Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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THOMAS PAINE: Common Sense

On January 29, 1737, Thomas Paine was born to Quaker parents in the British village of Norfolk. By the age of 12, it was necessary for him to leave school to assist his father whose trade was crafting ladies corset stays out of whale bone and fabric. Without the possibility for a formal education, and well into his adulthood, Thomas frequented libraries where he immersed himself in books on Greek and Roman history, the sciences, engineering and mechanics.

As a member of English peasantry, Thomas knew daily life could be difficult in general but, if one appeared to be at odds with the fluctuating doctrines of the Church of England, punishments could be extreme. Young Thomas even witnessed the horrors of peasants 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 crewman aboard an English privateering ship with the unsettling name of The Terrible, under the direction of the infamous Captain Death! However, the ship was commandeered by the French Navy before Thomas took up his post. Three years later, still determined to go to sea, he became a crewmember aboard a cargo ship.

It was at this time that the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) between England and France began in Europe. Parliament ordered all English maritime vessels to be converted into battle ships, consequently, Thomas Paine experienced the fierceness of war firsthand.

After the war Paine settled near London, started a family and, like his father, became a corset-maker. However, he soon found that he had to supplement his income by teaching school and working as a grocer. By age 36, he had lost his first wife and baby in childbirth and, his second marriage had ended in a divorce. During that time, another of Paine’s numerous low-paying occupations was that of a tax collector. Here too, he thought he was under-paid. He distributed a petition to the British Parliament complaining about the low wages paid to tax collectors. Even though he was summarily dismissed, Thomas Paine got 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 when he became aware of Paine’s after reading some of his journalism pieces. Franklin apparently recognized intelligence and good character in this spirited young man and recommended that Paine relocate to America and seek a career as a journalist and printer, as Franklin had done in his youth. Selling off the remainder of his possessions to pay for his passage, Thomas boarded a ship bound for the New World.

The three-week voyage across the stormy north Atlantic Ocean required physical stamina, however, Paine also had to cling to life due to an outbreak of scurvy while onboard the ship. When he finally arrived in Philadelphia, he was broke, knew no one, and was anemic from weeks of being dangerously ill. However, he had in his possession something of great value – a letter of recommendation from the esteemed Dr Franklin. Soon, Paine was gainfully employed by a magazine editor.

As an American, Paine was experiencing his first sense of self-rule. However, it didn’t take long for him to recognize that the tyrannical methods Parliament used on its subjects in England, were now being used to control the Colonists. He didn’t think that such a large continent as America could be fairly ruled by a small island like England, especially without legal representation in Parliament. So, 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.   Many Colonists had strong loyalties to King James, while others just wanted to remain neutral.

It was Thomas Paine’s widely-read pamphlet Common Sense, published on 1/10/1776, which galvanized the Patriotic spirit in the hearts of about a third of the Colonists. Also emboldened by the decisive Declaration of Independence from England, they answered George Washington’s call to join him to fight for their rights to be free men and women. In late December almost a year later and, after suffering many defeats by the British army, Washington read Paine’s pamphlet, The American Crises, to his cold, ill-clad and poorly armed troops. Many men were ready to quit the battle but, Washington’s courage, and Paine’s stirring words once again bolstered their spirits. In later chapters, we’ll recount their crossing of the icy Delaware River on Christmas Eve, and Washington’s successful battles at both Trenton and Princeton which followed.

As a soldier in Washington’s Continental Army, Paine was acutely aware of the shortage of armaments. He therefore donated most of his proceeds from the sales of Common Sense and The American Crises to the war effort.

After the Americans won the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine then turned his attention to public works, specifically, to designing 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 travelled 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. The Parliament banned Paine’s book and were 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 take control of the government by having them beheaded. 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. The American Colonists succeeded, during and after the war, because they were committed to the principles of freedom. Tragically, the French Revolution devolved into mob rule. What started as oppressed people protesting for their 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.

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 continued outspoken distrust of big government, and even organized religion, he found that he had lost favor in America. At age 72, Thomas Paine passed away on his farm 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);