In the course of his life, Thomas Paine invented a smokeless candle, received a patent for a single-span iron bridge, worked on developing steam engines, made corsets by day and wrote political pamphlets by night that would—among other things—depose a king, skewer the sacred cows of monarchy and religion, lay out the intellectual justification for two revolutions, and play a decisive role in founding a New World.
His political life began in earnest when he emigrated from England to the United States in 1774. Paine had met Benjamin Franklin in London, and the latter had convinced him that America was an exciting, worthwhile experiment. Paine barely survived the journey though; the ship’s water supplies were bad, and several passengers died of typhoid. When the ship docked in Philadelphia, Franklin’s personal physician had to carry him off the boat. Paine arrived in the country that he would change, and which would change him, as weak as a kitten.
At first, his life was quiet in America. He became the editor of Pennsylvania Magazine and worked on his inventions. He grew increasingly passionate about the anti-British sentiment growing around him, and in the evenings he struggled over an essay that would become Common Sense. He realized that the revolt against Britain was being lead by social elites like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin (his friends). It was clear to Paine that the fight would not succeed unless the masses were on board.
Common Sense was written in plain language, and it described a future without a despotic monarchy. Paine explained why America should throw off the king, and how they would benefit by doing so. He provided a new and convincing argument for independence by advocating a complete break with history. Common Sense was oriented to the future in a way that compelled the reader to make an immediate choice: freedom and a new world, or continued oppression?
The pamphlet became an immediate, massive success. In relation to the population of the colonies at that time, it had the largest sales and circulation of any book in American history. (Paine was the J.K. Rowling of his time.) Farmers stopped in their fields to read it; George Washington recited portions to inspire his troops before battle. The pages were passed around, and read aloud in taverns. More than any other single entity, Common Sense was responsible for spreading the idea of republicanism and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army. Paine’s pamphlet was, quite simply, the match that ignited the American Revolution.
America’s success thrilled Paine, as it did much of the world. Countries that had long been stifled by cruel monarchies began to struggle for independence. Paine wrote another pamphlet—Rights of Man—in defense of France’s brand-new revolution. He argued that political revolution is permissible, and even desirable, whenever a government does not safeguard its people, their natural rights, and their national interests. This was a shocking proposition at the time; these kinds of words had been whispered, but not printed. The publication of Rights of Man caused a furor in England; Paine was tried in absentia, and convicted for seditious libel against the Crown. He was conveniently unavailable for hanging because he was already in France.
He almost died in that country, too. Paine argued that the French Revolution should not betray its principles by killing the king, because it would trigger an orgy of blood-letting that would eventually drown them all. The French didn’t heed his prescient warning; they threw him in jail and sentenced him to the guillotine. His life was saved by accident—the guard simply missed the white X on his cell door that indicated he was a condemned man. Paine was in France, and in trouble, when he wrote his most controversial pamphlet, The Age of Reason. In it, he argued against organized religion and in favor of deism (the belief in a god of nature—a noninterventionist creator—who permits the universe to run itself according to natural laws). Paine criticized specific sections of the Bible; he claimed—a dangerous suggestion then and now—that religion demanded the same critical, objective inquiry as any other subject. To be fair, Paine was not completely out of step with his times—America was a less religious country in the 1700s than it is today. Leaders like Jefferson, Franklin and Washington were either deists or thoughtful agnostics, but still the public turned against him. It was for this reason that George Washington refused to help Paine when he reached out from his French prison. Paine then penned a public letter condemning the famous general, and that letter dealt a final, fatal blow to his popularity.
Paine was never wealthy and never comfortable; in fact, he rarely had a home. He spent his life studying the world around him, looking for ways to ameliorate the human condition. His aim was no less grand than that—he wanted to change the world. What makes him extraordinary is that he succeeded. His weapon was his pen, and his writings by turn inspired, enlightened, threatened, scared and angered people. He punched holes in commonly held beliefs; he forced people to think and ask questions. He fought for liberty and justice in America and France. He saw a growing confusion over the role and benefit of religion, and—after giving it thought—decided that like tyranny, religion should be jettisoned entirely.
Paine was shunned at the end of his life; only six people attended his funeral. His vision was too searing, and too demanding, for his contemporaries to acknowledge. Indeed, as Bertrand Russell (an admirer of Paine) would later write: “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death… Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”
To this day, Paine remains a huge influence on revolutionaries and rabble-rousers, truth-tellers and prophets. His legacy is long, and it is at our peril that we forget it. After all, Paine wrote the crucial words: “we have it in our power to begin the world again.” This was true in Paine’s day, and they did begin again. We can only hope that these words hold true in ours.