July 4 is the birthday of the United States, the date when the Continental Congress adopted a Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, which turned an ongoing revolt against Britain’s oppressive policies into an anti-colonial and anti-monarchical revolution.
Jefferson and George Washington were wealthy planters and slave owners from Virginia. Nearly all the leaders of the American Revolution – known ever since as “the Founding Fathers” – were members of the upper classes: rich merchants, investors, landowners, planters, judges and lawyers. But Thomas Paine – the man whose writings won over the country to the idea of independence and helped rally the army and the people to defeat the powerful British Empire – was the exception.
John Adams once said that without the pen of Thomas Paine, the sword of George Washington “would have been raised in vain.” In 2012, when the rights of workers are under attack in the United States, it is important for us to remember that Tom Paine was one of us: a worker, an immigrant, a consistent foe of oppression and of privilege, and one who called himself “a citizen of the world.”
YOUTH IN ENGLAND
Paine was born in 1737 in Thetford, in the English region of East Anglia. His parents were of different religions – his mother a member of the establish Church of England, and his father a believer in one of the “dissenting” Protestant sects, the Quakers. The Quakers opposed violence, militarism, and aristocracy, and their influence helped shape Paine’s later political and religious views. Paine’s father Joseph was a staymaker (corset maker), and at age 13 Paine apprenticed to his father in that craft. Young Paine worked for several years as a corset maker, but he had a difficult time making a living at the trade.
Thetford and the surrounding countryside was under the thumb of the local aristocratic family, the Fitz Roys, who ruled as the Dukes of Grafton. Thetford’s two seats in Parliament were controlled by the Duke, and for decades one of them was always held by a Fitz Roy. The poverty of the area was attributable to the Graftons, who even in Paine’s youth continued the process, which began in the days of Henry VIII, of enclosure – privatizing the land, driving off the peasants, and barring the commoners from access to forests, pastures and other common lands.
Thetford was also the site of the Lenten Assizes, an annual court in which poor and working-class prisoners were often sentenced to hang for minor offenses against property: stealing a packet of tea, a bushel of wheat, or a few shillings. The hangings took place on Gallows Hill, within sight of the Paine family cottage. Growing up in the presence of such injustice helped make Paine a fighter against class oppression, and though not a pacifist, an opponent of capital punishment and vengeful violence.
In 1761 Paine became a public employee, an excise officer, collecting taxes on imports, exports and domestic industrial products. The duties of excise officers included detecting and arresting smugglers. Despite their high level of responsibility, excise officers were poorly paid and frequently had to move to other parts of the country, at their own expense. In 1772 excise officers began organizing to petition Parliament for better pay and working conditions, and on behalf of his co-workers Paine wrote and published a pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise. For helping to organize, in effect, a public employee union, Paine was fired, and soon found himself in a desperate financial condition. But in 1774, he was introduced in London to Benjamin Franklin, the prominent American leader from Philadelphia, who urged him to emigrate.
COMMON SENSE AND REVOLUTION
Two months after his arrival in Philadelphia, he was hired as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. The articles he wrote for the magazine show not only Paine’s talent as a writer, but his political courage and developing radicalism. In March 1775 he published one of the earliest anti-slavery articles, “African Slavery in America.” With the American colonists revolting against Britain’s encroachments on their freedom, Paine asked, “With what consistency, or decency, they complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousands in slavery, and annually enslave many thousands more…?” In this period he also published a denunciation of Britain’s brutal conquest of India.
In January 1776 Paine anonymously published a short pamphlet, Common Sense, that established him, for his time and for history, as one of the greatest political writers and revolutionaries. It argued for the independence of the North American colonies from Britain. The pamphlet was a huge success – the first edition sold out in two weeks; within three months, 100,000 copies were circulating; and it was talked about everywhere. People who couldn’t read had it read to them. Paine wrote to be understood by the common people, in a clear style that avoided the embellishments that characterized English political writing in his time. “In addition to the brilliantly plain style,” writes Paine biographer John Keane, “the striking originality of the political ideas helped to magnetize American readers.” Historian Peter Linebaugh adds, “The shock and power of the pamphlet arises from its ridicule of kingship… and of English kings in particular.” Common Sense so changed the political discourse that, by July even the most cautious and conservative delegates to the Continental Congress were ready to approve and sign a Declaration of Independence.
Immediately after its publication in English, Common Sense was translated into German, and it was widely circulated in both languages. Contrary to the propaganda of anti-immigrant and “English-only” demagogues today, the U.S. was not founded on monolingualism. In 1776 many in the colonies – especially Pennsylvania – spoke and read only German, even though their ancestors had immigrated from Germany more than 100 years earlier. When Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, it had that document also published in German as well as English.
“THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN’S SOULS”
In late 1776 the Continental Army suffered a string of major defeats, losing New York City and retreating into Pennsylvania. Paine wrote a very short but powerful pamphlet, The American Crisis, printed and reprinted up and down the Atlantic Coast, that raised morale among civilians and soldiers. Washington had it read to his troops on Christmas Day; its opening words are among the best-remembered in U.S. history:
“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Hours after hearing these words, Washington’s troops crossed the Delaware River and won the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey, regaining the military initiative. The American Crisis became the first of a series of pamphlets, with the same title but numbered 1 through 13, which Paine wrote through the course of the war, helping to rally the country.
Paine became friends with many of the political and military leaders of the Revolution, and in 1777 he became secretary to the Continental Congress’s committee for foreign affairs. But he lost many of his powerful friends, and his job with Congress, in what was known as the Silas Deane affair. When France became an ally of the new nation in its war against Britain, Congress sent Deane to France to purchase supplies. But Paine soon found evidence, which he publicly exposed, that Deane and a Frenchman named Beumarchais had charged the U.S. for guns, ammunition and other supplies that the French government had donated as gifts to the new nation. To Paine, such profiteering at public expense violated “republican virtue.” Paine lived by that ethic all his life, never profiting from his public service, subsisting on modest salaries, making almost no money from his writings, and often living on the brink of poverty. For blowing the whistle on Deane, Paine was vilified and ostracized by members of Congress and other powerful men, but years later some of them admitted that Paine had been right.
In 1776, Pennsylvania adopted the most democratic constitution in America, written by radical allies of Paine, which removed property-ownership requirements for voting and holding office. The new constitution was attacked by wealthy conservatives but defended by Paine. Paine again came under fire from the rich and powerful when in 1779, he supported a movement for price controls on food and other necessities. Rapidly rising prices were impoverishing working people, and Paine reminded his opponents, the wealthy merchants, that labor is the source of wealth. Paine also served for a time as a clerk to the Pennsylvania legislature, and worked with his allies in the assembly on legislation to abolish slavery in the state. He was disappointed that the best they could achieve was a law mandating gradual emancipation.
THE RIGHTS OF MAN
In 1787 Paine returned to London, and took great interest in the French Revolution when it broke out in 1789. (He also welcomed the Haitian Revolution, the world’s first successful slave uprising, which began two years later.) The conservative political thinker Edmund Burke in 1790 wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, which he attacked, arguing that monarchy and hereditary aristocracy were needed to save civilization from “the swinish multitude.” Paine responded with his second great work, The Rights of Man, a brilliant defense of the French Revolution, republicanism and democracy. While Burke’s book was written in pompous language for an audience of aristocrats, Paine wrote in a straightforward, democratic style to reach the broadest readership – which his book did.
The Rights of Man quickly became a huge best seller in Britain — even bigger in Ireland — and helped spark the growth of a democratic, anti-royalist political movement among the working and lower-middle classes. Subverting the British monarchy and the system of class rule was clearly Paine’s intent, and the government of King George III and Prime Minister William Pitt came to view him as a serious threat. The government instigated a hate campaign – including the publication of a slanderous “biography” of Paine, other attacks in the press, and right-wing “church-and-king” mobs that physically attacked Paine’s friends, burned copies of Rights of Man, and burned or hung effigies of Paine. Warned that his life was in danger, and with his arrest pending on charges of “seditious libel,” Paine crossed the English Channel to France on September 14, 1792. After he fled, the Pitt government tried and convicted Paine in absentia, in a rigged trial. He never saw his native country again.
Revolutionary France welcomed Paine as a hero to the cause of liberty, and despite his inability to speak French, he was elected to the National Convention. He encouraged the French to depose the king and declare a republic. But consistent with his lifelong opposition to capital punishment, he argued against executing Louis XVI. The words of Thomas Paine carried considerable weight in the Convention, and the motion to execute the king passed by only a few votes. This earned him enemies among the more extremist Jacobin faction, and when Paine’s political allies fell from power and the Jacobins took control of the government, led by Maximilien Robespierre, Paine was arrested, and he barely escaped execution on the guillotine.
While in France, and partly while in prison, Paine wrote a book about religion, The Age of Reason, in which he articulated the doctrine of Deism – a rationalist religion shared by Jefferson, Washington and others of the revolutionary generation. Deists believed in God, but rejected established religions, including Christianity. Paine, who had detailed knowledge of the Bible, argued in The Age of Reason that the scriptures are the work of men, not the word of God, and that they misrepresent God.
In France Paine also wrote Agrarian Justice, his most radical economic work. Paine was not a socialist, but he believed that inequalities in wealth caused social injustice, and that government action was needed to eliminate poverty. He had articulated these ideas in The Rights of Man, but expanded them in Agrarian Justice. Land, he wrote, was “the common property of the human race,” but in modern society most people have lost their birthright in land, whose ownership has been concentrated in a few hands (a process he witnessed as a boy in Thetford.) Paine admired the Native Americans, and wrote that because they held land in common, there was not among them “any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.” To remedy poverty and injustice, Paine proposed an inheritance tax on landed property. This tax would create a fund from which every person, upon reaching age 21, would receive a payment of £15 to help get started in life; and beginning at age 50, each person would receive an annual pension payment of £10.
With this proposal for a public pension plan funded by taxing the rich, Paine was far ahead of his time – and far ahead of many politicians in our time. (For years, the Social Security Administration has posted the full text of Agrarian Justice on its website — obviously someone in that agency views Paine’s pamphlet as a philosophical herald of the Social Security program.)
Paine returned to the U.S. in 1802, at the invitation of President Thomas Jefferson. Paine was shunned by members of the Federalist Party for his radical democratic political ideas, and by some Christians for his religious views. (He was often falsely called an atheist.) He died in 1809 at age 72 in Greenwich Village, New York, in relative obscurity. Only six mourners attended his funeral, two of whom were African American.
But with the beginnings of a labor movement in the U.S. in the 1820s and ’30s, there also came a Paine revival. Labor activists held annual dinners on Paine’s birthday (January 29), toasting the memory and ideas of the great revolutionary. Thomas Paine’s writings have much to offer us today – most of all his faith in the ability of people, acting together, to overcome injustice. As he told us in Common Sense, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Al Hart is Managing Editor of UE News (United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America), where this essay originally appeared.
Tom Paine: A Political Life, by John Keane (1995, Little, Brown and Co., 644 pages) There are many biographies of Paine; this is one of the best.
Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, by Eric Foner (1976, Oxford University Press, 368 pages). An excellent study of Paine’s role in the American Revolution.
The Rights of Man and Common Sense: Peter Linebaugh Presents Thomas Paine (2009, Verso, 314 pages.) There are also many collections of Tom Paine’s basic writings. This recent one includes an excellent introduction by Peter Linebaugh, who teaches history at the University of Toledo, and includes the complete texts of Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and Agrarian Justice.
The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine (2 volumes), edited by Philip S. Foner (Citadel Press, 1969). All of Paine’s writings, filling more than 3,000 pages.