Paine, Thomas (1737–1809)

Born in Norfolk, England, into a working-class Quaker family, Thomas Paine left home at age seventeen and by twenty-two had opened his own stay-making business. A few years later, however, he secured a post as an excise officer, assessing and collecting import taxes. After he was fired from his post, he took up a new customs post in Sussex. He quickly came to believe that customs officers were unfairly treated and poorly paid, so he wrote the first of many activist pamphlets, Case of the Officers of Excise. The booklet suggested substantial reform in the customs department, but when Paine tried to have the matter heard before Parliament, they refused and he was fired. It was merely the first of many occasions when Paine was punished for speaking his mind.

After his wife died, Paine sailed to America, encouraged by a meeting in England with Benjamin Franklin. Upon Franklin’s recommendation, a Philadelphia publisher hired Paine as an editor. By January 1776, Paine had observed the growing tension between American colonies and Parliamentary assertions of authority, and he wrote Common Sense, a logical rejection of monarchical government and a call for colonial independence. Some 150 thousand copies were printed and sold in America alone, and the document is credited with the arousal of patriotic fervor leading to increased enlistments in Washington’s Continental Army. It also led, a few months later, to the colonies’ decision to declare independence.

In 1787, Paine returned to England, where he continued his political agitation. He wrote Rights of Man, an even more explicit attack on the monarchy and a call for revolution in England like the one in America. For his ideas, he was convicted of sedition, then branded an outlaw. He fled to France in 1792, where he was elected to the National Assembly. Upon taking his seat in the assembly, Paine spoke out in favor of banishment, not execution, of Louis XVI. Decidedly in the minority, Paine was again arrested and imprisoned and spent the next year in jail. Before leaving France, Paine wrote The Age of Reason, a critical attack on religion, revelation, and the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Arriving in America, Paine found that public opinion had turned against him as a result of his attack on religion. Common Sense had made him a hero to many, but The Age of Reason had severely damaged his reputation and made him nearly an outcast. When Paine died in 1809, the local Quaker cemetery, where Paine had expressed his wish to be buried, refused to allow it, and he was interred on the ground of his farm in New York. Profoundly gifted rhetorically, Paine spent most of his life attacking those institutions that violated natural law by oppression or tyranny. In America, he was applauded, then vilified; in England and France he was persecuted.


References and Further Reading

  • Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1959.
  • Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Wilson, Jerome D., and William F. Ricketson. Thomas Paine. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.


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