Thursday, 8 September 2016

Tom Paine, Rejected Hero

Poor Tom Paine. Rejected by American Patriots he served so well for being too radical, nearly guillotined by French revolutionaries for being too conservative, he died poor and forgotten in an America he helped to create. Ironically, he became a hero to many people in the land he rebelled against: Great Britain.

Paine was born in Thetford, England January 29, 1737. He trained in the same trade as his Quaker father, as a maker of rope stays used on sailing ships (not corset stays as some detractors claimed). At various times he also worked as an excise officer and schoolteacher.

In 1768 he was appointed an excise officer in Lewes, in Sussex, a town with a strong republican tradition. He lived in the 15th century Bull House.

Paine soon became involved in the town government of Lewes and often held forth on politics at the White Hart Inn, now Hotel. I stayed here on my trip to Lewes a few years ago.

During his time in Lewes, Paine became increasingly anti-monarchical and anti-aristocratic, sentiments he took to America in the autumn of 1774. He emigrated at the suggestion by Benjamin Franklin, then representing colonial interests in Britain. Paine arrived in Philadelphia to find the thirteen colonies on the verge of revolt against British rule. He quickly became involved in politics, and surged to fame with the publication of his immensely popular pamphlet Common Sense in January 1776.

Paine argued that independence was just that: common sense. He avoided the formal, scholarly political discourse of the day, writing in an easy to read, punchy style that rendered politics intelligible to the average reader. The work converted many ordinary Americans to the idea of independence.

At the end of 1776, Paine published a pamphlet series The American Crisis, designed to inspire sacrifice in the struggle for independence. It opens with some of the most famous words ever written: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Washington had it read aloud to his soldiers.

During the War for Independence, Paine served the revolutionary government in various capacities. It was a bumpy time for him, as he clashed with some of his fellow revolutionaries, accusing them of corruption.

Perhaps Paine’s most important contribution to the revolutionary cause was his mission to France in 1781, with John Laurens of South Carolina.

Paine and Laurens succeeded in gaining funds and a French commitment to send a fleet and army to America later that year. The arrival of the French during Washington’s Siege of Yorktown, Virginia played a crucial role in bringing about the surrender of British forces under Lord Cornwallis in October.

Peace talks began a few months after Yorktown, and a treaty recognizing American independence was finalized in 1783.

Paine returned to England in 1787 to pursue business projects. He soon became involved in the Revolution that began in France in 1789. In 1791, he wrote a long defense of the French Revolution, The Rights of ManIt sold over a million copies, to the horror of British conservatives. 

James Gillray's cartoon, below, attacks Paine as he tightens violently Britannia's corset, a reference to his supposed occupation as a corset staymaker.

A second volume of The Rights of Man, in 1792, argued for a comprehensive program of universal, free education and social security. The book helped inspire radical movements, as well as major government efforts to suppress them and the book's author.

Paine went to France to avoid arrest, and became involved in the radical phase of the revolution. He was elected to the National Convention. When Louis XVI was tried for treason in 1792, Paine, who opposed capital punishment, voted against execution. 

Paine's plea to spare the king, although unsuccessful, angered radical Jacobins who soon came to power and began the Reign of Terror. They arrested Paine. He spent ten months in prison and narrowly avoided being guillotined. After his release, he criticized President Washington and other American leaders for not helping him.

In the late 1790s, Paine supported Napoleon, but turned against him when his authoritarian aims became clear. At the invitation of President Jefferson, Paine returned to the United States by 1803. 

Paine's welcome was not warm, partly because of his scathing criticisms of Washington and other American leaders. His opposition to slavery also alienated many people. And another work he wrote in installments during these years, The Age of Reason, attacked Christianity. 

The Age of Reason sold well, but it outraged many people in America, where a great evangelical revival was underway. Paine died impoverished and nearly friendless in New York in 1809. Only six people came to his funeral, two of them black freedmen. A widely reprinted obituary stated that he “did some good, but much harm.”

In 1819 William Cobbett, a British radical, took Paine’s remains back to England for a proper burial. (image)

The burial never happened and the ultimate disposal of Paine’s remains is unknown. 

During the 19th century, Paine and his works helped inspire progressive movements in Britain and America. He is remembered fondly in the town of Lewes, Sussex. There is even a Rights of Man pub. Drop in for a pint when in town and toast the memory of Tom Paine, a friend to mankind.

Lewes, Sussex


  1. Yes, a friend to mankind. Fitting that Howard Fast who wrote a superior book on Spartacus would pen an excellent book on Paine. Truly a Paine in the ass to oppressors of any kind. His eating with soldiers in the worst of times was so democratically moving.