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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Nearly Forgotten Founding Father

By Tom Morrow

Not all of our so-called “Founding Fathers” sat in Independence Hall or rode with Washington in battle. British-born Thomas Paine armed himself with a pen and wrote two of the most influential papers to help fuel the American Revolution.

Paine, born February 9, 1737, was an American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, authoring the influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution: Common Sense and The American Crisis, inspiring patriots to declare independence from Britain.

Born in Thetford in the English county of Norfolk, Paine migrated to the British American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin, arriving just in time to participate in the American Revolution. Virtually every rebel read (or listened to a reading of) his powerful pamphlet Common Sense (1776), proportionally the all-time best-selling American title, which crystallized the rebellious demand for independence from Great Britain. Paine’s The American Crisis (1776–1783) was a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series. Common Sense was so influential that John Adams said: “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Paine’s work, which advocated the right of the people to overthrow their government, was duly targeted by the British, issuing a writ for his arrest in early 1792. Paine fled to France in September where, rather immediately and despite not being able to speak French, he was elected to the French National Convention. But, in December 1793, he was arrested and taken to Luxembourg Prison in Paris. While in prison, he continued to work on The Age of Reason (1793-1794). Future In November 1794, U.S. President James Monroe used his diplomatic connections to get Paine released.

Paine became notorious because of his pamphlets. He argued against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular. He published the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1797), discussing the origins of property and introduced the concept of a guaranteed-minimum income.

During the course of the American Revolution, a total of about 500,000 copies of Common Sense were sold, including unauthorized editions. It was passed around and often read aloud in taverns, contributing significantly to spreading the idea of republicanism, bolstering enthusiasm for separation from Britain, and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army.

Paine’s attack on monarchy in Common Sense is essentially an attack on George III. Whereas colonial resentments were originally directed primarily against the king’s ministers and Parliament, Paine laid the responsibility firmly at the king’s feet.

Common Sense was immensely popular in disseminating to a very wide audience ideas that were already in use among the elite who comprised Congress and the leadership cadre of the emerging nation, who rarely cited Paine’s arguments in their public calls for independence.

Some American revolutionaries objected to Common Sense. Late in life John Adams called it a “crapulous mass.” Adams disagreed with the type of radical democracy promoted by Paine (that men who did not own property should still be allowed to vote and hold public office). Adams published Thoughts on Government in 1776 to advocate a more conservative approach to republicanism.

In late 1776, Paine published his second pamphlet, The American Crisis to inspire Americans in their battles against the British army. General Washington had The American Crisis read aloud to them. It begins:

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 their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph…”

In 1802, he returned to the U.S. where he died on June 8, 1809, in more or less obscurity. Only six people attended his funeral as he had been ostracized for his ridicule of Christianity.

Paine’s writing has endured through the ages as bricks in the foundation of democracy. At the time of his death, most U.S. newspapers reprinted the obituary notice from the New York Evening Post that was, in turn, quoting from The American Citizen: “He had lived long, did some good, and much harm.”

He was buried under a walnut tree on his farm near New York City.