Who was Thomas Paine?

By Brendan O’Neill

It’s 200 years since the British-born “father of the American revolution” died. His words also helped shape modern Britain and France and yet few people know much about him at all.

Remembered… in Norfolk at least
“Possibly the most influential writer in modern human history” – that’s the billing Thomas Paine got from one of his biographers.

Paine was an international bestseller long before the days of Dan Brown or Jackie Collins and is the only Brit to have been quoted in Barack Obama’s inauguration speech earlier this year.

There are statues of him in Paris and New Jersey and a monument to him in New York – though we still haven’t reached a situation where, as French leader Napoleon Bonaparte said: “A statue of gold should be erected to him in every city in the universe.”

Yet no high-level commemorations of his death have been planned. His writings rarely appear on the national curriculum in the UK. And ask a man or woman in the average British street who he is, and they are likely to reply “Er…”

Just who was Thomas Paine?

Born in Thetford, Norfolk, in 1737 (there is a statue of him there, too), Paine’s early adult life as a corset-maker and school teacher was largely unmarked by politics. But it was his subsequent job as an excise officer that inspired him to pen his first political work – a 21-page pamphlet that demanded better pay and conditions for his fellow workers.

A chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the US, in London in 1774 changed Paine’s life – and, in time, American history. Following Franklin’s advice to cross the Atlantic, Paine pitched up in America in November 1774, just as American revolutionaries were having heated debates about whether to break with Britain.

Paine threw his lot in with those Americans who were thirsting for independence from Britain. In January 1776 he published a short pamphlet that earned him the title The Father of the American Revolution.

Titled simply, Common Sense, the work has been described by the Pulitzer-winning historian Gordon S Wood as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire [American] revolutionary period”. It put the case for democracy, against the monarchy, and for American independence from British rule.

It became a sensation, selling 120,000 copies in the first three months. Given that America had only two million free citizens at the time, that is the equivalent of an American author selling 15 million books in three months today.

It also altered history.

“In January 1776, only one third of the delegates to the Continental Congress [the political body of the American Revolution] were in favour of declaring independence from Britain,” says Cheryl Hudson, associate fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University.

“Then, Paine published Common Sense which argued for immediate and complete separation of the colonies from the ‘mother country’. His visionary and uncompromising words captured the public imagination, and under pressure from the people, individual colonies began to instruct their delegates to vote for independence.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence followed soon after.

Not content with intellectually spearheading the case for American independence Paine went on to write a series of pro-revolutionary pamphlets, which were later published together as The American Crisis.

They were designed to lift the spirits of America’s supporters of independence in difficult times, and 200 years later were invoked by Barack Obama with a similar aim in mind. Though this time the difficulty lay in economic recession rather than a revolutionary war.

“Let it be told to the future world… that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive… that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]”, said Obama at his inauguration speech, taking his words from Paine’s Crisis No 1.

…his restless spirit and appetite for revolution led him to another mass revolt, this time in France.

But while Paine was elected to France’s first democratic parliament and Napoleon Bonaparte numbered among his fans, his next pamphlet, The Age of Reason, was a step too far for many of his early admirers.

An attack on organised religion and a defence of “free and rational inquiry”, the work saw him subtly edged out of founding father status in the US. When he died on 8 June 1809 in Greenwich Village, New York, there were only six mourners at his funeral.

Today, though, his legacy is enjoying a rehabilitation.

Harvey Kaye, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, says Paine is “possibly the most influential writer in modern human history”.

“His words changed the world. His voice was essentially a voice of democratic progress.”

“And he is still relevant today”, says Kaye. “He put the case for political democracy AND social democracy,

Katherine Mangu-Ward, associate editor of the right-leaning, Washington-based magazine Reason, says Paine is enjoying a comeback amongst both left-wing and right-wing American thinkers.

“Everyone wants a piece of Paine these days. After languishing in obscurity for years, he’s enjoying a renaissance. He’s the Mickey Rourke of the Founders.

“The left loves him because he hated the Church. The right loves him because he’s a freedom-loving founding father.”

“He would have been a great supporter of the Freedom of Information Act [under which MPs’ expenses came to be revealed]. He always said there is nothing mysterious about government.”

Ms Hudson says there are similarities and differences between the disillusionment with mainstream politics today and the anger about politics that drove Paine and his supporters 250 years ago: “Paine and his contemporaries were just as scathing about the venal and corrupt nature of their politicians as people are today – the difference was that they, especially Paine, had something constructive to say about the alternative to that corrupt politics.”

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