Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

  • Not a critical or scholarly text but a reading text for a seminar; gratefully adapted from sources identified below

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biographical information


Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Paine statue in Bordentown NJ

Instructor's note: Our course website provides biographical information for Thomas Paine when it doesn't for other major figures of the USA's "Founding Generation." Why?

Students often find it difficult to feel interested in the Founders whose faces they see on American currency—familiarity breeds contempt! Paine, though, is less familiar, and may appear attractive as a rebellious outsider, in contrast to the Founders who are associated with our systems of government and economics. Paine's "rebellious outsider" status may anticipate the soon-to-appear Byronic Hero of the Romantic Era.

Another attraction to Paine may be that, while the other Founders wrote remarkably well, writing was Paine's only real contribution to the American and French Revolutions. Thereby he may also anticipate the modern conception of a writer as a specialist less at home in more worldly professions.

Paine's status as a "Founding Father" of the USA remains contested. Undoubtedly he was essential as a propagandist for the Revolutionary cause. However, he played little role in the constitutional development of the nation, and his writings on religion and associations with the French revolution made him politically radioactive for the rest of his life. For later Americans who advocate a more liberal or radical interpretation of the American Revolution, however, Paine remains an important champion of ideas.

The brief biographies below have been edited from the sources indicated.

Thomas Paine

Statue of Paine at birthplace, Thetford, England
(book in hand is Rights of Man, held upside down)

[1.1] On January 29, 1737, Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, England. His father, a corseter*, had grand visions for his son, but by the age of 12, Thomas had failed out of school. The young Paine began apprenticing for his father, but again, he failed. So, now age 19, Paine went to sea. This adventure didn't last too long, and by 1768 he found himself as an excise (tax) officer in England. Thomas didn't exactly excel at the role, getting discharged from his post twice in four years, but as an inkling of what was to come, he published The Case of the Officers of Excise (1772), arguing for a pay raise for officers. In 1774, by happenstance, he met Benjamin Franklin in London, who helped him emigrate to Philadelphia.

[1.2] His career turned to journalism while in Philadelphia, and suddenly, Thomas Paine became very important. In 1776, he published Common Sense, a strong defense of American Independence from England. He traveled with the Continental Army and wasn't a success as a soldier, but he produced The Crisis (1776-83), which helped inspire the Army. This pamphlet was so popular that as a percentage of the population, it was read by or read to more people than today watch the Super Bowl.

[1.3] But, instead of continuing to help the Revolutionary cause, he returned to Europe and pursued other ventures, including working on a smokeless candle and an iron bridge. In 1791-92, he wrote The Rights of Man in response to criticism of the French Revolution. This work caused Paine to be labeled an outlaw in England for his anti-monarchist views. He would have been arrested, but he fled for France to join the National Convention*. [*National Convention = revolutionary legislature in France, 1792-95]

[1.4] By 1793, he was imprisoned in France for not endorsing the execution of Louis XVI. During his imprisonment, he wrote and distributed the first part of what was to become his most famous work at the time, the anti-church text, The Age of Reason (1794-96). He was freed in 1794 (narrowly escaping execution) thanks to the efforts of James Monroe [6th U.S. President], then U.S. Minister to France. Paine remained in France until 1802 when he returned to America on an invitation from Thomas Jefferson. Paine discovered that his contributions to the American Revolution had been all but eradicated due to his religious views. Derided by the public and abandoned by his friends, he died on June 8, 1809 at the age of 72 in New York City.


Thomas Paine Biography

[2.1] Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737 - June 8, 1809) is considered to be a "Founding Father" of the United States. As a pamphleteer, Paine had a significant impact upon the American Revolution. He is also notable for his advocacy of Deism and writings regarding the French Revolution.

[2.2] English by birth, Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk and raised among farmers and other common people. His formal education was minimal. His major accomplishment as a young man was to be fired twice in four years from his job as collector of excise taxes. His first recorded writing was a short article in favour of better salaries and working conditions. His mother was a member of the Church of England, and his father was a Quaker. There have been some historians who have argued he was strongly influenced in his views by his father. In his deistic tract Age of Reason, Paine writes:

[2.2a] "The religion that approaches the nearest of all others to true Deism, in the moral and benign part thereof, is that professed by the Quakers. . . . Though I reverence their philanthropy, I cannot help smiling at the conceit, that if the taste of a Quaker could have been consulted at the creation, what a silent and drab-colored creation it would have been! Not a flower would have blossomed its gayeties, nor a bird been permitted to sing. "

[2.3] Paine advocated a liberal world view, which was radical at the time. He had no use for royalty, and viewed government as a necessary evil. He opposed slavery and was an early supporter of social security, public education and many other ideas that came to fruition decades later. He was a Deist and outspoken critic of organized religion.

[2.4] Paine apprenticed as an exciseman in Grantham in Lincolnshire from December 1762 before serving as exciseman for Alford from August 1764. He was sacked for claiming to have inspected goods when in fact he had only seen the documentation. His appeal to be re-instated was successful and he was appointed to a position in Grampound in Cornwall on 15 May 1767. He asked for leave to await another vacancy and was appointed to Lewes on 19 February 1768. He had lodgings in the 15th Century Bull House. He was a member of the Headstrong Club, a debating club at the White Hart Inn. Paine petitioned Parliament on behalf of the excisemen for better pay but was unsuccessful and was sacked. After a failed marriage, the bankruptcy of his shop and being fired as an exciseman he left Lewes looking for a fresh start.

[2.5] After meeting Benjamin Franklin in London, Paine emigrated to America in September 1774 where he published an antislavery tract and became co-editor of Pennsylvania Magazine. No great fan of the British Monarchy, Paine soon became an articulate spokesman for the American independence movement. Paine's pro-independence pamphlet Common Sense, published on January 10th 1776, quickly became well known to every literate colonist. It is claimed that as many as half a million copies may have been distributed in a country with only a few million inhabitants.

[2.6] Legend tells that Paine was tarred and feathered at one time in New Jersey, but no proof exists of this legend. Many scurrilous [outrageous] tales about Paine were circulated, first by the British during the time of the American Revolution, and later by his political opponents.

[2.7] Thomas Paine used his powerful ability to present ideas common to his time in clear form, in contrast with highly philosophical approaches used by his colleagues.

[2.8] Common Sense convinced many Americans, including George Washington to seek redress in political independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Benjamin Rush [Philadelphia physician, signer of Declaration] had a great influence on this work, as well as its name. (Paine proposed the title Plain Truth). It was instrumental in bringing about the Declaration of Independence. Paine also has the distinction of being the man who proposed the name United States of America for the new nation.

[2.9] During the Revolutionary War Paine published a series of pamphlets called The American Crisis that served to inspire Americans during the long struggle. The first Crisis paper, published December, 1776, began with the immortal line, "These are the times that try men's souls". Following a series of military failures, morale was wavering among the Patriot army. The first Crisis paper was so uplifting that Washington had it read to all of his troops.

[2.10] He was also an inventor, receiving a patent in Europe for the single-span iron bridge, working with John Fitch on steam engines, and developing a smokeless candle.

[2.11] In 1791, Paine published Rights of Man, an abstract political tract published in support of the French Revolution. It was written as a reply to Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke. The book—which was highly critical of monarchies and European social institutions—was so controversial that the British government put Paine on trial in absentia for seditious libel. Paine had already (prudently) left for Paris.

[2.12] Although Paine was an enthusiatic supporter of the French Revolution, as a member of the National Convention, he opposed the execution of Louis XVI. That was enough to bring Paine—who was never noted for his diplomacy—into conflict with the increasingly out-of-control revolutionary leaders. Imprisoned and sentenced to death by Robespierre, Paine escaped beheading apparently by chance. A guard walked through the prison placing a chalk mark on the doors of the condemned prisoners. He placed one on Paine's door—but because a doctor was treating Paine at that moment, the prison door was open. When the doctor left, the door was swung closed, such that the chalk mark faced into the cell. Later, when the condemned prisoners were rounded up for execution, Paine was spared because there was no apparent chalk mark on his cell door.

[2.13] In prison, convinced he would soon be dead, Paine wrote Age of Reason, an assault on organized religion. A second part was written and published after his release from prison. The content of the work can be briefly summarized in this quotation:

[2.13a] The opinions I have advanced... are the effect of the most clear and long-established conviction that the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world, that the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty; that the only true religion is Deism, by which I then meant, and mean now, the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues—and that it was upon this only (so far as religion is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness hereafter. So say I now—and so help me God.

[2.14] Paine published his last great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, in the winter of 1795-1796. In this pamphlet, Paine further developed ideas proposed in the Rights of Man as to how the institution of land ownership separated the great majority of persons from their rightful natural inheritance and means of independent survival. The USA Social Security Administration recognizes Agrarian Justice as the first American proposal for an old-age pension.

[2.15] Purportedly in 1800, Napoleon met with Paine, and stated that 'a statue of gold should be erected to him in every city of the earth.' Paine did not like Napoleon, by all accounts.

[2.16] He died at 59 Gross Street in Greenwich Village, in New York City on June 8, 1809.

[2.17] Purportedly, Thomas Paine's writings have greatly affected Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, as well as his other contemporaries such as George Washington.

[2.18] There is a museum in New Rochelle, New York in his honor, and a statue of him stands in King Street in Thetford, Norfolk, his place of birth.


The History Guide:

Thomas Paine

[3.1] The radical propagandist and voice of the common man, Thomas Paine, was born in Thetford in Norfolk on January 29, 1737. His father, Joseph, was a poor Quaker corset maker who tried to provide his son with an education at the local grammar school but eventually was forced to apprentice him to his trade. Paine was unable to accept this occupation. After a short time at sea, Paine returned to his trade in Kent, but then served as an exciseman in Lincolnshire, followed by a stint as a school teacher in London, before he again settled down in 1768 as an excise officer in Lewes in East Sussex. For the next six years he combined his duties as excise officer with managing a small shop. His first wife had died in 1760, within a year of their marriage. In 1771 he married again. Both marriages were childless and neither brought Paine much in the way of happiness. He was legally separated from his second wife in 1774, just as he was about to embark for the American colonies.

[3.2] At Lewes, Paine was active in local affairs, serving on the town council and establishing a debating club at a local tavern. As a shopkeeper, however, he was a failure. In April 1774, Paine was discharged from his duties [as a tax officer] for having absented himself from his post without leave. He published the pamphlet The Case of the Officers of Excise (London, 1772), and had devoted too much time campaigning in London on behalf of the excise officers. In London he met Benjamin Franklin who helped him to emigrate to America in October 1774.

[3.3] Paine settled in Philadelphia where he soon began a new career as a journalist. He contributed articles to the Pennsylvania Magazine on a wide range of topics. Thus on January 10, 1776, he published a short pamphlet, Common Sense, which immediately established his reputation as a revolutionary propagandist. Although he had only been in America less than a year, Paine committed himself to the cause of American independence. He attacked monarchical government and the alleged virtues of the British constitution, opposing any reconciliation with Great Britain. He also urged an immediate declaration of independence and the establishment of a republican constitution.

[3.4] Paine was convinced that the American Revolution  was a crusade for a superior political system and that America was ultimately unconquerable. He did as much as any writer could to encourage resistance and to inspire faith in the Continental Army. I essays published in the Pennsylvania Journal under the heading "Crisis," Paine attacked the faint-hearted, campaigned for a more efficient federal and state tax system to meet the costs of war, and encouraged the belief that Britain would eventually recognize American independence.

[3.5] Often tactless, Paine provoked considerable controversy. He was invariably hard-pressed for money and had to depend upon the generosity of his American friends and the occasional reward from the French envoy in America. When the War came to an end, his financial position was so precarious that he had to campaign to obtain recompense from the government. Congress eventually rewarded him $3000. Pennsylvania granted him £500 in cash, while New York proved more generous and gave him a confiscated Loyalist farm at New Rochelle.

[3.6] After American independence had been won, Paine played no part in the establishment of the new republic. Instead, he busied himself trying to invent a smokeless candle and devising an iron bridge.

[3.7] Restless because he was no longer at the center of affairs, Paine left for Europe in 1787. For the next four years he divided his time between Britain and France. Although he spent much of his time trying to find financial support for his iron bridge, he eventually resumed work as a revolutionary propagandist in the 1790s. Burke's resistance to the French Revolution inspired Paine to write his most influential work, the Rights of Man (Part I in 1791, Part II in 1792). In Part I, Paine urged political rights for all men because of their natural equality in the sight of God. All forms of hereditary government, including the British constitution, were condemned because they were based on farce or force. Only a democratic republic could be trusted to protect the equal political rights of all men. Part II was even more radical for Paine argued for a whole program of social legislation to deal with the shocking condition of the poor. His popularity sounded the alarm and he was forced to leave Britain in September 1792. He was condemned in his absence and declared an outlaw.

[3.8] Paine immediately immersed himself in French affairs for the next ten years although he still hoped to see a revolution in Britain. In his Letter Addressed to the Addressers of the Late Proclamation (London, 1792), he rejected the policy of appealing to parliament for reform and instead urged British radicals to call a national convention to establish a republican form of government.

[3.9] In August 1792, Paine was made a French citizen and a month later was elected to the National Convention*. Since he did not speak French, and had to have his speeches read for him, Paine did not make much of an impact on the Convention. His association with the moderate republicans (Girondins) made him suspect in the Jacobin camp. In January 1793, he alienated many extremists by opposing the execution of Louis XVI. When military defeat fanned Jacobinism into hysteria, he fell victim to the Terror. From December 28, 1793, until November 4, 1794, he was incarcerated in Luxembourg prison until the intercession of the new American minister, James Monroe, secured his release. [*National Convention = revolutionary legislature in France, 1792-95]

[3.10] During his imprisonment, Paine embarked on his third influential work, The Age of Reason (London and Boston, 1794-95). A deist manifesto to the core, Paine acknowledged his debt to Newton and declared that nature was the only form of divine revelation, for God had clearly established a uniform, immutable and eternal order throughout creation. Paine rejected Christianity, denied that the Bible was the revealed word of God, condemned many of the Old Testament stories as immoral and claimed that the Gospels were marred by discrepancies. There was nothing really that new in Paine's argument, but the bitterness of his attack on the Christian churches and his attempt to preach deism to the masses made him more enemies than before.

[3.11] After wearing out his welcome in Paris, Paine finally returned to America in October 1802 and was well-received by Thomas Jefferson. Increasingly neglected and ostracized, Paine's last years were marked by poverty, poor health and alcoholism. When he died in New York on June 8, 1809, he was virtually an outcast. Since he could not be buried in consecrated ground, he was laid to rest n a corner of his small farm in New Rochelle.

[3.12] Paine never established a political society or organization and was not responsible for a single reforming measure. His achievements were all with his pen so it is difficult to accurately assess his influence. Although he spent more than ten years in France, he had very little influence on the course of the French Revolution. He did not really understand the Revolution and therefore had little impact on its intellectual foundations. Indeed, to the Jacobins on the far left, Paine appeared as too moderate and faint-hearted.

[3.13] Paine's political influence was greatest in England. In intellectual terms, his Rights of Man was his greatest political work and was certainly the best-selling radical political tract in late 18th century England. Before Paine, British radicals sought a reform of Parliament which would grant to all men the vote for members of the House of Commons. In his Rights of Man, Paine abandoned this approach and, rejecting the lessons of history, maintained that each age had the right to establish a political system which satisfied its needs. He rested his case on the moral basis of the natural equality of men in the sight of God. Since government is a necessary evil that men accepted as a means of protecting their natural rights (cf. John Locke), the only legitimate government was that established by a contract between all members of society and one in which all men preserved all their natural rights, except the individual right to use force. Paine argued rationally that all men had an equal claim to political rights and that government must rest on the ultimate sovereignty of the people.


U.S. postage stamp 1969