Saturday, July 5, 2008
Thomas Paine: Hero, Patriot … and a Paine in the Butt!
Thomas Paine was a writer, agitator, Anglo-American revolutionary, and professional troublemaker. They certainly don't make 'em like him any more ... Here's the life story of one of the most colorful characters of the American Revolution:
Thomas Paine's life was pretty exciting to say the least. He was a central figure in both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. During Paine's event-filled 72 years, he took on the British government and army, the French king, and anyone else he considered an opponent of liberty. Though Paine was entirely self-taught, his works - Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, to name just a few - probably did more to advance the cause of democracy than those of any other modern writer.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
Born in England in 1737, Tom Paine was poor and badly educated. He grew into a cranky young man, unable to hold down either a regular job or a relationship. By his mid-20s, Paine had held and lost a string of positions and had been married twice.
Thomas Paine's home in Lewes, England. Photo: Kto288 [wikipedia]
Paine's life was at a low ebb when, in his late 30s, he found work as a customs officer. Customs men were held in low esteem (even the smugglers they were hired to capture were more popular.) The work paid little and was thankless - so Paine decided to do something about it. He had a passion for self-improvement and was constantly reading books on science, politics, and philosophy. Inspired by his reading, Paine organized his coworkers into a protest group to agitate for better conditions. He also wrote the first of his many political tracts, The Case of the Officers of the Excise. But Paine's attempt at a workers' revolt failed, and he was fired.
SAVED BY THE BEN
That was when things started to look up. Paine moved to London, and while there, got to know Benjamin Franklin (both men attended meetings of the same scientific society.) Franklin recognized Paine as a man of spirit and energy, and so recommended that Paine head for America, where his ornery nature would fit right in. Franklin even wrote Paine some letters of introduction. It was Paine's good luck to arrive in America just when the colonies' simmering squabbles with the mother country were coming to the boil. As someone who already had a grudge against His Majesty's government, Paine wasted no time in joining the fray. In late 1774, he found a job with the Pennsylvania Magazine and set about writing article after article denouncing what he saw as the inequality, injustice, and corruption around him. Aged 37, Thomas Paine had a new lease of life.
LET'S GET RADICAL
Up to the time, the main gripe between the British government and the American colonists was about why America's settlers should pay taxes to the British government when they were not allowed any representation in the British parliament ("no taxation without representation," as the saying goes).
But as far as Paine was concerned, Americans shouldn't be negotiating for representation in the British Parliament - they should be demanding independence from Britain itself. Thomas Paine's pioneering role in passionately and powerfully arguing for America's independence should never be underestimated.
On January 10, 1776, Paine published Common Sense, a 50-page pamphlet that laid out the case for American independence in no uncertain terms. It was an immediate sensation, with 500,000 copies sold. Common Sense heavily influenced Thomas Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence, published on July 4, 1776, just six months later.
KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK
But after having written the script for the American Revolution, Paine found that his services were no longer required. He was given a number of minor political posts by the Continental Congress during the war, but just to keep him out of the way. Wealthy, politically ambitious Brahmins like John Jay and John Adams were not prepared to give a loose cannon like Paine any responsibility.
Instead, Paine was encouraged to continue his verbal assaults on the hated British. Between 1776 and 1783, Paine reeled off 16 pamphlets designed to boost the war effort. They were called the Crisis Papers. The first of these, which begins with the famous line, "These are the times that try men's souls," so inspired George Washington that he ordered it read aloud to the troops during their darkest days at Valley Forge.
THE $64,000 ANSWER
At the end of the war, Paine found himself famous but poor. Although his pamphlets had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Paine accepted no royalties from them, insisting instead that the price of each pamphlet be kept low enough for ordinary folk to afford.
To alleviate Paine's poverty, his supporters in Congress put forward a bill offering financial assistance to the hero of the revolution. But the Brahmins blocked the bill. In the end, the State of Pennsylvania came to Paine's rescue by offering him a sum of £500 (which would translate to about $64,000 in today's U.S. currency). The New York State also pitched in, donating a farm for him in New Rochelle, now a suburb of New York City.
RIGHTS PLACE, RIGHTS TIME
So, having sort of single-handedly launched the American War of Independence, Paine turned his attention to Europe. Once again, his timing was perfect: Paine arrived just after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. When, in 1791, the British politician Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, attacking the uprising, Paine hit back with The Rights of Man.
PAINE SEES LONDON ...
Paine's book was an immediate sensation, and has since been recognized as an all-time classic of political writing. It has sold more than 500,000 copies and was the best-selling book of the entire 18th century. The book didn't just defend the French Revolution, it attacked the monarchy, undemocratic governments, the rich, the powerful, and pretty much anyone else Paine saw as responsible for the misery around him - in Britain as much as in France.
He then laid out his own plans for an alternative government, with policies including pensions for the poor, free education, and lots of other radical ideas. The British government was horrified by all this radical theorizing: Paine was declared a traitor and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Memorial coins were created with Paine's face on them, so that British aristocrats could set them into heels of their boots and grind Paine's face into the dust each time they went for a walk!
PAINE SEES FRANCE ...
But Paine had already fled. The French, recognizing a kindred spirit, had elected Paine to a seat in their revolutionary government, the National Convention.
However, as in America, Paine managed to tick off his revolutionary colleagues. When the National Convention voted to execute the ousted king, Louis XVI, Paine was among those who protested.
At this time the revolutionary government was under the control of Maximilien Robespierre, a hard-line radical prone to chopping off the heads of anyone who got in his way. Paine was imprisoned in 1793, threatened with execution, and held captive until Robespierre's fall from power the following year. On his release, Paine published the Age of Reason, an attack on organized religion and his last great work.
PAINE GETS KICKED IN THE PANTS
Paine hung out in France until 1802, just to make sure the revolution was safe. (It wasn't. By this time, Napoleon had seized power and set up a military dictatorship). Fed up with the infighting among the French, Paine returned to America.
But when he got there he wasn't welcome any more. America was no longer Britain's rebellious younger sibling, but a grown-up power in her own right. Professional revolutionaries like Paine were unwanted in a country looking for a period of peace and quiet.
Outgoing president John Adams branded Paine as "that insolent Blasphemer of things sacred and transcendent, Libeler of all that is good." If that weren't bad enough, Adams went on to describe Paine as "a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf."
NOT SUCH AS BAD GUY AFTER ALL
Rejected by the country he helped to create, Paine turned to drink. He died penniless in 1809 in New York City. His obituary in the New York Citizen claimed, "He had lived long, did some good and much harm," which just goes to show how much history had been rewritten even during Paine's own lifetime. It was only in the mid-20th century that Paine's rehabilitation began.
A Thomas Paine monument in New Rochelle, New York. Photo: Anthony22 [wikipedia]
On May 18, 1953, a bust of Paine was unveiled in the New York University Hall of Fame, and since then, his reputation as a fighter for freedom and justice has been gradually restored, piece by piece.
SOME LAST WORDS
Thomas Paine was a writer of power and passion whose life-long quest was to make the world a better place. His words - such as these - are as relevant now as ever:
When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners; my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive ... When these things can be said, then may that country boasts its constitution and its government.