Interface: NPS shield
Navigation: National Park Service siteNavigation: U.S. Department of the Interiror site
Interface: The American Revolution, Lighting Freedom's Flame
Navigation:  About the Revolution
+ Timeline of Events
+ Revolution Day by Day
+ Revolutionary Stories
+ Revolutionary People
+ Revolutionary Links
Navigation:  Revolutionary Parks
Navigation: Revolutionary Learning
Navigation: Unfinished Revolution
Navigation: Contact
  Interface:  Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809)  
by Bob Blythe

Image: Thomas PaineThe most important political tract of the Revolution was written not by a lawyer or university-educated philosopher, but by a former corset maker. This tract, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, appeared in January 1776, when most Americans were hoping for a reconciliation with Britain. Common Sense argued in clear and forceful language that the time had come for the colonists to declare their independence. Their liberty would never be safe while Britain governed them, he argued, because the “so much boasted constitution of England” included two “constitutional errors”: monarchy and hereditary rule. Paine urged the Americans to create a new form of government - a modern republic - based entirely on popular consent. Within a few months, 200,000 copies of the pamphlet were in circulation.

Thomas Paine was the son of a Quaker corset maker, Joseph Paine, of Thetford, England. He attended grammar school in England until he was thirteen, when he was forced to end his education and become an apprentice in his father’s trade. Paine soon left corset making and from 1756 to 1774, he tried a number of occupations, working as a teacher, grocer, tobacco seller, and excise tax collector. Without a head for practical affairs, Paine was unsuccessful in all of these endeavors.

While in London, Paine met Benjamin Franklin, who was acting as an agent to the British government for colonial interests. Widely renowned for his experiments with electricity, Franklin wrote letters of introduction for Paine, who had decided to pursue a new life in America. Paine settled in Philadelphia in late 1774, barely a year before Common Sense appeared. He soon became a journalist, contributing articles to local newspapers. Paine was largely self-educated, having closely studied the political and scientific thought of the age. He developed a powerful and direct prose style that was accessible to men and women from all walks of life.

Following the huge success of Common Sense in 1776, Paine served briefly in the Continental Army, but his most valuable service was as a propagandist. Throughout the war, he wrote installments of the Crisis, which circulated around the campfires of the army, helping to keep up the troops’ morale. The introduction to the first number of the Crisis contains language that is still widely known:

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.

Image: Common Sense pamphlet from the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park museum collection.Following the American Revolution, Paine returned to Britain to oversee the construction of an iron bridge that he had designed. A fascination with mechanical devices was another aspect of Paine’s wide-ranging curiosity. When the French Revolution began in 1789, he was one of its first British supporters. As a result, the French made Paine a citizen and elected him to their assembly. His Rights of Man, published in 1791-92, remains a classic articulation of the need for republican forms of government to safeguard human rights. Banned from Britain for his radical beliefs, Paine was briefly imprisoned in France during the Reign of Terror. While in prison, he was able to continue work on another of his writings, The Age of Reason, published in two parts in 1794 and 1796. Also, in 1796, Paine published an open Letter to George Washington. His accusations that the president was indifferent to his plight in France tarnished Paine’s reputation in the United States.

Paine returned to the United States in 1802. His attack on Washington and false reports that he was an atheist caused him to be shunned by respectable society. He divided his time between his house in New Rochelle, New York, and lodgings in New York City and Bordentown, New Jersey. Paine died in New York City in 1809. Agitator, pamphleteer, Deist, abolitionist, inventor—Thomas Paine embodied the revolutionary radicalism of the eighteenth century. More than anyone, he exemplified the new possibilities available in the age of America’s revolution.

To learn more:

Thomas Paine, Common Sense, the Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings, edited by Jack Fruchtman (New York: Signet, 2003).

Jack Fruchtman, Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994).

John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life (New York: Little, Brown, 1995).


< back to biography listing


Navigation: Privacy NoticeNavigation: Disclaimer
  Last Updated: Thursday, 04-Dec-2008 9:30
Navigation: Credits and Questions Navigation: NPS Home