Tom Paine is a paradoxical figure. He was one of the great men whose fierce scribblings made an indelible mark on the course of several major events: most notably, the American Revolution. He is paraded by everyone from neoconservatives to socialists as an exemplar. Yet his life and work are shadowy—and not just because much of his early life remains unknown. His legacy has been as tumultuous as his life.
Revered as a hero during the Revolution, Paine found himself constantly on the wrong side thereafter. Conservative Americans and businessmen despised his radicalism and opposition to slavery; he was outlawed in England, his country of birth; the Jacobins in France nearly guillotined him for opposing the execution of Louis Capet; and he found himself alone and outcast at the end of his life, reviled as an atheist and too toxic even for his old friend Thomas Jefferson, who could not give him a job in his administration for fear of backlash.
Since his death, Paine has been a hero to radicals everywhere, from English Chartists to Indian nationalists, but he has also been reviled as a “filthy little atheist” by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt. Even Paine’s fellow revolutionary John Adams came to hate the man, labelling him “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf,” after his death in 1809. Adams was considering what to call the era—“the Age of Frivolity” and “the Age of Folly” were two options—but he settled on “the Age of Paine”—and clearly not as a compliment to the pamphleteer.
The real Thomas Paine is an elusive figure, his true legacy hard to discern from the adulation and hatred lavished upon him since his death. Though no expert on Paine, I am a fervent admirer. Paine did much more than almost any person before or since to change the course of history. I have written about him before, but here I want to look at his life and work and consider what lessons we may draw from them.
“The Mendicant of Revolution”
Howard Fast’s 1943 novel Citizen Tom Paine is an undeservedly obscure masterpiece of historical fiction. Fast’s Paine is “the mendicant of revolution”—a dirty, sometimes selfish, often unpleasant, but always fiercely passionate defender of the rights of the downtrodden and a constant opponent of tyrannical power, whether in the form of monarchical authority or the monopolies of big business.
Fast’s portrait of Paine is complex and tragic. More than once, Paine turns down the chance of love and a quiet life in favour of expending his demonically restless energy upon extolling the necessity of revolution against tyranny. He is often drunk and dirty, is consumed by a fiery passion when writing his revolutionary screeds, and is willing to place himself in the heart of danger for his beliefs. He fights alongside George Washington’s soldiers and pens treasonous tracts in England and is nearly hanged for his trouble. In France, he is welcomed as a hero, until he opposes the emerging power of the Jacobins. After barely surviving his imprisonment at their hands, he returns to America, where his old friend Jefferson is now president, and dies exhausted, reviled, ill and alone, hounded by the religious, who want him to recant his heresy (which, of course, he does not).
“A stout heart,” Paine recommends to the weary and wounded soldiers of the American Revolution: words which sum up his own life well. Only a man of great strength and courage could have borne the life Paine lived. As far as I can tell, Fast’s portrait is fairly accurate, though enlivened by dramatizations of events and additions to the historical record. I would recommend the book to everyone. The final pages nearly had me in tears.
The historical details of Paine’s early years are sketchy. Born in 1737 in Thetford, Norfolk, to a Quaker father and an Anglican mother of humble means, the first half of Paine’s life was a record of failure and tragedy.
He was down and out in London much of the time, trying his hand at different trades and barely surviving; his first wife died in childbirth; he was privy to the injustices and poverty which plagued English society at the time. Yet he also frequented coffee houses and lectures, imbibing radicalism and Enlightenment philosophy. After his business failed and he separated from his second wife, he approached Benjamin Franklin, who was in London at the time and who gave Paine a letter of recommendation to take to America, where he arrived in 1774, during a time of political, economic and social upheaval.
Paine became a writer for a Philadelphia magazine, in whose pages he excoriated the horrific institution of slavery and the evils of the British empire. As fighting broke out between the colonists and the British, Paine threw himself into the battle, producing the magnificent pamphlet Common Sense in 1776.
The pamphlet’s passionate and rational argument, written in plain language for all to understand, spurred on the decision to declare independence from Britain. It sold in record numbers and was read aloud to the illiterate. Here is a small taste of Paine’s glorious pungency, a quality evinced by all his work, in Common Sense: “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” “Crowned ruffians”—remember that he wrote this in the age of the divine right of kings! Elsewhere, Paine refers to George III as “the Royal Brute of Britain.”
The title, Common Sense, was a summation of Paine’s philosophy: common sense was available to all, and so therefore was reason (and hence liberty), the right and property of all humanity. Paine’s attack on slavery may well have inspired the (later excised) section of the Declaration of Independence criticising that institution. Independence was in the air before Paine put pen to paper, but it was he who crystallised the feeling and made it real.
Throughout the war against the British, Paine produced a series of Crisis pamphlets, which responded to events and inspired the soldiers. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” declares the opening line of the first of these—and no soul was more tried during those harsh years than Paine’s own. Paine was involved in politics, exposing corruption at the highest level and fighting the forces of business and conservatism. He also fought in battle and was one of the few who kept faith even when it seemed that defeat was at hand.
After independence had been achieved, at first it looked as though Paine was going to lead a quiet life. He busied himself with scientific projects throughout the 1780s and travelled between France and England trying to gain funds for an iron bridge project (itself a manifestation of the Enlightenment ideal of progress and a decent work of engineering in its own right).
But when revolution came to France in 1789 and Edmund Burke published his critique of events there in 1790, Paine found himself back in the saddle. He published Rights of Man in two parts (in 1791 and 1792) as a response to Burke and a defence of revolution and radicalism. In it, his previously latent concern for economic equality found expression in proposals for a proto-welfare state. His vision was of a republican world, built on the ashes of the anciens régimes, where each man had the vote, the rights of freedom of conscience and expression were inviolable, and political liberty was the new normal. But he knew that poverty was an obstacle to a truly free society and, as such, made detailed arguments and proposals regarding the redistribution of wealth and provision for the poor.
Paine was certainly no socialist or communist, believing strongly as he did in the rights of property, but his concern for economic rights would strike us as socially democratic today (his fictional biographer Howard Fast was an avowed communist and this tension is apparent at some points in his book). Paine was forced to flee England and was declared an outlaw in his absence. He took a seat in the French Revolutionary National Convention (though he never fully learned the French language) and was associated with the slightly more moderate Girondin faction of the French Revolution. When he opposed the king’s execution and warned of the dangers of Jacobin power, he was rewarded with imprisonment.
He languished in a cell for nearly a year, his appeals to America for help ignored (chiefly due to the inaction of his old conservative enemy and now ambassador to France, Gouverneur Morris), a slight which Paine never forgave. He was released in November 1794, after the Jacobins had been ousted from power and a more sympathetic American ambassador, James Monroe, had argued his case. In 1796, he wrote a scathing (and perhaps misjudged) attack on his old friend Washington, whom he blamed for abandoning him to imprisonment. This, along with his support for the radical French Revolution, which did not enjoy the love of conservative Americans like Washington and Adams, was to prove one of the reasons for his fall from grace in later years.
But perhaps Paine’s greatest crime was to publish (in three parts in 1794, 1795 and 1807) The Age of Reason, his bold and open assault on organised religion (one of the first such, as Christopher Hitchens reminds us). He ruthlessly skewered the Biblical account of history and orthodox theology and was thereafter reviled as a heretic and an atheist. But, in fact, the work was also an attack on atheism—Paine was an avowed deist and had watched with alarm as the French Revolution took a godless turn. He saw true religion as service to his fellow man—weak stuff by normal religious standards, no doubt, but enough for him to be both condemned as a heretic and (more rightly) hailed as one of the great freethinkers.
The Age of Reason exemplifies Paine’s learning. He was mostly self-taught, yet, in this and in his previous works, he displays considerable knowledge of theology, history and political philosophy. He denied having read John Locke, but was evidently indebted to him: as Hitchens says, “Paine was a borrower and synthesizer, not an originator.” But this was his gift—Paine brought his own inimitable yet plain style and sharp mind to bear on the questions of the past and present and from this synthesis there emerged some of the finest, funniest, most passionate and most accessible political prose ever written. Paine’s accounts of the origins of society and government in Common Sense and Rights of Man are cases in point.
After arguing for some economic equality in Agrarian Justice (1797) (and a brief flirtation with Napoleon Bonaparte), Paine returned to America in 1802 or 1803 to live out his last years. He was old and tired and had been disappointed in many of his hopes for a new world order based on reason and liberty. He took some part in the political debates between Jefferson and his Federalist enemies in his last years, but most of his glory was behind him. In his final years, he was reviled, spat at by children in the street, denied the vote by electoral officials who disliked him and, finally, in 1809, left to die alone. Paine’s funeral was a shoddy affair. His bones were later taken to England by William Cobbett and have never been seen again (Fast comments, “and that, perhaps, is best, for the world was his village.”)
What Would Paine Do?
Several threats face those of us who believe in universal liberal humanism. From the left, we are harangued by science-denying blank slatists and do-nothing and know-nothing postmodernists, while the right has given us creationism, Islamic fascism and Donald Trump. Though there are vast differences between such ideologies, they are all united by an aversion to core Enlightenment ideals: universalism, justice, freedom and reason.
A revival of Thomas Paine’s ideals is in order. Paine declared himself a world citizen. He was a universalist, who believed the fruits of American liberty could and should be shared with everyone, everywhere (one of many echoes of Paine in Hitchens is the latter’s declaration that, “in America your internationalism can and should be your patriotism”). Paine was the foremost champion of the Enlightenment in action—not for him the comfortable salons of the philosophes; instead, he imbibed those philosophies and translated them into language accessible to all intelligent men and women—and got dirty fighting for them. He transformed high ideals into blood and flesh, breathed life into them and made them thrive. Thomas Paine was not perfect (he could have said more on women’s rights and the plight of the Native Americans, for example) but that human imperfection is part of his appeal.
Paine took lofty philosophy and embodied it. He was a poor man, scarcely educated, self-taught, yet he wrote like nobody before or since. His human imperfections show that these ideals are not unattainable—if a man as haunted and dirty as Thomas Paine can fly so high, then it is possible for anyone to unburden themselves of their mental chains. Yet, as Paine realised, liberty and freedom can only be attained under certain conditions: when political rights are guaranteed, authority is checked and economic justice is achieved to some degree (that age-old balancing act between liberty and equality must always be borne in mind, as Paine well knew).
So, what would Tom Paine do? If only he were still with us, scribbling away today, he would surely see the dangers we face. He would be in the front lines (perhaps literally) in the fight against the Islamic State and its ilk, for he hated war but realised its occasional necessity; he would look at the illness that has festered in his beloved America and urge it to return to its highest ideals; he would probably be a Democrat, at odds with the strange turn towards so-called Social Justice of that party; he would fight against the stranglehold of businesses and corporations over America and the rest of the world; he would be concerned by some of the left’s turn to postmodernism; he would be appalled at more of the left’s support of reactionaries (as exemplified by British Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn).
And—perhaps above all—he would argue that his view of the American Revolution was still valid: that the promises of liberty and freedom must be resurrected and made real again, not just for America but for the world, and that economic injustice and exploitation must be remedied. The progress we have made would not be dismissed by Paine, but he would see that there is still a long way to go.
As Hitchens puts it: “In a time when both rights and reason are under several kinds of open and covert attack, the life and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend.” (Hitchens’ biography of Paine, incidentally, is dedicated to Jalal Talabani, the first elected president of Iraq—see my recent Painean defence of the War on Terror in this magazine).
As to those who claim Paine as one of their own, I concur with J. M. Opal: “Paine belongs to none of the groups or ideologies that have claimed him since his death, because he was a product above all of a period.” That period was the revolutionary eighteenth century, when Enlightenment thought flourished. As Opal says, it is only by reflecting on Paine and his world that we can hope to learn from him. We should see him as the representative of an ever-shifting yet ever-relevant philosophy of reason. He is worthy neither of uncritical adulation nor of demonization—but he is worthy of a passionate but reasoned appreciation.
Thomas Paine is one of greatest figures of the Enlightenment. One can only hope that Gregory Claeys is right when—turning John Adams’ hatred of Paine on its head—he writes that, “the age of Paine has barely begun.” But perhaps Tom Paine’s greatest legacy to us in this time of unreason is the term with which he titled his first great pamphlet: Common Sense. Would that we had a touch more of that these days—and stouter hearts with it, to face the onslaught.