Paine, Thomas (Writer)


(1737-1809) journalist,essayist, pamphleteer

Thomas Paine, one of the most influential revolutionary writers of the modern era, was born into a British family of modest means. At the Thetford Grammar School, the inquisitive young boy studied mathematics, science, and poetry. Paine was particularly fond of John milton and John Bunyan, authors known for their radical perspectives on politics and religion. At age 13, however, Frances and Joseph Paine, members of the working class, withdrew their only child from school so that he could become apprenticed to his father, a corset maker. Paine went along with the decision but eventually escaped his obligations by running off to sea and working as a privateer. Over the years, he found employment selling tobacco products, teaching school, and serving as an exciseman (a governmental employee who imposed taxes on domestic commodities).

At 37 years of age, Paine made a decision that was to have momentous consequences: He resolved to go to America. A letter of introduction from Benjamin franklin, whom he had met earlier, served him well. In 1774, after a difficult voyage on the London Packet, Paine arrived in Philadelphia, the city founded by Quaker William

Penn, and was soon employed by a local printer. A year later, he was appointed editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, a publication that flourished under his direction. The man who had spent years struggling just to eke out a living finally discovered a professional niche for himself.

Paine did more than edit articles submitted to the magazine; he also became a journalist and essayist. In Thomas Paine: Firebrand of the Revolution, Harvey J. Kaye observes that “the paradox of … black bondage in the midst of a prosperous, liberty-loving, and spiritual people astounded him” and inspired him to write “African Slavery in America” (1775), an article that advocated abolition.

Paine also found himself becoming increasingly critical of the ways in which Great Britain wielded its authority over the colonies. He expressed his outrage in Common Sense (1776), a pamphlet that Thomas Gustafson, in Representative Words: Politics, Literature, and the American Language, 1776-1865, argues effected a “transformation in the terms of the political debate between Britain and the Colonies.”

In American Crisis (1776), a series of 13 pamphlets Paine composed during the American Revolution, he continued to probe issues related to the quest for liberty. In the first of these leaflets, Paine writes of how these are “times that try men’s souls,” and he declares that those who do not “shrink from the service of this country” deserve the “love and thanks of man and woman” for having fought against the tyrannical rule of the British. Legend has it that selections from this particular booklet were read to George Washington’s troops in order to bolster their spirits as they prepared for an attack on the oppressor.

In 1787 Paine returned to England and turned his attention to writing Rights of Man (1791-92). In part one, he expressed his support of the French Revolution and challenged the idea of hereditary monarchy. In part two, he extended his argument to include the problem of inequalities based on social class. Paine held that “something must be wrong in the system of government” when we see, “in countries that are called civilized,” the aged being sent “to the workhouse and [the] youth to the gallows.” “Why is it,” he asked, “that scarcely any are executed but the poor?” Kaye explains that Paine wanted the government to “provide income to the poor and special relief to families with children; pensions for the elderly; public funding of education; financial support for newly married couples and new mothers; funeral expenses for the working poor; and job centers to address unemployment.”

Rights of Man met with immediate success: More than 50,000 copies of it were sold within a month of its first publication. Conservative forces, however, were quick to condemn the work, and they claimed his work was treasonous libel. Paine never attended his trial. Instead, he fled to France, where he attained citizenship and celebrity-like status for having so boldly defended the country’s cause. Yet when he objected to the execution of King Louis XVI, who as Kaye points out, had “corresponded and conspired with France’s enemies,” he found himself imprisoned. Fortunately, an American ambassador granted him American citizenship and promised to assist him in traveling back to New York.

The last decades of Paine’s life were not easy ones, and he died, impoverished, in 1809.

Critical Analysis

Common Sense, a pamphlet in which Paine called for the inhabitants of America to separate from Britain, is without a doubt Paine’s most significant work. The pamphlet was extraordinarily popular. Within a year of its publication, nearly half a million copies were sold. Kaye remarks that Paine “sought no material rewards” from his booklet: He “declined all royalties, insisting that any profits due him be used to purchase mittens for Washington’s troops.”

In a letter Paine wrote toward the end of his life, he explained that the “motive and object in” all of his “political works” was “to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principles of government, and enable him to be free.” Paine’s genius lay in the way he recognized the extent to which language and thinking could be used to either enslave or liberate humankind. In “Reflections on Titles” (1775), for instance, he analyzes the influence that “high sounding names” have on different types of people. The “reasonable freeman,” he explains, “sees through the magic of a title, and examines the man before he approves him.” Paine claimed, however, that titles “overawe the superstitious vulgar, and forbid them to inquire into the character of the possessor.” He went on to declare that “this sacrifice of common sense is the certain badge which distinguishes slavery from freedom: for when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.” In the first chapter of Common Sense, Paine builds on his earlier critique of titles in order to challenge the concepts of monarchical rule and the hereditary succession of power. He argues that while “male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven,” there exist “no truly natural or religious reason” behind the “distinction of men into KINGS AND SUBJECTS.” “That difference,” as Gustafson observes, has been “created by words and by words alone or by words enforced by fraud and brute force.” Denouncing the British form of government was just the first step Paine took in his effort to release the linguistic and mental shackles that bound the colonies to Britain.

In the second and most important chapter, Paine engages in a revolutionary analysis of the specific terms that had been used to describe the relationship between Britain and the colonies. Britain had long been considered the parent country and the colonies her children. As Gustafson notes, debates centered on “whether it was time for Britain to fulfill its role by ending its protection and granting the colonies their independence or whether the colonies were still obliged to be obedient.” Drawing upon his “common sense,” Paine declares:

Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendents still.

In this passage, according to Gustafson, we can see how Paine renounced as “misapplications” the “very words that had defined the relationship between the colonies and Britain.” The rulers of Britain had used—or abused—language in order to perpetuate their control over the colonies. Paine, on the other hand, demonstrated to the colonists how they could employ language for other, more liberating purposes.

The reading public was ready to hear what Paine had to say. As Kaye remarks, Common Sense “transformed the colonial rebellion into a war for independence” by harnessing the Americans’ “shared (but as yet unstated) thoughts” and communicating them in language that was “bold and clear.”

Other Works by Thomas Paine

Age of Reason. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

American Crisis. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Common Sense. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Rights of Man. Introduction by David Taffel. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004.

Thomas Paine: Collected Writings. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Works about Thomas Paine

Gustafson, Thomas. Representative Words: Politics, Literature, and the American Language, 1776-1865.

New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Kaye, Harvey J. Thomas Paine: Firebrand of the Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York:

Grove/Atlantic, 2003. McLeese, Don. Thomas Paine. Vero Beach, Fla.: Rourke Publishing, 2004.

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