by Marie Pellissier
Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1737, in Thetford, a town in Norfolk, England. His father, Joseph Pain, was a Quaker, and his mother, Frances, was an Anglican (Thomas Paine added the ‘e’ to his last name later in his life, after he became a famous author). A master staymaker, Paine’s father Joseph was never wealthy, and had to borrow money in order to send his son to school.
Thomas began attending the local grammar school at the age of six. His early education was typical for a craftsman’s son at the time, including reading, writing, mathematics, and bookkeeping. Though he stayed in school for six years, he did not learn Latin, in part because of his Quaker father’s objections to the Latin textbooks then in use. At the age of twelve, Paine was apprenticed to a staymaker for the next seven years. Just as his apprenticeship ended, the Seven Year’s War began, and nineteen-year-old Paine went to London to seek his fortune in war. He almost signed on to a privateer called the Terrible, captained by William Death. Paine’s father, however, had tracked him down, and persuaded his son that life on the high seas was not his destiny. Paine narrowly avoided death: almost immediately afterward, a French privateer called the Vengeance attacked the Terrible; only 17 of the 150 crew made it out alive, and Captain William Death perished along with his men.
Rather than signing on to Death’s Terrible, Paine found another ship on which to sail. In 1757, he signed on to the privateer King of Prussia, and returned after six months with at least thirty pounds in commission (valued around $5,000 today). Arriving back in London with money in his pocket, Thomas Paine found himself immersed in a bustling city with a burgeoning intellectual culture. The bustle of the city certainly had an influence on his writing later in life, and in London he met Benjamin Franklin, who would be an important figure in Paine’s future. By 1758, he had run out of funds, and had moved to Dover to work as a journeyman staymaker. A year later, in September 1759, he married Mary Lambert and opened his own shop. His business enterprise collapsed, and Mary died in childbirth soon after. After her death, Paine moved back in with his parents in Thetford, and undertook to become an exciseman, collecting taxes from his fellow citizens.
Struggle and failure characterized the next ten years of Paine’s life. He was fired from his position as exciseman for dereliction of duty, tried to return to stay-making and then, when that failed, spent a year as a teacher. In 1767, he begged the Excise Board for another position, and in 1768, began a six-year spell as the exciseman in Lewes, on the southeastern coast of England. There, in 1771, Paine remarried, to Elizabeth Ollive, ten years his junior and the daughter of his landlord, but the marriage was less than successful and the couple soon separated. Along with his fellow taxmen, Paine authored a petition for higher salaries for excise men, The Case of the Officers of Excise. The petition was unsuccessful, and in 1774, Paine was removed from his post with the excise office. At that point, he was in so much debt that he was in danger of being jailed. In December of 1774, Paine arrived in Philadelphia, bearing letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin and ready to start anew.
After recovering his health, Paine began working in a Philadelphia printing office, editing and printing the Philadelphia Magazine. As the American Revolution heated up, Paine began writing articles against slavery and against the King. His friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, encouraged his writing, and it was with Rush’s encouragement that Paine wrote Common Sense, first published in Philadelphia in January of 1776.
The American Crisis
by Thomas Paine
After a brief term as a volunteer soldier, Paine returned to Philadelphia and penned his second pamphlet of the war, The American Crisis, in December of 1776. The Crisis took advantage of all of the propagandist’s tools to encourage faltering citizens to continue the fight, including the famous line “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The Crisis became a series, as Paine published pamphlet after pamphlet during the war.
An indiscretion during the war years, however, in which Paine revealed that the United States had been receiving aid from France before any formal alliance was announced, tarnished Paine’s reputation. He struggled financially during the war, but continued to write for various Philadelphia publications. Eventually, Paine asked for financial help from friends, including Nathanael Greene, George Washington, and Governeur Morris. In 1785, Washington and Morris helped Paine secure a position as a writer for the American government, for $800 per year ($65,000 in today’s money).
In 1787, Thomas Paine set sail to return to Europe. He spent time in his hometown of Thetford, where he presented a bridge he had designed to the French Academy and to the British Royal Society. He quickly made friends with notable English intellectuals, including author Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles James Fox, a prominent Whig politician.
The Storming of the Bastille
Across the channel, France was beginning to boil over with internal tensions. French support for the American Revolution had exacerbated financial problems, and the government was bankrupt. The French people had an immense distrust towards King Louis XVI, and in July of 1787, tensions erupted into violence, as a mob attacked the Bastille in Paris. Paine arrived in Paris and lived there for part of 1789, returning to England in 1790, where he published The Rights of Man in 1791. The Rights of Man was immediately translated into French and published in Paris. It called for Europe to follow America’s example, to end feudalism and mercantilist policy and embrace commerce and voting rights for all adult males.
While Rights of Man earned Paine the goodwill of the Girondists in France, it earned him the enmity of conservative Britons, particularly politician Edmund Burke. Paine published The Rights of Man, Part the Second, in March of 1792, directly attacking the system of monarchy and aristocracy that had existed in France and persisted in Britain. This was the last straw for Burke, who later that year had Paine tried and convicted in absentia for seditious libel. Paine, was forced to flee Britain, and could not return on pain of execution.
In France, Paine became involved in French politics during the most turbulent years of the French Revolution. In September of 1792, he took up a seat at the French National Convention, and was regarded as an ally of the more moderate Girondists. Unfortunately, Paine never learned French, which made it nearly impossible for him to form relationships with many politicians, including Robespierre.
It was during this period that he conceived and wrote his last major work, The Age of Reason. Age of Reason embraced the Enlightenment philosophy of deism. Deism embraced the existence of a supreme being and the virtue of living a good life and repenting of one’s sins, and condemned superstition and fanaticism. However, many who read Age of Reason falsely branded Paine an atheist. Age of Reason was Paine’s lifetime bestseller; it was hugely popular and hugely controversial on both sides of the Atlantic.
In December 1793, amidst the Reign of Terror, Paine was arrested. He stayed imprisoned until November of 1794. Though he and other Americans petitioned for release, he was not recognized as an American citizen, but rather as an Englishman, a hostile alien in France. In the Luxembourg prison, Paine languished for ten months, and emerged weakened in both body and spirit. He turned on former friends, writing a long letter of accusations to George Washington, which was eventually published by Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin Bache. He alienated many of his friends among the American political leaders, including Washington, Morris and James Monroe. After his release, Paine stayed with friends, biding his time until he could return to the United States.
On September 2, 1802, Paine returned to America. Thomas Jefferson was President, and partisanship was raging through the country. Though Paine was a controversial figure, President Jefferson quickly drew him into his inner circle. However, Age of Reason and Paine’s published letter to Washington did not win him any additional friends, and his writings published after his arrival in Washington garnered little attention. In 1803, he moved north to New York, splitting his time between New York City and a farm he owned at New Rochelle. Struggling to make ends meet, he spent the last years of his life squabbling with his neighbors. He was constantly ill, and towards the end of his life, could barely leave his bed.
Thomas Paine died on June 8, 1809. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York. Ten years after his death, William Cobbett unearthed his body in hopes of building a monument to him in England. Cobbett was unsuccessful, and after his death, Paine’s bones were listed among Cobbett’s effects. They have since disappeared.
Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).
Gimbel, Richard. Thomas Paine: A Bibliographical Check List of Common Sense, with an Account of its Publication (London: Kennikat Press, 1956).
Nelson, Craig. “Thomas Paine and the Making of “Common Sense.”” New England Review 27:3 (2006), 228-250.
Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Viking, 2006).