Thomas Paine

THOMAS PAINE

 

“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

Talk about a guy who just could not catch a break!

Thomas Paine was born in England to a Quaker father and an Anglican mother and had followed his father into the stay-maker business (they made thick rope stays for ships, not ladies’ corset stays as is commonly reported) and had a successful business by all reports.  Because of his connection to the sea, he signed up as crew on a privateer in late adolescence.  That didn’t work out so he returned to Britain in 1759 and became a master stay-maker (again, for ships – not corsets), establishing a business in Sandwich, Kent.  That same year, he married.  His business collapsed shortly thereafter and his wife  died in premature childbirth with their baby within the year.

He tried being an excise officer collecting taxes and tracking down smugglers, got fired, rehired and fired again after writing a pamphlet to promote pay raises for excise officers.  Then he tried to make a living as a grocer and tobacconist after marrying again in 1771.  As a shopkeeper, he was an abysmal failure and went bankrupt in 1774, most of his possessions were auctioned off to avoid debtors’ prison and his marriage unraveled.              

 At the age of 37, his financial opportunities looking pretty bleak, he emigrated to the American colonies at the invitation of Benjamin Franklin who had secured a job for him at the Pennsylvania Magazine, where he honed his skills as a writer/pamphleteer – just as the American Revolution was growing legs!  Divine intervention???

“Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.”

 In January, 1776, having only been in the colonies for less than a year, he published a short pamphlet called Common Sense, which swept the colonies like a tidal wave.  At a time when there were only 2 million free colonists living in America, 120,000 copies were sold in just 3 months! (www.wikitree.com) It was read and discussed by everyone who was anyone. “It was read by public men, repeated in clubs, spouted in schools, and – in one instance – delivered from the pulpit in Connecticut instead of a sermon.” (http://fee.org/freeman/thomas-paine-passionate-pamphleteer-for-liberty).   Before Common Sense, the colonists had hoped things could be worked out with England – then this thought-provoking piece came out and there was no going back.

And then it hit Europe, where it was translated into German, Danish, Russian and French.  Altogether, more than 500,000 copies were sold.

So, to recap to this point:  “Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is the most brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution, and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language.  How it could have been produced by the bankrupt Quaker stay-maker, the sometime teacher, preacher, and grocer, and twice-fired excise officer who happened to catch Benjamin Franklin’s attention in England and who arrived in America only fourteen months before Common Sense was published is nothing one can explain without explaining genius itself.”  (Harvard University historian Bernard Bailyn)

 . . .  Or it was God’s hand. . .

Sitting in the cold, embedded with Washington’s weary, demoralized troops who, once again, found themselves overwhelmed after suffering several major defeats at the hands of the British, the words rang out in the cold winter air:

“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 . . “

 Washington and his troops went on to win the Battle of Trenton the next day, and the Battle of Princeton a couple of days later.  That was the turning point of the American Revolution, because those wins caused the French to enter the war on our side against the British.

The fame this publication garnered would lead to his legacy as the Father of the American Revolution.

“As nobody before, Thomas Paine stirred ordinary people to defend their liberty.  He wrote the three top-selling literary works of the eighteenth century, which inspired the American Revolution, issued a historic battle cry for individual rights, and challenged the corrupt power of government and churches.  His radical vision and dramatic, plainspoken style connected with artisans, servants, soldiers, merchants, farmers and laborers alike.  Paine’s work breathes fire to this day.” ~ Jim Powell, Cato Institute

In his second essay, published in January 1777, Paine was the first to coin the name “United States of America.”

 “Those who expect to reap the blessing of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” 

 After the war ended, Paine was broke and didn’t know how he would earn a living.   New York state gave him a 300-acre farm about 30 miles from New York City (which had belonged to a British loyalist) for his efforts in the war for independence and Congress voted to pay him $3,000 for expenses he had paid out of his own pocket (Jim Powell, Cato Institute).

In April of 1787, Paine returned to England where he wrote a scathing response to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution called Rights of Man which railed against aristocratic society.  It created such a stir, the British government banned it and indicted Paine for seditious libel and treason.  He avoided the decree by mere days as he fled to France.

The French loved him so much they made him an honorary citizen of France  and elected him to the National Convention (even though he couldn’t speak French) as he rallied for the revolution – until the opposition party took over.  Because he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution, but did not support the execution of Louis XVI, he earned the wrath of the extremists who threw him in prison where he narrowly escaped the guillotine.  A chalk mark, left by the gaoler to specify which prisoners were to be gathered for execution, had been put on the inside of his door while the door was open when he had guests, rather than the outside where the gaoler would see it the next morning.   Ah, what a quirk of fate, huh?

While in prison, he wrote The Age of Reason in which he advocated deism, promoted reason and free thought and argued against institutionalized religion in general (Wikipedia.org).  He remained in prison for almost a year, until new American minister James Monroe got him released.

“If there be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”

 In 1802, having burned all his bridges in Europe, he made his way back to America to find that he and his works had been largely forgotten.  The only thing remaining was his international reputation as a trouble-making rabble rouser.  He was well-received by Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton who continued to support him, but his final years were marked by poverty, poor health and alcoholism as he was ostracized by society for his views on religion.

“The duty of a true Patriot is to protect His country from its government.”

 Even having been the man who convinced President Thomas Jefferson to purchase the Louisiana territory from the French, which more than doubled the size of the United States, and having supported the liberty movement all around the world, Paine lived in pitiful squalor in his final years.

“One by one, most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him.  Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his service forgotten – his character blackened – he preserved the poise and balance of his soul.  He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken.  He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death.  Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts.  On the 8th day of June, 1809, death came.  Death, almost his only friend.  He was denied burial at a Quaker cemetery.  At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display.  In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead.  On horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head, followed.  And on foot, following, were two negroes filled with gratitude.”   (www.wikipedia.org)

That was the sum total of the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine, the Father of the American Revolution.

 

“I love the man who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.  ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.”

 

Rest in peace, Thomas Paine, and we thank you for your service.