|political philosopher and writer
|"I know not whether any man in the world has had more
influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thrity years than
Tom Paine." So wrote John Adams in 1805. In an age of political pamphleteering,
Paine had become the most influential pamphleteer of all. His writings
remain classic statements of the egalitarian, democratic faith of the
Age of Revolution.
|Paine's origins lay among the lower orders of eighteenth-century
England. The son of a Quaker corset maker, he practiced his father's trade
and then worked as an excise tax collector. His father's religion undoubtedly
influenced Paine's humanitarianism, and a strong interest in Newtonian
science helped him develop a hatred for governments that rested on hereditary
|Paine immigrated to Philadelphia in 1774 and soon became
acquainted with advocates of political change. In January 1776, he published
Common Sense, the first pamphlet to advocate American independence.
It outlined ideas that would remain central to Paine's thought: the superiority
of republican government over a monarchial system, equality of rights
among all citizens, and the world significance of the American Revolution.
Paine transformed the struggle over the rights of English people into
a contest with meaning for people everywhere. In a world "overrun
with oppression," America would be "an asylum for mankind."
|Common Sense sold perhaps 150,000 copies in 1776,
a tribute to both the persuasiveness of Paine's argument and the clarity
and power of his literary style. Addressing a mass audience unfamiliar
with legal precedents, classical learning, and complex rhetoric, Paine
strove for simplicity. The message conveyed by his style was of a piece
with his domestic politics: to understand the nature of politics, all
it takes is common sense.
|For the next several years, Paine threw himself into the
struggle for independence, writing the Crisis papers (which begin
with the famous phrase, "These are the times that try men's souls")
to bolster the morale of Washington's army. He also took part in the movement
that produced in Pennsylvania the era's most democratic state constitution.
|Returning to Europe in 1787, Paine soon entered the political
debate launched by the French Revolution. His Rights of Man defended
the revolution against the attacks of Edmund Burke and proffered a new
vision of the republican state as a promoter of the social welfare, advocating
such policies as progressive taxation, retirement benefits, and public
employment. An even greater success than Common Sense, Rights
of Man transformed English radicalism, linking demands for political
reform with a social program for the lower classes.
|Charged with seditious libel for advocating an end to monarchy
in Britain, Paine fled to France, where he became one of a handful of
foreigners elected to the National Convention. His opposition to the execution
of the king alienated the Jacobians, and when they came to power, Paine
found himself in prison. After his release in 1794, he produced his last
great pamphlets: The Age of Reason, an exposition of deism and
an attack on the basic principles of Christianity, and Agrarian Justice,
a call for land reform.
|After his return to America in 1802, Paine came under constant
assault by evangelical Christians for his deist writings. Only six mourners
attended the funeral of the man who had once inspired millions to think
in new ways about the world. But Paine's writings became part of the intellectual
foundation for nineteenth-century radicalsim.
|Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary
America (1976); David F. Hawke, Paine (1974).