Thomas Paine was a paradoxical man. As the author of three major texts – Common Sense, Rights of Man and Age of Reason – Thomas Paine was a revolutionary, best-selling author. However, until his late-found success, Paine had seemed destined to die an abject failure. He was a pensive philosopher who could rouse men to take up arms in the cause of liberty. A deeply religious man who was widely condemned as an atheist and blasphemer. An advocate of peace, stability and order who lived a disordered life intertwined with insurrection and rebellion.
His ideas and achievements have a consistent and deep resonance. Paine anticipated the American Civil War, the welfare state and the United Nations. He turned ‘democracy’ into a non-pejorative term – from ‘mob rule’ to ‘rule of people.’ He twice tried to eliminate slavery from America (first in the Declaration of Independence, and again during the Louisiana Purchase), and he was one of the first men to use the phrase ‘United States of America.’ More broadly, he popularised the idea of rights for humans, repeatedly asking Quo Warranto? At his essence, he was a modernist who understood that people had the power to shape the world, an outlook that reaped remarkable dividends during an epoch of profound social and political fluidity.
Paine was born in 1737 in the town of Thetford in eastern England. For the first half of his life, Paine jumped from profession to profession, failing abjectly in most. He turned his hand as a teacher, tax collector, and grocer – always unsuccessfully,
However, his life was altered on moving to America in 1774 and there entering the literary fray, fashioning himself as a sharp critic of British imperialism. A farouche, spiky, boozy character, he thrived in the cut and thrust of revolutionary discourse.
In January 1776 he published Common Sense, a short pamphlet that denounced the monarchy and advocated American independence. He subsequently published essay after essay on the same theme, and in doing so was central to hardening independent resistance to British rule.
This zeal is captured in his most famous refrain, published in December 1776, and read to George Washington’s army on the banks of the Delaware:
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.
Revolution in Europe
In April 1787, Paine sailed to Europe, and soon became immersed in the revolution there. He was elected to the French National Convention, and there wrote Rights of Man, calling for the overthrow of the aristocratic government of Great Britain.
He struck a more moderate position in France than in America. He opposed the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793 (claiming that it would undo the work of centuries), and was imprisoned for 11 months during the Reign of Terror.
Disillusioned with the an American government that failed to come to his aid in France, Paine published the Age of Reason, a two part, scathing attack on organized religion which set him as an outcast for the remaining years of his life.
His perceived u-turn in France meant that Paine died in ignominy and poverty. However, his political outlook was remarkably prescient, and his writings continue to be a source of inspiration.