Tom Paine

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Thomas Pain or Paine, the radical propagandist and revolutionary, and plain-spoken voice of the common man and woman was born in Thetford in Norfolk on January 29, 1737. His father, Joseph Pain, was a poor Quaker stay-maker (corset maker) who had his son educated at Thetford Grammar School but was eventually forced to apprentice him to his trade. Paine found this occupation tedious, and soon rebelled. In Rights of Man, Part II, he wrote: ‘At an early period – little more than sixteen years of age, raw and adventurous, and heated with the false heroism of a master who had served in a man-of-war – I began the carver of my own fortune, and entered on board the Terrible Privateer, Captain Death. From this adventure I was happily prevented by the affectionate and moral remonstrance of a good father, who, from his own habits of life, being of the Quaker profession, must begin to look upon me as lost. But the impression, much as it effected at the time, began to wear away, and I entered afterwards in the King of Prussia Privateer, Captain Mendez, and went with her to sea.’

After a short time at sea, Paine returned to his stay-maker trade in Kent, where he married in 1759. His wife, however soon died, within a year of their marriage. He then served as an exciseman in Lincolnshire, where he was discharge from office in 1766, but subsequently reinstated. This was followed by a period in London as a schoolmaster. He then, in 1768, again took up the occupation of excise officer, this time in Lewes in East Sussex. He lodged in the Bull House, his landlady being Elizabeth Ollive, whom he married in 1771, perhaps only for the sake of appearances. For the next six years he combined his duties as excise officer with managing his wife’s small tobacconist’s shop in the Bull House. Both his marriages were childless and neither brought Paine much in the way of happiness. He was legally separated from Elizabeth Ollive in 1774, just as he was about to embark for the American colonies.

In Lewes, Paine was active in local affairs, serving on the town council and was active in a debating club (commonly known as the Headstrong Club) at the White Hart hotel in the High Street. He also played bowls at the tilting ground in the castle precincts, where old-style bowls are still played today. Indeed, the current director of the Tom Paine Printing Press plays there himself. As a shopkeeper, Paine was a failure, and in April 1774, Paine was discharged from his excise duties for having absented himself from his post without leave. He published the pamphlet The Case of the Officers of Excise, and had devoted too much time to campaigning in London on behalf of the excise officers.

The Case of the Officers of Excise was Paine’s earliest published text, and his first pamphlet. Written at Bull House in the winter of 1772-3, his plea was a petition to Parliament. Four thousand copies were printed by William Lee in Lewes in 1773 and widely distributed. It was to lead to Paine’s dismissal from the service, and his subsequent departure from Lewes in the spring of 1774. The documents connected with Paine’s earlier discharge from office in 1766, his reinstatement, and final dismissal in 1774, show that no dishonesty was charged. Cobbett’s view was that Paine’s dismissal cost England her American Colonies! The pamphlet began:



As a Design among the Excise Officers throughout the Kingdom is on Foot, for an humble Application to Parliament next Session, to have the State of their Salaries taken into Consideration; it has been judged not only expedient, but highly necessary, to present a State of their Case, previous to the Presentation of their Petition.
There are some Cases so singularly reasonable, that the more they are considered, the more Weight they obtain. It is a strong Evidence both of Simplicity and honest Confidence, when Petitioners in any Case ground their Hopes of Relief on having their Case fully and perfectly known and understood.
Simple as this Subject may appear at first, it is a Matter, in my humble Opinion, not unworthy a Parliamentary Attention. ’Tis a Subject interwoven with a Variety of Reasons from different Causes. New Matter will arise on every Thought. If the Poverty of the Officers of Excise, if the Temptations arising from their Poverty, if the Qualifications of Persons to be admitted into Employment, if the Security of the Revenue itself, are Matters of any Weight, then I am conscious that my voluntary Services in this Business, will produce some good Effect or other, either to the better Security of the Revenue, the Relief of the Officers, or both.


When a Year’s Salary is mentioned in the Gross, it acquires a Degree of Consequence from its Sound, which it would not have if separated into daily Payments, and if the Charges attending the receiving and other unavoidable Expences were considered with it. Fifty Pounds a Year, and One Shilling and Ninepence Farthing a Day, carry as different Degrees of Significancy with them, as My Lord’s Steward, and the Steward’s Labourer; and yet an Out-Ride Officer in the Excise, under the Name of Fifty Pounds a Year, receives for himself no more than One Shilling and Ninepence Farthing a Day.
After Tax, Charity, and sitting Expences are deducted, there remains very little more than Forty-six pounds; and the expences of Horse-keeping in many Places cannot be brought under Fourteen Pounds a Year, besides the Purchase at first, and the Hazard of Life, which reduces it to Thirty-two Pounds per Annum, or One Shilling and Ninepence Farthing per Day.
I have spoken more particularly of the Out-Rides, as they are by far the most numerous, being in Proportion to the Foot-Walks as Eight is to Five throughout the Kingdom. Yet in the latter the same Misfortunes exist; the Channel of them only is altered. The excessive dearness of House-rent, the great Burthen of Rates and Taxes, and the excessive Price of all Necessaries of Life, in Cities and large Trading Towns, nearly counter-balance the expences of Horse-keeping. Every Office has its Stages of Promotions, but the pecuniary Advantages arising from a Foot-walk are so inconsiderable, and the Loss of disposing of Effects, or the Charges of removing them to any considerable Distance so great, that many Out-ride Officers with a Family remain as they are, from an Inability to bear the Loss, or support the expence.
The Officers resident in the Cities of London and Westminster, are exempt from the particular Disadvantages of Removals. This seems to be the only Circumstance which they enjoy superior to their Country Brethren. In every other respect they lay under the same Hardships, and suffer the same Distresses.
There are no Perquisites or Advantages in the least, annexed to the Employment. A few Officers who are stationed along the Coast, may sometimes have the good Fortune to fall in with a Seizure of contraband Goods, and yet, that frequently at the Hazard of their Lives: But the inland Officers can have no such Opportunities. Besides, the surveying Duty in the Excise is so continual, that without Remissness from the real Business itself, there is no Time to seek after them. With the Officers of the Customs it is quite otherwise; their whole Time and Care is appropriated to that Service, and their Profits are in proportion to their Vigilance.
If the Increase of Money in the Kingdom is one Cause of the high Price of Provisions, the Case of the Excise-Officers is peculiarly pitiable. No Increase comes to them—They are shut out from the general Blessing—They behold it like a map of Peru. The answer of Abraham to Dives is somewhat applicable to them, “There is a great Gulf fix’d.” . . . ’

In Lewes he had found his feet as a promising radical speaker and writer, and in London he met Benjamin Franklin who helped him to emigrate to America in October 1774. Paine settled in Philadelphia where he soon began a new career as a journalist. He continued to develop his critical faculties and his political philosophy, and took up the cause of the colonists against the government of King George III. He contributed articles to the Pennsylvania Magazine on a wide range of topics, including African Slavery in America (8th March 1775), and Occasional Letter on the Female Sex (10th August 1775). In African slavery he stated:

‘TO AMERICANS: That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilised, nay Christianised people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice is surprising, though it has been so often proved to be contrary to the light of nature, and humanity. . . . Our traders in men (an unnatural commodity), must know the wickedness of that Slave-Trade, if they attend to reasoning, or to the dictates of their own hearts; and such as shun and stifle all these, wilfully sacrifice conscience, and their character of integrity.’

Paine was to become a founder member of the American Anti Slavery Society, not that he limited his criticisms to dealers in ‘the manqueling trade.’ Abhorring slavery in all its forms, not least, the oppression of women, his Occasional Letter on the Female Sex, written with two marriages behind him, claimed that:

‘If we take a survey of ages and of countries, we shall find the women – almost without exception – at all times and in all places, adored and oppressed. Man, who never neglected an opportunity of exerting his power, in paying homage to their beauty has always availed himself of their weakness. He has been at once their tyrants and their slave. . . . Who does not feel sorry for the tender sex? Man with regard to them, in all climates and in all ages, has been either an insensible husband or an oppressor. When they are not beloved they are nothing; and when they are, they are tormented.’

Paine had clearly already established his reputation as a formidable polemicist when he set-to writing the short pamphlet Common Sense in the autumn of 1775. For a decade and more the American Colonists had been debating the issue of whether or not to declare their independence. Published on 10th January, 1776, Common Sense played a critical role in nerving them to make the break with England, for George Washington to assert: ‘the unanswerable reasoning contained in the pamphlet Common Sense will not leave numbers at a loss to decide on the propriety of separation.’
Common Sense 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. Common Sense began:

‘Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expence and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
In order to gain a clear and just idea of the design and end of government, let us suppose a small number of persons settled in some sequestered part of the earth, unconnected with the rest, they will then represent the first peopling of any country, or of the world. In this state of natural liberty, society will be their first thought. A thousand motives will excite them thereto, the strength of one man is so unequal to his wants, and his mind so unfitted for perpetual solitude, that he is soon obliged to seek assistance and relief of another, who in his turn requires the same. Four or five united would be able to raise a tolerable dwelling in the midst of a wilderness, but one man might labour out the common period of life without accomplishing any thing; when he had felled his timber he could not remove it, nor erect it after it was removed; hunger in the mean time would urge him from his work, and every different want call him a different way. Disease, nay even misfortune would be death, for though neither might be mortal, yet either would disable him from living, and reduce him to a state in which he might rather be said to perish than to die. . . . ’

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. In 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. By late 1776, the American cause was on the point of collapse, and in the early hours of Christmas Day, 1776, George Washington launched his much-depleted Continental Army across the Delaware River in one last, desperate attempt to avert defeat – having first ordered his picket guards to read the opening passage of Paine’s Crisis Paper Number One, published on 10th December, 1776:

‘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 their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.’

Often tactless, Paine provoked considerable controversy. He was invariable 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. It was here that he later ended his days, and from where William Cobbett took his bones back to England. 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, and spent much of his time trying to find financial support for his iron bridge, and continued this activity in Europe.

Restless because he was no longer at the centre of affairs in America, Paine had left for Europe in 1787. For the next four years he divided his time between Britain and France, and in England he was fêted among the radicals as a great American.. Then in the middle of this period, came a cataclysm. The French Revolution broke out: on 4th July 1789 the Bastille fell, and Paine began his struggle, not only against ‘Old Corruption’ in Britain but in support of the republican cause in France. As he later said, to play a part in two revolutions was to live to some purpose!

He now resumed work as a revolutionary propagandist. In December 1790, Edmund Burke, at one time a close acquaintance of Paine, the two having shared common cause in defence of American independence, published the counter-revolutionary polemic Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was to trigger Paine’s bitter reply. Published on 13th March, 1791, Part One of The Rights of Man remains one of the literary best sellers of all time. 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, published in 1792, was even more radical, for Paine argued for a whole program of social legislation to deal with the shocking condition of the poor. It outlined a plan for a welfare state and prefigured the British Beveridge Report of 1942. His great popularity thoroughly alarmed the Government, and he was forced to leave Britain for France in September 1792. He was tried and condemned for seditious libel in his absence, and declared an outlaw.

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.
In August 1792, Paine was made a French citizen and a month later was elected to the National Convention, becoming a member for the Pas de Calais region. 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, a humanist to the end, 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, and only narrowly escaped the guillotine. He was eventually released through the intercession of the new American minister, James Monroe.

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, viewing organised religion as mere human construction, 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. His reputation was particularly blighted in the United States, and even in the 20th century Theodore Roosevelt called him a ‘filthy little atheist’.

Despite the experience of the long spell in prison in Paris, Paine remained in that city after his release, only finally returning to America in October 1802, where was well-received by Thomas Jefferson. However, increasingly neglected and ostracised, 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.

Although Paine never established a political society or organization and was not directly responsible for a single reforming measure, his influence was immense. As his achievements were all with his pen, it is difficult if not impossible to accurately assess this influence. While he spent over ten years in France, he had very little influence on the course of the French Revolution. He did not really understand the complexities of 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.

Paine’s political influence was greatest in Britain. 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 Britain. 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 – a point which Thomas Hobbes had made in his Leviathan (1651) a century before Paine, during the struggles of the English Revolution, Civil War and Interregnum.

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