Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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THOMAS PAINE: Author of "Common Sense"

On January 29, 1737, Thomas Paine was born in a small village in Norfolk, England.  By the age of 12, it was necessary for him to leave school to assist his father who made ladies’ corsets crafted from fabric-covered whale bone.  From an early age, and well into his adulthood, Thomas continued his education by frequenting libraries where he immersed himself in books on Greek and Roman history, the sciences, engineering and mechanics.

Thomas saw how difficult daily life was for his parents and other villagers.  And, being of Quaker stock, their faith put them at odds with the fluctuating doctrines of the official Church of England.  The king believed he alone was the head of the Church.  Under his authority soldiers raided peasant’s homes in search of evidence of worship services which were not in compliance with the official Church doctrines. Punishments could mean loss of property, physical harm, or worse.  Young Thomas even witnessed the horrors of non-conformists being burned at the stake.     

Hoping to change his environment, Thomas chose one of the few options available to him.  At age 16, he signed up to be a crewmember aboard an English privateering ship with the unsettling name of The Terrible, under the direction of the infamous Captain Death!  However, before Thomas was to set sail, his plans to become a sailor ended abruptly when The Terrible was commandeered by the French Navy.  Three years later, still determined to go to sea, he became a crewmember aboard a merchant ship. 

The Seven Years’ War (1756-63) had erupted in Europe between England and France, and Parliament ordered all English maritime vessels to be converted into battle ships. This put Thomas Paine in the position to experience the fierceness of war first hand.

After the war, Paine settled near London and started a family.  Like his father, he became a corset-maker, a craft which paid more than many jobs.  However, living in London was expensive and he soon found that he had to supplement his income by teaching school and working as a grocer.  By age 36, his first wife and baby had died in childbirth and his second marriage had ended in divorce.  

During that time, another of Paine’s numerous low-paying occupations was that of a tax collector.  Here, too, he thought he was underpaid.  He distributed a petition to the British Parliament complaining about the low wages.  Even though he was summarily dismissed, Thomas Paine gained his first taste of expressing his views through the use of public pamphleteering.      

In 1774, Benjamin Franklin was in London serving as an emissary for the American Colonies.   He met Paine through a common acquaintance and, recognizing his intelligence, good character, and writing talents, recommended that Paine relocate to America to seek a career as a journalist and printer.  Selling the remainder of his possessions to pay for his passage, Paine boarded a ship bound for the American colonies.

The voyage across the north Atlantic Ocean required physical stamina from both passengers and ship crewmembers alike.  Even though violent storms could threaten the stability of the ships, one of the most dangerous perils came from scurvy which caused debilitating fatigue and ultimate blood poisoning.  Scurvy killed more than two million sailors between the time of Columbus through the mid-18th century.  When ships anchored near tropical islands, and the scurvy-sickened crews began consuming the fresh fruits and vegetables, they began to heal.  There was no understanding of the role vitamins play in good health, but gradually fruits and vegetables were added to ship diets.

When Paine finally arrived in Philadelphia, he was broke, knew no one, and was anemic from weeks of being dangerously ill from scurvy.  However, he had in his possession something of great value – a letter of recommendation from the esteemed Dr. Franklin.  Paine proved himself to be a diligent worker and was eventually employed by a magazine editor.

As an American, Paine was experiencing his first sense of self-rule.  However, it did not take long for him to recognize that the tyrannical methods the English government used on its subjects in England, were being used to an even greater extent on the Colonists.  He did not think that such a large continent as America could be fairly ruled by a small island like England, especially while being denied legal representation in Parliament.  Consequently, even after long work days, Paine spent his evenings writing pamphlets supporting his ideas on freedom.

For some time, John Adams and others had been speaking in Congress about breaking away from England, even if it meant going to war against the dominant British military forces.   It was true that many Colonists had strong loyalties to King James.  While others just wanted to remain neutral, there were those who believed they had earned the right to protect themselves against excessive taxation and heavy-handed British magistrates. 

It was Thomas Paine’s widely-read pamphlet Common Sense, published on January 10, 1776, which galvanized the patriotic spirit in the hearts of about a third of the Colonists.  Also emboldened by the decisive document, The Declaration of Independence, they answered George Washington’s call to join his Continental Army to fight for their rights to be a free nation.

Eighteen months into the war, having suffered several defeats by the British army, the morale of the American troops was at a low ebb.  It was mid-December, and Thomas Paine was among the cold, ill-clad, and poorly armed men in the Continental Army when he wrote the prophetic words, “These are the times that try men’s souls…”  When he completed his thoughts, reportedly written on the head of a drum, he had it dispatched to General Washington, posthaste.  As men were ready to quit the battle, Washington read Paine’s pamphlet, The American Crisis, to his men.  Hearing their Commander read these stirring words once again bolstered their spirits.  In later essays, we will recount their crossing of the icy Delaware River on Christmas Eve, and about Washington’s decisive wins at both Trenton and Princeton.    

As a soldier in the Continental Army, Paine was acutely aware of the shortage of armaments.  As sales increased for his pamphlets, Common Sense and The American Crisis, Paine donated most of his proceeds to help equip the Patriots with additional weapons.

After the Americans won the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine then turned his attention to public works, specifically to the designing of a single-arch bridge system to improve river crossings in Philadelphia.  However, in post-war America, funding for such endeavors was difficult to obtain so Paine traveled to Europe to seek financial backing for his project.  During his extended stay in England, Paine managed to again upset the British Parliament when he published his book, The Rights of Man (1791), in which he blamed English and European monarchies for causing poverty and suffering among their subjects.  Parliament banned Paine’s book and was about to arrest him on the charge of treason.   However, Paine narrowly avoided being seized by the British because he had already set sail for Paris at the invitation to join the French National Convention which agreed with his anti-monarchical views.   

The French peasant class had long endured intolerable living conditions due to being heavily taxed by monarchs.  However, it was the opulence of the court of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette that finally tipped the scales of injustice.  The objective of the National Convention was to replace the rule of kings with the more democratic “rule of the people.”  But, when the king and queen were captured, the Convention’s leaders revealed their plan to behead them and take control of the government.  Paine argued that since the rebellion leaders had achieved their goals, they could spare the lives of the monarchs.   Not only were the king and queen sent to the guillotine, Paine was sent to jail to await his own death. 

There were many similarities between the American Revolutionary War (1776-1783), and the French Revolution (1789-1799).  In both instances the lives of the people were controlled by the dictates of their respective kings.  Rebellion against such tyranny required great faith, courage, and honorable leadership.  What started with oppressed people speaking up for their civil rights, eventually became masses of destructive rioters marching through the streets of Paris, some carrying poles topped with the severed heads of members of the elite class.  The American Colonists succeeded, during and after the war, because they were committed to the principles of freedom by creating a Constitutional Republic.  Tragically, the French Revolution devolved into mob rule.

After nearly a year in prison, Paine was released in 1794, due to the efforts of James Monroe, America’s Minister to France, and allowed to return to his farm in New York.  In his absence, the American people had already adopted the U.S. Constitution (1789), and the Bill of Rights (1791), and were busily engaged with the affairs of state.  Because of his ill-advised involvement with the French Revolution, as well as his having been abroad during the adoption of our founding documents, Paine was no longer in step with the general public in America.  His continued outspoken distrust of government caused him to lose favor among his peers.  Thomas Paine eventually secluded himself on his farm in New York, where he died, at age 72, on June 8, 1809. 

However, prior to and during America’s Revolutionary War, Paine played a pivotal role in energizing the spirits of the colonists who went on to fight against the tyranny of King George III.  Those of us who have been blessed to live in a free America would do well to study the writings of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and The American Crises, so we can share his timeless wisdom with future generations.                

Harlow Giles Unger, Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence
                 (BES Publishing, 9/10/19);
 www.mount vernon.org/thomas-paine;