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Thomas Paine | Biography

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Early Life in England

Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, England on January 29, 1737. Although he received little formal education, Paine worked with his father as a corsetmaker. When he matured, Paine became an officer of the excise. His duty was to pursue smugglers and collect liquor and tobacco taxes. He was ultimately fired from the job for writing a pamphlet arguing for better pay and an end to corruption. He handed out nearly 4,000 copies to citizens of London and members of Parliament. After he was fired, Paine met American writer, inventor, and politician Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged him to move to America and provided him with letters of introduction. When his marriage failed, Paine decided to leave England for good.

Life in America

In 1774 Paine arrived in Philadelphia and took a job editing the Pennsylvania Magazine. He also increased his own writing, publishing some articles anonymously. In his articles Paine criticized slavery and praised the idea of revolutions. Meanwhile, the American colonies were eager to hear such proposals as they were engaged in a power struggle with England. Following the first battles of the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), Paine wrote an article calling for America to declare its independence. This argument appeared in his now-famous 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense. At the time it caught the attention of the public and stirred up much debate, ultimately selling half a million copies. It also ushered in an urgency to create the foundation for a new country, independent of English control. Many historians have credited Common Sense for influencing the writing of the Declaration of Independence, ratified in July of 1776.

During the American Revolution, Paine served as General Nathanael Greene's personal assistant and traveled with him and the Continental Army. Paine wrote a series of essays called the "Crisis" papers, or "The American Crisis," which sparked patriotism in the soldiers and was greatly admired by President George Washington. In 1777 Paine was appointed as secretary to the Committee on Foreign Affairs. However, he was fired after exposing secret documents and negotiations from Silas Deane, a member of Congress, who Paine believed to be personally profiting from French aid to the United States. After leaving his position, Paine became a clerk for the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. There he attempted to remedy the low pay and dwindling supplies the army was facing; his timing was important to military successes that helped the revolution. During this time, Paine also argued for the formation of a federal constitution.

Rights of Man

Paine returned to England in 1787, where he became interested in engineering and inventions and worked toward building a single-arch bridge in Philadelphia. He also grew fascinated with the revolution brewing in France. It was during this period he read the British writer Edmund Burke's criticisms of the French Revolution and set out to write a refutation, known as Rights of Man. In this book Paine defended the idea of revolutions, going so far as to condemn England for its monarchy, inheritance laws, and taxes. As a result, the book was banned in England, and Paine was accused of treason, which he avoided by leaving for France. However, he narrowly avoided execution by radicals in France after attempting to help save the life of King Louis XVI. Paine was sent to prison for a year, during which time his book, The Age of Reason (1794 and 1796), was published and subsequently banned in England.

Later Life

Paine remained in France following his release from prison, and he finally returned to the United States around 1802 at the request of President Thomas Jefferson. However, he found his contributions in the United States had been largely forgotten, and his reputation had been tarnished. Paine died on June 8, 1809. He later became widely regarded as one of the key influential figures of the American Revolution.

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