Paine, Thomas

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Paine, Thomas (1737-1809): Anglo-American Political and Religious Thinker.

Thomas Paine was a radical political propagandist for the American revolution and a proponent of deism as a philosophy of natural religion. Paine was born in Thetford in Norfolk, England, of a poor Quaker family. His grammar school education was interrupted at the age of thirteen to begin an apprenticeship in his father’s trade of corset maker, until he went to sea in a privateer at the age of eighteen. He began writing pamphlets on political topics of the day, including his noted (1772) polemic with the self-explanatory title, The Case of the Officers of Excise; with Remarks on the Qualification of Officers, and on the numerous Evils arising to the Revenue, from the Insufficiency of the present Salary: humbly addressed to the Members of both Houses of Parliament.

With the publication of this paper, Paine offended his superiors, was dismissed from his post, and shortly after separated from his second wife. He emigrated to the American colonies in 1774 on the advice of Franklin, Benjamin, whom he met in London and who helped finance Paine’s relocation. Paine settled in Philadelphia and began working as a journalist, writing for the Pennsylvania Magazine. Although he had been in America for less than a year, Paine quickly became involved in the struggle for American independence. On 10 January 1776, he published the work for which he is probably best known, the influential pamphlet Common Sense. Avoiding technical jargon or abstruse philosophical consideration, Paine, as the title of his pamphlet indicated, emphasized widely known facts and commonsense political reasoning that were awaiting someone of his ability to articulate for a popular readership. Paine declares that government is a necessary evil limited to regulatory functions that can only be tempered to avoid infringements of individual liberty by frequent free elections in a representative democracy. Paine was among the first revolutionists to call for a declaration of American independence from the British monarchy. The impact of Common Sense, selling more than 500,000 copies, frequently reprinted and widely circulated from hand to hand among the American colonists, was decisive in the eventual decision of the Continental Congress to issue its Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, written primarily by Jefferson, Thomas, but powerfully presided over by the Enlightenment spirit of Paine’s Common Sense.

From August 1776 to January 1777, Paine put his ideals into practice by serving as an infantryman in George Washington’s Continental Army. While at the front, he began writing sixteen papers on the revolution and its challenges for the Pennsylvania Journal, collected as the American Crisis, and published between 1776 and 1783. In 1777, Paine was appointed Congressional Secretary of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, but resigned in 1790 after a scandal in which he was accused of disclosing confidential state secrets. In American Crisis, Paine castigates persons reluctant to engage the British in the battle for independence, makes a compelling case for an integrated Federal and State tax system to finance the war, and argues for the inevitability of British recognition of American independence.

Paine returned to England in 1787, and in the 1790’s, he began again to immerse himself in political affairs, this time in support of the French revolution. In 1791-2, Paine published his most important contribution to political philosophy, the Rights of Man, in which he defended political rights for all persons on the grounds of their natural equality under God and concluded, much as in the American Crisis, that only a republic founded on the democratic principles could protect the equal rights of all citizens, who were to benefit from his detailed program of social legislation aimed at alleviating poverty. Paine, who had also hoped by his writings to ferment social revolution in Britain, was forced to leave England in September 1792, whereupon he relocated to France. In August 1792, he became a French citizen and was subsequently elected to the National Convention. Incapable as ever of compromising his principles, Paine soon ran afoul of the Committee of Public Safety and was imprisoned in Paris until released through the intercession of the new American minister, James Monroe. Ironically, Paine, who was thought to be too radical for his native land, in part because of his opposition to execution by guillotine of King Louis XVI, was simultaneously perceived as too moderate by the extreme Jacobin faction that came to dominate the French revolution during the Reign of Terror.

It was during his incarceration that Paine began work on his most ambitious work, The Age of Reason, published in 1794-1795. In this philosophical work, Paine rejects Christianity, expressed his commitment to science in the person of Isaac Newton, and argues that nature reveals the existence of God in the lawlike order of the universe. Paine denies that the Bible is the revealed word of God and maintains that many of its stories are immoral and riddled with logical inconsistencies. The Age of Reason is Paine’s manifesto for deism, the view that a God probably exists as the intelligent designer of the universe, but that there is no reason to attribute any moral attributes that to god obligate human beings to worship God or consider God a righteous judge. Paine’s political and religious activities earned him considerable enmity in France as in England, and in October 1802, he returned to the United States. Although warmly welcomed by Jefferson, Paine remained impoverished, officially neglected, and in ill health, until his death on 8 June 1809.

Although by most standard Paine’s life and political work were largely unsuccessful, he embodies Enlightenment ideals of the advancement of science, individual liberty, and free thinking in religion and liberal social reform. With his pen rather than directly through participation in the great political movements of his day, Paine exerted a powerful influence on the reshaping of government in three nations and bequeathed a legacy of impassioned humanistic reason in politics and religion that remains a testament to the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Further Reading:

Ian Dyck, ed., Citizen of the World: Essays on Thomas Paine, 1988.

John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life, 1995.

Dale Jacquette