Thomas Paine: Written by: Irving Brant: Member, Advisory Board, James Madison Papers, University of Chicago. Council Member, Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1959–62. Author of James Madison (6 vol.) and others
Small, wiry Thomas Paine was the "firebrand of the American Revolution." His writings brought courage in times of crisis. The first was in January 1776. At that time the colonies were still split on the question of declaring their independence from Great Britain. Some instructed their delegates in the Continental Congress to act against separation from the mother country. Thousands of colonists were undecided. On January 10 Paine published a pamphlet, 'Common Sense'. To rally the faltering he wrote: "Freedom has been hunted around the globe. Asia and Africa have expelled her . . . and England has given her warning to depart. O, receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind!" Colonists up and down the seaboard read this stirring call to action. George Washington himself said it turned doubt into decision--for independence.
Paine was born on Jan. 29, 1737, in Thetford, England. His mother was an Anglican; his father, a corset maker, was a Quaker. The family was poor, and at 13 years of age young Paine left school to work for his father. At 19 the restless lad shipped out on a privateer in the Seven Years' War. In a few months, however, he left and became an apprentice to a London manufacturer.
During the next few years he jumped from job to job, finally becoming a collector of excise taxes. Meanwhile he studied widely, especially in science and mechanics. He was dismissed from the excise office after he published in 1772 an argument for a pay raise as the way to end corruption in the service.
He sailed for America, carrying letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met in London. Franklin recommended him for the "genius in his eyes." Franklin's letters got him the post of assistant editor of the new Pennsylvania Magazine in Philadelphia. He also published articles and poetry anonymously or under pseudonyms. One essay denounced slavery in the colonies.
He served for a time in the Continental Army, sharing the hardships of the ill-equipped, hard-pressed American troops. He saw the mounting discouragement, and on Dec. 19, 1776, he started publishing 'The Crisis', a series of 16 pamphlets. It began with the challenging words: "These are the times that try men's souls." Washington ordered it read to "every corporal's guard in the army."
Paine was given a post by the Continental Congress. He published confidential information, however, and was forced to resign in 1779. He was then appointed clerk of Pennsylvania's General Assembly. He used part of his salary to start a subscription for the relief of soldiers. Although his pamphlets had sold well, he refused to accept the profits from his writings, and after the Revolution he was destitute. Congress buried his plea for assistance, but the states of New York and Pennsylvania granted him land and money.
He returned to England in 1787. There he published 'Rights of Man' in 1791 in support of the French Revolution. Today the book seems moderate, but it so stirred Britain that he was indicted for treason. He fled to France and was elected to the National Convention. There he opposed the execution of Louis XVI. His humanitarian stand won him the ill will of the Jacobins, and he escaped the guillotine only through the fall of Maximilien Robespierre. After ten months in prison he was released and aided by James Monroe, then United States ambassador to France and later president.
His criticism of organized religion in 'The Age of Reason' (1794, 1796) lost him many friends. He was not an atheist, however, but a deist. He returned to the United States in 1802. An outcast and in ill health, he wandered from place to place until his death on June 8, 1809, in New York City.