Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine; drawing by David Levine

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 than in easily accessible books and pamphlets.1

In 1774, Paine embarked for America, bearing letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met in London. He became associated with a group of Philadelphia radicals who would soon take the lead in the movements for independence and for a new more democratic government in Pennsylvania. In January, 1776, Paine published Common Sense, a savage attack on monarchial government and a plea for American independence.

The success of Common Sense was overwhelming and unprecedented. Previous pamphlets on the conflict with England had sold in the hundreds; Paine’s work went through twenty-five editions and was read by hundreds of thousands. How can we account for its success? Paine was the first writer openly to ridicule the English Constitution and to attack not only George III but the entire idea of monarchial government. And he outlined a vision of future greatness for an America freed from English rule, appealing to ideas which have since become central elements of American ideology—the innocence of the new world and the corruption of the old, and the mission of America as a refuge for liberty.

What set Common Sense apart from pamphlets written by Americans was not only the freshness of its ideas (or, perhaps, ideas widely held but never before articulated), but its tone, which contemporaries described as “daring impudence” and “uncommon frenzy.” Paine minced no words in his ridicule of monarchy: “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives” was the “antiquity of the English monarchy.” Or: “Nature disapproves” of hereditary rule, “otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”

Common Sense launched Paine’s career as the leading pamphleteer of his generation, a career which continued with the “Crisis” papers on the revolutionary war (the first of which began with the memorable words, “These are the times that try mens’ souls”) and with lesser-known political works of the 1780s. And it established Paine’s reputation for radicalism, for it not only demanded independence, but in passages denounced by John Adams as “too democratical” urged the institution of republican government in America. Paine inspired a public discussion of the basis of government, suffrage, and legislative arrangements which continued far beyond 1776.


Here we confront another of the perplexing problems raised by Paine’s career. Many historians have had difficulty in describing his social views, partly because they have assumed that “radicalism” in the revolutionary era meant distrust of government and of business enterprise. Paine was an extreme democrat, but in the 1780s he allied himself with nationalists like Alexander Hamilton and Robert Morris in defense of a stronger central government and of the Bank of North America. He strongly supported the federal Constitution. Historians have so far failed to explain his peculiar mixture of ideas: his fierce egalitarianism and his faith in business enterprise.

The third phase of Paine’s career began when he returned to Europe in 1787. His aim was to promote his pet scientific project, an iron bridge he had designed (Paine had kept up scientific interests since attending some of the lectures which brought Newtonian science to popular audiences in Hanoverian London). He soon got to know political reformers in London and Paris, and in 1791 published his bestknown work, The Rights of Man, a reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Paine called for a “general revolution in the principle and construction of governments,” or, to be more precise, the reordering of European governments along American lines. The next year, the second part of The Rights of Man provided a social program for the English democratic movement; it contained proposals as close to a welfare state as could be imagined in the 1790s: an income tax, funds for the free education of all children, old age pensions, maternity and funeral benefits for the poor, and government-sponsored workshops for the unemployed.

In The Rights of Man Paine’s literary style was especially powerful. It was a style consciously designed to appeal to men like himself—a mass audience of self-educated workingmen, artisans, and lesser professionals. “As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand,” Paine once wrote, “I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet.”2

Not that Paine was incapable of creating brilliant metaphors. Contrasting Burke’s sympathy for the plight of Marie Antoinette with his indifference toward the victims of the ancien régime, Paine observed, “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.” But what distinguished his writing was its clarity, directness, and forcefulness. He used imagery from common life (such as a sailor swabbing the deck), assumed knowledge of no authority but the Bible, employed no Latin phrases (or, when he did, immediately provided translations), and avoided florid language designed to impress more cultivated readers. At the same time, he wrote with a complete lack of deference, a tone of impudence. To use a modern phrase, Paine’s assaults on kingship, the established church, and hereditary privilege were designed to “demystify” established institutions. Here, for example, is Paine’s attack on the House of Lords and the landed aristocracy:

Why…does Mr. Burke talk of this House of Peers, as the pillar of the landed interest? Were that pillar to sink into the earth, the same landed property would continue, and the same plowing, sowing and reaping would go on. The aristocracy are not the farmers who work the land and raise the produce, but…are the drones…who neither collect the honey nor form the hive, but exist only for lazy enjoyment.

To his critics, Paine was as guilty of degrading the language as of attacking the government. Like the Newtonian lecturers whose talks he attended in his youth, Paine’s role was to bring ideas common among the privileged to a new mass audience. The Rights of Man was instrumental in the emergence of a new English radical movement, drawing its support from artisans and tradesmen in London and provincial cities, and demanding universal suffrage, annual Parliaments, and an end to class legislation like the corn laws, game laws, and oppressive taxation of the lower classes. The pamphlet also circulated among the embryonic Irish nationalist movement and the Democratic-Republican societies in America. Paine’s success seems to have had much to do with his own origins in the stratum of society that so avidly devoured his works.

In 1792, Paine was indicted for “seditious libel” by the British government (his real crime was the wide circulation of The Rights of Man) and fled to France, where he had been elected to the National Convention. But he soon found himself confused and out of place, and indeed spent ten months in prison during the Terror. It was there that he wrote The Age of Reason.


Why was Paine such a failure in France? Speaking little French, and associating mainly with English-speaking Girondist admirers of America like Lafayette and Brissot, he could never have become a major figure; but what is more interesting is what his wretched experience could reveal about the differences in the radical movements in America, England, and France.

In 1802, following the inauguration of his old friend Jefferson, Paine returned to the United States to spend his last years, which were dominated by controversy over his religious views in The Age of Reason. Like Jefferson, Franklin, and other Enlightenment figures, Paine was a deist, who demanded that religion, like all other institutions and beliefs, be judged by the canons of reason. Paine explicitly condemned atheism—he believed in God and an afterlife—but his God was the “prime mover” who had created the world and then left it to be governed by the Newtonian laws of nature, and his religion was simply a humanistic morality.

Deists had long viewed established churches and belief in miracles, revelation, and the divine origin of the Bible as relics of superstition, but before Paine their views were confined to polite discussions in upper-class houses. Paine became notorious, while Jefferson and Franklin did not, because he was the first openly to denounce the Bible, ridicule the Virgin Birth, and announce that the Creation itself was the true word of God, all in a language designed to reach a mass audience. The most popular deist pamphlet ever written, The Age of Reason circulated widely in Europe and America, and created Paine’s reputation as an infidel. On his return to America, he was savagely denounced by the Federalists and a large section of the clergy When, against the advice of his friends, Paine began writing public letters on deism, Jefferson (much of whose electoral support came from evangelical Baptists and Methodists) gently severed their relations, and Paine retired to a farm in New Rochelle. Drinking, which had always helped to stimulate his conversation and pen, now became his major pastime. He died in obscurity in 1809 and his good friend Joel Barlow was forced to admit that the majority of Americans remembered Paine only as “a drunkard and deist.”

In view of the complexity of Paine’s career and the difficulties which confront his biographers, it is not surprising that neither of the new lives of Paine deals fully with the questions I have been raising here. Both writers are content to trace again the chronology of his career and both use published sources almost exclusively. With one exception, they do not attempt to uncover new material about Paine in primary sources, or to ask new questions of familiar sources.

The most balanced and scholarly of the two books is that of David Hawke, an established authority on colonial and revolutionary American history. Hawke gives by far the best account now available of the American side of Paine’s career, as well as a judicious and sympathetic sense of his character. Although it contains nothing startlingly new, Hawke’s biography is highly competent, and is filled with details about Paine, his contemporaries, and the period. It is probably the best one-volume life of Paine to date.

The biography by Audrey Williamson, an English writer and biographer of George Bernard Shaw, is, by contrast, far too abbreviated in its treatment of Paine in America and, in general, is less full than Hawke’s.3 But Williamson devotes four chapters to Paine’s life in England before 1774, while Hawke treats these years much more briefly. Williamson delved into local records in England and uncovered some interesting new information about Paine’s life in Lewes where he apparently attended local government meetings and took part in church vestry activities distributing poor relief. His interest in public affairs thus seems to have begun earlier than previous biographers have believed.

What seems most lacking in these works is any extensive analysis of the quality of Paine’s ideas and of his influence, particularly among the politically conscious artisans and self-educated workingmen who frequented taverns in Philadelphia and London. Paine himself had begun life as an artisan and, as Hawke observes, throughout his life he was dexterous with tools and scientific instruments. Moreover, as Hawke notes, Paine was always “a city man at heart.” Though he shared Jefferson’s democratic egalitarianism, he had little in common with the agrarian bias of Jefferson’s thought. Jefferson hoped America could insulate itself against the industrial revolution, but Paine was enchanted by the cotton mills, potteries, and steel furnaces of England in the 1780s, and hoped such enterprises could be “carried on in America as well.”

Paine’s blend of democratic egalitarianism and enthusiasm for business enterprise was shared by his artisan audience. The artisan was part workingman, part property-holding entrepreneur. In America, the Philadelphia artisans among whom Paine circulated were ardent defenders of the ultra-democratic Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, but as city dwellers they saw the Bank of North America as a bulwark of a stable, noninflationary currency, and as small businessmen they desired a stronger central government which could promote manufacture and trade.

In the late eighteenth century, artisans on both sides of the Atlantic became more aware of politics and, more than any other group, they were drawn to radical-democratic Paineite ideas. Growing numbers of shoemakers, tailors, printers, coopers, etc., had wrested themselves from the more bawdy “prepolitical” culture of the unskilled laborers below them in the social scale; they had come to recognize the futility of the traditional means of popular protest, the mob.

Paine and most of the other radical leaders in America and England knew that mob activity (which some historians have tended lately to idealize as a form of political expression) was easily manipulated by the wealthy and powerful. In England, mobs in the 1780s and 1790s more often turned against religious dissenters and political reformers than against the established order. One reason for Paine’s lack of sympathy for the radical sans-culottes in revolutionary Paris, and for his failure to establish himself there, was his dislike of mob action. Paine and the artisan radicals who read him exalted disciplined political organization in place of spontaneous risings in the streets. Their ideal was the workingman who read political pamphlets and by the application of his own reason and common sense came to understand the world and the necessity of changing it.

And it was the possibility of change which, perhaps as much as any specific program, was Paine’s message. “The present generation will appear to the future,” Paine declared, “as the Adam of a new world.” Paine’s view of social change (and, perhaps, of human nature) was wildly optimistic. But America proved for Paine that it could be done, that it was possible to throw off the dead weight of tradition and to see “government begin, as if we lived in the beginning of time.” And America provided the remedy for the ills and oppressions of the old world—republican government.

Neither of these biographies has much to say about late eighteenth-century republican thought, but recent work by Gordon Wood and Franco Venturi has made it plain that republicanism was the utopianism of Paine’s era,4 providing an ideal of government responsive to the mass of the people, devoted solely to the pursuit of the common good, and awarding social and political power to talent. Paine helped to spread republicanism beyond the relatively narrow confines of the eighteenth century’s upper classes and to infuse it with a new social message.

While Paine no doubt respected the artisan’s sense of being superior to the unskilled laborer, he never lost his strong sympathies for the poor. “When in countries that are called civilized,” he wrote, “we see age going to the work-house, and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong in the system of government.” The “mass of wretchedness” in English life was, for Paine, the best proof of the bankruptcy of the English government. But Paine also implied that a change in the political system would remedy the situation; poverty was more a political than an economic problem. Democratize government, end repressive taxation, deprive the church and aristocracy of their privileges, and England would come to resemble America where, Paine wrote, poverty was virtually nonexistent. Paine bequeathed to English radicalism not only his criticism of British society but a vision of America as a utopia on this earth that persisted for much of the nineteenth century.

According to E. P. Thompson, Paine’s writings became “the foundation-text of the English working-class movement.” Paineite deism and secularism remained an important element in working-class life, especially in London, and even in industrial areas where radicalism owed more to Methodist revivals Paine’s attack on English society helped to shape radical ideologies.

But what did this polemic have to do with America? In England, for much of the nineteenth century, the emerging working class lived in a kind of apartheid, deprived of the vote and the right to organize, knowing itself cut off from both power and respect. But Americans did not need Paine’s indictment of monarchial government, an established church, and aristocratic privilege. Democracy, republicanism, and equality before the law quickly became unquestioned elements of American political rhetoric. What then set Paine apart were his two sins—drunkenness and “atheism”—the latter, of course, far more egregious than the former.

In the 1830s, it is true, there was a genuine Paine revival, which went along with the emergence of the first class-conscious labor movement in American history. Dinners were held to commemorate Paine’s birthday in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities. Our knowledge of this early labor movement is still too sketchy to say with assurance what the memory of Paine meant to those who celebrated it. But one gets the impression that these dinners contained large contingents not only of deists but of British immigrants as well—not entirely surprising since such immigrants contributed so much to nineteenth-century American union and radical leadership.

After this upsurge of interest, Paine’s memory seems to have faded again. His reputation as an atheist proved insurmountable in a society permeated by evangelical religion, in which even radicals spoke the language of revivalist Protestantism rather than of Enlightenment rationality. Still, Paine turns up unexpectedly in the lives of men as diverse as Lincoln, who read The Age of Reason as a young man and remained something of a deist for the remainder of his life, and Eugene V. Debs, who said his own radicalism was inspired by Paine. Perhaps the point is simply that in America Paine was rediscovered by radicals over and over again, a reflection, possibly, of the lack of a continuous radical tradition in this country.5

Today, there are few monuments to Paine’s memory, although in his native Thetford a gold-leaf statue was erected in 1964 and soon afterward a pub was named “The Rights of Man” (a memorial Paine would certainly have appreciated more than the statue). His lasting monument, however, was what Adams derisively called “Paine’s yellow fever”—the spread of egalitarian, democratic ideology in the era of the French Revolution. He expressed the political and social aspirations and resentments of the eighteenth century’s “lower orders,” and he gave them a political language they could use themselves. Even Adams had to admit in 1806, “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine.”

This Issue

May 15, 1975