October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
The whole history of America affords examples of men who fitted precisely the needs of a particular moment, only to be cast aside, forgotten or traduced when the tide of events they created or manipulated waned and time passed them by. During and after the Revolution, it happened to James Otis and Samuel Adams, but for no one did ingratitude follow fame quite so cruelly as for Thomas Paine.
If ever a man and an idea came together at the right time, it was Tom Paine and the cause for which the colonists took up arms. When he arrived in America from England in the late fall of 1774, Paine was already a failure several times over. The son of a poor Thetford corset maker, he was apprenticed to,his father, ran away to sea, jumped ship, and picked up various jobs in London—stay maker, cobbler, cabinetmaker, tax collector—never succeeding in any, edging ever closer to the cesspool of lower-class London and debtors’ prison. Somehow he managed to obtain an introduction to Benjamin Franklin, who was then in England, acquired a letter of recommendation from him, and sailed from England armed with that and an abiding hatred for the rigidly structured society that had brought him to such a pass.
Through Franklin he found work as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, and thanks to an article he wrote condemning Negro slavery, he made friends with Dr. Benjamin Rush, an influential Philadelphia Whig. For an articulate, uncompromising zealot like Paine, the tense situation in the colonies in 1775 was made to order. In October he wrote an article boldly advocating separation from England and by December had completed a pamphlet on the subject that Rush, Franklin, Sam Adams, and David Rittenhouse read with uncommon interest. Rush proposed that he title it, simply, Common Sense .
It is worth recalling that at this point—despite the battles at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill—relatively few colonists favored severing the ties with Britain. Americans generally were not thinking about independence and remained outwardly loyal to George in; their animosity was directed against Parliament and the king’s ministers. What altered this state of mind so swiftly was a sudden, widespread acceptance of the ideas Paine put forth in Common Sense , in words that mirrored the innermost thoughts of men at every level of society in every colony. With unprecedented daring he attacked the king as a “hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh” and “the Royal Brute.” He assailed hereditary monarchy, denounced the British establishment for exploiting the lower classes there and in America, and appealed to colonists to declare for independence and make their land a refuge for Europe’s downtrodden. “Every thing that is right or reasonable pleads for separation,” he argued. “The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘Tis time to part. ”
Paine himself said the pamphlet sold 120,000 copies within three months; others estimated half a million; and pirated editions appeared in German, French, and Dutch. In terms of the percentage of population reached, Common Sense was the greatest best seller ever published in America a booklet so exactly suited to the moment that by late spring of 1776 it had produced a wave of public feeling surging toward independence.
His next contribution came at the lowest ebb of the cause. Paine had joined George Washington’s army after the defeats on Long Island and Manhattan, and he marched with the troops on their agonizing retreat through New Jersey. Having seen and borne it himself, Paine realized that there was in this extraordinary display of courage and fortitude a nobility and a source of inspiration for all Americans, could they but hear of it, and when the army arrived in Newark, he sat before a camp-fire and began writing, “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 his country; but he that stands it Now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” It was the first of a series of broadsides he would publish under the heading The American Crisis, but this one appeared when the army and the country had most desperate need of it, and the message was read to Washington’s troops before their astonishing victories at Trenton and Princeton.
War’s end found Paine writing a moving memorial to Congress: “Trade I do not understand. Land I have none … I have exiled myself from one country without making a home of another; and I cannot help sometimes asking myself, what am I betteroffthan a refugee.” New York gave him a farm in New Rochelle, but in 1787 the restless Paine went to England, where in 1791 he wrote The Rights of Man . In it he argued that all civil rights are based on natural rights; he advanced a farseeing concept of economic justice and social welfare, attacked critics of the French Revolution, and urged Englishmen to overthrow their monarchy. For it he was outlawed.
Fleeing to Paris, he became a French citizen, was elected a member of the Convention, and was later thrown into jail (where he completed The Age of Reason, a defense of deism that was unfairly condemned as an “atheist’s bible”). Finally he returned to the United States, only to find that most Americans had forgotten him or had turned against him because of his radicalism or his personality (he was, a contemporary said, uncouth, coarse, “loathsome in his appearance, and a disgusting egotist”).
Ignored or despised, he died in 1809. But death brought no peace to the stateless, nonconforming soul of Thomas Paine. After he was interred in a corner of his farm, vandals desecrated the tombstone before William Cobbett, the English reformer, stole his remains and shipped them to England. His bones, still unburied when Cobbett died, passed with the latter’s effects into the hands of a furniture dealer to vanish forever.