Paine faced intense opposition because of his steadfast beliefs in freedom.
By Ella Noland
Celebrated, then despised, but later appreciated, Thomas Paine endured a long journey to recognition as a Founding Father of the United States. No one would expect an unremarkable, 37 year old Englishman who arrived at the American colonies in 1774 with no political talent, to break political and social barriers while spurring on the American Revolution. It was his brilliance as a writer which equipped him. His style was graceful, yet easy to understand, passionate, yet reason-based, and nothing if not compelling. He was rational enough to suggest American independence, unorthodox enough to support the abolition of slavery, and radical enough that the same country he helped shape turn its back on him. Through everything Paine did, he had one goal: freedom. He reflected in 1806,
My motive and object in all my political works […] have been to rescue man from tyranny […] and enable him to be free […] and I have borne my share of danger […] in every attempt I have made for this purpose.1
Paine faced intense opposition because of his steadfast beliefs in freedom. An early and vocal advocate for American independence and the emancipation of slaves in the 18th century, Thomas Paine was widely misrepresented and overlooked. Despite this, he never ceased to share his radical ideas which eventually became reality in the United States.
Paine burst through the unspoken political barrier when he was one of the first to publicly and persistently voice his radical belief that America needed to pursue independence. This belief was set in stone on April 19, 1775 when the British first fired at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Then, on January 10, 1776, the pamphlet which made Paine America’s first best-selling author was published and the colonists’ spirits were set ablaze with Common Sense. Paine began Common Sense with a history of government and the warped system of monarchy, and ended it with his ideas for America’s new government. While many people still believed independence from Britain was unnecessary or impossible, Paine repeatedly called the colonists to use reason. He disassembled the arguments for staying bound with Britain and insisted separation was inevitable. He urged,
I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be [independent]; that every thing short of that is mere patchwork, that it can afford no lasting felicity, that it is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when, a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.2
Moved by his plea for the good of future generations, the colonists listened and by the end of 1776, they had bought 150,000 to 250,000 copies. Paine relinquished his authors’ rights so anyone could publish it, donated all profits to the Continental Army, and rejected all future royalties. The idea of independence grew popular and colonists started to consider themselves pioneers for a better future, not traitors.3 Common Sense was the spark which ignited the colonists’ battle for freedom as well as Paine’s writing career. Before crossing the Delaware River, General Washington commanded The American Crisis, a subsequent pamphlet by Paine, to be read to his troops as encouragement.
However, not every colonist accepted the idea of independence. Common Sense began a “Pamphlet War” throughout the spring of 1776 as other authors weighed in.4 For example, Reverend William Smith, a loyalist to Britain, wrote eight letters against Common Sense under the pseudonym “Cato”. Not one to shy away from confrontation, Paine responded in a series of five letters using the name “Forester”. Paine wrote,
To live beneath the authority of those whom we cannot love, is misery, slavery, or what name you please. In that case, there will never be peace. Security will be a thing unknown, because, a treacherous friend in power, is the most dangerous of enemies.5
In the wake of his radicalism, Paine used criticism to his advantage. “The Forester’s Letters,” expanded on Paine’s ideas from Common Sense and added new insight to his arguments. At this point in the Revolutionary War, nothing could erase the resentment between the two countries. Paine understood reconciliation would put America in a precarious position and only delay her separation. Under an “American” government, however, colonists would have complete freedom to start anew and thrive. In the midst of war, Paine reassured colonists independence was the only solution.
Historians have long theorized Paine inspired, if not helped write, the Declaration of Independence because it reflects the arguments and language used in Common Sense. Now, after years of analyzing and cross-referencing, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association has evidence that Paine had an authoritative position in the Declaration Committee, unbeknownst to Congress. An early draft of the Declaration of Independence from the third week of June 1776 confirms Paine’s involvement. Written on the copy which had been sent between members of the committee, in John Adams’ hand, is the phrase: “A beginning perhaps — Original with Jefferson — Copied with T. P. ‘s permission.” Benjamin Franklin had also initialed the document (See Figure 1). Research has established Thomas Paine was the only significant T.P. in Philadelphia during that time. The phrase, “Copied with T.P.’s permission” accredits Paine with a significant contribution to the Declaration’s writing. His involvement was not made known because he was not a member of Congress—in fact, his radical politics granted him multiple enemies in Congress—and his involvement could delay the Declaration’s approval. Prior to this discovery, the Declaration Committee was known as: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Adding Paine to this group explains why Common Sense so closely relates to the Declaration. Secondly, his membership in the committee explains the origin of his lifelong friendships with other members. Lastly, it explains how in late June 1776, Paine published a newspaper article containing the first public use of “The United States of America,” a name yet to be announced in the Declaration.6 Paine led the charge towards American independence and stood unwavering in the face of a literal and intellectual war. His work, both well-known and recently discovered, was vital for colonies gaining their freedom.
Although Paine doesn’t have any well-known pieces on the emancipation of slaves, he was a staunch abolitionist. Moncure Daniel Conway, who wrote Thomas Paine’s first biography in 1892, incorrectly accredited multiple writings on slavery to Paine.7 New research methods have allowed historians to disprove the incorrectly accredited pieces while also proving his authorship of formerly anonymous pieces.8 For instance, Paine partnered with Joseph Priestley, an English theologian, to write the pamphlet “Old Truths and Established Facts”. It states, “This barbarity [that is assumed of Africa] is, it seems, the justification of the Slave Trade […] Has any one nation a right to plunder and enslave another, because it may deem its manners barbarous?”9 Paine and Priestley challenged the readers to question the legitimacy of their motives and put into perspective the slave trade’s lack of humanity. Even though Paine did not sign his name on this piece, he acted on his radical abolitionist beliefs, which helped popularize the anti-slave trade act in Britain.
Paine’s close friend, Thomas Jefferson, did not share his views on slavery. In 1808, while Jefferson was president, Paine went to great lengths to make a final attempt to change his mind. Because his health was declining and he didn’t want his handwriting to be recognized (See Figure 2), he dictated to his caretaker a letter to Jefferson (See Figure 3). As he spoke, he posed as a slave who was begging for the president’s help. A section of the letter read,
What say you sir, to this? can you plead ignorance in these vices and follies; and in this inhuman slavery? If not, what can be your reasons (since you have been rais’d to the highest office in the government) for suffering us to be used in this brutal manner?”10
Paine phrased his arguments as questions in order to force Jefferson to examine himself. Jefferson, as America’s president, had the ultimate power to abolish slavery if he pleased. In the name of humanity, Paine challenged Jefferson to put into perspective what society had deemed right. The twenty-four page argument against slavery used biblical allusions, logical reasonings, emotional pleas, and a significant amount of questioning Jefferson. Paine even quoted the Declaration of Independence back to Jefferson, reminding him: “all men (not all white men) were created equal.”11 Paine died the next year, and Jefferson still had done nothing to diminish slavery. Because Paine’s beliefs about slavery were ahead of their time, he is not recognized for his efforts as famous 19th century abolitonists are today. He used his connections in an attempt to persuade people in power to abolish the inhumanity, even when no one agreed with him.
Unlike most barrier-breakers throughout history, Paine was not celebrated. Instead, his character was assassinated and his legacy diminished. After Common Sense’s publication, most Americans and Founding Fathers admired Paine’s work. However, two writings, one criticizing America’s beloved Washington and the other about deism, earned him the scorn of many. Paine’s belief in a God who didn’t intervene caused him to lose credibility in the sight of his readers because Christianity was the societal norm in America. His political opponents smeared his reputation with accusations of drunkenness and poverty. They ridiculed the first half of his life in Britain, claimed he had no talent in writing, and his success was a product of good timing. They said he was extremely conceited and just looking to start a fight. In 1797, an author under the name “An American Citizen” wrote a twenty-five page pamphlet called “A Letter to Thomas Paine.” The title page read, “Intended as an alarm to the good people of these states, from being led astray by the sophistical reasonings of Mr. Paine”. In this letter, the American Citizen first recognized Paine’s pamphlets as important to America’s independence, “however extravagant and ridiculous” they were. He went on to call Paine’s talent “superficial and grub-street genius” and label him as “intoxicated with vanity.”12 Ironically, all the work Paine did was for the average American citizens and they turned their backs on him. Paine took unconventional stances on many topics, so some agreed with him politically, but not religiously or with his personal opinions. Unfortunately, many decided to dismiss his positive qualities and ideas all together. When Paine returned to his beloved America in 1802 after returning from Europe, he discovered most Americans had forgotten his vital role in the fight for their country’s independence. The same people who devoured his political work in 1776 would not allow him to vote in 1806 because he was no longer considered an American after his extensive stay in France.13
Despite the backlash he received, Paine maintained a strong alliance with Thomas Jefferson, but there were others who didn’t agree with his radical politics. John Adams never saw eye-to-eye with Paine and often discredited his work. On June 22, 1819, Adams wrote a letter to Jefferson in reflection of Paine. He wrote, “What a poor ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass, is Tom Pains Common Sense.”14 Adams showed his disdain for Paine by referring to him as “Tom Pain,” a name used only by his enemies. Adams completely belittled Common Sense and overlooked its influence in connecting the American people with the war for independence. Attitude like this from the Founding Fathers aided Paine’s negative reputation. Paine had every right to be an American elite; among other things, he helped write the Declaration of Independence. However, Paine’s ideas were too radical for him to be included in the government’s inner circle. When he was—in the case of the Declaration Committee—it was in secret. In slandering his reputation, his enemies may have done Paine a service. His commitment to his convictions while gaining hatred, not social status, displayed the strength of his character.
Paine died on June 8, 1809 at age 72. There are conflicting reports, but approximately six mourners attended his funeral, at least two of which were black men.15 It appeared no one remembered his services to America. The New York Evening Post published an obituary for Paine, which read, “I am unacquainted with his age, but he had lived long, done some good, and much harm”16 (See Figure 4). This was how Paine was remembered for the following century: a rabble-rouser who hurt a situation more often than he helped. Paine lived his life unapologetically radical. Even when he was ridiculed and shunned, his character tarnished, he stood by his convictions. His ideas and beliefs were often beyond what society was ready for, which consequently made him victim to the mockery of the people he served. Paine’s talent, passion, and bravery were taken for granted as soon as his ideas became too radical for the people at the time to handle. Paine stood firm even when his reputation was tarnished and the country he loved hated him. This demonstrates his dedication to the beliefs and freedom he stood for.
While Paine witnessed the culmination of his America gain independence as he had urged, it wasn’t until 55 years after Paine implored President Jefferson to free slaves that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.17 Paine was in too early a time for all of his ideals of equality and freedom to be acted upon. His reputation was defiled to the point where it was nearly impossible to tell truth from rumors. After over a century of no appreciation, the truth was rediscovered. Paine was finally recognized as a Founding Father of America. On May 18, 1952, Thomas Paine’s bust was added to The Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University. The Asheville Times wrote, “Of all the truly great men of his day Paine is perhaps the last to be given the honor and place in history that he so justly deserved”. After a lifetime spent working towards others’ freedom, Paine and his legacy were 18 finally set free from a disparaged reputation.
Today, historians are still discovering more about Paine and his work. His ideas which were radical 200 years ago are pure common sense in America today. Schoolchildren learn it was necessary for America to separate from Britain and slavery is now understood as an undeniable evil. Because of the groundwork Paine laid, America has taken strides beyond what her younger self could ever have imagined. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, an article from The Nation wrote, “When our new president says that his election proves ‘the dream of our founders is alive in our time,’ it is Paine’s dream of which he speaks.”19 When Paine was surrounded by slaveholding politicians, he dreamed of making the slaves their equals. Obama rose to the highest position in American government and surpassed Paine’s dream. Thomas Paine saw the injustices in the world, and worked everyday to overhaul society. He truly believed he could “begin the world over again.”20
- Thomas Paine, “To John Inskeep, Mayor of Philadelphia,” Commercial Advertiser February 10, 1806.
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia: W. & T. Bradford, 1776), 16.
- Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 90-92.
- Gary Berton, Thomas Paine and an Early Draft of the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Paine National Historical Association, 2019).
- Thomas Paine, “Forester Letter III,” Pennsylvania Journal, April 24, 1776.
- Berton, Thomas Paine and an Early Draft of the Declaration of Independence.
- Moncure Daniel Conway, The Life of Thomas Paine (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893).
- Gary Berton, email to the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, May 10, 2020.
- Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, Old Truths and Established Facts (London, 1792).
- Thomas Paine, A Slave, 1808, Letter.
- Paine, A Slave.
- An American Citizen, A Letter to Thomas Paine (New York: John Bull, 1797), 1.
- Nelson, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, 318.
- John Adams, “John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 22 1819,” The Adams Papers, Founders Archives.
- Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 261.
- Citizen, “Obituary,” New York Evening Post, June 10, 1809.
- Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation (U.S. Executive Branch, 1863).
- Sam Edwards and Morris Marcus, The Legacy of Thomas Paine in the Transatlantic World (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).
- John Nichols, “Obama’s Vindication of Paine,” The Nation, January 20, 2009, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/obamas-vindication-thomas-paine/.
- Paine, Common Sense, 33.
- Adams, John. “John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 22 1819.” Letter. From National Archives, The Adams Papers, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=crapulous%20mass&s=1111311111&sa=&r=2&sr=. Accessed January, 2020.
- An American Citizen. A Letter to Thomas Paine. New York: John Bull, 1797.
- Berton, Gary. Thomas Paine and an Early Draft of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Paine National Historical Association, 2019.
- Citizen. “Obituary.” New York Evening Post, June 10, 1809.
- Conway, Moncure Daniel. The Life of Thomas Paine. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893.
- Edwards, Sam, and Morris, Marcus. The Legacy of Thomas Paine in the Transatlantic World. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017.
- Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
- Levin, Yuval. The Great Debate. New York: Basic Books, 2013.
- Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Penguin Group, 2006.
- Nichols, John. “Obama’s Vindication of Paine.” The Nation, January 20, 2009. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/obamas-vindication-thomas-paine/.
- Paine, Thomas. A Slave, 1808. Letter. From Thomas Paine National Historical Association.
- Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Philadelphia: W. & T. Bradford, 1776.
- Paine, Thomas. “Forester Letter III.” Pennsylvania Journal, April 24, 1776.
- Paine, Thomas, and Priestley, Joseph. Old Truths and Established Facts. London, 1792.
- Paine, Thomas. Thomas Paine to Benjamin Rush, March 16 1790. Letter. From Thomas Paine National Historical Association, http://thomaspaine.org/letters/other/to-anonymous-march-16-1790.html. Accessed January 2020.
- Paine, Thomas. “To John Inskeep, Mayor of Philadelphia.” Commercial Advertiser, February 10, 1806.
- U.S. Executive Branch. Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln. 1863.
- Thomas Paine National Historical Association, Mde. Bonneville Handwriting Summary.
- “Thomas Paine National Historical Association.” Thomas Paine National Historical Association. Last modified 2020. Accessed January, 2020. http://thomaspaine.org/.
- To Begin the World Over Again: Life of Thomas Paine. Directed by Haskell Wexler. 2016. Los Angeles: NETA.