biggest bestselling author of the 18th century. The Age of Reason was the second-biggest bestseller. Rights of Man was first, and Common Sense was third.
Why was Paine so successful an author? According to Craig Nelson, it was because he wrote in what was, for the 18th century, a highly unusual style.
Paine is in a way the most modern Founding Father — an incredible writer. And everyone who writes on him tries to figure out how this happened. You find yourself in the bowels, poring through these 18th-century, barely legible manuscripts, and the sentences are eight pages' long, and then you come to Paine and it reads like something written today.
More specifically, Nelson argues, Paine wrote for the ear, rather than for the eye.
Almost alone among the Founding Fathers he spoke out unequivocally against slavery. Actually, he wrote to be read aloud. Since so many people were illiterate or had trouble reading at this time, reading was still something for the upper middle class and upper class of the country. So he actually wrote to be read aloud, and that's a hallmark of fine writing today, that you hear the writer's voice when you read something.
Paine was eventually released from prison, but he was trapped in France for years. He couldn't go back to England, where he was a wanted man. And he couldn't try to sail for America, for fear his French ship would be interdicted by the British navy and he'd be put under arrest and dragged back to England.
Finally, in 1802, at the personal invitation of Thomas Jefferson, now president of the United States, Paine returned to America. Seven years later, he died, his name and reputation besmirched by accusations of atheism on the part of those who didn't understand or pretended not to understand The Age of Reason.
Thomas Paine wasn't a fully consistent libertarian. He understood and very memorably articulated the basic principles of libertarianism. Almost alone among the Founding Fathers he spoke out unequivocally against slavery. But he also advocated government-funded old-age pensions and an international organization much like the United Nations to enforce world peace.
On the other hand, where in the 18th century are you going to find a fully consistent libertarian? You won't. In the eighteenth century, a man like Paine is the best you're likely to do. And, for my money, he's plenty good enough. He grasped the big picture; if he got some of the details wrong, well, none of us is perfect.
This is a chapter from The Libertarian Tradition