Paine found himself carried forward by the immense wave of his book’s popularity into the heart of New World society. If Common Sense isolated the fears and the angers of the average colonist and focused them into a strategy for the future, its impact was tenfold for the men who would face charges of treason as the American founding fathers. Common Sense would lead directly to the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, and among the United Colonies’ elite now in favor of separation from Britain Paine was both a celebrity and a sage.
General Charles Lee wrote George Washington to ask, “Have you seen the pamphlet Common Sense? I never saw such a masterly irresistible performance. It will, if I mistake not, in concurrence with the transcendent folly and wickedness of the Ministry, give the coup-de-grace to Great Britain. In short, I own myself convinced, by the arguments, of the necessity of separation.” Washington in turn reported that “the sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning contained in the pamphlet Common Sense will not leave members [of Congress] at a loss to decide upon the propriety of separation… . [It is] working a wonderful change in the minds of many men,” while John Adams called the pamphlet “a tolerable summary of the arguments which I had been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months,” and passed on the rumor that the author’s “name is Paine, a gentleman about two years from England—a man who, General [Charles] Lee says, has genius in his eyes.” Adams would later write Thomas Jefferson that “every post and every day rolls upon us independence like a torrent… . History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine,” while Jefferson commented that “no writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style, in perspicuity of expression, happiness of elucidation, and in simple and unassuming language.”
(Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations by Craig Nelson (New York: Viking, 2006; hardback, page 93. Ellipsis and notes in original. See below for a better example of Adams’ view on Paine.)
It seems more difficult to understate the impact of Common Sense than it is to overstate it. I think Charles Lee highlights an important point that Britain’s actions would continue to inflame the colonists’ push for independence. Paine’s masterstroke was in pointing out the colonists’ trust was ill-placed, arguing that the relationship between Britain and the colonies needed to be reframed. Paine tapped directly into the Lockean idea of the distinction between society and government (even though Paine claimed he never read Locke) and insisted that government should be limited to its artificial constructs and limits. Paine obviously struck a chord with the colonists (and others) when telling Britain it’s not us, it’s you.
What about Paine’s life after Common Sense? I’m going to keep this short (for me) but there are a few highlights and points I want to cover. One thing to keep in mind with the pamphlet is that there were no copyright laws in the colonies until 1790. While loosely following English common law, a book or pamphlet was considered property, but the benefit was viewed as the owner of the printing press. Despite being a best-selling author, Paine received little monetary benefit from his writing. He often stated that he wanted profits from his tracts to be funneled to causes he supported.
While serving as an aide-de-camp to Nathanael Greene, Paine watched the fall of Fort Washington and fled with Greene’s men from Cornwallis. He began writing the series The American Crisis during the black days of the retreat, the first of the series providing some of Paine’s most memorable lines:
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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.
Washington had the work read aloud to his troops. The series was a combination of straightforward reports of the state of affairs while reminding people what was at stake. It intended to revitalize confidence and reinforce the will to fight—fortunately for the nascent nation it was wildly successful. In the second “Crisis” entry, Paine used the phrase “the United States of America” for the first time.
In 1781 Paine went to France as part of a delegation to shore up support for the American cause. The financial crisis in America coincided with his own penury so Paine appealed to George Washington for personal help. Washington enlisted Gouverneur Morris and Robert Livingston to develop a secret agreement with Paine to write newspaper columns supporting American interests. Eventually Paine received additional compensation (particularly from the states of New York and Pennsylvania) for his work during the early years of the revolution.
Paine wrote Part One of the Rights of Man in response to Edmund Burke’s criticisms of the French Revolution. The two men had become friends but the 1789 French revolution ended that. Paine could not restrain his journalistic, confrontational style and attacked Burke as much as his arguments. Paine also focused on the nobility (“no-ability”) for suppressing human rights, liberty, and equality. After Part Two, Paine was found guilty in Britain of seditious libel. In Common Sense, Paine had called for American independence but did not call for the direct overthrow of the British crown (although he did have plenty to say about the stupidity of such governance). Now Paine was calling on a world revolution for people to claim their natural rights. Even though he could not speak French, Paine was elected to the National Convention. As the French Revolution continued to turn on itself, he was arrested at the end of 1793 and remained in prison for over ten months.
Paine had managed to turn over the first part of The Age of Reason to friends before he was arrested and it was published in 1794. Paine believed in a natural religion that permeated everything on earth and did not need any type of intervention. This meant to him organized religion was wrong. When Paine was released from prison, it must have been like he had returned to a completely different world. Robespierre and St. Just were gone and the revolution continued to destroy its own and others. Paine continued The Age of Reason with Part Two, providing commentary on much of the Bible, declaring it not holy. Part One did not reject the existence of God, just that he existed differently than religion prescribed. In a sense, his view on government parallels his view of the church, where both are instituted to as a result of man’s evil nature. Paine’s last pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, was in a sense his own refutation to parts of the Rights of Man as he looked at social justice while reconsidering the role and purpose of violence in revolution.
His funeral had only a few attendees and his burial place was barely marked. An advocate of his tried to have Britain rebury Paine in a dedicated monument but the state understandably passed on the opportunity. After the advocate's death, Paine’s remains went missing. Paine’s legacy proves difficult to nail down in a consistent manner since he was both wildly adored and reviled during his life, even though he unswervingly advocated for political and social change. While his writing was in a style that everyone could understand, relying on common sense in place of antique references, he could also be combative, sarcastic, and dismissive. He turned on friends for slights or differences, real and perceived. Even when writing during dark days for him and his adopted countries he tried to impart grounds for hope based on his view of the rightness of his cause. His advocacy had no governor—he remained full throttle in his idealism, which rankled many writers and politicians of the day.
I’ll end with John Adams’ comments on The Age of Reason (in an 1805 letter to Benjamin Waterhouse) since it captures much of the antagonism against Paine as well as paying backhanded compliments:
I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity, as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Bonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pit and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltronnery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.
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