In the town of Thetford, Norfolk, stands a statue of a man brandishing a quill and holding a book entitled The Rights of Man. This renowned son of Thetford inspired the people of the American colonies to join in the creation of a new society, advised the leaders of the French Revolution in their efforts to create a new republic and dedicated a seminal treatise on human rights to the people of Britain.
'The pen is mightier than the sword.' This has become a facile cliché over the years, yet it might have been coined specifically to acknowledge the written works of Thomas Paine, a pamphleteer for the ages.
A British Subject: 1737 - 1774
On 29 January, 1737, Thomas Paine was born into a humble Quaker family. His father's standing in the Quaker assembly was considered 'lapsed', due to his marrying outside the faith. Nevertheless, young Thomas grew in the light of Quaker philosophy, which continued to shine through his works.
In his youth, he applied himself wholeheartedly to his education. He would read from classical Latin works, thereby acquiring an understanding of philosophy as it evolved through the ages. Additionally, his interest and aptitude in mechanics would later enable him to earn a patent for a single-span bridge:
The natural bent of my mind was to science. I had some turn, and I believe some talent, for poetry; but this I rather repressed than encouraged, as leading too much into the field of imagination.
Paine ventured forth into the world armed with noble ideals concerning social justice, but did poorly in business. He learned the trade of corset-making from his father; he spent some time at sea as a crewman aboard a privateer; he was a shopkeeper and 'hired hand' here and there and from 1764 to 1774 he was a tax-collector in various English towns, eventually settling in Lewes, Sussex.
Paine's first public literary work took the form of a petition to Parliament arguing for better compensation for tax collectors. 'Case of the Officers of Excise' (1772) demonstrated the insufficiency of a £50 salary per annum and warned of the potential for corruption if the tax collectors were not relieved of their enforced penury. He spent the winter of 1772 - 1773 in London in hope of advancing the cause of the excise officers. However, it was to no avail. During this period his shop in Lewes went bankrupt through neglect and he was discharged by the Board of Excise in April, 1774. He and his wife separated and June 1774 found him without money or prospects.
Paine remained in London that summer, having made friends in the scientific and literary communities. He was introduced to Benjamin Franklin at that time1 and a friendship began between them that would last until Franklin's death in 1790.
Dr Franklin's observant eyes noted the idealist fire in Paine's. Philosophically, the two men were of a type. Franklin convinced Paine to emigrate to the colonies and provided him with passage to Philadelphia. Franklin remained yet in London, dividing his attention between the Royal Society as a scientist and the Court of St James as the de facto ambassador of the colonies. While he was working for peace at the Court, he sent to America an extraordinary pamphleteer whose writings would soon unite the colonies in a revolution. With his keen sense of humour and in light of his eventual humiliation and dismissal from the Court, Franklin must have enjoyed the chain of events by which he inadvertently sabotaged his own peace mission.
Common Sense: 1776
Paine first set foot on American shores on 30 November, 1774. He soon established himself as the editor of The Pennsylvania Magazine and began writing essays. His first article published in America — or anywhere, for that matter — was 'African Slavery in America', which became a manifesto of the early abolitionist movement.
Paine spent the later months of 1775 writing Common Sense. Until its publication on 10 January, 1776, most of the colonists, including George Washington and other prominent businessmen and civic leaders, considered themselves loyal Englishmen. They had grievances, to be sure, but an act of secession was not contemplated.
Common Sense presented a quite forceful polemic against hereditary privilege. Paine reminded the Americans that George III was determined to subjugate them, evidence being the Royal Navy's burning of Norfolk, Virginia and Falmouth (now Portland), Maine. Further, he shattered every argument in favour of peaceful submission to the Crown. He communicated his vision of a vast, rich nation, written, as it were, on a fresh page, created in the name of equality and liberty. Finally, he informed his newly-adopted countrymen that they would succeed if they had will, faith, and solidarity. All other necessary resources were available.2
In that same pamphlet, he laid the foundation of an independent representative democracy. Common Sense contained all the idealistic tools that an energetic people needed to forge their own future. From the porters at the Boston docks to the pioneers at the western marches of the colonies, Paine's message was received and understood.
Common Sense was published anonymously and made absolutely no profit for its author3. Paine, the idealist, considered it his duty to deliver his work gratis, to the profit of his adopted homeland. He would continue in this altruistic habit, several times being forced to beg a stipend from the Continental Congress and, after independence, from President Washington.
Six months later, in July, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was presented to the world. Thomas Jefferson, who was one of Paine's closest friends, headed the committee delegated to compose the Declaration. The final product bears Paine's ideas and logic and, in many places, his exact phrasing. Despite the fact that Jefferson is usually credited with the writing of the Declaration, many historians now posit that Paine was more directly its author.
An American Crisis: 1776 - 1783
These are 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 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.4
During the summer of 1776, Paine enlisted in the army and eventually became an aide to General Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island. Greene was a self-educated tactician and rose quite quickly from private soldier to general. He would be the only general other than Washington to serve the entire war and was regarded as Washington's most valued commander. Even in defeat, Greene would exact a dire toll from his adversaries. He was a master at the art of confounding and dividing well-arrayed battle formations. Greene was, like Paine, formerly a Quaker (expelled from that Society for his military vocation) and his devotion to the revolutionary cause was no less heartfelt than Paine's.
By December, 1776 the Continental Army had suffered defeats, endured retreats and almost succumbed to fatal demoralisation at the hands of British forces (as well as the soldier's perennial enemy, General Winter). Paine accompanied Greene in his retreat from Fort Lee, New Jersey that month. Morale within the army under Washington's command was at its lowest ebb: more losses were endured through desertion than through combat.
The masterful propaganda of 'Mr Common Sense' turned things about. The first of many 'Crisis' pamphlets was published shortly before Christmas. Legend relates that Paine wrote it by light of a bivouac fire, using a drum head as a desktop. Therein, he spoke to the natural human virtues and above all to the honour of free men. General Washington, himself in a crisis of confidence, was revitalised by it and ordered that the 'Crisis' be read to all ranks. Desertion would never again plague the Continental Army.
Immediately subsequent to this was the first real morale-booster for the Americans, the capture of a large Hessian force near Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas, 1776.
At irregular intervals until April 1783, Paine published 13 'Crises'5. Some were rendered as magnificently caustic epistles to the lords and generals who persisted in inflicting outrages upon a righteous population. Others were addressed to the British people to inform them of the realities of the Revolution that would never filter down to them through Parliament. They were all designed to inform the American people and uplift their spirits in the face of an unpredictable war. Many pointed to the recent tangible successes of the Americans and indicated further success by exposing weaknesses in the British order of battle.
During the latter stage of this period Paine became the de facto Minister of Propaganda for the Continental Congress. His actual title was 'Secretary for Foreign Affairs'. With this official position came an official salary, which Paine regularly donated to the army.
The 'Crises' were signed 'Common Sense' and intended by Paine to be sold for the nominal price of two cents.
For the British People: The Rights of Man: 1791 - 1792
Paine returned to England in 1787 to spend time in Lewes, London and elsewhere. Having designed a single-span bridge, he acquired patents for it in Britain and France and endeavoured to capitalise on his invention. Bureaucratic red tape and untrustworthy associates caused insurmountable setbacks.
Paine's literary career was in the background for a short time. Events in France were encouraging; he had presented the revolutionary council with a declaration of human rights that would serve France well.
Paine required an enemy at whom he could hurl his ink pot. With the American success vis-à-vis George III and Lord North in 1783, his efforts receded to a more philosophical level. He would be invited to stand beside his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, representing the best interests of the French people in their tumultuous transition to a republic.
Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish orator and philosopher and at one time a friend to Paine, attacked every premise of the French Revolution from a staunchly royalist perspective. Paine immediately responded with the first volume of The Rights of Man, published in London in February, 1791. He directs his invective at Burke now and leavens his vitriol with some inalienable truths regarding humanity and its natural rights, written to the British meridian. It is said that hundreds of thousands took note of this pamphlet; it is certain that Paine had provided common cause to diverse societies — democratic, liberal or otherwise progressive.
The second volume, published in February of 1792, attracted even more attention. In addition to the growing number of enthusiastic readers, George III had turned his glaring eye upon the author of this sedition. In February the pamphlet was published; in June a royal edict against sedition was issued and Paine was summoned to court. He declared his innocence: this was a public exchange between himself and Burke. The only response at that point from Burke was a vague blather about 'criminal justice'.
At any rate, Paine's circumstances in England were becoming untenable. He departed from Dover a fugitive in August, 1792, never to return to Britain.
The Rights of Man, written expressly for his British countrymen, has been regarded as the most forceful and lucid exposition of basic human rights ever written.
The Age of Reason: 1793 - 1795
In August, 1792 Paine crossed the Strait of Dover and was greeted with a hero's welcome in Calais. His French countrymen elected him a Citizen Deputy for four different districts and he selected Pas-de-Calais as his own. In Paris he continued his association with the plethora of councils, committees and cabals that attended the Revolution. He fell foul of Robespierre when he voted against the death sentence for Louis XVI. 'Kill the monarch, but spare the man' was Paine's stated position. The more radical elements would not accept this declaration of mercy.
Realising that this statement of principle might well cost him his head, Paine began to prepare a treatise that a condemned idealist might be expected to write: in The Age of Reason, he attacked the Bible. He collected his thoughts and arguments from throughout his life and proceeded to dismantle the source of Western religion. His stated belief in a single God remained unaltered and he outlined the basic Deist philosophy that God's Word is written in nature and that it is the duty of sentient beings to discover the law through observation.
The Bible, according to Paine, is a hodgepodge of half-baked mythology, tales of bloody atrocity in God's name, collections of questionable poetry6, conflicting historical accounts and instructions by which demagogues everywhere could effect the thralldom of spiritual beings. He insisted that the revelations that were allegedly granted to certain individuals lacked all applicability and authority respective to the population at large.
The first part of The Age of Reason was delivered into Paine's French publisher's hands as he was taken to prison just before Christmas, 1793.
The next eleven months were spent at the Luxembourg, in a palace converted into a prison. Prisoners were taken to the guillotine on a daily basis and many wise heads fell into the basket. Paine suffered from an abscessed wound and a persistent fever. His infirmity, ironically enough, saved him from the gallows.
Governeur Morris, the American ambassador to Paris, ignored Paine's plight, despite pleas from Paine's friends in France. Paine would languish in the Luxembourg until James Monroe replaced Morris as ambassador. In the interim, Robespierre was relieved of his head, ending the Reign of Terror. Monroe and his wife attended Paine during his recovery, but for many months he was confined to his sickroom. He used that time to complete the second part of The Age of Reason.
The French Revolution meant to overthrow the Church as well as the monarchy. Paine, in sympathy, did battle with what he considered to be the Church's justification for its excesses, but had wished, with his exposition of Deism, to remind his French countrymen that there was indeed a higher being and that free people would still need to nurture a moral conscience.
From Celebrity to Obscurity
Paine was bitter due to what he perceived to be an official American neglect of his plight. On 30 July, 1796, he wrote a blistering letter to his commander, friend, patron and President, George Washington. James Monroe was quite persistent in his advice not to send it, but at this juncture it is probable that Paine's sensibilities were damaged by his ordeals.
Paine did not understand that it was Governeur Morris who left him in death's shadow for those many months and not Washington. But that letter precipitously ended the friendship between the revolution's prophet and its heroic leader and, ironically enough, suited Morris' purposes quite well.
Many Americans were already upset with Paine for his writing of The Age of Reason, which brutally assaulted their religious sensibilities. The letter to Washington compounded the matter with its affront to their sense of patriotism. He made many vocal enemies within the government and his remaining friends (including Jefferson and Monroe, both future presidents) prudently kept their silence. Thus Thomas Paine was calumniated and then dustbinned for more than a century thereafter7.
The Curious Case of Tom Paine's Bones
Paine died in New York City on 8 June, 1809, essentially penniless and attended by only a few loyal friends. Irascible to the end, he mocked those people that came to shrive him. His funeral was attended by Mme Bonneville8, her young son and two freedmen.
A decade later, one William Cobbett, a late convert to Paine's philosophies, exhumed his remains and transported them to England for a more fitting burial, but he never completed the project. Over a period of decades, the bones were scattered. The jawbone and a hand were said to be held somewhere in England and the skull was supposedly in the possession of an Australian collector. The fate of the remainder is unknown; a story is told of buttons being carved from his bones.
The Thomas Paine National Historical Association have attempted to recover what they may, but the bones of Thomas Paine will never be together at rest. Perhaps it is fitting that a man who called himself a 'citizen of a World Republic' would have his remains scattered about his larger home.