Two men are regarded as having contributed equally to the successful outcome of the American War of Independence. George Washington in directing the movement of the soldiers and another man whose words in a time of crisis inspired those soldiers.
This man’s first Crisis pamphlet, which Washington ordered to be read to the troops, begins with these words “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he who stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” With Washington’s troops near disintegration, Thomas Paine, a man about whom few people have heard or know what he did, published those words in mid-winter on 19th December 1776.
He was the first person to use the phrase “The United States of America”, so let us recall the life and work of a man dedicated to liberty and reason.
He was born on 29th January 1737 in Thetford, Norfolk, England. His father was a Quaker and his mother an Anglican. He attended the Thetford Grammar School and received a good education despite being withdrawn at age 13. After completing his apprenticeship as a stay maker, (his father’s trade) he went on a six-month voyage on a privateer which netted him £30, about two years or more pay. He used this to pay for an extended stay in London where he attended scientific lectures and bought a globe to assist.
He became an exciseman. He married Mary Lambert in 1759, but she died in 1760 possibly in childbirth. Mary’s father had been an exciseman and Thomas may have been influenced by this to seek a post in the Excise. He was appointed first to Grantham then Alford, both in Lincolnshire but dismissed for fraud. Later it turned out that his supervisor was responsible and he was dismissed. Paine petitioned for his job back and was appointed to Lewes in Sussex.
He married Elizabeth Ollive in 1771 but they separated in 1774. He was asked to draw up a petition arguing for better pay and conditions for Excisemen but Parliament refused to accept it. He was dismissed for neglecting his duties. Paine arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774 and secured work as co-editor of The Pennsylvania Magazine. He wrote and published poems and other articles anonymously (or under noms de plume): such works as his scathing denunciation of the slave trade, which he signed “Justice and Humanity”.
There was fighting against the British troops at Lexington and Concord in mid 1775. On 10th January 1776 Paine published the pamphlet Common Sense, showing why America should become independent of Britain, emphasising how unjust and foolish was the monarchical system of government. This publication paved the way for the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson has always been credited with having written the Declaration of Independence but evidence now available reveals that Thomas Paine produced the draft for this document. In Common Sense he argues that a manifesto be published which could be sent to other nations and would tell why America was forced to break ties with Britain. The causes which impel the separation are proclaimed in Common Sense.
On 11th June 1776 Congress voted for such a document. A committee of five was appointed but at the last moment one was obliged to answer a call to his home and Jefferson took his place. Paine produced a draft, of which the John Adams family still retains a copy. This carries a clause to end slavery and this clause was omitted from the Declaration. Had it been included, the Civil War, ninety years later, would not have been fought. Why was this clause significant? Because slavery appalled Paine but Jefferson, at his death, still owned 200 slaves and any draft from him would not have included this clause.
The phrasing in the draft and the peculiar use of capitals and the spelling of words brand it as the work of Thomas Paine. It was condensed, mutilated and then submitted to Congress by the chairman of the Committee, Thomas Jefferson. It is far easier to modify a draft on hand than to start with blank paper and, in twenty days, produce such a Declaration of Independence.
It was typical of the integrity of Paine that he never openly claimed the credit, although it was hinted. Paine enlisted, served as aide-de-camp to General Nathaniel Green and wrote a total of 16 ‘Crisis Papers’. In 1777 Congress appointed him Secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs, in which position he was obliged to reveal that Silas Deane was taking personal profit from war aid from France. Paine was dismissed but subsequent investigation proved that he was correct.
He was appointed Clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania in November 1779 and that body, in March 1780, was the first to pass an Act for the abolition of slavery. The preamble is attributed to Thomas Paine. As Clerk, Paine was able to observe the suffering of the American soldiers because of the lack of supplies, and he took $500 from his own salary of $1690 for a fund, which led to the foundation of the Bank of America. In his pamphlet Public Good he called for a Convention to update the Articles of Confederation.
In 1781, together with John Laurens, he went to France, where Louis XVI “loaded him with favours” which were instrumental in Washington’s final victory. For this service Paine received neither payment nor acknowledgment.
George Washington endorsed a petition to Congress for financial assistance but Paine’s opponents buried it until December 1784 when a payment of $3000 was made, an amount less than the cost of his journey to France. However, Pennsylvania gave him $500 and New York presented him with a 277-acre farm at New Rochelle, so he was able to concentrate on his plans for a 500-foot iron arch bridge and other inventions. Later he was granted patents in Britain for his bridge. At least one was built but he was cheated out of any remuneration therefrom.
In 1786 Paine’s principles of a republican government, as opposed to monarchical rule, were enshrined in the Constitution, in which the term “sovereign” has “subject” for its correlation. This concept was later rejected by the Eleventh Amendment.
Paine returned to Europe in mid 1787 and spent time in both France and England, where he was recognised and feted as the author of Common Sense. Paine’s vision of a Europe without kings was enhanced by the French Revolution and by his being asked to take part in the writing of the French Constitution, which included many of his concepts, such as the abolition of slavery.
The degree of honour accorded Paine was shown when M de Lafayette gave him the key to the destroyed Bastille for presentation to President Washington and later Paine was elected to the French National Convention.
In England he warned Prime Minister William Pitt against involvement in a war against France over Holland. When, in November 1790, Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paine was outraged and replied with his celebrated Rights of Man. Paine published Rights of Man Part 2 in February 1792.
In this work he analysed the reasons for the political discontent in Europe and spoke out against the evils of arbitrary governments, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and war. He argued against hereditary rights, in favour of republics over monarchies and advocated a progressive income tax to finance education, relief for the poor, aged pensions and public works for the unemployed. The ruling class of Britain was outraged. The books were banned and the publisher jailed.
In May 1792 Paine was issued with a Royal Proclamation for ‘seditious writing’. He left for Dover where the Collector of Customs subjected him to a thorough search. Among his letters were those from the Secretary of State in America and from President Washington. When the Collector began to read, Paine’s friend Frost retrieved the letter and rebuked him for reading such a private letter. Frost then read aloud the last sentence above Washington’s signature “….and as no man can feel a greater interest in the happiness of mankind than I do, it is the firm wish of my heart that the enlightened policy of the present age may diffuse to all men those blessings to which they are entitled and lay the foundation of happiness for future generations.” The letters were returned and Paine and his friends sailed to France. Twenty minutes later the order for Paine’s arrest reached Dover.
On 18th December 1792 Thomas Paine was charged at The Guildhall, London, that he “being a person of a wicked, malicious and seditious disposition” etc “did publish that the crown of this kingdom was contrary to the rights of the inhabitants” and so forth. The Attorney-General, who prosecuted, said that he would not read out the many “false, wicked and scandalous assertions” but would read only a few more, such as “to inherit a crown is to inherit the people, as if they were flocks and herds.” The famous Thomas Erskine defended Paine but the carefully selected jury, which received two guineas each and a free dinner for a conviction and nothing otherwise, decided to return a verdict of guilty. Laws were passed to restrict free speech and publication.
He returned to France to take up his Convention seat with the applause of the crowd and through triumphant arches. He recommended the end of the monarchical system. He strongly opposed the killing of Louis XVI and this was used against him when Robespierre gained power.
Paine realised that killing Louis could lead to invasion by the European countries that had ties to the deposed monarch. Some of the nobility appealed to William Pitt for money to secure the life of Louis but Pitt refused to attempt to save the life of America’s friend. If Louis and his family had been banished to America, as Paine proposed, how different the history of Europe would have been.
The political scene in France was determined by specific parties and when Robespierre came to power Paine was arrested and imprisoned on 28th December 1793. He was just able to arrange for the publication of The Age of Reason before his incarceration. Anticipating his arrest, he had finished this work six hours previously. His reason for writing it was “lest we lose sight of morality, of humanity and of the theology that is true.”
Paine became very ill in the Luxembourg prison, while outside France suffered the Reign of Terror and prisoners were taken away daily to the guillotine. Paine wrote letters to try to secure his release but was frustrated by the American Minister in France, Gouverneur Morris, who was his enemy and stood to gain by his death.
Morris wrote to Secretary, Thomas Jefferson, “Lest I forget it, I must mention that Thomas Paine is in prison, where he amuses himself with a pamphlet against Jesus Christ.”
Each day a chalk mark was made on the outside of the doors of those to be taken to the guillotine. Because Paine was so ill, his door was left open during the day and so the chalk-mark was made on the inside, but his door was closed when the condemned were collected. The next day Robespierre was removed from power but Paine was not released until 4th November 1794.
James Monroe was the new American Minister in Paris. The Age of Reason Part 2 was written while Paine was being nursed back to health by Mrs. Monroe at the Monroes’ home in Paris. It was in James Monroe’s house he now read what were reported as his dying words before his execution. They were a rejection of all his words and principles. When his health improved he was readmitted to the National Convention.
In the pamphlet The Decline and Fall of the English System of Finance dated 8th April 1796, Paine predicted the suspension of the Bank of England that occurred the next year. The proceeds of this pamphlet he devoted to the relief of the prisoners in Newgate prison held for debts.
In 1797 he published Agrarian Justice, which attacked the inequality of property ownership.
His pamphlet entitled Maritime Compact was published in 1800. It includes ten articles for the security of neutral commerce to be signed by the nations entering the “Unarmed Association” which he proposed.
Paine was consulted by Napoleon Bonaparte but this dialogue ended when Napoleon rejected republican principles and declared himself Emperor.
As Britain exercised control over the sea routes, Paine delayed returning to America until September 1802.
During this time, he maintained cordial relationships with several families, including the Bonnevilles and Sir Robert Smith, for whose wife he wrote the poem The Castle in the Air as a tribute to her kindness during his imprisonment.
On 30th October of the same year, Paine landed at Baltimore to a mixed welcome of praise and abuse. On 25th December he wrote to Jefferson suggesting the purchase of Louisiana and how it should be done. Jefferson replied that he also was contemplating such a purchase.
Paine was a deist and it was his conception of the nature of a perfect god which was the basis of his attack on the Bible, on “Christianity” and all book-based religions. Of course his statements could not be allowed to go unchallenged. The Bishop of Llandaff made an attempt at a challenge but sank the Church deeper into the quicksand, for Paine’s observations were devastating and have never been proved to be faulty or false. Religious leaders, such as Bishop Spong, are slowly recognising the validity of The Age of Reason, but they can only go so far without admitting that Christianity is morally bankrupt and completely fraudulent.
The Church has never forgiven Paine, has continued to oppose his principles and has downplayed his enormous contribution to human rights and to the living standards which are recognised today.
The Bonnevilles migrated to the United States and a complete file of Paine’s writings and letters were given to Madame Bonneville to assist in proposed folio works. She became a Roman Catholic convert and the project never proceeded. This invaluable collection was destroyed in a fire.
Paine was ostracised and died on 8th June 1809. He could well be described as the Creator of Modern Democracy but the Christian world rewarded Paine with abuse and vilification. Theodore Roosevelt described Thomas Paine as a “filthy little atheist” – three lies in three words. He was not filthy, was five feet ten inches tall with broad shoulders and was a deist.
The tide is turning. On 30th January 1937 The Times of London referred to him as “the English Voltaire” and on 18th May 1962 his bust was placed in the New York University Hall of Fame.
Atheists honour Thomas Paine for his contributions to the concepts of liberty and equality of citizens before the law, and for his condemnation of the Bible and Christianity.
The Life of Thomas Paine – Moncure D Conway; N.Y., 1892
Thomas Paine Author of the Declaration of Independence – Joseph Lewis; N.Y., 1947
Thomas Paine by Chapman Cohen
Tom Paine A political Life – John Keane; G.B.,1996
Thomas Paine His Life, Work and Times – Audrey Williamson; G.B.,1973
Thomas Paine Apostle of Freedom – Jack Fruchtman, Jr.; N.Y., 1994
 Footnote: The abuse was large-calibre nasty: “The New England Palladium attacked Jefferson for daring to welcome a ‘lying, drunken, brutal infidel, who rejoiced in the opportunity of basking and wallowing in the confusion, bloodshed, rapine, and murder in which his soul delights’. One enraged editor bellowed: ‘Let Jefferson and his blasphemous crony dangle from the same gallows’.” (James Allen, Introduction to Thomas Paine: Selections from His Writings; N.Y., 1937).
Special thanks to Robert Morrell of The Thomas Paine Society for his assistance with this article.
By Keith S Cornish