Better Know a Founder: Thomas Paine

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September 20, 2009 by D Stack

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

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 by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

– The Crisis, Thomas Paine, December 23, 1776

…I shall now proceed to the plan I have to propose, which is,

To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property:

And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.


I have already established the principle, namely, that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race; that in that state, every person would have been born to property; and that the system of landed property, by its inseparable connection with cultivation, and with what is called civilized life, has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.

The fault, however, is not in the present possessors. No complaint is tended, or ought to be alleged against them, unless they adopt the crime by opposing justice. The fault is in the system, and it has stolen perceptibly upon the world, aided afterwards by the agrarian law of the sword. But the fault can be made to reform itself by successive generations; and without diminishing or deranging the property of any of present possessors, the operation of the fund can yet commence, and in full activity, the first year of its establishment, or soon after, as I shall show.

– “Agrarian Justice”, Thomas Paine, 1797

Thomas Paine is best known for the first of the above quotations. This is not surprising – it was an inspirational piece written for the darkest time of the Revolution, late 1776, with the American Continental Army routed out of New York City a shell of its former self. And these words, together with George Washington’s victory at Trenton on December 26, helped the Revolution persevere in its darkest hour.

But Paine is not remembered in the same breath as the other Founders. There are stacks of books on Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Even on John Adams, who was terrified he’d be forgotten. While Paine has not been forgotten, he certainly does not occupy the same space as the other Founders. I’m guessing there are two reasons for that. First of all, Paine was always a commoner. His audience was not the educated but the common man. If I were to hazard a guess, he would probably be quite comfortable in the world of blogging. I would hazard that the other reason is that he was quite the radical. As my second quote above, from Agrarian Justice describes, Paine was an early advocate of the redistribution of wealth. He was a radical in other ways, becoming involved in the French Revolution, as I will discuss below.

Paine’s early life was in his native England. He was quite the failure there. He was married twice. Neither marriage lasted long. The first ended with the death of his wife and newborn in childbirth while the second ended in separation. He tried following in his father’s footsteps as a corset maker which didn’t work out. He tried his hands as an excise officer but was dismissed from that. He met Benjamin Franklin in London who suggested he emigrate to British North America. With Dr. Franklin’s letter of recommendation, Paine crossed the Atlantic in 1774, barely surviving the journey. He settled in Philadelphia as a magazine editor. On the side he published his own works, including his pamphlets, which served much the same purpose as modern blogging. He often wrote these anonymously, including writing a pamphlet denouncing the African slave trade.

In January 1776 he published Common Sense, a work that galvanized the independence movement. Though armed combat had been going on since Lexington and Concord back in April of 1775, many people, from the common man to delegate in the Continental Congress, hoped for reconciliation with Britain. In Common Sense, Paine attacked monarchy as a form of government (including Britain’s constitutional monarchy), argued against reconciliation and for independence, explained how independence might be won, and discussed a possible unicameral legislature for the new nation. His audience was not the high and mighty but rather his fellow common man.

His next work is possibly his most famous, The American Crisis (sometimes called just The Crisis). Written in late December of 1776 while with the Continental Army, it seemed likely that the battle for Independence had failed. General Washington’s army had been chased all the way from New York to Pennsylvania, just across the Delaware River from Trenton, New Jersey. In The Crisis, Paine argued for continuing the struggle, arguing that victory was still very achievable and this was the time for patriots – not when all was well, but in what seemed America’s darkest hour. Paine’s rhetoric and Washington’s surprise attack on Trenton allowed the Revolution to endure.

After the American Revolution Paine stirred up a world of trouble in 1791, publishing The Rights of Man, defending the French Revolution against Edmund Burke’s attacks on it. (Burke, it should be noted, was something of an American sympathizer in the British Parliament during the American Revolution.)  He was made an honorary French Citizen (which was a good thing given he was tried in absentia in England for seditious libel). Paine was elected to the French National Assembly where he argued for the exile as opposed to execution for King Louis XVI. He fell out of favor in France and was arrested in 1793, narrowly escaping execution. He was eventually freed upon American Minister to France James Monroe’s successful argument that Paine was an American, not British, citizen and thereby an ally of France.

Paine was not particularly popular with his fellow citizens upon his return to America. France was no longer as highly regarded as it once was and Paine’s support of the French Revolution came at a cost in esteem. Also, shortly before his arrest in France he wrote The Age of Reason which was a defense of deism and attack on “revealed” religions such as Christianity. In it he outlined his personal creed:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

This did not endear him to the religiously devout. Paine died in 1809 and was little mourned. His obituary in the New York Sun stated he did “some good and much harm”.

Like many of the Founders he is invoked by people on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, by liberals and libertarians. I find Glen Beck’s recent channeling of him curious – while he most certainly was an advocate of smaller government, his Agrarian Justice pamphlet made it clear he was fine using the treasure of the wealthy to pay out a stipend to all Americans, far from a popular conservative viewpoint. I suspect if he were alive to day his blog would be both incredibly interesting and  infuriating.


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