Thomas Paine, Political Activist and Voice of the American Revolution

Paine's Pamphlet "Common Sense" Inspired the Patriot Cause

engraved portrait of Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine.

Collection/Gado / Getty Images 

Thomas Paine was an English-born writer and political activist who became, shortly after his arrival in America, the leading propagandist of the American Revolution. His pamphlet "Common Sense," which appeared anonymously in early 1776, became wildly popular and helped sway public opinion to the radical position of splitting from the British Empire.

Paine followed up by publishing, during the bitter winter when the Continental Army was camped at Valley Forge, a pamphlet titled "The American Crisis," which urged Americans to remain steadfast to the patriot cause.

Fast Facts: Thomas Paine

  • Known For: Political activist and writer. He used memorable and fiery prose in pamphlets which argued that Americans should form a new nation.
  • Born: January 29, 1737 in Thetford England
  • Died: June 8, 1809 in New York City
  • Spouses: Mary Lambert (m. 1759–1760) and Elizabeth Ollive (m. 1771–1774)
  • Famous Quote: "These are the times that try men's souls..."

Early Life

Thomas Pain (he added an e to his name after arriving in America) was born in Thetford, England, on January 29, 1737, the son of a farmer who also worked at times as a maker of corsets. As a child, Paine attended local schools, leaving at 13 to work with his father.

For more than two decades, Paine struggled to find a career. He went to sea for a time, and returned to England to try his hand at various occupations, including teaching, running a small grocery store, and, like his father, making corsets. He married in 1760 but his wife died a year later during childbirth. He married again in 1771 and separated from his second wife within a few years.

In 1762, he received an appointment as an excise collector, but lost the job three years later after mistakes were found in his records. He was reinstated in the job, but was eventually fired again in 1774. He had written a petition to Parliament urging a raise in pay for excise men, and he was probably fired as an act of retribution when his petition was rejected.

With his life in a shambles, Paine audaciously tried to advance himself by calling on Benjamin Franklin in London. Paine had been reading widely and educating himself, and Franklin recognized that Paine was intelligent and expressed interesting ideas. Franklin furnished him with letters of introduction that might help him find employment in Philadelphia. In late 1774, Paine, at the age of 37, sailed for America.

New Life In America

After arriving in Philadelphia in November 1774, and spending a few weeks recovering from an illness contracted during the miserable ocean crossing, Paine used his connection with Franklin to begin writing for the Pennsylvania Magazine, a popular publication. He wrote a variety of essays, using pseudonyms, which was customary at the time.

Paine was named editor of the magazine, and his passionate writings, which included an attack on slavery and the slave trade, gained notice. The magazine also gained subscribers, and it seemed that Paine had found his career.

"Common Sense"

Paine was a sudden success in his new life as a magazine editor, but he got into conflicts with the publisher and had left the position by the fall of 1775. He decided he would devote himself to writing a pamphlet laying out the case for the American colonists to split with England.

At that time, the American Revolution had essentially started with the armed conflict at Lexington and Concord. Paine, as a newly arrived observer in America, was inspired by the revolutionary fervor in the colonies.

During his time in Philadelphia, Paine had noticed a seeming contradiction: Americans were outraged by oppressive actions taken by Britain, yet they also tended to express loyalty toward the king, George III. Paine fervently believed that attitude needed to change, and he saw himself as the person to argue against loyalty to a monarch. He hoped to inspire a passionate desire among Americans to completely split with England.

Throughout late 1775, Paine worked on his pamphlet. He constructed his argument carefully, writing several sections dealing with the nature of monarchies, and making a case against the very institutions of kings.

Title Page Of Paine's 'Common Sense'
Title page of the R. Bell edition of 'Common Sense' by American author and politician Thomas Paine, 1776.  Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In what would be the most notable section of "Common Sense," Paine argued that the American cause was entirely just. And the only solution was for Americans to declare themselves independent of Great Britain. As Paine memorably put it: "The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth."

Advertisements began appearing in Philadelphia newspapers for "Common Sense" in January 1776. The author was not identified, and the price was two shillings. The pamphlet became an instant success. Copies of the text were passed about among friends. Many readers speculated that the author was a well-known American, perhaps even Benjamin Franklin. Few suspected the author of the fiery call for American independence was an Englishman who had arrived in America little more than a year earlier.

Not everyone was impressed by Paine's pamphlet. American loyalists, those who opposed the movement toward independence, were horrified and considered the author of the pamphlet to be a dangerous radical inflaming the mob. Even John Adams, considered a radical voice himself, thought the pamphlet went too far. He developed a lifelong distrust of Paine, and would later be offended when Paine was given any credit for having helped bring about the American Revolution.

Despite some vocal detractors, the pamphlet had an enormous impact. It helped to shape public opinion in favor of a split with Britain. Even George Washington, commanding the Continental Army in the spring of 1776, praised it for creating a "powerful change" in public attitude toward Britain. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in the summer of 1776, the public, thanks to Paine's pamphlet, was aligned with revolutionary sentiment.

Thomas Paine Engraving
A memorial engraving of Thomas Paine, with a smirk on his face, containing his dates of birth and death, with text reading "The World is my Country and to do Good my Religion", figures of religion and law shield themselves from his image, 1815. From the New York Public Library. Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

"The Crisis"

"Common Sense" sold more than 120,000 copies in the spring of 1776, an enormous number for the time (and some estimates are much higher). Yet Paine, even when he was revealed to be its author, did not make much money from his effort. Devoted to the cause of the Revolution, he joined up with Washington's army as a soldier in a Pennsylvania regiment. He traveled with the army during the retreat from New York and across New Jersey in late 1776.

Beginning in December 1776, as the patriot cause looked utterly bleak, Paine began writing a series of pamphlets he titled "The Crisis." The first of the pamphlets, titled "The American Crisis," began with a passage that has been quoted countless times:

"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 his 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: 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value."

George Washington found Paine's words so inspiring that he ordered it be read to the troops spending that bitter winter encamped at Valley Forge.

In need of steady employment, Paine was able to obtain a job as a secretary to the Continental Congress' committee on foreign affairs. He eventually lost that position (for allegedly leaking secret communications) and obtained a post as the clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. In that position he drafted the preamble to the state's law abolishing slavery, a cause near to Paine's heart.

Paine continued writing installments of "The Crisis" throughout the Revolutionary War, eventually publishing 14 of the essays by 1783. Following the end of the war, he was often critical of the many political disputes arising in the new nation.

"The Rights of Man"

The Rights Of Man
A series of engravings with texts describing contrasting contemporary reactions to British radical intellectual Thomas Paine's pamphlet 'The Rights Of Man', published in 1791.  Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1787 Paine sailed for Europe, landing at first in England. He was invited to visit France by the Marquis de Lafayette, and he visited Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as the American ambassador to France. Paine became energized by the French Revolution.

He returned to England, where he wrote yet another political pamphlet, "The Rights of Man." He argued in favor of the French Revolution, and he criticized the institution of monarchy, which soon landed him in trouble. The British authorities sought to arrest him, and after being tipped off by the poet and mystic William Blake, whom Paine knew through radical circles in England, he escaped back to France.

In France Paine became involved in controversies when he criticized some aspects of the Revolution. He was labeled a traitor and imprisoned. He spent nearly a year in prison before the new American ambassador, James Monroe, obtained his release.

While recovering in France, Paine wrote another pamphlet, "The Age of Reason," which argued against organized religion. When he returned to America he was generally ostracized. That was in part to his arguments against religion, which many found objectionable, and also because of criticism he leveled at figures from the Revolution, including even George Washington. He retired to a farm north of New York City, where he lived quietly. He died in New York City on June 8, 1809, an impoverished and generally forgotten figure.

Legacy

Over time, Paine's reputation grew. He began to be recognized as a vital voice during the revolutionary period, and his difficult aspects tended to be forgotten. Modern politicians take to quoting him regularly, and in the public memory he is considered a venerated patriot.

Sources:

  • "Thomas Paine." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 12, Gale, 2004, pp. 66-67. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Paine, Thomas." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature, vol. 3, Gale, 2009, pp. 1256-1260. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Paine, Thomas." American Revolution Reference Library, edited by Barbara Bigelow, et al., vol. 2: Biographies, Vol. 2, UXL, 2000, pp. 353-360. Gale Virtual Reference Library.