Tom Paine - Revolutionist by Jean Simon

by Jean Simon (1952)

Thomas Paine was born on Jan. 29, 1737. On Jan. 10, 1776, his historic call for the American revolution, Common Sense was published. Both of these events nowadays receive passing notice. But for those who seek to understand the dynamics of the revolutionary process in America and the role outstanding individuals played in that process, Tom Paine deserves a much larger place than the official hero-makers give him.

Most history books, if they mention Paine at all, merely note the undeniable fact that Common Sense was an important contribution to the preparation of the public mind for the open revolt against England. Few attempt to explain what went into the making of the man and why he was able to leave his indelible mark on American history.

Early Background

Tom Paine was born in Thetford, England, the son of a Quaker staymaker (corset maker), a handicraft of the same category as shoemaking or tailoring in that day; his mother was a conservative Church of England member. So from his earliest childhood Paine’s critical approach to religion was stimulated, by the differences in his own home.

An only child, he was sent for six or seven years to a local grammar school which differed from most in that it provided some education in history and science. He left school at the age of 13 to be taught staymaking. He ran away to sea after five years, was brought back home by his father before he could actually leave the country, but ran away again, this time to spend a brief period on a privateer.

During the rest of his early life in England he supported himself by working from time to time as an exciseman, as a staymaker and as a teacher.

Philosophical Influence

In London in 1757 he attended philosophical lectures at night. The lecturer was A. Ferguson, author of the History of Civil Society (1750) which is quoted favorably by Marx in Capital. Marx refers to Ferguson as Adam Smith’s predecessor and an economist who had a keen appreciation of the harmful effects of the development of capitalist manufacture on the worker. Ferguson undoubtedly influenced Paine’s philosophical and political-economic thinking, as expressed in his later writings.

Paine also participated in philosophical debates in a club that met at the White Hart Tavern in Lewes, where he was stationed as an exciseman, or government tax inspector, in 1768.

In 1772 he acted as spokesman for the excisemen seeking an increase in pay. He wrote a tract called The Case of the Officers of the Excise which cited the discrepancy between their nominal salary and their real wages, described the scope and effects of poverty, and urged the government in its own self-interest to raise wages in order to guarantee the honesty and loyalty of its employees by removing temptations.

Spokesman in a Wage Struggle

Subsidized by the contributions of the excisemen, Paine published the report and spent some time in London lobbying It Parliament. The net result of his negotiations was no raise for the men, and the spotting of Paine as a “trouble-maker” to be removed at the first opportunity.

While in London, Paine met Benjamin Franklin, who was there on behalf of the colonies, made a favorable impression and later received a letter of recommendation from him to friends in Philadelphia.

Then Paine was finally removed from his government job, for being “absent without leave,” he settled his financial accounts by selling the property of a small shop he and his wife and maintained, separated from his wife, and left for Philadelphia, where he arrived November 30, 1774, with Franklin’s letter of introduction.

In Revolutionary America

By January 1775 he was editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, and actively interested in the colonial cause. The issue of independence had not yet been set forth positively by the revolutionary leaders, who still functioned on the basis of demands for reforms.

The first clear-cut call to the masses to break with England and monarchy, to give up the “patchwork” of reform and embark on the revolutionary course of independence, was issued in Paine’s Common Sense , published in January 1776. With this Paine took his place as the chief propagandist of the American Revolution.

The pamphlet was written in simple, direct language, devoid of all obscure historical, biblical and other learned references and allusions so common in the literary style of the day. It was a powerful appeal to every segment of the population to join in a broad united front to win complete freedom from England and embark on a career as an independent nation.

A biographer of Thomas Paine has called Common Sense “This pamphlet, whose effect has never been paralleled in literary history …” The passage of 60 years since this comment was written has seen great mass socialist movements and a response to Marxist pamphlets far overshadowing Paine. Nevertheless, the effect of Paine’s great tract has still never been paralleled by anything in the literary history of the United States.

Program of the Revolution

We must recall that when Paine penned Common Sense , the full program of

the Revolution had not as yet been given to the people. The Revolutionary War was under way, and the people were in effect fighting for independence, but without as yet realizing it. No one, not even Samuel Adams himself, had as yet put forward the full revolutionary program; not openly at any rate. All minds were weighed down by the incubus of past centuries: monarchy, empire, feudal servitude, all the untouchables of bygone days clouded the minds of the living.

Into this atmosphere, Thomas Paine flung his remarkable pamphlet, which advocated, at one stroke, independence, republicanism, equalitarian democracy, and intercolonial unity! The Revolution was thenceforward armed with a program, or, to put the matter precisely, the program that was in the minds and private conversation of most radicals became the public property of the revolution.

Paine’s great literary gift sparkles from every page of Common Sense He stirred the workers and farmers of colonial times with his blunt and unceremonious comments, such as this:

“In England a King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places (jobs); which, in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshiped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”

In similar blunt terms, he made out the case for completing the Revolution by independence. “Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, `TIS TIME TO PART.’” These words sank into the consciousness of the new nation, and prepared the way for the Declaration of Independence, which followed in six months.

Indicative of how popular Paine’s arguments were, Common Sense immediately became a best seller. About one hundred thousand copies were sold within the first six months after its publication. Since there was no copyright law, several pirated editions were also widely sold, so that the total distribution of the pamphlet is estimated at at least three hundred thousand - and this at a time when the population was less than three million!

Paine and the Crisis

Paine's other major literary contributions to the American revolution

were the Crisis papers, issued periodically throughout the war. Aimed at maintaining the morale of the soldiers and the colonial forces, they reported on the events in the war, polemicized against the British and American Tories appealed to the British people, and exuded revolutionary optimism despite defeats.

It is difficult to measure the effect of any particular document, but the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the first Crisis pamphlet give some indication of the basis for the comment of Joel Barlow, a contemporary American poet who served as minister to France under Madison. “The great American cause owed as much to the pen of Paine as to the sword of Washington,” Barlow wrote.

Morale was at a low ebb when Paine started the Crisis series. From August to December 1776, the Americans had suffered defeats, retreats and desertions. Congress had fled to Baltimore. Washington’s freezing soldiers were retreating across New Jersey. Paine, who was accompanying them, gauged the mood and the need correctly, when, without false optimism, he wrote the now famous lines:

“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 his country; but be that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like bell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Washington had the pamphlet read aloud to every army detachment. A few nights later the army made the icy crossing of the Delaware that has been immortalized in painting and story, and won the victory at Trenton that began to turn the tide.

Paine as a Man of Action

Acknowledgments of the tremendous role played by Paine in mobilizing

sentiment for the revolution have been plentiful from his enemies as well as his friends, and from all the leaders of the colonial struggle as well as historians since. But few give a rounded picture of his activity in the revolution.

In July 1776 Paine joined the Army as volunteer secretary to General Roberdeau, commander of the Flying Camp, an outfit that moved quickly to trouble spots where it was needed. From there Paine went “to the army of General Nathaniel Greene as volunteer aide-de-camp.

In January 1777 Paine was appointed secretary of a commission to treat with the Indians in eastern Pennsylvania. His activities in Pennsylvania and around the Continental Congress continued throughout the war, and were by no means limited to legal and official bodies. He served, for example on the Committee of Inspection, a price control committee formed at a mass meeting in Philadelphia on May 27, 1779, to deal with merchants, innkeepers and others engaging in war-profiteering at the expense of the public. As W.E. Woodward puts it in his biography of Paine: “The committee had no legal standing, but it proposed to accomplish its ends by popular pressure; or by force, if necessary.”

In April 1776 he was elected secretary of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, formerly the Committee on Secret Correspondence, but was induced to resign on January 9, 1779, after he had exposed what he considered shady dealings in some of the secret diplomacy of individuals involved in securing French aid for the revolution.

When Philadelphia was about to be attacked by the British in September 1777, Paine was convinced the city could be saved if the citizens were called out, fully informed on the military situation, and mobilized to build barricades and prepare for street-fighting.

Paine went to General Mifflin, who was then in the city, with his proposal, asking Mifflin, in his own words,

“if two or three thousand men could be mustered up whether we might depend on him to command them, for without someone to lead, nothing could be done. He declined that part, not being then very well, but promised what assistance he could. A few hours after this the alarm happened. I went directly to General Mifflin but he had set off, and nothing was done. I cannot help being of the opinion that the city might have been saved …”

His Selflessness

In 1779 Paine’s chronic poverty was in a particularly acute stage, but within six months of his election as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly in November, he contributed $500 of his annual salary to head a subscription list for the relief of the Army. The funds raised were used to establish the Bank of Pennsylvania to provide for the Army’s needs.

Paine resigned his post in November 1780 and went on a mission to France, seeking aid for the colonies. He returned in August with 2,500,000 livres, but Paine was so broke that he had to borrow ferry passage across the Delaware on his way home.

Upon the conclusion of the war Paine spent most of his time at his home in Bordentown, N.J., working on his inventions. A typical product of the spirit of scientific inquiry of his age, he was preoccupied after the revolution with the development of his idea for an iron bridge planned for the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia. He also worked on a planing machine, a new type of crane, an improved carriage wheel, and smokeless candles. He corresponded with Franklin, who encouraged him to continue.

A Permanent Radical

Paine left for France with his model bridge on April 26, 1787. When he returned to America fifteen years later, revolutionary sentiment had so far abated that he was much too radical for his former colleagues and he was now a pariah where he had been a hero. He still had some friends, but persons were publicly discriminated against for holding to his views. Jefferson, however, invited him to stay for a while at the Executive Mansion, and he did. An attempt to murder Paine was made at his New Rochelle home on Christmas Eve 1804. Though he suspected Christopher Derrick, a local laborer, this revolutionist who exalted objectivity and abhorred personal vindictiveness refused to press charges.

In January 1805 Paine went to New York City to live. He and his admirers continued to he victimized for his views. When he went to vote in New Rochelle on Election Day, 1806, the witch-hunters of his time, got in their final blow: they charged that the man who had lived for nothing but the American cause and the spreading of its principles to Europe was an alien, and denied him the ballot.

When Paine died on June 8, 1809, after prolonged illness, at 59 Grove St., New York City, he had been reduced to almost complete friendlessness, so that the only attendants at his funeral in New Rochelle were a Quaker watchmaker, friends from France - Mrs. Bonnevine and her two sons - and two Negro pall-bearers.

Revolutionary Concept of World Scope

The significance of the man and his ideas remain, but they cannot be fully appreciated on the basis of his role in the American Revolution alone. Paine was not a narrow patriot in the modern sense. He was a principled revolutionist first, and when he went to France, and then England, after American independence was established, he continued to’ champion the struggles against the ancient order in those countries as whole-heartedly as he had the American cause. “Where liberty is not there is my country,” he is said to have declaimed at his departure from America.

During his stay in England he was the guest of Edmund Burke and other Whig leaders for a period, while they were trying to court favorable trade relations with America. But their friendship cooled when they found him unsympathetic to their proposals.

Paine arrived in Paris in 1789 when the French Revolution was underway. Lafayette gave Paine the key to the Bastille as a token of esteem for George Washington, symbol of the American Revolution.

When the French Revolution was viciously attacked and the divine right of kings upheld by Burke in his Reelections, published in 1790, Paine took up his pen again in defense of revolution, and wrote an answer, Part I of the Rights of Man. It was approved by the English Society for Promoting Constitutional Knowledge, and other democratic groups; but created a considerable controversy not only in England, but in America as well. Jefferson, Madison and Randolph commended it, and Jefferson sent it to an American printer.

Activity in French Revolution

In July 1791 Paine was a prime mover in the organization of the Republican Society which aimed at the overthrow of monarchy and establishment of a French Republic. At the time, many who were later to become Jacobins were still hesitant about advocating the abolition of monarchy, but the Republican Society placarded Paris with a manifesto written by Paine demanding the abdication of the king and elimination of the office.

In November of the same year, back in London, Paine was guest of honor at the annual dinner of the Revolution Society formed to commemorate the English Revolution of 1688. There he made a speech toasting “The Revolution of the World” - the first man to raise that slogan, according to some historians. His remarks were noted and added to the dossier of the British government’s preparations to arrest him for sedition.

Part II of the Rights of Man was a continuation of the attack on monarchy and aristocracy, and was dedicated to Lafayette. Its publication early in 1792 evoked a veritable lynch campaign against Paine in England. Burke’s supporters instigated public protest meetings, book-burnings of the Rights of Man, and the distribution of medallions bearing slogans like “The End of Pain,” “The Wrongs of Man,” and “We dance; Paine swings.” Paine’s publisher was arrested for printing seditious literature, and the legal sale of the book was stopped by royal proclamation. Black market sales continued.

Paine fought the attack on his writings, distributing free copies of the Rights of Man and encouraging his supporters to stand up for his ideas at meetings called to incite feeling against them.

Meanwhile the book was translated into French and acclaimed in that country. In August 1792 the French Assembly conferred the honorary title of Citizen on him, and four departments elected him to represent them in the National Convention. Consequently, when the English issued a warrant for his arrest, he left for France. He was found guilty of high treason in England in his absence.

In France, Paine participated in the Convention with the Girondists. He was selected October 11 to help draft the constitution but he incurred popular disfavor when he attempted to save the life of the king by urging banishment instead of death, and was eventually expelled from the Convention in December 1793.

While awaiting the next turn of events in the Revolution, he completed his The Age of Reason, an attack on the Bible and organized religion and an exposition of his Deist views.

Paine was arrested by order of a Committee of Public Safety in January 1794. Through the machinations of the American representative in France at the time, his old enemy, the arch-conservative Gouverneur Morris, Paine was disclaimed as an American citizen and kept in prison: Only when Morris was finally recalled at the request of the French, and replaced with James Monroe, was Paine released.

He remained in France, living with Monroe while completing Part II of The Age of Reason. Later, when he was living with the editor and publisher, Nicolas Bonneville, Paine was approached by Bonaparte on the prospect of leading a liberating army in an invasion of England. The project did not materialize, but seven years later, in 1804, Paine wrote a letter To The People of England on the Invasion of England in which he still fancied the idea, which was again being discussed, “as the intention of the expedition was to give the people of England an opportunity of forming a government for themselves, and thereby bring about peace.”

The world revolutionist had considerable difficulty in getting back to America, since Britain ruled the seas and he was a marked man. In March 1801, Jefferson, then president, wrote Paine that a frigate would pick him up. Jefferson was attacked for this in America, and Paine declined the offer to save his friend further difficulties on this score. When the war between England and France ended, so that French ships were no longer liable to attack, Paine sailed for the United States, arriving October 30, 1802.

His active personal participation in the British and French revolutionary movements was at an end, but he continued to write pamphlets and letters, such as the letter to the English people mentioned above, and a series of Letters to the Citizens of the United States, attacking the Federalists.

Paine was reviled by his contemporary opponents, misrepresented by writers who repeated their slanders later, and has been inadequately or falsely, depicted also by the modern liberals who have claimed to “rehabilitate” him. Of his contemporaries, the British opponents of American independence would, under ordinary circumstances, be the least important since their bias is clear. But many of Paine’s anti-democratic attackers on this side of the Atlantic could find nothing better to base their slanders on than the interested political hack jobs written by professional propagandists of the British Crown, and therefore it is necessary to trace such slanders to their source.

Two of the earliest hatchet jobs done on Paine, were biographies written by Francis Oldys, A.M., who was actually George Chalmers, a London government clerk, and James Cheetham, an Englishman who came to America to edit an anti-democratic newspaper. Chalmers’ book was published in the heat of the controversy between Burke and Paine over the French Revolution.

But Paine’s revolutionary ideas made him the butt of equally vicious attack in America. John Adams, for example, labeled him “the filthy Tom Paine,” an epithet that has been continued through modern times.

The New England Palladium called Paine a “lying, drunken, brutal infidel, who rejoiced in the opportunity of basking and wallowing in the confusion, bloodshed, rapine, and murder in which his soul delights.”

More recent examples of how the early slanders affected his reputation are the fact that Paine’s name was voted down for the Hall of Fame, where other Revolutionary leaders are honored; Theodore Roosevelt referred to him as a “filthy little atheist,” and as late as 1942 the Fairmount Park Commission of Philadelphia refused to permit the erection of a statue of Paine because of his “reputed religious views.”

Paine has not fared so well at the hands of the school of “objective historians” or the liberals who have attempted to “rehabilitate” him, either.

Curtis P. Nettels of Cornell University, in The Roots of American Civilization (1946) stigmatizes Paine as a “restless English adventurer in radicalism and idealism,” and credits Common Sense, the most important single piece of literature for independence in the arsenal of the radicals of 1776, as having been “written in a rough, vigorous, flamboyant style that drove home with fierce blows the necessity of independence.”

W.E. Woodward, in Tom Paine: America’s Godfather, (1945) finds it necessary to deprive him of lasting significance by stating that “Paine was not a radical within the meaning of that term as it is used today. He was an individualist.”

John C. Miller, in Triumph of Freedom, 1775-1783, (1948) says that Paine reversed his line of criticism of the French government before the revolution in that country, accepting a bribe in the form of an offer to serve as paid propagandist for France in America. Paine answered that could slander himself.

Miller adds that Paine’s irreligion was so bad that Sam Adams had to rebuke him for contributing to the “depravity of the younger generation.”

James Truslow Adams, in The History of New England, 1691-1776 (1941), repeats the condescending characterization of Common Sense: “Crude and coarse as it was, it was written in words of power.”

Probably the best of the liberal treatments of Paine is that of Charles Beard in The Rise of American Civilization, which, though sketchily, gives some indication of Paine’s principled consistency as an outstanding product of his times, as one who played an important part in helping shape revolutionary thinking, and as a courageous fighter whose plebian insight gave his writing a force that none of the superficial m- apologetic defenders of the propertied classes could equal.

Paine was in the vanguard of the progressive bourgeois revolution of his day influenced by the classical political economists such as Ferguson and Adam Smith, and the natural rights philosophy, he was well equipped to attack and refute the apologists for the status quo like Burke.

In the Rights of Man and other works, Paine expressed the same logic and concreteness in his approach to labor as on other questions. “Several laws are in existence for regulating and limiting workmen’s wages,” he wrote. “Why not leave them as free to make their own bargains, as lawmakers are to let their farms and houses.”

Paine opposed monarchy, slavery, poverty, organized religion and the Bible, and the unequal status of women. He was an advocate of universal education, reform of criminal law, pensions far the aged and other social security measures, reduction of armaments and universal peace.

But Paine was no meek pacifist: in writing on his proposal for reduction of armaments, he said that if others should refuse to disarm, he would take up his musket and thank God for giving him the strength to do so. Moreover his enlistment in the colonial army and his whole life of revolutionary activity belie the picture some historians paint of him as a Quaker pacifist.

The explanation for the popularity of his writings, their broad mass appeal, is undoubtedly to be found in the fact that of all the American revolutionary leaders and writers, he was one who by his origin, background and way of life represented the plebian masses and consequently could consistently give more content to the democratic slogans and ideas of the time.

His popularity with the masses was based on his democratic convictions. Sam Adams, the chief organizer of the First American Revolution, also drew his chief strength from reliance on the masses. That Paine was in contact with and worked closely with Adams is indicated in the following quotation from a letter to Adams dated Jan. 1, 1803:

“I am obliged to you for your affectionate remembrance of what you style my services in awakening the public mind to a declaration of independence, and supporting it after it was declared. I also, like you, have often looked back on those times, and have thought that if independence had not been declared at the time it was, the public mind could not have been brought up to it afterwards.

“It will immediately occur to you, who were so intimately acquainted with the situation of things at that time, that I allude to the black times of Seventy-six; for though I know, and you my friend also know, they were no other than the natural consequences of the military blunders of that campaign, the country might have viewed there as proceeding from a natural inability to support its cause against the enemy, and have sunk under the despondency of that misconceived idea. This was the impression against which it was necessary that the country should be strongly animated.”

Paine’s view of himself and the revolution was clearly stated in another article. “I had no thought of independence or of arms” (upon arriving in America), he wrote.

“The world could not then have persuaded me that I should be either a soldier or an author. If I had any talents for either, they were buried in me, and might ever have continued so, had not the necessity of the times dragged and driven them into action.”

But Paine’s talents as a soldier and author were based on still another quality: he was a revolutionary thinker, honest, courageous, and prepared to go to the root of things. As he put it: “When precedents fail to assist us, we must return to the first principles of things for information, and think as if we were the first men that thought.” That was Tom Paine, revolutionist.