All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1996

Thomas Paine, Passionate Pamphleteer for Liberty

A Singleminded Private Individual Aroused Millions to Throw Off Their Oppressors

As nobody before, Thomas Paine stirred ordinary people to defend their liberty. He wrote the three top-selling literary works of the eighteenth century, which inspired the American Revolution, issued a 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 Founders 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 prison in France. His most steadfast friend was Thomas Jefferson.

Paine was a prickly pear—vain, tactless, untidy—but he continued to charm people. Pioneering individualist feminist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: “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 humour and benevolence.”

Despite his blazing intelligence, Paine had some half-baked ideas. To remedy injustices of the English monarchy, he proposed representative government which would enact “progressive” taxation, “universal” education, “temporary” poor relief, and old-age pensions. He naively assumed such policies would do what they were supposed to, and it didn’t occur to him that political power corrupts representative government like every other government.

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.”

The “Muse of Fire”

Paine stood five feet, ten 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 Paine 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 that didn’t find much booty. He tried his hand as a corset-maker again, then as an English teacher and independent Methodist preacher. Public-speaking experience surely gave him insights about what it takes to stir large numbers of people.

Paine’s most puzzling decision was to become an excise tax collector. He got fired, landed another excise tax-collecting job, and got fired again after writing a pamphlet to promote pay raises. Paine witnessed the resourcefulness of smugglers, resentment against tax collectors, and the pervasiveness of government corruption.

Except for a couple of 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 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.

Meanwhile, he thrived on discussions about philosophy and practical politics. In Lewes, Paine belonged to the Headstrong Club, a discussion group. It gathered weekly at the White Horse Tavern where Paine relished ale and oysters. One of the members was an ardent republican and defender of libertarian rebel John Wilkes. Paine’s radical libertarian views jelled.

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 working to expand business with 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.

Arrival in America

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.

For Paine, this experience was a proving ground. He produced at least 17 articles, perhaps as many as 26, all signed with such pseudonyms as “Vox Populi,” “Justice, and Humanity.” He edged closer to the controversy of America’s future relationship with England. He vehemently attacked slavery and called for prompt emancipation.

Then came the Battle of Lexington, at dawn on April 19, 1775. British Major John Pitcairn ordered his troops to fire on American militiamen gathered in front of a meetinghouse, killing eight and wounding ten. The outraged Paine resolved to defend American liberty.

Common Sense

In early September, he began making notes for a pamphlet. He probably started writing around the first of November. 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. 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 individuals pursue private 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 quickly. 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.

Common Sense changed the political climate in America. Before its publication, most colonists still hoped things could be worked out with England. Then suddenly, this pamphlet triggered debates where increasing numbers of people spoke openly for independence. The Second Continental Congress asked Thomas Jefferson to serve on a five-person committee that 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.

“The Harder the Conflict, the More Glorious the Triumph”

Paine wondered how he could boost morale. By evening campfire he began writing a new pamphlet. When he returned to Philadelphia, he took 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 launched a surprise attack on sleeping Hessians in Trenton, giving Americans a much-needed battle victory.

By the time the Revolutionary War ended, Paine had written 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, and he didn’t know how he would earn a living. He wanted a government stipend for what he had done to help achieve American Independence. New York State gave him a 300-acre farm in New Rochelle, 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.

Then he came up with an idea for cashing in on the American bridge-building boom. He didn’t find American backers, so on Franklin’s recommendation, he sought support in France and England. While the project fizzled, it brought him into contact with leading classical liberals of the day. In France, he renewed his friendship with Marquis de Lafayette, who had served the American Revolution. Lafayette introduced Paine to the Marquis de Condorcet, a French mathematician and influential classical liberal. In England, Paine met Parliamentary radical Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke, a Parliamentary defender of the American Revolution and friend of radical John Wilkes.

The outbreak of the French Revolution, in July 1789, horrified Burke who began writing his counterrevolutionary manifesto, Reflections on the Revolution in France. It defended monarchy and aristocratic privilege. Burke’s book appeared November 1, 1790, and it reportedly sold almost 20,000 copies within a year. French, German, and Italian editions soon followed.

Rights of Man

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 some 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 had impressed many people with flowery prose, Paine replied with plain talk. He lashed out at tyranny. He denounced taxes. He specifically denied the moral legitimacy of the English monarchy and aristocracy. He declared that individuals have rights regardless what laws might say. For centuries, people had resigned themselves to tyranny and war, but Paine provided hope these evils could be curbed.

Paine defended the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, which included a commitment to private property. “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, and the government reacted with repression. Pro-government newspapers denounced Paine as “Mad Tom.” Churchmen delivered sermons attacking Paine. People hanged effigies of Paine across 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 hastened to Dover and boarded a boat for Calais, France, in September 1792. An arrest warrant reached Dover about 20 minutes later.

An enthusiastic crowd welcomed him. He was offered honorary citizenship of France and elected as Calais representative to the National Convention which would develop reforms. He didn’t speak French, and he often failed to realize how fast the political situation was changing. But he knew 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 tiny, solitary cell. On July 24, 1794, the public prosecutor added Paine’s name to the list of prisoners who would be beheaded, but he got lucky. Prison guards mistakenly passed by his cell when they gathered the night’s victims. Three days later, July 27, 1794, people had had enough of the Terror, and they beheaded Robespierre, the most fanatical promoter of Jacobin violence, and the worst was over.

Age of Reason

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, believed Jesus was a virtuous man, and 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 trademark dramatic, plainspoken style which stirred strong emotions. The book became a hot seller in England, and government efforts to suppress it further spurred demand. The book 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. Monroe was eloquent: “the citizens of the United States cannot look back to the era of their revolution, without remembering, with those of other distinguished patriots, the name of Thomas Paine. The services which he rendered them in their struggle for liberty have made an impression of gratitude which will never be erased, whilst they continue to merit the character of a just and generous people.”

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 a policy of peace, the last thing Napoleon wanted to hear, 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 be 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.”

Paine was subjected to personal attacks from the Federalist press, but he spoke out on controversial issues. For example, after Napoleon gained control of Louisiana in 1800, and the Mississippi was closed to American shipping, Federalists called for war against France. Paine encouraged President Jefferson to propose purchasing the Louisiana territory. While Federalist Alexander Hamilton thought Napoleon would never go for the idea, Paine drew from his firsthand knowledge: “The French treasury is not only empty, but the Government has consumed by anticipation a great part of next year’s revenue. A monied proposal will, I believe, be attended to. . . .” 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 desperate for cash as his health deteriorated, and he lived in pitiful squalor. He asked to be moved into the home of his friend Marguerite de Bonneville at 59 Grove Street, New York City, and there he died on the morning of 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, a foe of Paine’s who became a disciple, 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 really comprehensive 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—two within the past year.

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 singleminded private individual could, by making a moral case for natural rights, arouse millions to throw off their oppressors—and how it could happen again.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.