Paine, Thomas (1737-1809), Anglo-American political philosopher, whose writings had great influence during two upheavals in the 18th century: the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799).

Life in England
Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, England, to an Anglican mother and a Quaker father. He remained poor throughout his life. At the age of 13 he began working for his father, and at 19 he went to sea. Paine returned to England shortly thereafter and moved through various jobs, eventually becoming an excise officer. As an officer he had to collect taxes from smugglers he tracked down. He was dismissed in 1772 for publishing a document calling for an increase in wages as a means of reducing corruption in government service. His personal life did not fare much better: his first wife died and he later legally separated from his second wife.

American Sojourn
In London Paine met and befriended Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as a representative of the American colonies in Great Britain. On Franklin's advice, and equipped with letters of introduction from him, Paine immigrated to Philadelphia in 1774. He became an editor on the Pennsylvania Magazine and also anonymously published writings, including poetry. One of his publications was the article "African Slavery in America," in which he condemned the practice of slavery. Paine published his most famous work, the 50-page pamphlet, Common Sense, on January 10, 1776. In a dramatic, rhetorical style, the document asserted that the American colonies received no advantage from Great Britain, which was exploiting them, and that every consideration of common sense called for the colonies to become independent and establish a republican government of their own. The document went on to criticize the monarchy as an institution. Published anonymously, the pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies and helped encourage, with comments such as "The birthday of a new world is at hand," the issuance of the Declaration of Independence six months later. Paine served briefly in the army under General Nathanael Greene. Paine wrote a series of pamphlets between 1776 and 1783 entitled The American Crisis. His words inspired those who battled in the revolution, and included the now famous first line: "These are the times that try men's souls." George Washington ordered the pamphlets read to his troops in hope that they would be inspired to endure. In 1777 the Second Continental Congress appointed Paine secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs. After losing the post during a political dispute early in 1779, he remained unemployed until November, when he became clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature. His concern for the difficult lives of American troops led him to establish a fund to support needy soldiers, despite his own lack of income. Paine himself had to apply to Congress for financial help, but his plea was buried by his opponents there. However, he was helped by Pennsylvania and New York; New York gave him a farm in New Rochelle, New York.

Return to England
Paine returned to Great Britain in 1787, and in 1791 and 1792 he published The Rights of Man, in two parts. It was most famous of all replies to the condemnatory Reflections Upon the French Revolution by the British statesman Edmund Burke. It was also an analysis of the weaknesses of European society, proposing such remedies as republican government and progressive income taxes. A million and a half copies were sold in England alone before the book was suppressed. Paine's criticism of monarchical rule in The Rights of Man caused an uproar in England and led the British government to indict Paine for treason. He was tried in absentia while en route to France in December 1792.

French Career
In France Paine was elected a deputy to the National Convention, and he generally voted with the moderate faction known as the Girondists. By favoring the exile, rather than the execution, of King Louis XVI, however, he offended Maximilien de Robespierre, the leader of the radical faction, and he was imprisoned from December 1793 until November 1794, three months after Robespierre's downfall; Paine then regained his National Convention seat. Part I of his book The Age of Reason was published while Paine was still in prison; he published Part II in 1795 and a portion of Part III in 1807. Paine's writing was seen as a promotion of atheism, despite the fact that Paine objected only to organized religion. The misinterpretation of this work resulted in Paine gaining ill repute as an atheist and in the alienation of most of his old friends. In 1802 Paine returned to the United States with the help of President Thomas Jefferson, and found that people there had a negative opinion of him as well. He died in New York City and was buried on his farm in New Rochelle. Ten years later journalist William Cobbett moved his remains to England; they were subsequently lost.

An Interesting story about Thomas Paine and George Washington

Did you know that in 1783, George Washington and Thomas Paine made an important scientific discovery right here in New Jersey?

I never heard about this episode until Professor Doug Eveleigh of Cook College gave me the lowdown. I'm forwarding it to the list on the assumption that other NJ history fans will find it interesting.

Seems that Paine, the author of Common Sense, was visiting General Washington at Rocky Hill, where the General was in residence at Rockingham. The conversation got around to the local tradition that water in the Millstone River could be set on fire when mud at the bottom was disturbed. Two of Washington's officers argued that the fire was due to "bituminous matter" that rose to the surface, whereas Paine argued instead that it was due "inflammable air" that got loose from the mud.

To settle the matter, on November 5, 1783, a party that included Paine and Washington took a scow out on the river. Some soldiers stirred up the mud with poles while Paine and Washington held lighted paper close to the surface. The gas that bubbled up ignited, which Paine said confirmed his "inflammable air" hypothesis.

According to Professor Eveleigh, this experiment duplicated the discovery seven years before by the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta that methane was a biologically formed gas.

In a letter to the American Society of Mircobiology, Professor Eveleigh and a colleague, Ted Chase, claim that since Washington was probably not aware of Volta's finding, the Millstone episode was an important independent discovery. Eveleigh and Chase comment, "We hope that subsequent American presidents will maintain the keen interest in science expressed in this first major scientific experiment of the young Republic."

(Incidentally, the source for this story is evidently in the writings of Tom Paine. Can it be corroborted? For example, was Washington at Rocky Hill on that date in 1783?)

Send comments to this e-mail address:

  • Return to Hearldy of Payne