Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times
Of the men who made the American Revolution, none had a more remarkable career, or a more peculiar fate, than Thomas Paine. While his friends George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and his ideological antagonist John Adams, came from middle- and upper-class families long established on American soil, Paine’s origins lay in the English lower classes. He did not even arrive in America until the very eve of the Revolution and then became this country’s first professional pamphleteer; his contribution to the revolutionary cause lay in spreading ideas among the population rather than in making day-to-day decisions.
Unlike Alexander Hamilton, another leader of the Revolution born abroad, Paine always remained something of an outsider in America. He never developed true local attachments here—as he once told Benjamin Franklin, “Where liberty is not, there is my country.” And, after his death, Paine was excluded from the group of revolutionary leaders canonized as popular American heroes. His memory was kept alive primarily by succeeding generations of radicals, who rediscovered him again and again as a romantic symbol of democratic ideals and of revolution.
Prospective biographers of Paine have an unenviable task. Most of Paine’s correspondence and papers were accidentally burned over a century ago, and much of our knowledge of his early life derives from hostile biographies commissioned by the British government in the 1790s. In addition to the thinness of documentation, Paine’s biographers face the difficulty of reconstructing an unusually complex man who could be generous and unselfish but who was also egotistical and bitter when he felt his achievements were unrecognized.
Paine’s life falls into four periods, each of which poses its own interpretative difficulties. Until the age of thirty-seven (1737-1774), Paine lived in England, a more or less unrelenting failure. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to make a career in his father’s craft, staymaking (the manufacture of corsets), tried his hand as a teacher and shopkeeper, and served as an excise tax collector. Paine was well into middle age before his talents received any recognition, and many biographers have dealt only cursorily with the first half of his life. But it seems reasonable to assume that many of Paine’s ideas were fixed by the time he arrived in America, that the sources of his radicalism may lie in England as much as in America.
If this assumption is correct, what did Paine’s outlook owe to the underground tradition of republicanism, antimonarchism, and disaffection with government of the seventeenth century which, as E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, and J. H. Plumb have suggested, survived in Hanoverian England? Was Paine influenced by the Puritanism that still flourished in Lewes, where he lived in his thirties, or by the upsurge of popular politics in the dispute over John Wilkes, which occurred while he lived in or near London? To answer such questions requires an investigation of underground radical traditions and ideas, many of which may have been transmitted verbally or in obscure handbills and broadsides rather …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Good Mixer October 16, 1975