January 1995

Tom Paine: The Man Who Inspired the United States War of Liberation

Hans Peterson recently presented a widely acclaimed one-hour drama of the life of Tom Paine on local PBS television stations. He is a well-known local radio personality. His presentation to The Humanists of Utah contained much of the same material.

Thomas Paine was one of the most admired and respected men in America in 1776. Twenty years later, he was one of the most hated and vilified men in the country.

What happened? He spoke his mind. Without hesitation, without spin, without polls, without compromise.

All of you know two things that Tom Paine wrote. The first I will share with you in just a moment. They are eight words that you hear once a year but probably don’t focus on the man who said it.

The man who gave our country its official name died alone, shunned and despised, in a seedy hotel in New York City.

During the Revolutionary War, almost every American soldier carried a copy of a pamphlet by Paine in his pocket. At George Washington’s orders, his officers would read these words by Thomas Paine to the soldiers before a battle:

“Oh, the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot, will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us: The harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph.”

Twenty years later, George Washington was silent as Paine awaited the executioner in a Paris dungeon.

During America’s struggle for freedom, John Adams said of Thomas Paine, “History will ascribe the revolution to him,” so powerful were Paine’s words in motivating the troops to fight on.

In this century, Teddy Roosevelt said, “He was a filthy, rotten, little atheist!” He was none of these. Who was he?

Thomas Paine was born in England in 1737. His mother was an Anglican. His father was a Quaker. His mother was years older than his father and considered her marriage to Tom’s father a few steps down the social ladder.

Tom’s father was a corset-maker and Tom was his apprentice. Now if you were 16, and your father was preparing you for a life of making women’s girdles, what would you do?

Tom ran away from home. He tried to join the crew of a ship known as The Terrible, commanded by, and this is true, Captain Death. That was the man’s name. Concerning the name of the ship, remember that 250 years ago the word Terrible implied strength and bravery, as in, “He fought a terribly good fight.”

Concerning the name of the Captain, God knows what a man was doing with the name Death. I can’t imagine that it was too inspiring to potential sailors.

Young Tom never found out. His father found him before the ship sailed and marched him home to three more years of corset making.

And in probably one of the least surprising bits of self-fulfilling prophecies, the ship on which Tom had tried to sail, very soon thereafter, sank, drowning the entire crew and their optimistically named Captain.

One of the men who influenced the young Tom Paine was John Wilkes, a printer and a publisher, who dared to tell the truth about the King and his sycophants.

John Wilkes once debated a frog of a man, known as Lord Sandwich. In this debate, Lord Sandwich said, “John Wilkes, you will either die on the scaffold or of venereal disease.” To which John Wilkes replied, “That, sir, depends, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress.”

In 1759, when he was 22, Tom Paine married Mary Lambert. He was devoted to her, and they talked often of their plans for the future, a family, a home, a career in which Tom would somehow use his gift for words and ideas.

But in less than a year, God took her from him. He was shattered and spent several years wandering from town to town, from job to job, until finally he became an excise officer, a tax collector.

The tax collectors were poorly paid, overworked, and hated by the citizens who looked upon them as representatives of the monarchy and the upper classes. In the coastal area where Paine was assigned, smuggling was routinely practiced by the shopkeepers of the area who fought against the high tariffs imposed by the crown. Many of Tom’s fellow tax collectors took bribes from the businessmen of the village. Paine would not.

In the first of many battles Tom Paine would do with the Crown, he wrote a pamphlet calling for better working conditions and more salary for the tax collectors.

At his own expense, he had printed thousands of copies of the pamphlet, took them to London, and handed them out to members of Parliament. The few who bothered to read his petition dismissed it and sent him away.

It was the beginning of a lifelong campaign on which Paine embarked to better the conditions of several countries who were treated not much better than the animals owned by the royalty.

Listen to Paine:

“No natural or religious reason can be assigned to this great distinction of men into Kings and subjects. Good and bad are the distinctions of heaven. Male and female the distinctions of nature.

But how can a race of men come into the world so exalted above the rest and distinguished like some new species? In England a King has little more to do than to make war and give away land, which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation.

A pretty business indeed for a man to be given 809 thousand sterling a year to do this, and to be worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth to society is one honest man than all the crowned clowns who ever lived!”

In his thirties, Tom had married a second time. To supplement his meager earnings as a tax collector, he and his wife ran a small shop. Neither the business or the marriage were successful. His wife left him. The shop went into bankruptcy. And the government fired him.

He was accused of taking bribes, drinking too much, and being away from his job, handing out pamphlets in London. He was on the run from debtors.

To fully appreciate his accomplishments in life, his contributions to the very origins of our country, it is necessary to consider his plight at this point in his life. How many of us could have made it through?

The life behind him cursed him. He wondered if he should have sailed with Captain Death and taken his chances. Why go on, to do what, drink himself into the gutter while the dandies drove by in their golden carriages?

Had it been winter, he could have hung his coat in the tavern and walked into the woods and said, Nice Try, Tom, and closed his eyes in the snow.

But it was Spring, and the trees and the flowers were coming back!

If there ever were a man whose middle name should have been resiliency, it was Thomas Paine.

When all seemed hopeless, when many a lessor man would have given up, Paine would not. He was introduced, in London, to a rather amazing man by the name of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin had read Paines’ pamphlet and told him there was a place for him in America. Franklin gave Tom the money for the crossing and a letter of introduction.

Tom Paine almost died on the trip across the Atlantic, spending most of the trip in sickbed, racked with fever and dysentery. Once, when the Captain came to check on him, Tom asked, “Am I going to die?” To which the Captain replied, “Eventually.”

Arriving in America, Paine found this new continent exhilarating and adventurous. Commerce on the move, people speaking their minds, the rumors of revolution resounding from Boston to Charleston.

Thanks to Benjamin Franklin, Paine quickly found work as a magazine editor and writer in Philadelphia. Eager to join in the chorus of anti-royalty dissidents, Paine fired his fighting words back across the Atlantic with both barrels.

Tom’s growing notoriety was not only in the content of his messages. It was also his style. A self educated man, he refused to write in the flowery, classical prose used by most men of letters at that time. Paine preferred to slam the words down on the paper like a mug on the bar. Listen:

“A government of our own is our natural right! Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? As well as the lover can forgive the ravisher of his mistress, can this continent forgive the murders of Britain?

The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth! Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor. In the following pages, I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments and common sense.”

That was it. That was the name of the most famous, most important pamphlet ever written in the history of the world: Common Sense.

While the educated few debated the finer points of government and rebellion, the masses listened to the works of Thomas Paine and were inspired to pick up their muskets and demand their independence.

Not all of the citizens of this distant colony were in favor of separation from Mother England. No, many of the richest and most powerful men in Boston, New York and Philadelphia took Paine, Jefferson and Adams for radicals.

But when the King closed the land west of the Alleghenies to immigration, the reply of the radicals was quick and loud! “We will live where the seasons find us and we’ll not be paying taxes imposed in England on trade in America without representation.” The war was on!

Paine enlisted in the army as a private in the militia. It was agreed, however, that he was much more valuable with a pen than with a rifle. And thus it happened that he was with Washington at Valley Forge when the British had the rebels on the run.

General Howe’s 8,000 troops seemed certain to over-run this rag-tag army. Hundreds of volunteers in the American forces slipped away at night. Their uniforms were in tatters. Their pay was useless paper money. The food was meager and dwindling. Their wives were at home with their children, frightened, starving.

And then came the winter. The cold was numbing. The winter nights came early and lingered into windy, freezing dawns. It was on a black, frigid evening of unanimous discontent that Paine took up his pen: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

These eight simple words became the battle cry in the hearts and souls of the brave men and women who stood their ground, who refused to give up, who fought to the death, so that this greatest of all countries, dedicated to freedom, could be born.

It was of great satisfaction to Thomas Paine to have his words used as a rallying cry. It brought him great praise and elevated stature. It could have also brought him the rope!

Back in England, Lord North put Paine’s name of the top of a list of traitors to be hung after the American insurrection was put down.

Former shopkeeper Thomas Paine, who went bankrupt in England, was among a delegation sent to Paris to request a loan from the French to help the American war effort.

Reunited with his old friend Benjamin Franklin, Tom called on King Louis the 16th at Versailles. They pointed out to his Majesty how powerful England would be, were America to lose the war. They got their loan.

It is an odd scene to imagine: Thomas Paine, the writer who railed against the monarchy, the man whose words helped defeat the army of George of England, in polite petition to the King of France. A King whose life, eventually, he would attempt to save.

Back in America, Paine became involved in a minor scandal. He was boarding in the home of Mrs. Martha Daley, a beautiful widow in her early 30’s. Many of the former Tories who had been vexed verbally by Paine, and some of the powerful Quakers in Philadelphia, took this arrangement as proof of Tom’s immorality. John Adams even stated that Paine should have married Mrs. Daley and ended the whispers.

After the war was won, Tom grew weary of the arguments, the petty squabblers, the interminable propositions. He began to look again toward Europe. First, because he had received word that his parents were in dire straits. Second, because things were beginning to get interesting in France. The American Revolution had set in motion a world-wide awareness of citizens’ rights and the possibility of representative democracy.

Some of Paines’s detractors, and there were many, claimed that Tom was impatient with peace and prosperity and thrived on conflict and controversy. They enjoyed spreading the impression that Paine felt compelled to abandon America, enjoyed getting involved in the politics of other countries, and causing additional problems for the relationships between America and her possible allies.

How did Tom react to such criticisms? The same way a lion reacts when thrown a piece of meat. He fed on it. He loved it. He lived for it.

Returning to England he was too late to bid farewell to his father who had died. But became very close to his 91-year old mother. He did not seek out, or even see again, his second wife. But he felt, and wrote about, his solitary life.

“Although I may seem a wanderer, I am a sincere friend of the married state. It is the harbor of human life. It is home. And that one word, Home, can express so much more than any other word can convey.

Oh, for a while, we may glide along the tide of youthful, single life and be wonderfully delighted, but it is a tide that flows but once. And what is worse, it ebbs faster that it flows, leaving many a hapless voyager aground.

For I am one who has experienced the fate I am describing. I have missed my tide. It passed me by while every beat of my heart was on the salvation of my dear America.”

Paine was just as much a man of science as he was a man of words. If he had not fallen into such ignominious disfavor, more of you would know that he invented the first iron bridge. Yes! It was hailed in the scientific academies of England and France.

Like most inventors he also had some duds. Paine thought that if gunpowder could be used as a weapon, it could be used to drive a motor. Nice idea, except that his motor exploded, nearly killing him.

He also thought he had invented a smokeless candle until his mother pointed out the smoke coming up from his–smokeless–candle.

While in England, Paine wrote a book titled “The Rights of Man.” It was intended as a rebuttal to the writings of Edmund Burke on the French revolution.

Among the other things he said was this: “Men and women have the right to any government they choose. If they want a king, let them say so and let them have a king. But if he becomes obnoxious, and he will, then let them throw him out.

“For a true government must be of the people, by the people and for the people.” Has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?

Consider the chutzpa of this man. Here he was in England, having just participated in, and been one of the loudest voices of, the American Revolution. The crown’s colony, a source of considerable income for England, had broken free and gone its own way.

And now, within the shadow of The Tower, he was telling the people of Britain they should be allowed to toss the king out if they saw fit.

It was as though Saddam Hussein had bought a condo in Miami Beach and become a commentator on the NBC Evening News.

Naturally, the King and his supporters were incensed. Their first campaign against the traitor pamphleteer was to have several false biographies of him written and published throughout England. Many of the lies about Paine, invented for these books, took hold and have endured.

His detractors in America also made sure the books became available in the new country. These books later became very useful to the anti-Paine movement in America.

In an effort to end his uncomfortable opposition to the throne, the government of England indicted Tom Paine for sedition.

In his usual bulldog manner, Tom wrote a letter to the government telling them that he was not guilty and that he looked forward to the trial. They were not amused.

One day, Tom was having lunch with William Blake, a famous intellectual and mystic of the day. Blake had received word from powerful friends that Paine was in great danger. He warned Paine: “Tom, do not go home or you are a dead man.” So Tom left that afternoon on the stage for Dover.

As he prepared to board the boat for France, the Customs Inspector called Paine over to his desk. He slowly inspected the contents of Paine’s luggage. He discovered a letter to Tom from George Washington.

Regardless of the problems Washington had caused for England, the Inspector was impressed by the letter from such a famous man, convincing him that Paine must be an important person, and so waved him through.

The irony here is that Washington should, however indirectly, save Paine’s life, when Washington’s inaction would latter contribute to Paine’s lifelong hatred of the first President of the United States.

Minutes after the boat pulled away from the dock, two horsemen arrived with a court order, instructing the Customs Inspector to take and hold a Mister Thomas Paine.

In France, Tom was received as a hero. His writings during the American Revolution were the blueprints for many of the leaders of the French Revolution.

In Calais, Paine was greeted by marching bands, cheering crowds, and the news that he had been elected a representative to the new French Government.

What seemed at the time to be a great and glorious tribute was, in fact, a title that would prove to be the most dangerous honor Tom Paine could have accepted.

In Paris, Paine participated daily in the new French government. He was considered a Father of freedom and was highly respected. Even Napoleon sought his advice.

The tide turned against him, however, when the French decided to execute King Louis the 16th. Tom was against capital punishment and pleaded with his fellow representatives:

“As France has become the first nation in Europe to abolish the practice of royalty, let her now become the first nation to abolish the penalty of death.

Let us carry our thoughts into the future when the dangers are ended and the irritations forgotten, what today appears to be an act of justice, may then appear to be an act of vengeance.

Citizens, give not the tyrant of England the satisfaction of seeing your King perish on the scaffold. Your King, who helped my dear brothers in America break George’s chains.”

Alas, they did not listen. Louis went to the guillotine like the thousands who were to follow in The Terror.

Because he had spoken for the life of the King, Paine was considered by many as an enemy. He awoke one day to find the power had shifted to a group that considered him bothersome at least, and dangerous at most.

And on Christmas Day, 1892, the French government “du jour” tried him for treason, found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

On the evening that he awaited with dread, Thomas Paine received the word that he was scheduled to be executed.

As the guards approached his door, Tom braced himself for the end. The guards came slowly.

But kept going. Past his cell.

The next morning he was staring at a miracle. Or an accident. Call it what you may. The mark on his cell door, indicating that he was to be taken, had been put on the door while it was swung open, flat against the wall in the outside corridor.

When the door was closed, the mark faced him on the inside of the cell. When the executioner came, he saw no mark and passed him by.

For ten months, Paine waited for America to come to his rescue. In vain. It would have taken only a brief note from George Washington, who was a hero to the French, to secure Paine’s freedom. But it was not forthcoming.

Historians explain that Washington received inaccurate and biased reports from his Minister to France, a man who hated and envied Tome Paine and was glad to see him in prison.

This was of little comfort to Paine, who nearly died from a bleeding ulcer.

When James Monroe became minister to France, he was shocked to learn of Paine’s incarceration. He wrote this letter to the French government: “Thomas Paine is one of America’s most distinguished patriots. The services he rendered his country in its struggle for freedom have implanted in the hearts of his fellow countrymen an eternal sense of gratitude. If there are no charges against him, please restore his liberty.”

Two days later, he was free.

At this point, had he gone home and lived the quiet life of a senior statesman and completed his goal of writing the history of the American revolution, perhaps there would be pictures of him in schoolrooms today and your children would have to memorize his birthday.

But, no. In addition to a lifelong bitterness toward George Washington, Paine also brought with him from prison a book titled “The Age of Reason”, his reflections on religion–and God.

In spite of the words of Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Paine was not an atheist. He was a deist, a person who believes in God, but who does not believe in organized religions and, most dramatically, does not believe that Jesus Christ was God.

In another cruel irony of Paine’s slide into the shadows of American history, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and many other early leaders of our country were also Deists. However, they chose not to discuss it publicly in books and “letters to the Editor.”

In Paine’s words, “I believe in God and I hope for happiness in a life beyond this one. I believe in the equality of man. I believe that religious duty consists of loving mercy, doing justice, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy. But–.”

These words turned a nation against him:

“But–the bible is a fable, written by man in his language, which is always changing, always subject to mistakes, whether by translators or printers or copyists.

The bible is filled with obscene stories, voluptuous debaucheries and unrelenting vindictiveness. It is cruel and I detest everything that is cruel.

Ay, what say ye now of Thomas Paine, ye who would have fought with him at Valley Forge when he scribbled in frozen ink? Ye who would have rescued him from the Paris prison where he slept with the rats? What think ye now of Thomas Paine?”

He was vilified from hundreds of pulpits throughout the Christian world. Former friends would cross the street whenever he approached.

“Sure, Tom, speak your mind, but go do it somewhere else!”

He received word from America that he was now hated. That he had lost his good name.

If there was any chance of any sympathy for him in America, it was diminished even further by the open letters he wrote to newspapers in Philadelphia and Boston, denouncing the new country’s President, George Washington.

One of these letters said: “It is my duty to report to the American people on the mismanagement and corruption of the new President’s administration. The man is unprincipled and selfish. He has no real friends for he can desert you with cold aloofness. The world will have to decide if he has abandoned all his principles, or did he ever have any?”

Well. This caused quite a stink. When Paine returned to America–he waited until Thomas Jefferson was President–he was a VERY unpopular person. He called on Jefferson at the White House and was received as the man who was the light in the darkest days of the Revolution.

There were many powerful people who criticized the new President for receiving Paine, but that mattered not to Jefferson, who did not forget the weight of the words Tom had written when all seemed hopeless.

When Paine returned to his home in Bordentown, New Jersey, he was denounced by all of the ministers in the region as an anti-Christ in league with the devil.

He continued to write letters to newspapers whenever the misdeeds of some government officials required his awakening the sleeping citizenry.

Many of his proposals were centuries ahead of his time. He denounced slavery as man’s wickedest invention. Because it was “common sense,” he fought early for equal rights for women.

Thomas Paine, in 1802, argued that elderly citizens should be given money on which to live when they could no longer work. He called it a Senior Security.

He believed it should be a crime to be cruel to animals.

And in an opinion that we would have done well to start working on, way back then, he suggested that divorce should be a rational procedure, with no prejudice to husband or wife.

He spent his final days alone, shunned, hated by most Americans for daring to dislike the Father of Their Country, and for having a different religious philosophy than their own. Thomas Paine dedicated his life to the birth of a nation where men were free to speak their minds, only to be dismissed by that nation when he expressed his beliefs in areas in which the young nation disagreed.

In the last years of his life, Tom existed in very humble surroundings. An unfair fate, when you realize that his pamphlets, “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis”, sold more copies than any other writings in America. He was not cheated from the considerable revenue from his writings. He simply gave all of his profits to the American Revolutionary Army.

His detractors were very thorough. For decades after his time, school boys in England and America would sing: “Poor Tom Paine, here he lies, nobody laughs and nobody cries. Where he’s gone, how he fares, nobody knows and nobody cares.”

Not only cruel, but very true. Today, nobody knows where his bones are.

Several months after he died, his bones were dug up and taken back to England–and put on display–in a circus. When it turned out that people were not interested, Tom Paine’s bones–were thrown away.

His earthly remains may have been discarded, but his words, his books, his ideals will exist forever. Allow me to conclude with some of his words:

Here then is the origin and rise of government, a thing rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.

“For no matter how our eyes may be dazzled by show, or our ears deceived by sound–no matter how prejudice may warp our wills, or vested interest darken our understanding, the simple voices of nature and reason will say–do what is right.”