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Common Sense | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Thomas Paine | Biography


Early Life in England

Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1737, in Thetford, Norfolk, England, to Joseph Paine, a Quaker, and Frances (Cocke) Paine, the daughter of an Anglican lawyer. Young Paine had minimal formal education, yet he became proficient in reading, writing, and math before joining his father's corsetry business at age 13. Corset maker was just the first of many jobs Paine held over the course of his life, and the one he came back to when other professions didn't work out.

Best known as a political writer and pamphleteer, Paine first became involved in local politics during his time as an excise officer, or tax collector. Hunting smugglers and collecting liquor and tobacco taxes paid very little, and in 1772 Paine's fellow excise officers, familiar with Paine's gift for words, chose him to lead the campaign for higher wages. The excise officers paid for Paine to travel to London to lobby Parliament. His relocation to England's capital city broadened his knowledge of aristocratic government and politics, both of which he soon came to resent, while renewing his interest in the "popular radicalism" of the lower and middle classes, who were pushing for a more representative "one man, one vote" government. Paine also became interested in science, and his attendance at various scientific lectures frequented by local and international intellectuals widened his social circle considerably.

Paine's first pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise, was published in 1772, but it didn't have the positive impact for which Paine had hoped. Authorities denied the excise workers an increase in pay, and Paine was fired for ignoring his assigned duties while in London. Paine's personal life was faltering as well. After the death of his first wife, the tobacco business he ran with his second wife failed and the two separated. It was around this time Paine met American writer, politician, and scientist Benjamin Franklin at a gathering of intellectuals. The two became friends, and Franklin convinced Paine to start his life anew in the American colonies.

American "Common Sense"

Paine arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774, armed with letters of introduction from Franklin. He quickly got a job as an editor at the Pennsylvania Magazine, where he also published articles and poetry under fictitious bylines. Paine had a lot to write about, including his opposition to slavery and his interest in women's rights, but no topic captured his attention as much as the growing animosity between the American colonies and the English government. He had arrived in the colonies at the height of the political tension between the two, and he initially favored reconciliation with the Crown. That changed on April 19, 1775, when British troops fired at colonial militias at the battles of Lexington and Concord. Paine refused to tolerate violence by a government against its own subjects, and he began arguing in favor of colonial independence. It was a radical idea at the time. Even the most outspoken members of the first Continental Congress, which was a governing body of the 13 colonies and convened shortly before Paine's arrival in the colonies, were reluctant to even mention the subject of independence. They were willing to settle for a restoration of rights as outlined in their interpretation of the British Constitution.

That wasn't enough for Paine. A fight with his boss in the fall of 1775 prompted him to leave the newspaper, and he spent the next three months writing an argument in favor of separation from Great Britain. Friends urged Paine to tone down his impassioned rhetoric, but Paine was convinced his persuasive words would be readily accepted by the American public. His resulting pamphlet, Common Sense, emphasized the importance of individual freedoms and a representative government. Written in plain language easy enough for everyone from farmer to governor to understand, it was immediately popular. The first printing on January 10, 1776, sold out in two weeks, and the second and third printings were released in February of that same year. Within just a few months, more than 150,000 copies had been distributed in the colonies alone. Demand was so great presses began printing unauthorized copies, including translations for recent immigrants. That didn't bother Paine. He wrote for political change, not profit, which is why he insisted the cost of the pamphlet remain low for the consumer. He refused to accept any payment for his work, and all royalties were used to purchase supplies for American soldiers.

Paine insisted on publishing Common Sense under the pseudonym "an Englishman," but people quickly figured out who was responsible for the progressive pamphlet. His call for independence was supported by thousands. Colonial assemblies began passing resolutions urging independence in the spring of 1776, and in June of the same year a subcommittee of the Continental Congress began drafting the American Declaration of Independence (1776). Though not on the consulting committee, Paine's ideas are echoed in nearly every word.

Not content to stay at home while his peers went to war, Paine took his fight for independence to the battlefield. He volunteered as an aide-de-camp (military aide) for Nathanael Green, a major general of the Continental Army. The war inspired a series of 13 pamphlets, titled The American Crisis, which were published between 1776 and 1783. Paine bounced from job to job during the war years, taking positions as secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs (1777–79) and clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania (1779–81). The end of the revolution in 1783 found Paine jobless and poverty stricken as he still refused to accept payment for his political writing. A congressional request for financial assistance was blocked by his opponents, and Paine was rewarded for his revolutionary efforts with just £500 and a farm in New Rochelle, New York. He moved to the farm and began working on several inventions, including a new design for an iron bridge and a smokeless candle.

Post–Revolutionary War Life in Europe

Paine traveled to Europe in April 1787 to raise money for his pierless bridge, but he once again became sidetracked by politics. In December 1789 he published an anonymous warning against British prime minister William Pitt's attempts to draw England into a war with France and the Dutch Republic. In March 1791, he wrote Rights of Man, a defense of the French Revolution, which was followed by Rights of Man, Part II in 1792. As in Common Sense, Paine advocated for a republican government in lieu of a monarchy. His plans for education, public works, financial relief for the poor, and pensions for the elderly terrified the British government, which interpreted his words as a call for revolution. Paine was accused of treason, and he left for France before he could be arrested. Found guilty of insurrection against authority at a trial in his absence, he was declared an outlaw.

In France Paine joined the cause of the French Revolution (1789–99) to abolish the French monarchy. While many called for the death of King Louis XVI, Paine urged for the gentler punishment of banishment. When the monarchy was finally toppled and the radicals took power, King Louis XVI was beheaded, and Paine was jailed for nearly a year. While in prison Paine wrote Age of Reason Part I (1794), followed by Age of Reason Part 2 in 1796, both of which criticized the idea of organized religion. That didn't go over well in France, nor did his last pamphlet, Agrarian Justice (1797), which railed against inequalities in property ownership.

Paine returned to the United States at the end of 1802. Once a hero in his adopted country, he was now considered a radical and a political liability. Weak from illness and poverty stricken, he continued speaking out against upper-class rule and religious superstition until his death on June 8, 1809. His obituary in the New York Citizen, which read in part "He had lived long, did some good and much harm," neatly summarized his fall from grace in the United States. More than 100 years later people recognized Paine's contributions to the foundations of democratic government. The Times of London referred to him as "the English Voltaire" in 1937, in honor of the French writer who advocated for the freedoms of religion and speech and the separation of church and state. New York University honored him in its Hall of Fame.

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