Thomas Paine was born on 29 January 1737 at Thetford in Norfolk and was educated at the local grammar school. His father was a stay-maker, and this was Paine’s first occupation. In 1759, he married Mary Lambert, the daughter of a customs officer, but she died within a few months. This may have determined him to join the customs service, and in 1764 he was appointed to the Grantham round, patrolling the Lincolnshire coast, but was soon discharged for the common practice of stamping a consignment of merchandise without first inspecting it. He was reappointed at Lewes in 1768. Here, in 1771, he married Elizabeth Ollive, his landlady’s daughter, and ran their tobacconist shop, but the business failed and was sold up in 1772. Two years later he was discharged a second time from the Excise and his marriage broke up.
During this period of his life Paine learned about oppressive taxation and the heavy hand of government (as an Excise officer); the problems of the poor (as a member of the Lewes Vestry which was responsible for the administration of the poor law); the dangers of credit and the difficulties of the small businessman (from his own failures); and the power of his pen (he led the agitation of the Excise officers for higher pay, and wrote his first pamphlet putting their case).
After his failures in Lewes, Paine emigrated to Philadelphia in 1774 with letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Here, as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, he showed a strong resentment against Britain and, as the political situation worsened, he was drawn into the propaganda war. In January 1776 he published his first great work, Common Sense, in which he caught and expressed the changing tide of public opinion. Demanding independence from Britain, he based his argument on a combination of appeals to first principles and to common sense, uttered in the language not of the classical schools but of modern journalism.
Paine’s second literary contribution to the American cause was the American Crisis, a series of papers the first of which was written on a drumhead by a camp fire and read out to Washington’s demoralised troops before the battle of Trenton. The grandeur of style of the opening paragraph can only be compared to Shakespeare’s Henry V before Agincourt: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman’. Paine also served the rebellious colonies as secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs until forced to resign in January 1779 after making well-founded allegations of financial misconduct against the American agents sent to Versailles to negotiate French military aid.
In 1787 Paine returned to Europe to promote a scheme for building an iron bridge, and was in France when the crisis there broke in May 1789. Returning to Britain he found Edmund Burke denouncing the Revolution. The publication of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in November 1790 marked a turning point in public opinion. Paine was one of many to rush into print in defence of the French against Burke. As his Rights of Man, published in February 1791, caught the public mood, opinion began to polarise around Burke and Paine. The latter became the champion of the radicals and Dissenters; he was feared and hated by supporters of Church and King.
The argument was taken further in February 1792 when Rights of Man, Part 2 was issued in which Paine called for an English Republic – an hereditary governor is as inconsistent as an hereditary author. Moreover, he argued for the abolition of the poor laws, and the provision of work for the unemployed, education for children, pensions for the aged, and gifts of money to individuals on the occasions of births, marriages and deaths, the whole system of welfare to be paid for by progressive taxation on real estate. This theme was taken up again by Paine in 1797 in Agrarian Justice, which included a proposal for a ten per cent inheritance tax. Such a challenge to the political establishment could not go unbridled. In May 1792, proceedings for sedition were begun against Paine; having been elected to the French Convention, he was tried in his absence in December, found guilty, and never again returned to his native land.
In Paris, Paine associated with the moderates in the Convention. When Louis XVI was arrested and tried, Paine pleaded for his life as a private citizen, but the King was executed on 21 January 1793, and within a month Britain and France were at war. Paine was subsequently arrested as an enemy alien. During this year of growing extremism, he wrote his great theological work, The Age of Reason, to uphold the classical deism of the eighteenth century enlightenment and to prevent the French people from running headlong into atheism. In Part One, he applied to the churches, the Bible and Christian theology the same scathing reason that he had earlier turned on the British constitution. In Part Two, written while he was in the Luxembourg prison between November 1793 and November 1794, he savagely attacked the Bible on moral grounds. On release from gaol, he remained in France and wrote several further works, of which the most important were The Decline and Fall of the English System of Finance (1796) and Agrarian Justice (1797), but he became increasingly out of sympathy with the France of Napoleon Bonaparte.
He returned to the United States in 1802, where he found public opinion markedly more religious and conservative than it had been in the 1780s. The hero of 1776 was forgotten, and died neglected amid slanders over excessive brandy drinking, on 8 June 1809.
Paine’s writings, especially Rights of Man, became formative texts for radical politicians. Though progressive in his ideas on welfare, Paine was not a socialist, but always valued the economic, political and intellectual independence of the individual. He spoke the language of the small producer who resented the burdens of taxation, the interference of the state, the inflationary injustices of the credit system and the political monopoly of the titled rich. In the nineteenth century these became the classic doctrines of popular Liberalism.
Paine has been the subject of many biographies. The best of the recent ones include A. O. Aldridge, Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine (Cresset Press, 1960), D. F. Hawke, Paine (Norton, 1974) and J. Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1995). For Paine’s intellectual biography, see G. Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (Unwin Hyman, 1989) and M. Philp, Paine (Oxford University Press, 1989).
At the time of writing this piece Edward Royle was a Reader in History at the University of York. He has published several books on aspects of religion, freethought and radical politics in nineteenth-century Britain, as well as a general survey, Modern Britain: A Social History 1750 – 1997 (second ed., 1997).