My motive and object in all my political works . . . have been to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principles of government, and enable him to be free, and establish government for himself. —Thomas Paine1

Benjamin Franklin told Thomas Paine that he was “more responsible than any other living person on this continent for the creation of . . . the United States of America.”2 And Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense—published in January 1776, a mere six months before the Declaration of Independence—is recognized as the publication that turned the tide of opinion in favor of American independence.

But Paine’s impact on history continued far beyond 1776. As the War of Independence took its toll on America, Paine kept the spirit of the revolution alive with his American Crisis essay series. After the war, not content with helping to create one new country, he returned to Europe to help establish a new republican France during the French Revolution. During that time, Paine further developed his ideas, writing the two works that most fully embody his philosophy: Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. In these works, he bravely took on both the most powerful institutions in the Western world—the European aristocracy and the church—at a time when such opposition brought the risk of banishment, imprisonment, even execution. Such consequences could be the price of integrity for an independent thinker such as Paine, as he would learn.

The story of how Paine went from being the struggling son of a farmer and dressmaker in rural England to becoming one of the most influential figures in world history is one of determination, tragedy, and perseverance. The thirty-eight years of Paine’s life before his arrival in America in 1774 were beset with crisis after crisis—experiences that would have defeated most men but gave Paine the experience and fortitude he would need to become the historic giant we now remember.

Early Writings and a Fortuitous Encounter

Paine’s life before and after his move to America could be the lives of two different people. Born Thomas Pain in 1737 in the remote English town of Thetford, he had little schooling and worked as an apprentice in his father’s stay-making (dress-making) business.3 However, after a failed attempt at running his own stay-making business and brief spells as a privateer and a schoolteacher, he moved to the more affluent south coast town of Lewes and became an excise officer (essentially, a tax collector). Despite the apparent contradiction between this role and his later hostility to most taxation and to the British government, this experience laid crucial groundwork for his future career as a writer.

While in Lewes, he became increasingly active in local politics, developing his oratory skill in the town’s public houses and meeting halls. It was during this time that Paine developed his strong belief in individual liberty and his antagonism toward Britain’s established monarchical and aristocratic systems, but little detail of this period of his life survives. According to University of Sussex researcher Paul Myles, who established the Thomas Paine Project to study Paine’s early development, “The mystery is how Paine came to have these ideas that led to him writing Common Sense, the book that convinced American colonists that they should fight for independence.”4

Paine’s reasoning and argumentative skills are evident in his 1772 work, The Case of the Officers of Excise, a plea for better pay and working conditions for excise officers, and his first published work on politics. Although its style is less refined than Paine’s later works, it indicates his eloquence and persuasiveness:

The trust unavoidably reposed in an Excise Officer is so great that it would be an act of wisdom, and perhaps of interest, to secure him from the temptations of downright Poverty. To relieve their wants would be charity, but to secure the revenue by so doing would be prudence.5

This work earned him a good reputation among the excise officers, which, despite his dismissal from the Office of Excise in early 1774, led him to an encounter that would change his life forever. While Paine was in London trying to build his reputation as a writer and orator, his friend, Commissioner of the Excise George Lewis Scott, who also happened to be a Fellow of the Royal Society, introduced him to a visiting American statesman, one Benjamin Franklin.

. . .

Today, Thomas Paine is widely celebrated for spearheading the cause of American independence with Common Sense, but that barely scratches the surface of his contribution.
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1. Thomas Paine, “Letter to John Inskeep,” February 10, 1806.

2. Joseph M. Hentz, The Real Thomas Paine (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse Books, 2010), 218.

3. Thomas Paine author profile, Penguin Random House, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/23075/thomas-paine. Authors disagree on when Paine added the “e” to his name. Biographer Craig Nelson follows earlier biographers in holding that it followed Paine’s arrival in America and refers to him as “Pain” when discussing his Pennsylvania Magazine work, but the British National Archives for church services show him using “Paine” in 1768. It’s possible that he used both versions concurrently for a period.

4. Jacqui Bealing, “New Project Aims to Uncover Thomas Paine’s Revolutionary Influences” (Brighton: University of Sussex, July 10, 2012), https://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/14478.

5. Thomas Paine, “The Case of the Officers of Excise,” 1772.

6. Samuel Willard Crompton, Thomas Paine: Political Activist and Author (New York: Chelsea House, 2013).

7. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/benjamin-franklin-joins-the-revolution-87199988/.

8. Craig Nelson, “Thomas Paine and the Making of Common Sense,” New England Review 27, no. 3 (2006): 228.

9. Albert H. Smyth, The Philadelphia Magazines and Their Contributors, 1741–1850 (Philadelphia: Robert M. Linsday, 1892), 48–49.

10. Thomas Paine, “The Crisis, No. VII: To the People of England,” 1778.

11. Some earlier works had proposed varying degrees of legislative independence. One such is Thomas Jefferson’s “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774), which although promoting local governance, still expresses the hope that such arrangements “can continue both to Great Britain and America the reciprocal advantages of their connection.” There is debate to what extent Benjamin Rush influenced the form and content of Common Sense. Rush attested to having overseen every chapter and recommending the name Common Sense, but Nelson disputes this account as incongruent with the pamphlet’s content and Paine’s own recollections of discussing it with Franklin.

12. Moncure Daniel Conway, ed., The Life of Thomas Paine, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1892).

13. “Thomas Paine: The Original Publishing Viral Superstar,” National Constitution Center, January 10, 2023, https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/thomas-paine-the-original-publishing-viral-superstar-2. This population figure didn’t include slaves or natives.

14. Thomas Paine, Common Sense (London: Penguin, 1982), 63.

15. Gary Burton, “Thomas Paine and the Declaration of Independence,” Thomas Paine National Historical Association, https://www.thomaspaine.org/pages/resources/thomas-paine-and-the-declaration-of-independence.html.

16. Nelson, “Thomas Paine and the Making of Common Sense,” 239.

17. Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill & Wang, 2005).

18. Friedrich Von Gentz, The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution (Carmel, IN: Liberty Fund, 2010), 72–73. Original work published in 1800.

19. Paine, Common Sense, 98.

20. Paine, Common Sense, 108–9.

21. Gregory Spindler, “John Adams, Thomas Paine, and the Conflict between Conservative and Progressive Liberalism in America,” Starting Points, November 10, 2023, https://startingpointsjournal.com/john-adams-thomas-pain-and-the-beginning-of-conflict-conservative-and-progressive.

22. Massachusetts Court System, “John Adams, Architect of American Government,” Commonwealth of Massachusetts, https://www.mass.gov/guides/john-adams-architect-of-american-government.

23. Conway, Life of Thomas Paine, vol. 1.

24. Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis, No. 1,” America in Class, https://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/war/text2/painecrisis1776.pdf.

25. Thomas Paine, “The Affair of Silas Deane,” Thomas Paine National Historical Association, https://www.thomaspaine.org/works/essays/american-revolution/the-affair-of-silas-deane.html

26. Carine Lounissi, Thomas Paine and the French Revolution (Chem, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 9.

27. Conway, Writings of Thomas Paine, vol. 1 (London: Putnam, 1908), introduction.

28. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (New York: G. Vale, 1848), 28.

29. Paine, Rights of Man, 3.

30. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: Dodsley & Mall, 1790).

31. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

32. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

33. Paine, Rights of Man, 149.

34. Paine, Rights of Man, 30.

35. Paine, French introduction to Rights of Man.

36. Paine, Rights of Man, 9.

37. Paine, Rights of Man, 79.

38. Paine, Rights of Man, 104.

39. Paine, Rights of Man, 104.

40. Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), 110.

41. Laxton Visitor Centre, “Laxton—Open Fields Visitor Centre & Working Heritage Village,” August 2, 2023, http://www.laxtonvisitorcentre.org.uk; “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain,” Land Magazine 7 (Summer 2009), https://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain.

42. Paine, Rights of Man, 147.

43. Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice (London: R. Carlyle, 1819), 8.

44. Paine, Agrarian Justice, author’s inscription, French edition.

45. Social Security Administration, “In-Depth Research: Thomas Paine,” https://ssa.gov/history/tpaine3.html; Social Security Administration, “A Hope of Many Years,” https://www.ssa.gov/history/video.

46. Elihu Palmer, Principles of Nature; or, a Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species (London: J. Canauc, 1819), 95.

47. “The Trial of Thomas Paine: for a Libel, Contained in The Second Part of Rights of Man, before Lord Kenyon, and a Special Jury, at Guildhall, December 18” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004809446.0001.000/1:2.

48. Working Class Movement Library, “Thomas Paine and ‘Rights of Man,’” https://www.wcml.org.uk/about-us/timeline/1791--thomas-paine-writes-rights-of-man.

49. Conway, The Writings of Thomas Paine, vol. 3.

50. “Writer Thomas Paine Is Arrested in France,” History.com, November 13, 2009, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/thomas-paine-is-arrested-in-france; Calix Eden, “Thomas Paine: Time to Look Again?,” East Anglia Bylines, October 14, 2023, https://eastangliabylines.co.uk/thomas-paine-time-to-look-again.

51. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, edited by Kerry Walters (Buffalo, NY: Broadview Editions, 2011), 45.

52. See “Thoughts on Defensive War,” Pennsylvania Journal, 1775, wherein Paine writes, among other references to religious arguments, “Political, as well as spiritual freedom is the gift of God through Christ.”

53. Paine, Rights of Man, 45.

54. Paine, Age of Reason, 45.

55. Paine, Age of Reason, 41.

56. Paine, Age of Reason, 90.

57. Paine, Age of Reason, 106.

58. Paine, Age of Reason, 64.

59. Paine, Age of Reason, 106.

60. Thomas Paine, “The Existence of God: A Discourse at the Society of Theophilanthropists, Paris” (1801), https://www.thomaspaine.org/works/essays/religion/the-existence-of-god.html.

61. Paine, Age of Reason, 65–74.

62. Paine, Age of Reason, 45.

63. Paine, Age of Reason, 50. In the context of Paine’s ideas, I interpret “a thing which everybody is required to believe” to mean “a thing which one expects everyone to believe,” not “a thing which everybody must be forced to believe.”

64. Paine, Age of Reason, 82.

65. Paine, Age of Reason, 113.

66. Patrick Wallace Hughes, “Antidotes to Deism: A Reception History of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, 1794–1809” (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2013), 13–14.

67. Conway, Writings of Thomas Paine, vol. 4 (London: Putnam, 1908).

68. “Age of Reason by Thomas Paine,” USHistory.org, https://www.ushistory.org/paine/reason.

69. Alyce Barry, “Thomas Paine, Privateersman,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 101, no. 4 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, October 1977), 451–61.

70. Conway, Life of Thomas Paine, vol. 2.

71. Robert Ingersoll, The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, vol. 11, 227–28.

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