Thomas Paine

(February 9 1737 – June 8 1809)

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was an English republican, anticlerical deist and social reformer who became involved in the American and French revolutions.

“The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

Early years

Thomas Pain, as his name was most often spelt before his emigration to the American colonies in 1774, was born in Thetford, Norfolk.

He was apprenticed to his father’s profession of staymaker, which was later a gift to the caricaturists such as James Gilray.

His first marriage, to Mary Lambert, while working as a staymaker at 20 New Street, Sandwich, Kent from 1759 ended in the tragedy of his wife’s death in childbirth. Following the advice of his father-in-law he joined the excisemen and was appointed to a post in Lincolnshire.

His uncovering of corruption however led to his dismissal, and for a while he tried working as a teacher in London.

In 1768 he was reinstated to the excise service and moved to Lewes, in Sussex. His second marriage was to Elizabeth Ollive, the daughter of his landlord at Bull House, High Street, Lewes Sussex. There he attended meetings of the Headstrong Club which met at the White Hart Inn and debated philosophical and political issues. His colleagues called on him to write a petition to the government to improve their pay and conditions. This was his first published pamphlet The Case of the Officers of Excise. However it led once more to his dismissal.

To America and revolution

He resolved to emigrate to the American colonies, and Elizabeth agreed to a separation. He had been fortunate to make the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, who was at that time the American representative in London, who was willing to give him a letter of introduction to people of influence in Philadelphia.

Despite becoming severely ill with typhus on the voyage, Paine recovered and found his true vocation as a writer for the Pennsylvania Magazine. Early articles advocated the abolition of slavery and equality for women.

The beginnings of the American revolution (1774-1787) led him to write Common Sense which advocated a complete break from the British monarchy, and the establishment of a republic, and once the struggle was underway he wrote a series of pamphlets The American Crisis, the first of which General Washington ordered to be read to his troops before a crucial battle. He also served as a footsoldier in the war, and was sent to France in 1781 to obtain financial support for the cause. Congress and the State of New York recognized his services by a grant of land at New Rochelle.

In 1787 he returned to England with a view to having his design for an iron bridge built. It was in London, at the premises of the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson that he encountered Mary Wollstonecraft and other radical thinkers and artists like William Godwin, Henry Fuseli, and William Blake.

The French Revolution

The French revolution of 1789, disrupted Paine’s plans. The writings of his former friend Edmund Burke against the revolution, inspired first Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindicaton of the Rights of Men (1790) and the first part of Paine’s own Rights of Man 1791. Its advocacy of republicanism resulted in the authorities issuing an order for his arrest. According to a possibly apocryphal tale it was William Blake who warned him to escape to France before being charged with treason.

In 1792, Wollstonecraft followed up with her Vindication of the Rights of Women, and the second part of Paine’s Rights of Man anticipated many aspects of the modern welfare state. He allowed it to be printed freely, and although banned the work was read widely and influenced campaigners such as Thomas Hardy of the London Correspondence Society and later Richard Carlile among many others.

In France Paine was elected to the National Convention. There, since he argued against the terror, he fell foul of Robespierre. Despite being seriously ill he was kept in prison, under threat of the guillotine, for nearly a year 1793-4, and was only released when the new American Ambassador James Monroe, petitioned for his release as an American citizen. While in jail he wrote part of his anti-religious work the Age of Reason. The Monroes also nursed him until he recovered, and he retired to his farm the United States in 1802.

In a strange turn of events, his bones were dug up and sent to England by his admirer William Cobbett in 1819, but were somehow lost.

The first memorial to him in England was the bust on the frontage of Leicester’s Secular Hall, erected in 1881. A statue in Thetford was commissioned, with funding from US airmen stationed nearby, in 1963. Another statue was unveiled in Lewes on 4 July 2010.

See also…