Thomas Paine



Thomas Paine

Edited Appletons Encyclopedia,
Copyright © 2008 Stan Klos

 

 

PAINE, Thomas, born in Thetford, Norfolk, England, 29 January, 1737; died in New York, 8 June, 1809. His father was a Quaker and stay-maker, and Paine was brought up to the trade. He left home before reaching his majority, and went to London, but soon moved to Sandwich, where he married the daughter of an excise man and entered the excise service. On the death of his wife, who lived but a year, he returned to London, and, after teaching, re-entered the excise service, in which he remained for some years, employing some of his leisure time in writing prose and verse and preaching from dissenting pulpits. He was selected by his official associates to embody in a paper their complaints and desires regarding the management of the excise: and on this work he displayed such ability as a writer that Benjamin Franklin, then the Pennsylvania colony's agent at London, suggested that America would be a more satisfactory field for the exercise of his special abilities. Naturally a republican and radical, and so persistent a critic of England's government and political customs that he seemed almost to hate his native land, Paine came to this country in 1774, and, through letters from Franklin, at once found work for his pen. Within a year he became editor of the "Pennsylvania Magazine," and in the same year contributed to Bradford's "Pennsylvania Journal" a strong antislavery essay. 

The literary work that gave him greatest prominence, and probably has had more influence than all his other writings combined, was "Common Sense," a pamphlet published early in 1776, advocating absolute independence from the mother country. In this little book appeared all the arguments that had been made in favor of separation, each being stated with great clearness and force, yet with such simplicity as to bring them within the comprehension of all classes of readers. The effect of this pamphlet was so powerful, instantaneous, and general that the Pennsylvania legislature voted Paine £500, the university of the state conferred upon him the degree of M. A., and the Philosophical society admitted him to membership. " Common Sense" soon appeared in Europe in different languages, and is still frequently quoted by republicans in European nations. His "Crisis," which appeared at irregular intervals during the war for independence, was also of great service to the patriot cause; the first number, published in the winter of 1776, was read, by Washington's order, to each regiment and detachment in the service, and did much to relieve the despondency that was general in the army at that time. 

It has frequently been asserted that Paine was the author of the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, but the evidence offered is far from conclusive. After serving a short time in the army as aide to General Nathanael Greene, he became secretary of the congressional committee on foreign affairs, and losing this place in 1779, through charges against Silas Deane, commissioner to France, he became clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature. While holding this place Paine made an urgent appeal to the people in behalf of the army, which was in extreme destitution and distress, and he proved his earnestness by subscribing his entire salary for the year to the fund that was raised. 

In 1781 he was associated with Colonel Laurens in the successful effort to obtain loans from France and Holland. The nation was profoundly grateful for Paine's services, and endeavored to reward him. Soon after peace was declared congress voted him $3,000, the state of New York gave him a large farm in Westchester county, and Pennsylvania again made him clerk of her legislature The close of the war deprived him for a time of the intense mental stimulus that seemed necessary to his pen, and he turned his attention to mechanics, one of his inventions being an iron bridge, which he endeavored, in 1787, to introduce in Europe. Reaching France during the revolutionary period, he published, under an assumed name, a pamphlet advocating the abolition of royalty. 

In 1791 he published in England his " Rights of Man," in reply to Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution." For this he was outlawed by the court of king's bench, in spite of an able de fence by Lord Erskine. Escaping from England, he went to France, where he was received as a hero and elected a member of the National convention His republicanism, however, was not extreme enough to please the Jacobins; he opposed the beheading of the king, urging that Louis should be banished to America. The Jacobins finally expelled him from the convention on the ground that he was a foreigner, although he had become a French citizen by naturalization, and Robespierre had him thrown into the Luxembourg prison, where he spent nearly a year in anticipation of the guillotine. Released finally through the efforts of James Monroe, American minister to France, he resumed his seat in the convention, and gave lasting offence to the people of the United States by writing an abusive letter toPresident Washington, whom he accused of not endeavoring to secure his release from prison. He also alienated most of his American friends and admirers who were religiously inclined by his "Age of Reason " (2 parts, London and Paris, 1794:-'5), an attack upon the Bible, written partly while he was in the Luxembourg prison. 

Six years later, however, when he returned to the United States, he still stood so high in public esteem that President Jefferson allowed him, at his own request, to be brought home by an American sloop-of-war, and he was favorably received in society. He took no active part in politics after his return, and it is generally admitted that intemperance and other vices had weakened his mental abilities. 

In 1809 he died in New York, and by his own direction was buried on his farm at New Rochelle, where he had spent most of the seven last years of his life. A few years later William Cobbett, the English radical, removed Paine's bones to England, with the hope of increasing enthusiasm for the republican ideas of which Paine was still the favorite exemplar in print; but the movement did not produce the desired effect, and it is believed that the remains found their final resting-place in France. The monument for which Paine provided in his will still stands over his first grave, beside the road from New Rochelle to White Plains. 

In addition to the books that made him prominent as a republican, patriot, and unbeliever, Paine wrote many pamphlets, some published anonymously. Most of them were on political topics of the time ; but he also wrote largely on economics and applied science. Among his later works were suggestions on the building of war-ships, iron bridges, the treatment of yellow fever, Great Britain's financial sys-tern, and the principles of government ; he also formulated and published a plan by which governments should impose a special tax on all estates, at the owner's death, for the creation and maintenance of a fund from which all persons, on reaching twenty-one years, should receive a sum sufficient to establish them in business, and by which all in the decline of life should be saved from destitution Few men not occupying his official or ecclesiastical position have been as widely known as Paine, or subjects of opinions so contradictory. Abhorrence of his anti-religious writings has made many critics endeavor to belittle his ability and attribute his " Common Sense," " Crisis," and "Rights of Man" to the inspiration of other minds. It is known that " Common Sense" was written at the suggestion of the noted Dr. Benjamin Rush, of Philadelphia. But beyond doubt Washington, Franklin, and all other prominent men of the Revolutionary period gave Paine the sole credit for everything that came from his pen, and regarded his services to the patriot cause as of very high and enduring quality. His "Rights of Man," if the undenied statement as to its circulation (a million and a half copies) is correct, was more largely read in England and France than any other political work ever published. 

His "Age of Reason," although very weak as an attack upon the Scriptures, when compared with some of the later criticisms of the German school, and even of some followers of Bishop Colenso, was so dreaded in its day that more than twenty replies, by as many famous divines, quickly appeared; among these was Bishop Watson's famous "Apology for the Bible." Many of Paine's later acquaintances believed that the author of the "Age of Reason" was not proud of his most berated book. Paine admitted, on his return to this country, that he regretted having published the work, for, while he did not disavow any of the contents, he had become convinced that it could do no good and might do much harm. It is known that Benjamin Franklin, himself a doubter, counseled Paine not to publish the " Age of Reason," saying: 

"Burn this piece before it is seen by any other person, whereby you will save yourself a good deal of mortification from the enemies it may raise you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance." 

The fault of the book was not merely that it questioned cherished religious beliefs, but that it attacked them with invective and scurrility of a low order. Paine's apologists plead in extenuation that much of the book was written in prison, under circumstances that destroyed the faith of thousands more religious than the author of the "Age of Reason." It must be noted that Paine never was an atheist; born a Quaker, and roaming through the various fields of dissent from the established faith, he always believed in the existence of a God, and had high and unselfish ideals of the Christian virtues. Men who died not many years ago remembered that in the last few years of his life Paine frequently preached on Sunday afternoons in a grove at New Rochelle, and that his sermons were generally earnest and unobjectionable homilies. By nature Paine was a special pleader, and neither education nor experience ever modified his natural bent. He was a thinker of some merit, but had not enough patience, continuity, or judicial quality to study any subject thoroughly. 

Whatever conscience he possessed was generally overborne by the impulse of a strong nature that never had practiced self-control. He lacked even the restraint of family influence; his first wife lived but a short time, from his second wife he soon separated, an irregular attachment to the wife of a Paris publisher did not improve his character, and he had no children nor any relative in this country. Although affectionate and generous, he was so self-willed and arrogant that none of his friendships could be lasting after they became close. Between improvidence and the irregularities of his life he frequently fell into distresses that embittered his spirit and separated him from men who admired his abilities and desired to befriend him. In spite of his faults, however, the sincerity of his devotion to the cause of liberty cannot be doubted, nor can the magnitude of his service to the United States be diminished.






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