Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, the great political philosopher and revolutionary, was born in England but he emigrated to Great Britain’s American colonies (thanks partly to encouragement from Ben Franklin).  In America, Paine was an immensely important figure in the American Revolution.  His best-selling book Common Sense was the voice of the revolution to such an extent that John Adams wrote, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.

Paine is revered as one of the nation’s founding fathers, but his revolutionary thinking and nonconformity prevented him from fitting into American society after the revolution. Paine was an Enlightenment deist who rejected organized religion and the Bible (which he regarded as “fabulous inventions”).  Additionally, the new country (with its slaveholders, capitalist merchants, feuding states, and theocratic undertones) did not live up to his ideal of a utopian republic.   Paine became involved in a feud involving the revolution’s funding with Robert Morris Junior a wealthy merchant & political insider who had set up the fledgling American economy (although Morris himself later went spectacularly bankrupt from injudicious land speculation and ended up in debtor’s prison).  Forced out of American politics by feud and scandal, Paine went back to England in 1787.  Then, as his writings became the subject of political and legal controversy, Paine moved again to revolutionary France, thus narrowly escaping being hanged for sedition.

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1890s)

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1790s)

Initially Paine was regarded as a hero by the French Revolution.  He was granted honorary French citizenship and elected to the National Convention (despite an inability to speak French).  However, once again Paine’s liberal and humanitarian ideals caused him trouble: he objected to capital punishment and argued that Louis XVI should be exiled to the United States rather than executed.  Paine also was an instrumental member of the Convention’s Constitutional Committee which drafted a highly principled Constitution.  The Constitution Committee was a moderate (Girondin) group and as the radical Montagnards took over, they regarded Paine as a political enemy.

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

In 1793, during the reign of terror, Thomas Paine was arrested by the Jacobins (who were acting under orders from Robespierre).  Paine languished in jail as his fellow prisoners were mercilessly slaughtered by the terror.  Paine pleaded for help from America’s minister to France, the wily Gouverneur Morris (who is credited with writing the preamble to the U.S. Constitution), but Morris offered no diplomatic support.  In summer of 1794 Paine’s execution was ordered.  A guard marked Paine’s cell with the chalk mark which indicated that the philosopher was to be taken to the guillotine the next day.  Paine had been feeling feverish and, as a mark of respect to him, his door was left open so a breeze could blow through the cell at night.  The guard accidentally wrote the fatal mark on the inside of the door–which was then closed in the morning.  The sickly Paine slept through the morning he should have been beheaded and woke to find the fatal mark inside the cell with him, unread by the executioner’s goons.  The Montagnards lost power a few days later and Robespierre himself went to the guillotine instead of Paine.  James Monroe, the new U.S. minister to France lost no time in securing Paine’s freedom.

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

For decades Paine had mingled as an equal with the most influential politicians and thinkers of France, Britain, and the U.S., however his timing was always somehow tragically off.  He left France in 1802 or 1803 just as the Second Great Awakening was bringing old-fashioned religious intolerance sweeping across the United States. When Paine died in Greenwich Village in 1809 he was almost universally despised as an atheist.  Only 6 people attended his funeral when he was unceremoniously buried under a walnut tree on his farm in New Jersey.   Yet Paine has lived on through his books.  Many of the great figures who overshadowed Paine have faded from the public memory as their political battles were forgotten, but Paine’s books still appeal to revolutionaries, nonconformists, and idealists across the ages.