1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Paine (Tom Paine)

Thomas Paine
(Tom Paine)
One of the U.S. Founding Fathers and author of Rights of Man and The Age of Reason

THOMAS PAINE (1736-1809), the author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, would have had a very different kind of reputation if he had never written these works. Most of those who know him by name as a ribald scoffer against revealed religion are not aware that he has any other title to fame or infamy. But if he had never meddled with religious controversy, his name would have been remembered in the United States at least as one of the founders of their independence. He had a prominent reputation when he crossed the Atlantic to stir up the people of the Old World against monarchy and aristocracy, taking as his motto "Where liberty is not, there is my country." Even after he wrote The Rights of Man, if he had been guillotined by Robespierre, which he very narrowly escaped being, he might have been remembered in Britain as a clever but crazy and dangerous political enthusiast. The final verdict of history upon his useful-ness would have turned on the question whether the United States did well to declare and fight for independence. But The Age of Reason brought his name into disrepute almost as much in the United States as in England. The career of Paine was a very extraordinary one. The son of a Quaker staymaker, of Thetford in Norfolk, he had emigrated to the American colonies some-what late in life, after erratically trying various ways of making a living as a marine, an exciseman, a teacher of English, and acquiring a reputation in local political clubs by extreme views and vigour in debate. Born in 1736, he was thirty-eight when he arrived in America, and he apparently went with a purpose, his combative temper attracted by the quarrel then reaching an acute stage, for he carried introductions with him from Franklin to the leaders of the resistance to the mother-country. His opportunity came when these leaders were dispirited and disposed to compromise. He then set the colonists in a flame with a pamphlet entitled Common Sense, a most telling array of arguments for separation and for the establishment of a republic, conveyed in strong direct unqualified language. There is a complete concurrence of testimony that Paine's pamphlet, issued on the 1st January 1776, was a turning-point in the struggle, that it roused and consolidated public feeling, and swept waverers along with the tide. The New York assembly appointed a committee to answer it, but the committee separated with the conclusion that it was unanswerable. When war was declared, and fortune at first went against the colonists, Paine, serving with Washington as a private soldier, composed by the light of camp fires a short hortative tract, The Crisis, which was read to the army, and seems to have had a wonderful effect in restoring a courage that was considerably impaired by defeat. Its opening words, " These are the times that try men's souls," became a battle-cry. This and other literary services were recognized by Paine's appointment in the first Congress to be secretary of the committee on foreign affairs. The republic finally established, another phase of his turbulent career was entered on. He determined to return to England, and " open the eyes of the people to the madness and stupidity of the Government." His chief effort in this propagandism was The Rights of Man, written as an answer to Burke's Reflexions on the Revolutions in France. The first part appeared in 1791, and had an enormous circulation before the Government took the alarm and endeavoured to suppress it, thereby exciting the most intense curiosity to see it even at the risk of heavy penalties. Those who know the book only by hearsay as the work of a furious incendiary would be surprised at the dignity, force, and temperance of the style; it was the circumstances that made it inflammatory. Pitt "used to say," according to Lady Hester Stanhope, " that Tom Paine was quite in the right, but then he would add, ' What am I to do 1 As things are, if I were to encourage Tom Paine's opinions, we should have a bloody revolution.'" Paine accordingly was indicted for treason, but before the trial came off he was elected by the department of Calais to the French Convention, and was allowed to pass into France followed by a sentence of outlawry. The first years that he spent in France form a curious episode in his life. As he knew little of the language, he could have had but little influence on affairs, but he was treated with great respect, and did what he could in the interests of moderation till he incurred the suspicion of Robespierre and was thrown into prison, escaping the guillotine by an accident. He completed the first part of the Age of Reason in the exciting interval between his accusation and his arrest, and put it into the hands of a friend on his way to prison. The publication of the work made an instant change in his position on both sides of the Atlantic, the indignation in the United States being as strong as in England. Washington, to whom he had dedicated his Rights of Man, declined to take any steps for his release from the prison of the Luxembourg, and he lay there for several months after the fall of Robespierre. The Age of Reason can now be estimated calmly. It was written from the point of view of a Quaker who did not believe in revealed religion, but who held that " all religions are in their nature mild and benign " when not associated with political systems. Intermixed with the coarse unceremonious ridicule of what he considered superstition and bad faith are many passages of earnest and even lofty eloquence in favour of a pure morality founded on natural religion, fully justifying the bishop of Llandaff's saying :—" There is a philosophical sublimity in some of your ideas when speaking of the Creator of the universe." The work in short—a second part was published after his release— represents the deism of the 18th century, in the hands of a rough, ready, passionate controversialist. Paine remained in France till 1802, and then returned to America, occupying the rest of his turbulent active life with financial questions and mechanical inventions. He died in 1809.

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