Was Thomas Paine a "failure" before coming to America?

No. Paine had several occupations, most notably as an excise officer. However his abilities were used far beyond that position. For example, he was the only Councilman to serve in Lewes, England (an important commerce and redistribution center) for 6 straight years. This required political connections with the Whigs who controlled that area of southern England. He also had friends in the aristocracy who would later provide boarding for him on his return to England in 1787. So he was hardly a failure. He was dismissed as an excise officer after leading their movement for labor rights, the price for standing up on principle which he continued throughout his life. These assertions of "failure" come from the same sources as many invented slanders, like drinking or being unkempt. And they are passed down by many writers and historians without real investigation. Unfortuneately, the progressive supporters of Paine had a hand in this disinformation - Howard Fast's Citizen Paine embraced the negative characterizations of Paine in an attempt to make him a working class hero.