He was a “disastrous meteor” according to John Adams, a “star of disaster.” These descriptions did fit Thomas Paine – but Adams saw only a potential for destruction, and history shows us an irrepressible figure who feared nothing and was prepared to give everything to the cause of liberty (source).
Engraving by Honore Daumier. “If single-mindedness is too focused, it will not allow “the chance observation falling on the receptive eye”
— S.E. Lauria
Physician and Founder Benjamin Rush had published attacks on the institution of slavery, but when this action angered his clientele and nearly ruined his medical practice, he asked Thomas Paine to take his place, which Paine happily did. He soon became a founding member of the first abolitionist society in America (source: Thomas Paine, by Craig Nelson).
There were other words that Dr. Rush dare not speak in 1775. The political climate was too precarious to utter the words “independence” and “republicanism.” Paine understood this too: “It was a point of time full of critical danger to America, and if her future wellbeing depended on any one political circumstance more than another it was in changing the sentiments of the people from dependence to Independence and from the monarchial to the republican form of government; for had she unhappily split on the question, or entered coldly or hesitatingly into it, she most probably had been ruined.” Of course, this did not deter him from using the words.
Paine’s most famous work, Common Sense, appeared as a pamphlet – pamphlets at the time were inexpensive to mass produce, and as the biographer Craig Nelson points out, were meant to persuade the educated and be read aloud to the illiterate. Historian Bernard Bailyn called Common Sense a “work of genius,” adding “one had to be a fool or a fanatic in early January 1776 to advocate American independence. Everyone knew England was the most powerful nation on earth … Why should one want to destroy the most successful political system in the world, which guaranteed both liberty and order, under which American had flourished? … There is something extraordinary in this pamphlet and in the mind and imagination of the man who wrote it, something bizarre, out-sized, unique (cited in Nelson).”
As Nelson points out, these are the lessons contained in Common Sense:
- There is no divine right of kings,
- England’s king / Lords / Commons balance of power was nothing but a pantomime, designed to convince the English people that the political system was fair and equitable, when it was in fact corrupt and oligarchic,
- It is immoral to limit suffrage to wealthy, land-holding citizens,
- The allocation of voting districts kept English suffrage firmly in the hands of the monied elite,
- It is a blessing and duty to engage in the struggle to bring greater freedom to future generations,
- The common people, acting in concert, are the most powerful political force in the world,
Thomas Paine wrote, “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices … Society is in every state a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer!”
Once a printer was found who was bold enough to accept the job, Common Sense instantly became enormously popular. Paine decided, soon after, to forswear royalties, and donated his profits to George Washington’s Continental Army, to provide the ranks with mittens. He surrendered his copyright, and allowed all printers the opportunity to publish it.
John Adams reported (ruefully, no doubt) that Common Sense had reached Europe, and was “received in France and all of Europe with rapture.” Paine became America’s bestselling author. As Nelson observes, “By the end of that year of 1776, between 150,000 and 250,000 copies were sold, at a time when the American population stood at three million – the equivalent in per capita of selling 35 million copies of a single title today.”
George Washington reported that, “The sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning contained in the pamphlet Common Sense will not leave members [of Congress] at a loss to decide on the propriety of separation … [It is] working a wonderful change in the minds of many men.” And when war broke out between the British Empire and the colonies, Thomas Paine offered encouragement with a series of letters known today as the American Crisis. At dusk on December 23, 1776, General Washington had his troops gather into small squads and read aloud to them Paine’s words,
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 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 everything its value.
Washington’s army would soon after reach Trenton, where they discovered a mercenary force. The mercenaries had hunkered down because of the blizzard conditions, and canceled its patrols. Thus, they were taken completely by surprise when three American battalions descended, and as the colonial troops charged with bayonets, they cried out, “THESE are the times that try men’s souls.”
Paine did not rest. Turning his eye to European affairs, he wrote The Rights of Man as a defense of the French Revolution and an indictment of British monarchy. As he did in Common Sense, he argued that, regardless of what their rulers may claim:
I. Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility.
II. The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.
III. The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any INDIVIDUAL, or ANY BODY OF MEN, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.
He declared that a country represented by a true Republican government will rarely if ever go to war, because wars occur when the interests of the rulers differ from the interests of the people. “Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of Government. Instead, therefore, of exclaiming against the ambition of Kings, the exclamation should be directed against the principle of such Governments; and instead of seeking to reform the individual, the wisdom of a Nation should apply itself to reform the system.”
At a time when the newly independent United States of America enjoyed few social divisions on the basis of wealth and position, Paine saw in England the continued rule of aristocrats and oligarchs. In condemning this undemocratic feature of British society, he spoke specifically to the question of commercial charters and corporations. “They do not give rights to [the corporation], but they make a difference in favour of [the corporation] by taking away the [rights of the people], and consequently are instruments of injustice.” He added, “This species of feudality is kept up to aggrandise the corporations at the ruin of towns; and the effect is visible. The generality of corporation towns are in a state of solitary decay …”
“Ah!...the comets..., that always signals some great misfortunes!”
The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together.
- Thomas Paine
Of the corporation, Paine asked, “What right has it to a distinct and separate representation from the general interest of a nation? The only use to be made of this power (and which it always has made), is to ward off taxes from itself, and throw the burthen upon those articles of consumption by which itself would be least affected.” That is, the corporate interests will always seek to reduce taxes on their own properties, and shift the burden of taxation to the poor. “Their residences, whether in town or country, are not mixed with the habitations of the poor. They live apart from distress, and the expense of relieving it. It is in manufacturing towns and labouring villages that those burthens press the heaviest; in many of which it is one class of poor supporting another.”
In publishing The Rights of Man, Paine risked being imprisoned in England. In defending the French Revolution, he put himself at odds with the views of mainstream Americans, who were shocked by the bloody aftermath and became alienated from their one-time sister in revolution. And in his sharp criticisms of religion, he would eventually become a nearly universally despised and shunned figure, considered a friend no longer by George Washington and attacked tenaciously and savagely by John Adams, and would die a painful death in poverty.