Life of Tom Paine

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The radical writer Tom Paine died in New York on 8 June 1809, ostracized by the leaders of the nation he had played a signal part in establishing. Paine had written himself into world history in 1776 with a pamphlet, Common Sense, which roused the American colonists to break with Britain. A little over a decade later he was at the centre of events in revolutionary France, narrowly escaping the guillotine. In Britain his denunciation of monarchy and demands for social justice and equality placed his life at risk as he was condemned for sedition.

Paine was born on 29 January 1737 in Thetford, Norfolk, into a Quaker family. He had no more than an elementary education before becoming an apprentice to his father, a maker of women’s corsets. Paine’s early life was marked by disappointment: businesses he attempted failed; his first wife died and his second marriage ended in bitterness; he was dismissed, twice, as a government excise officer. In 1774, aged 37, he sailed for America.

Paine arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a dispute between the colonists and the British government over taxation was coming to a head. In April 1775 the colonial militia and British troops clashed at Lexington. Paine – who had written a little in England – became editor of a magazine, composing many of the articles himself, including an early attack on slavery. Though independence had not been an issue, Paine concluded that it represented the only possible resolution of the contradiction between American and British interests. He set out his arguments in Common Sense in January 1776.

Paine’s talent lay not in formulating political theory but in expressing complex ideas in plain but compelling language. By freeing themselves from the British monarchy through revolution, he said, the American colonists could establish a democratic republic that would act as a beacon to humanity. ‘The cause of American is in great measure the cause of all mankind.’ On 4 July 1776 Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. Paine served in the ranks and held a number of administrative posts, but his major contribution to the American Revolution remained his pen. He was the first to use the expression ‘United States of America’ in the Crisis Papers, articles written to inspire the revolutionary army and bolster civilian morale. In 1780 Paine drafted legislation abolishing slavery in Pennsylvania. The following year he was part of a successful mission to secure aid from France. In November 1783 the United States gained its independence, a grateful government making small gifts of money and land to Paine.

Paine now turned to his other interest, practical science, designing an iron bridge and travelling to Europe to try to rouse interest in its construction. On 14 July 1789 the French Revolution opened with the storming of the Bastille in Paris. Feudalism was overthrown. Paine visited Paris in October and November, writing to Washington, ‘To have a share in two revolutions is living to some purpose.’ Paine’s friend Edmund Burke – previously a radical, now a conservative – was horrified by events, writing Reflections on the Revolution in France, a defence of tradition and hierarchy.

Paine responded with Rights of Man, the first part of which appeared in January 1791. He answered Burke’s criticisms, supporting the people’s right to government of their own choosing, ridiculing monarchy and hereditary rule which, he wrote, was ‘as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.’  Paine issued a second part to Rights of Man in 1792, continuing his attacks on monarchy but also setting out a comprehensive programme of social welfare – including education grants for children, maternity grants, pensions at 60 – to be financed from a progressive tax on land.

In May 1792 Paine was charged with seditious libel. In September, fearing for his life, he fled to France where he was declared an honorary citizen. Tried in his absence in December, Paine was exiled under threat of hanging and his books were banned. In France, Paine associated with the moderate Girondins. When the deposed king, Louis XVI, was brought to trial, Paine antagonised the more militant Jacobins by arguing against his execution on the grounds that the institution was the enemy, not the individual. In December 1793 Paine was arrested on the orders of the Jacobin leader, Robespierre, and held in the Luxemburg Prison.

On the day of his arrest Paine completed The Age of Reason, a work on religion that was to destroy his reputation in the United States. Paine wrote as a deist – a believer in a divine creator – but was reproached as an atheist. ‘I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.’ Religious duty, Paine wrote, consisted in ‘doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy.’

Paine watched his Girondin friends taken out daily to the guillotine. In July 1794 Paine’s name was down for execution but the guards passed his cell by chance. The following day Robespierre fell from power. Paine was freed in November but, unable to return to England and unwilling to risk the Atlantic crossing for fear of capture by the British, he lived a solitary life. In 1797 he wrote his final important work, Agrarian Justice, enlarging his social welfare scheme, condemning the poverty that haunted Europe. ‘The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together.’

Paine returned to the United States in 1802. His friends from 1776 kept their distance and his part in the American Revolution was first ignored, then written out of official history. Disappointed and rejected, Paine’s life had come full circle. He was denied the right to vote on the grounds that he had abandoned his American citizenship when he took up that of France. He drank heavily, weakening a body already racked with sickness. Paine was buried on his farm at New Rochelle – a gift in 1783 from the American people – with few mourners and no official acknowledgement of his passing.

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