"Rights of Man" in America

The Celebration and Damnation of Thomas Paine

By Alfred F. Young, award-winning historian on labor history and the American Revolution

The following is a paper presented to TPNHA by Dr. Young as a basis for his speech at a conference we held in 1991 commemorating the 200th anniversary of Rights of Man in New Rochelle, NY. We have left the footnotes as presented.

This paper is an earlier version of an article contained in Science Mind and Art (Kluwer Academic Pub.) in Nederlands, and then an article in Alfred Young’s Liberty Tree (New York University Press, 2006) by Young entitled “The Celebration and Damnation of Thomas Paine” (the subtitle of this paper). We recommend Liberty Tree and this article for complete footnotes, and additional context.

When Thomas Paine was buried in New Rochelle on June 10, 1809, no more than a dozen people were at the funeral, perhaps less: Willett Hicks, a Quaker who had been unsuccessful in getting the Society of Friends to accept Paine’s request that he be laid to rest in their burial grounds in New York City; Thomas Addis Emmett, a Paineite political refugee imprisoned in Ireland now a rising lawyer in the city; two African American men, one perhaps the grave-digger; Margaret de Bonneville and her two young sons, Benjamin and Thomas, Paine’s godson, all refugees from Napoleonic France who Paine had sustained in the United States - a repayment of the support she and her husband Nicholas had given Paine in France both before and after his imprisonment. All these had made the 25-mile journey from Greenwich Village, then on the outskirts of New York, where Paine had died. A few friends from New Rochelle may have joined them. No political leaders attended; no one, it seems, gave a eulogy. Years later Madame de Bonneville recollected the poignant moment:

“The internment was a scene to affect and wound any sensible heart. Contemplating who it was, what man it was, that we were committing him to an obscure grave on an open and disregarded bit of land, I could not help feeling most acutely. Before the earth was thrown down around the coffin, I placing myself at the east end of the grave, said to my son Benjamin, stand you there, at the other end, as a witness for America'. Looking around me, and beholding the small group of spectators, I exclaimed, as the earth was tumbled into the grave,Oh! Mr. Paine! My son stands here as testimony of the gratitude of America, and I, for France!’

A few others doubtless had paid their last respects to Paine at Greenwich in response to a paragraph the day before by Jacob Frank, the editor, in the New York Public Advertiser inviting friends “to attend the funeral from (Paine’s) late residence”, but if so, it was not enough to write about in the papers. There was no memorial service in New York or any other city. There were only a few published tributes in newspapers edited by Jacobin refugees from British persecution, now successful Jeffersonians. New York politicians who had known Paine and his record, Vice President George Clinton and his nephew Dewitt Clinton, the Mayor of New York, were silent, as were the national leaders who had been his co-workers: Thomas Jefferson who had played host to him for a stay in the White House on his return from France in 1802; James Monroe who had intervened to free him from a French prison in 1795; Benjamin Rush who had given the title to Common Sense - silent, all of them. And when James Cheetham, the renegade Paineite editor, brought out his scurrilous biography of Paine later in 1809, it went unchallenged for years. Philip Freneau, alone among American writers of his day, paid Paine tribute in poetry.

What had happened? Thomas Paine was the author of the three most widely read and influential pamphlets in the English language in the last quarter of the eighteenth century: Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. In 1776 Common Sense, Paine rightly claimed, “awaked America to a declaration of Independence” [Paine Will in Foner ed.]. During the war his American Crisis papers - “These are the times that try men’s souls” - sealed his reputation as a leading patriot. Washington had them read to his troops. Congress appointed him Secretary to its Committee on Foreign Affairs. After the war while Congress never awarded him adequately financially, the State of New York granted him a 250 acre farm in New Rochelle confiscated from a Loyalist for his “eminent services” and “distinguished merit” in the Revolution. Rights of Man published in the 1790’s renewed his popular reputation.

What explains Paine’s fall from grace in the United States? The most commonly offered explanation lies in the response to The Age of Reason, the third of his best selling works which followed on the heels of Rights of Man in 1794 and 1795, circulated through the late 1790s. His attack on organized religion as the historical handmaiden of political oppression and on the Bible as superstition brought deism out of the gentlemen’s drawing rooms to the common people as no other work before or since. But it probably eclipsed Rights of Man in the breadth and intensity of the reaction it provoked. [ft Marcus Daniel thesis on English response].

When Paine returned to the United States in 1802 after a fifteen year absence he was greeted with a wave of abuse in which the dominant theme was religious blended with an attack on his private moral character. He was, to take the epithets only from the most genteel Federalist papers, “a lying, drunken, brutal infidel”, “the loathsome Thomas Paine, a drunken atheist”, “an obscene old sinner; he was”godless”, “impious”, “a blasphemer” [Knudson article NYHSQJ, Hawke].

The attack on Paine struck roots among ordinary people. In Washington inn keepers refused to put Paine up and he finally entered one under an assumed name. At Trenton, one stagecoach driver refused to carry Paine to New York: “I’ll be damned if he shall go on my stage.” And another refused, saying, “My stage and horses were once struck by lightning, and I don’t want them to suffer again.” A minister who visited Paine in New York was disciplined. In New Rochelle mothers warned their children to stay away from Paine - he was a bad man. [Hawke}

The religious explanation is appealing. The orthodox clergy attacked him with an unprecedented fury. Federalist leaders exploited the religious issue. And many Jeffersonian politicians, even closet deists, found Paine’s irreligion politically embarrassing, especially because so many supporters of the party were evangelical Baptists and Methodists. The second great Awakening of the early 1800’s sank roots among poorer farmers in the countryside and artisans and journeymen in the cities, the natural constituents of the Democratic Republicans. It may be that in the last analysis that Paine’s deism sealed his fate.

But was it so simple? I would like to offer three other hypotheses for the eclipse of Thomas Paine. [NB other scholars on this issue: Dixon Wecter, Eric Foner, Aldridge, Conway]. First, from the outset of his career Paine was under attack for his political radicalism. From 1776 to 1794, long before The Age of Reason made its appearance, Paine was the target of one wing of the American conservative elite for his political views and he remained so throughout his life. Second, the failure of Paine to retain the popular reputation he won during the Revolution is part of the larger problem in American history of passing on the heritage of one generation to another, particularly the legacy of radical achievement. And third, Paine might be considered a “victim of the Rights of Man”, a phrase Robert R. Palmer used some 40 years ago.[article] The election of Jefferson in 1801 and certainly his reelection in 1804, guaranteed the triumph of the core principles Paine advocated. Paine the person thus was a victim of the success of his political ideas. And in quite a different way he was a victim, of what might be called the limitations of 18th century radical thought in coping with the new social issues of the 19th century.

To probe the seeming puzzle of the rejection of Paine in his last years we should try to unlock the secrets of his success. To make my case I would therefore like to tum to an exploration of the reception, first in Common Sense in 1776 and then of Rights of Man in the 1790s, first in the United States and then briefly in England and then return to the American scene from 1802 to 1809. I

One needs Common Sense to understand Rights of Man. It was the basis of his subsequent reputation. On the title page of Rights of Man Paine identified himself as the author of Common Sense. More important, as Paine had no hesitation in admitting, the principles of Rights of Man “were the same as those in Common Sense … The only difference between the two works was, that one was adapted to the local circumstances of England and the other to those in America [cited Clark 423]. Indeed the very structure of the argument of Part II and much of the language follow the first pamphlet.

Common Sense has come down in history oversimply as an argument for American Independence. Actually the message to Americans was triple-barreled: independence, republicanism and empowerment of the common people. Abandon the goal of reconciliation with the mother country, he argued, and adopt the goal of independence; reject not only King George III but the principle of monarchy and put in its place republican government based on broad popular participation; and third - a message implicit in the medium addressed as it was to an audience of farmers and artisans - rely not on learned authorities but on your own reason, your own common sense.

The tone of the writing was warmly equalitarian. “Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest … is worth inquiring into”. “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the light of God than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived”. [pg 16 Foner ed]

The tone was irreverent, often coarse. The first king was “nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang”. The claim of William the Conqueror, “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it”. [pg 14]

And the appeal was suffused with a millennialist idealism, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand …” [pg 45 Foner edn]

It is these combined qualities that account for the phenomenal popularity of the pamphlet. If its success was not quite as Paine proclaimed - “beyond anything since the invention of printing” - it very likely was read by or read to a large share of the adult white male population colonies. Paine who could observe something of the printing history from the vantage point of Philadelphia (in effect the capital), claimed 120,000 copies by April, 1776; which he reduced (not necessarily accurately), to 100,000 in a footnote in Rights of Man in 1792. Scholars have generally accepted a circulation of 100,000 to 150,000 (although it is not at all clear how they reached their conclusions). [Footnote] This was in a country of about 2,500,000 (500,000 of whom were slaves) and in which some 200,000 men served in the militia or regular army over seven years of war. The pamphlet was cheap - one shilling, which put it in the category of the lowest priced publications. And it was relatively short, usually less than 60 pages, and arranged in four systematic chapters.

The pamphlet went through some 35 separate printings (counting the various editions), 15 in Philadelphia, 16 in New England cities and towns, almost all between January and June, 1776. Boastful as he was, there was something to Paine’s claim in April, 1776, that there was “never a pamphlet since the use of letters … of which so great a number went off in so short a time” [Forester pamphlet]. Pamphlets were one of the principal forms of expression in the revolutionary decade; prior to Paine, the best seller may have been John Dickinson’s pamphlet with a circulation of 15,000. [Bailyn?] A sale of a few thousand was more common. A wealth of anecdotal evidence from sources high and low attest to the enormous popularity of Common Sense early in 1776. [cite several letters]

It was successful because it came at precisely the time when masses of people were ready for its message. A war was on. Tens of thousands of men were in action in the militia or the new regular army. Committees were forming everywhere. British government was collapsing as provincials were erecting in effect a dual government. The prospect of reconciliation with Britain was running out. A war was on but what were the Americans fighting for? In weighing influence, the active role of the reader is often unappreciated. Reading is an act of volition. People had to buy the pamphlet; one shilling was cheap as pamphlets went but costly to a housewright who might make 3/ or 4/ a day or a weaver, tailor or carpenter who made even less. [Jackson Main p 77; Billy Smith article]. Or when it was read aloud, a person had to make a decision to come to listen or stay to hear it out.

As one soldier remembered it [Ashbel Green memoir] Common Sense “struck a string which required but a touch to make it vibrate”. Joseph Hawley, a leader in western Massachusetts said it somewhat differently: “every sentiment has sunk into my well prepared heart” [Foner pg 86]. Thus John Adams was accurate in his recollection years later, even if he was putting down Paine that “the idea of independence was familiar, even among the common people, much earlier than some persons pretend” and that the first idea of independence was not “suggested to them by the pamphlet Common Sense”. [pg 88 Rush Adams Correspondence]

Paine’s special contribution - which Adams could not abide - was to crystallize this mounting sentiment for independence, link it to republicanism, and, to use the lingo of the late twentieth century, lift the consciousness of the “common people” to a more democratic level.

What Adams well knew was that Paine’s pamphlet precipitated a three-cornered debate. The first between the opponents and advocates of independence - between Paine and some now forgotten Tory pamphleteers - was easily won and was irrelevant after July 4, 1776. The second was among patriots as to what kind of a republic should replace British rule and this continued through the revolutionary era and into the 1790’s. Here the debate was explicitly between Paine and a host of radical democrats on the one hand and conservative patriots like John Adams and Carter Braxton of Virginia on the other. From the outset Adams was ambivalent about Paine’s message. Years later he vividly remembered his mood in 1776:

“The arguments in favor of Independence I liked very well [but] the part relative to a form of government I considered as flowing from simple ignorance, and a mere desire to please the Democratic party in Philadelphia … I dreaded the effect so popular a pamphlet might have … His plan was so democratical without any restraint or even an attempt at any equilibrium or counterpoise.” [diary]

Very soon Adams circulated in manuscript his own “Thoughts on Government” which he put into print to instruct patriot leaders in drafting constitutions for the newly independent states. Paine’s ideals led to the Pennsylvania constitution, the most democratic of all: a one house legislature elected annually by a broad taxpayer suffrage with no property qualifications for office holding, a weak executive, laws passed only after the legislature allowed them to circulate among the people. Adams’s ideals were embodied in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 he helped draft: a legislature with two branches with graduated property qualifications for office holding and voting; a governor with a high property qualification; and an independent judiciary. The two houses would check and balance each other and the Governor could veto their laws. Adams’s plan made numerous concessions to the town meeting democracy of New England; but a fundamental principle was respect for persons in authority - the antithesis of Paine’s egalitarianism. [Page Smith; Elisha Douglass]

What Adams detested most in Paine was what he called his “impudence”. He had a taste of it in his own family. In March, ‘76 out of the blue, Adams’ wife, Abigail wrote to him to “remember the ladies” in recasting a code of laws for America. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could”. Adams playfully put her down. He was shocked. Everyone was casting off deference. “We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere. That children and Apprentices were disobedient - that schools and colleges were grown turbulent - that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters”. “Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems”. It could not have been lost upon John Adams that Abigail had read the copy of Common Sense he had sent her the month before. [Young article on Women of Boston]

In 1819, forty years later smoke still came out of his ears as Adams fumed about the pamphlet. “What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass is Tom Paine’s Common Sense.” [Letters 1819, Hawke]


In the 1790’s Rights of Man revived the conflict between the two types of republicanism epitomized in the 1776 debate between Paine and Adams. To understand the celebration and damnation of Rights of Man two contexts are needed: the history of the fifteen years gone by and the history of Federalist policies of the 1790’s providing new “strings which required but a touch to vibrate”. Without these it is a puzzle why Rights of Man should have been popular at all in the United States. Paine wrote both Part I and Part II in England for an English audience. Part I was a lengthy, discursive defense of the French Revolution in response to the arguments by an English politician, Edmund Burke. It had neither the immediacy nor the style of Common Sense. Part II, (with the exception of Ch 5) was a restatement of Common Sense, which set up the American political system as a model for England to follow. Why should such a work have become so popular in the United States?

Let me in a kind of historical shorthand offer my sense of what happened between 1776 and 1789 in the struggle between the two kinds of republicanism. During the Revolution patriot elites - the would-be ruling classes - divided in their strategy as to how to deal with the democratic tide that overflowed all banks. Some were advocates of accommodation, some were advocates coercion or repression. Two New York aristocrats illustrate the difference. Robert R. Livingston, Jr., head of the great landed family of the Hudson Valley, was convinced “of the propriety of Swimming with a stream which it is impossible to stem”; he advised his colleagues “that they should yield to the torrent if they hoped to direct its course.” On the other hand, Gouverneur Morris, the young son of the owner of the tenanted estate of Morrisania which embraced a good part of Westchester, used the metaphor of a snake to describe the popular movement. Staring at a vast demonstration of mechanics and tradesmen in New York City, he wrote: “The mob begins to think and reason. Poor reptiles. It is with them a vernal morning; they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine and ere none they will bite, depend on it … They fairly contended about the future forms of our government, whether it should be founded upon aristocratic or democratic principles.” A snake had to be scotched. Others compared the people to a horse which had to be whipped. John Adams sometimes leaned towards accommodation, sometimes towards coercion. [Young, Democratic Republicans, and articles 1981, 1990]

The first New York State constitution was, in the words of John Jay, a “perfect blend of the aristocratic and democratic”. Much the same could be said of Adams’s Massachusetts constitution and the federal constitution which emerged in 1787. The federal convention at Philadelphia was dominated by the gentry who had been tutored by men like Adams in the virtues of a balanced government. Many framers were intrigued by Alexander Hamilton’s extremist proposal for a president elected for life, a senate elected for life, a house for two year terms and a president with the power to appoint the state governors and veto state laws. Gouverneur Morris was enthusiastic. But the framers as a whole knew that a government of King, Lords and Commons was not suited to what James Madison called “the genius of the people” - we would say spirit of the people - which was much more Paineite. And so they adopted a more accommodating middle-of-the-road conservative plan which pleased John Adams no end but left Thomas Paine - now off in Paris - dissatisfied. Paine swallowed his objections because any national government was better than the weak confederation as long as it provided the means for future amendment. In 1787-88 the Federalists under the leadership of Madison were accommodaters. In 1789 they accommodated the democratic opponents of the constitution still further by adding a Bill of Rights.


The Rights of Man won an audience in the 1790’s because the Federalists in power moved away from accommodation towards coercion. Federalists strung the “strings” which Rights of Man could “vibrate” First, they attempted to give the government what they called a “high tone”, raising the seemingly dead issues of aristocracy and monarchy. Federalists toyed with the idea of titles. Adams as Vice President asked the Senate whether he should address George Washington as “His most benign highness,’ or”His elective highness”. Some irreverent Senators suggested Adams might be called the “Duke of Braintree” (his home town) or “His Rotundity.” But the cat was out of the bag, and Adams, undismayed, was soon in print with a series of articles justifying titles as necessary to create an aura of dignity around officials to command the respect of the common people. [Senator MacClay; Page Smith]

   Second, Hamilton by his financial policies-- funding the national

debt, assuming the state debts, chartering a Bank of the United States based on stock with certificates of debt - by a wave of the Secretary of the Treasury’s wand, created a monied interest to support the national government. Consciously modeled after the British, his system raised questions as to whether the United States was adopting the corruption it had abandoned. Moreover the taxes to raise this grand Hamiltonian edifice seemed to fall heavily on farmers.

Federalist foreign policies provided a third string to vibrate. The French Revolution at first was not a partisan issue; France had been America’s indispensable ally in the revolution and a formal French alliance was still in place. But as the French revolution moved to the left establishing a republic, as the republic practised the regicide Americans had done symbolically in ’76 as a radical reform movement threatened revolution in Great Britain; as France and Britain went to war, two contrasting philosophies of government were at stake. The Federalists by pursuing a policy of economic and ideological alliance with Britain, brought the French Revolution into American politics. By1791-92 the coalition that Washington held together was fracturing on the national level as Jefferson and Madison parted company with Hamilton. From 1792 to 1794 popular opposition to the internal excise taxes on the farmer’s production of whiskey was in full bloom. In ’93 the splits over the French Revolution moved to center stage, in the ’95 po1icy to Great Britain. By 1795 more than 40 Democratic Republican Societies were in existence. Electoral battles f o r Congress underway in ’94 were in f u l l swing in ’95 as Jefferson challenged Adams for the presidency.

Repression rapidly replaced accommodation as Federalist policy. They sent an army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, attempted in Congress to “censure” the Democratic Socit.ies as “self created” , condemned the crowds demonstrating against Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain as “the swinish multitude” and ended up in l798 passing the Alien and Sedition Laws under which they could prosecute criticism of the government as sedition.

Thus Rights of Man thus unintentionally could vibrate the same American strings that Common Sense had plucked. Once again Paine blasted away at monarchy: “If I ask the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman and down through all the occupations of life to the common laborer, what service is monarchy to him? He can give me no answer” (326-327). Yet John Adams and Alexander Hamilton had defended the system of King, Lord and Commons as appropriate for Great Britain enough to give an American resonance to Paine’s attack.

Paine went after what he called the “farce of titles” which Adams had openly advocated. “Titles are like circles drawn by the magicians wand,” wrote Paine, “to contract the sphere of man’s felicity. He lives immured within the Bastille of a word, and surveys at a distance the envied life of man” (p 287). Paine was merciless to the hereditary principle in language that struck sparks with Americans who sought recognition on the basis of achievement. “Hereditary succession is a burlesque upon monarchy…. It requires some talents to be a common mechanic, but to be a king, requires only the animal figure of a man-a sort of breathing automaton” (p 356). Paine had harsh words for the English funding system which his American readers could construe against its Hamiltonian imitation . Most important, Paine returned again and again to the theme of the “excess and inequality of taxation.” His target was always Britain; in America, he thought, “Their taxes are few because their government is just. There the poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged” (p 360) But to farmers in western Pennsylvania and Kentucky ready to tar and feather excise tax collectors such lines may have been more an incitement than comfort.

Paine linked the cost of monarchy and aristocracy to taxation. He framed the issue for the individual as “whether the fruits of his labor shall be enjoyed by himself, or consumed by the profligacy of governments” (p 404), and in so doing he touched a deep nerve among American farmers which when rubbed raw had contributed to agrarian rebellions and the American Revolution. It is also entirely likely that Paine’s remarkable chapter 5 in Part II, addressing the “mass of wretchedness” in civilized countries– “we see age going to the work-house and youth to the gallows”– also resonated in America. One might not be “shocked by ragged and hungry children and persons of seventy and eighty years of age begging for bread” that Paine described for England. But in the seaboard cities the poor houses and poor relief were often strained, and hard put journeymen conducted the first strikes against master artisans. And unquestionably there were as Paine wrote, “a considerable number of middling tradesmen who having lived decently in the former part of life, [who] begin, at age approaches to lose their business and at last fall into decay.” In 1818 when Congress got around to pensions for veterans of the Revolution, restricting them to those “in the lowest grade of poverty”, 20,000 men applied. Such men and women might well have responded to Paine’s plan in chapter 5 for a system of old age pensions, education, child subsidies,–the liniments of the welfare state .

Paine no less in the 1790s than in 1776 appealed to the idealism, indeed the millennial streak among Americans. “It is an age of revolutions in which everything may be looked for” (p 344). And everything was not confined to governments. “When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend because I am a friend of its happiness–when these things can be said then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.” ( p 446)

That Rights of Man thus had the potential to reach a wide audience in the United States is clear. Exactly how popular was it? There is no study of the publishing history of the pamphlet in the United States. It clearly was one of the most widely circulated titles of the I790s. How many copies is difficu1t to say. This time neither Paine - who was in England until 1792 and in France until 1802 - nor any other contemporary made a claim for the total sales in the United States. The frequency and location of printings offers the best clue. Printers were in business to make money. Whatever their politics, they could not afford to bring out non sellers. [Botein; Eliz Reilly thesis]

Using the standard bibliographic guides [Evans; Mooney-Shipton] I count about 26 printings of Rights of Man, 12 of part I in seven different cities and I9 of Part II in six cities, plus several combined printings of Parts I and II. If the circulation statistics are beyond recovery, there are several clues as its popularity. The multiple editions were in the large coastal cities, primarily New York and Philadelphia but there were also editions in small towns where printers had distribution networks into the countryside ( Bennington, Vt, CarlisIe, Penn., Albany, New York and New London, Conn.). Secondly, beginning in 1792 and especially in 1794 printers were willing to risk bringing out the collected works of Paine in two volumes. The Albany printers acted {or a consortium of printers at Lansingburgh, Hudson, Poughkeepsie and New York. Third in Federalist Bogton T and J Fleet who catered to the poor with broadside ballads and chap books, advertised a “cheap edition in two parts stitched together at only 3 shillings” (still cheap allowing for inflation since the 1 shilling price of Common Sense in 1776). My guess, taking into account all of these printings is that Rights of Man had a total circulation of from 50,000 to 100,000. But this does not measure its full readership. It was stocked by circulating libraries; about 266 were in existence by 1800. And passages were frequently reprinted in the newspapers which grew in number from about 100 in 1790 to 230 in 1800.

The Age of Reason. to get a comparison in place, followed from 1794 to 1796 with 18 printings in five cities , seven in New York by John Fellows, the deist. Even Isaiah Thomas America’s most successful printer, ever attuned to what would sell, whether it was Mother Goose or Fanny Hill , brought out two printings in Worcester in central Massachusetts, Congregational and Baptist country. In the l790s it probably did not match Rights of Man in number of copies, although if the number of titles published directly against it are a measure, it was far more provocative.

Measuring the impact of all these copies of Rights of Man is difficult. Unlike Common Sense, it was not focused on a single goal like independence and it circulated over a longer period of time. It began as a cause celebre because of the brouhaha over the first printing of Part I in Philadelphia. Madison sent Jefferson his copy, one of the first to arrive from England, Jefferson by agreement sent it to S. H. Smith, the printer, with a note he claimed he did not intend for publication which Smith ran as a preface: “I am extremely pleased to find it will be reprinted here, and that something is at length to be publicly said against the political heresies which have sprung up amongus. I have no doubt our citizens will rally a second time round the standard of Common Sense”. Jefferson of course had John Adams in mind. Adams obligingly put the shoe on. “I detest that book and its tendency from the bottom of my heart” he wrote privately in 1791. Curbing himself, he allowed his son John Quincy to take on Paine writing as “PubIicola” (which everyone took to be Adams himself). Republican writers took up the gauntlet and the controversy was hot and heavy in the newspapers. It was as if all the characters in the political play had taken their assigned parts, dramatizing the issues Paine was discussing . In l791 shortly after Part I appeared Jefferson wrote enthusiastically to Paine from the capitol at Philadelphia that it was “much read here with avidity and pleasure,” but I can not match this with comment for the rest of the decade.

There are several measures of its impact. One lies in the toasts that were a common feature of political celebrating on the fourth of July or victories of the French Revolution. Toasts in New York may well be representative. In New York City in mid July 1792 the Tammany Society– a fraternal order rising in its liberalism-toasted “The Clarion of Freedom–Thomas Paine” and by December “The Citizen of the Wor1d, Thomas Paine.” The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen toasted, “The mechanic, Thomas Paine”. On July 4, 1793, the Mechanics, Tammany and the Democrats in a joint celebration sang a song “The Rights of Man” which dwelled on the nexus of aristocracy to taxes:

“Luxurious pomp, which brings taxes and woes

No more we’ll maintain with the sweat of our brows.”

and ended

“To conclude– Here’s success to Honest TOM PAINE

May he live to enjoy what he well does explain.”

After 1795 the toasts to Paine seem to fade and when they reappeared again in 1797 it was in a toast from the Patriotic Junior Association which showed that the process of disassociation from deism was underway: “Thomas Paine: May his Rights of Man be handed down to our latest posterity but may his Age of Reason never live to see the rising generation”. [Young Dem Repos book; Simon Newman toasts kindly provided from thesis l991; P Foner toasts]

A second measure of the influence of the pamphlet is the usage of the phrase “the rights of man”. On July Fourth celebrations which were rapidly becoming Democratic-Republican festivals, there invariably was a toast to the “The Rights of Man” but the reference, I think, trag less to the book than to the concept which Paine’s title unquestionably had popularized. In the 1760’s and 1770’s Americans were defending their “liberties” or their “rights as Englishmen”, then their “natural rights” The phrase “rights of man” does not seem to have entered the American political vocabulary until the 1790’s with the French Revolution and thanks to Paine’s pamphlet.

Finally the rhetoric of the democratic-republican societies, some forty to fifty of which made their appearance between 1793 and l797, measure Paine’s influence. The largest and most influential clubs were in the cities where their membership was overwhelmingly drawn from mechanics and tradesmen but included merchants and lawyers. But they were also in smaller cities and country towns, some four in Vermont, two on the Pennsylvania frontier, three in Kentucky, five in South Carolina. They did not, as Federalists charged, owe their founding to Paine or Citizen Genet. Yet as one reads through their statements of principles and resolutions it is impossible not to feel that these were the work of writers who had read Paine. And one can say the same of the more numerous Fourth of July orations under Republican auspices. [Eugene Link; P. Foner, ed documents]

A comparison of the response to Rights of Man in the United States to Great Britain sets off both. The pamphlet almost did for the British what Common Sense had done for Americans in 1776. In the l790’s, we have it on the commanding authority of E.P Thompson, “something like an ‘English Revolution’ took place” [Making 177]. And in this Paine’s pamphlets played a decisive role. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution to which Part I of Rights of Man was addressed, sold an estimated 30,000 copies in two years. Part I sold 50,000 copies in 1791 and by 1793 Parts I and II together, Thompson is convinced, sold 200,000 copies in England, Wales and Scotland. In a population of 10,000,000, this was “in a true sense phenomenal.” Part I was priced at 3 shillings, part II sold at 6 pence.

The pamphlet reached deep into the laboring classes. One could not write for the United States a paragraph comparable to Thompson’s summary for England:

In Sheffield it was said that ‘every cutler’ had a copy. At Newcastle , Paine’s publications were said to be ‘in almost every hand’ and in particular those of the journeymen potters: “more than two thirds of this populous neighborhood are ripe for revolt, especially the lower class inhabitants”. Pai ne’s book was found in Cornish tin-mines, in Mendip villager , in the Scottish highlands, and a little later in most parts of Ireland . . . The book, wrote an English correspondent “is now made as much a standard book in this country as Robinson Crusoe & the Pilgrim’s Progress” . Small wonder then that the government indicted Paine for sedition and after he fled to France tried him and found him guilty in absentia. [Thompson 107-108] The movement for radical reform was suppressed but the book became in the l9th-century in Thompson’s words “a foundation text of the British working class’’ together with The Age of Reason.

The influence of Rights of Man in America, thus it could be argued was neither as widespread nor as intense nor did it sink roots as deeply among the laboring classes and the poor. Rather it percolated through a democratic movement over a period of years, helping to set its tone. Paine was simply not as much of a hero in America in the 1790’s as he was in Britain or as he had been in America in the l770’s. And perhaps this helps to explain why he failed to consolidate his reputation.


Let me return now to the hypotheses I suggested to explain the eclipse of Paine in 1809.

   First the question of Paine's deism. Given the long history of

political opposition to Paine, The Age of Reason was a god-send to his enemies, to use a phrase that would not have found favor with Paine. The attack on it was essentially political. Paine got the nub of it a letter to Samuel Adams in l803. “Al1 this war whoop of the pulpit has some concealed object. Religion is not the cause but is the stalking horse. They put it forward to conceal themselves behind it.” [Foner, ed 1436]

William Duane, the Paineite editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, put it this way:“It is not Thomas Paine’s want of religion but his want of faith in kings and priests that has made him the object of Tory detestation.” [180l Aldrich 277] “His religious sentiments have been denounced for political puroses and nothing else” . [1803] John Adams offered a backhanded confirmation. “His political writings,” he wrote in 1810, “I am singular to believe, have done more harm than his irreligious ones. He understands neither government nor religion” [to Rush.1810 p 156-57 Koch].

The antagonism of evangelical religion to deism was real but we

should not exaggerate it. During the revolutionary era in America at key moments there had been an alliance of evangelicals and deists. The Philadelphia radicals drew from both groups; even in Boston Samuel Adams, the Puritan politician, protected from religious wrath his lieutenant Dr. Thomas Young, the deist who had been tried for blasphemy in New York and whose book Reason the OnIv Oracle of Man co-authored with Ethan Allen would be published after the Revolution. [Maier article] Allen himself was the deist leader of the movement of Congregationalist and Baptist settlers of Vermont who shared a common hatred of New York landlord aristocrats. [Belleseills thesis] And in Virginia Jefferson, the gentleman deist, and Madison formed an alliance with the state’s dissenting sects in a common cause of separating church and state which led to the famous Statute for Religious Liberty in 1796. [Malone on TJ] Baptists all over remembered this and later voted for Jefferson. After 1801 the Baptists of Connecticut paid homage to their benefactor by sending a mammoth 400 pound cheese to President Jefferson in the White House. [Butterfield article]

Paine himself was aware of the common stake in religious liberty of deists and evangelicals in the election campaign for Jefferson in the Fall of 1804. In the sleepy fishing village of Stonington, Connecticut Paine was visited by a group of Baptists who included three ministers: “They cry out against Mr. Jefferson because they say he is a deist,” a Baptist spoke up. “Well a deist may be a good man, and if he think it right, it is right to him. For my own part I had rather vote for a deist than a blue-skin Presbyterian.” (a reference to the rigid Connecticut blue laws)

“You judge right”, Paine responded, “for a man that is not of any of the sectaries will hold the balance between all; but give power to a bigot of any sectary and he will use it to the oppression of the rest, as the blue skins do in Connecticut [Hawke,m p 371 from Foner vol II 1459-060]

Equally important there was a species of evangelical who blended the Bible with Paine. Thompson has called attention to them, in Wales, for example: “itinerant methodist preachers who descant on the Rights of Man and attack Kingly government” [EPT 108]. Nathan Hatch has identified them in the United States. Lorenzo Dow, the Methodist circuit rider, who according to Hatch “preached to more people, travelled more miles, and consistently attracted larger audiences to camp meetings than any preacher in his day” . . . ” could begin a sermon by quoting Tom Paine.” Dow wrote a pamphlet Analects upon the Rights of Man which breathed Paine’s egalitarianism. They shared a “deep seated aversion to traditional inquiry”, (Hatch, Democratization book,36-37)

The religious issue functioned to divide the Jeffersonians. True believers were hostile. Unitarians like Joseph Priestly wanted to disassociate their liberalism from radicalism. [Marcus Daniel thesis] And the Jeffersonian politicians fearful of losing their constituents were scared off. Unwilling to come out of the closet with their deism, such politicians were unwilling to take a stand on the principle that religion was a matter of private opinion. [see Hawke p 353].

Second, Paine’s fading from public memory made possible the attack that isolated him. This was part of the larger problem of passing on the experience of one generation to another, a persistent problem which shocked the revolutionary generation no less than generations before and since. Paine put his finger on it in 1806 after he suffered the humiliation of the New Rochelle election inspectors denying him the right to vote on grounds (inspired by Federalists like Gouverneur Morris) that he was not an American citizen. He beseeched Vice President George Clinton for support “As it is a new generation that has risen up since the declaration of independence, they know nothing of what the political state of the country was at the time the pamphlet Common Sense appeared; and besides this there are but few of the old standers left and known that I know of in this city,” NewYork..[Conway 307]

The institutions that pass on heritage: historians, historical societies, museums, were in their infancy and those underway were often under the auspices of conservative gentry. Fourth of July orations passed on historical abstractions. The tens of thousands of veterans of the Revolution passed on largely their personal experiences by oral transmission. The year Paine died, even conservatives like John Adams were complaining of “a very extraordinary and unaccountable inattention in our countrymen to the History of their own country”. The “original historians” of colonial times were very much neglected” and patriots like Samuel Adams and John Hancock were “almost buried in oblivion” [Adams ms Chi Hist Soc; also Page Smith] Adams, of course was, especially jealous of his own place in history, overshadowed as he had always been by great men Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and defeated in public opinion by men like Paine. But in general most of the men whose chief claim to fame lay in the making of the Revolution were being cast aside in favor of George Washington, the nation builder. Parson Weems life of Washington replete with its fabricated cherry tree stories was on the way to becoming the best selling historical work of the 19th century. To recover the heritage of Paine the radical would require the reappearance of radical movements - British and German immigrant working class radicals, freethinkers and deists. And has it not been ever thus? [Mark Lause article; Sean Wilentz;Michael Kammen]

Finally, Paine, as others have suggested, was the victim of the success of his ideas. There was never a serious prospect of monarchy in America. As Paine put it, “If I ask a man in America if he wants a king, he retorts, and asks me if I take him for an idiot” [Foner 326-27]. The idea of a hereditary aristocracy never took root; see the fate of the Society of Cincinatti. Mathew Lyon, the Vermont Congressman who had been found guilty of Sedition in 1799 for assailing John Adams for “his unbounded thirst for ridiculous Pomp” was reelected to congress from jail while John Adams was retired to private life. In l80l the coercive school of American conservatism was defeated and Jefferson, Madison, the accommodators, took over and even new school Federalists tried accommodation [David Fischer]. Hamilton out of power reflected ruefully “This American world was not for me”.

It was not that the principles of Rights of Man were irrelevant. The Jacobin refugees from English persecution who established themselves as Jeffersonian editors and politicians in American cities took up the causes of expanding suffrage, reforming the judicial system, eliminating English common law and expanding education. [Twomey book] But had not the core of his ideas triumphed?

Neither Paine nor the middle class bearers of his 18th century radicalism were prepared to extend the principles of Book II ch 5 of Rights of Man to do battle in a war on poverty. The causes of poverty to Paine lay in corrupt governments redistributing the “fruits of labor” of the common people via unjust taxes. Neither Paine nor the Paineites were prepared in the first decade of the 19th century to take up the cause of journeymen shoemakers, printers, or furniture makers as they went out on strike against the poverty created by master artisans or take up the cause of women workers in the sweatshops, much less the families of women and children in the new textile mills of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. There was a mote in Paine’s eye in his utopian optimism about America, that may have blinded him to the harshest realities of American life. Others would take up these causes in the next generation.

Perhaps it is fitting to allow John Adams, Paine’s life-long foe to offer the final testimony. Adams is a strange witness to call for the defense. Paine was Adams’s nemesis in 1776, in 1791, even in 180l , his ideas contributing to Adams ’s defeat. Adams’s judgment was not always reliable; he often used hyperbole and he clearly was vitriolic, but over the decades he had calibrated Paine’s influence the way a seismograph tracks an earthquake. In 1805 a friend had written Adams using the phrase the “Age of Reason” to refer to the era of the American and French Revolutions.. Adams was beside himself. “Call it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Fury Brutality . . . or the age of the burning brand from the bottomless Pitt…anything but the age of Reason.” Then he made a quick leap. “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr [satire?] on the age. For such a mongrel between pigs and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the Poltroonery of Mankind to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine”. [ in 147-48 collected Koch; check against original for sp of satyr].