Tom Paine ignited a revolution
Among the revolutionary founders, none has been as overlooked and undervalued as Tom Paine.
Although basic textbooks of American history mention the author of the fiery pamphlet “Common Sense” and its impact on the dramatic events of 1776, Paine’s contribution is usually only briefly mentioned – receiving little more attention than a descriptive footnote.
In retrospect, the arrival of Paine on American soil and, shortly afterward, his becoming a key figure in the struggle for independence was remarkably fortuitous.
Paine – an English Quaker and a dismal failure at nearly everything in his native land, ranging from corset maker to teacher – came to the colonies in 1774 thanks to an invitation from Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin never imagined that the British expatriate, who he expected to write an historical account of a decade-long stormy relationship between the colonies and their mother country, would instead pen what arguably became the most famous political pamphlet in our history.
At the time of Paine’s passionate tract advocating America’s separation from England, there was an overwhelming consensus of opinion throughout the colonies that the crisis called for reconciliation rather than separation.
How could it be that Paine’s inflammatory pamphlet seized the public imagination and so rapidly swayed opinion to embrace the idea of complete independence from Great Britain?
According to historian Bernard Bailyn, “One had to be a fool or a fanatic” at the beginning of 1776 to enthusiastically and boldly advocate severing ties with Mother England. Paine, however, proceeded to do just that with language compellingly shrill as well as uncompromisingly aggressive. That tone, along with its blatantly emotional appeal to colonists who were not yet decided about such a momentous decision, was audacious in the extreme.
Paine’s skillful blend of persuasive argument has led more than one historian to call this Quaker firebrand a true genius in crafting such a clever work.
Paine wasted no time in singling out the English monarch as the primary villain and proper target for the wrath of Americans, referring to George III as “the royal Brute of Britain.” Paine pushed his assault on the crown to the point of denigrating the idea of hereditary right to rule by claiming that nature frequently gives “mankind an ass for a lion.”
In much the same manner which Paine caused loyal colonists to re-examine their fealty to George III, he also forced them to rethink their apprehension over the prospect of surviving without the protective shield of Britain’s military and naval power.
Paine argued that Americans were already capable of their own self-defense and easily possessed the manpower necessary to maintain a formidable military force.
He further emphasized that now was the perfect time to strike out for independence because delay would be foolish and the opportunity lost forever.
With dazzling prose Paine mocked what to him was the illogical situation: “There is something absurd,” he wrote, “in supposing a continent to be … governed by an island.”
Paine’s masterpiece was a runaway best-seller throughout the colonies. In the words of scholar Henry Steele Commager, “The impact of ‘Common Sense’ on the American Revolution was comparable to that of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ on the Civil War.”
Within a month, the pamphlet had been read by or to almost every white American.
As historian Craig Nelson pointed out, “Paine was both a celebrity and a sage.”
Harvard’s Bernard Bailyn, eminent historian and dean of Revolutionary War studies at that institution, has stated that “not only does the pamphlet voice some of the deepest aspirations of the American people on the eve of the Revolution, but it also evokes, with superb vigor and with perfect intonation, longing … that have remained part of American democracy and culture to this day.”
Paine has greatly influenced the political philosophy of several American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, FDR and Ronald Reagan. Lincoln, who read Paine’s “The Age of Reason” and “The Rights of Man,” considered the propagandist of the American Revolution one of his favorites. Our 16th president once remarked, “I never tire of reading Paine.”
Even John Adams, one of Paine’s severest critics, was moved to pay tribute to the radical Quaker a few years prior to Paine’s death: “I know not whether any man In the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine,” adding, “call it then the Age of Paine.”
Tom Paine’s political radicalism intensified in the years following America’s successful struggle for independence. In the words of one commentator, “He became so exhilarated by agitation that he adopted it as a profession.”
When he later returned to Europe, Paine became embroiled in the bloody French Revolution and nearly lost his head to the guillotine in 1793.
After 15 years abroad, Paine sailed for the United States in 1802. Much had changed, including his own diminished popularity with many of his fellow revolutionaries. The famous author’s health was also in decline due to a lengthy time spent in a French prison and his lifelong fondness for alcoholic spirits.
Although not an atheist, Paine’s controversial “Age of Reason” was studded with sharp criticism of both the Bible and organized religion, all of which went against the grain of conventional beliefs and proved offensive to many Christians.
In a few years, Paine’s health steadily worsened, and the aged agitator died shortly after rebuffing two clergymen who visited him in hope of discussing religion.
After being denied burial in a Quaker cemetery because of his past attacks on Christianity, Paine was interred on the grounds of his farm at New Rochelle, N.Y.
In contrast to the estimated 20,000 who attended his mentor Franklin’s funeral, there were only six mourners present when Paine was laid to rest.
According to Paine’s instructions, his simple headstone bore the inscription: “Thomas Paine, Author of ‘Common Sense,’ died the eighth of June 1809, aged 74 years.”
The democratic ideals contained in Tom Paine’s writings remain inspirational and are pillars of the American cultural and political tradition.
Paine died on June 8, 1809, 204 years ago tomorrow, at the age of 72.
Bruce Dudley lives in McColloms and Camden, Del.
Bailyn, Bernard, “Common Sense,” “Fundamental Testaments of the American Revolution,” ed. Julian Boyd
Collins, Paul, “The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife”
Commager, Henry Steele, and Morison, Samuel Eliot, “The Growth of the American Republic, Vol. 1”
Cousins, Norman, “In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers”
Dos Passos, John, “The Living Thoughts of Tom Paine”
Hitchens, Christopher, “Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man”
Kaye, Harvey J., “Thomas Paine and the Promise of America”
Nelson, Craig, “Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations”
Tietjen, Gregory, “Introduction to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense”