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Paine, Thomas

The Oxford Companion to United States History

Willi Paul Adams

Paine, Thomas 

(1737–1809), political philosopher and pamphleteer.

Born in England, Paine grew up in the small-town artisan milieu of Thetford, Norfolk, where his Quaker father taught him corset-making. He failed in this trade and as a minor excise officer. In 1774, jobless, debt-ridden, and separated from his second wife, he sailed for Philadelphia bearing letters of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin. Pursuing a new career as a political pamphleteer, he made history by advocating American independence in the best-selling pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776. He supported the Revolutionary War through rousing articles and a pamphlet series called The Crisis (1776–1783). Service as a military aide-de-camp, secretary of the Continental Congress's Committee for Foreign Affairs (1777–1778), and clerk to Pennsylvania's legislature (1779–1780) did not hold his attention for long.

In 1787, Paine returned to Europe, moving between London and Paris to promote a single-arch iron bridge he had invented and patented. He supported the moderate wing of the French revolutionaries, sat in the French National Assembly for Calais, and narrowly escaped the guillotine. His two-part treatise, The Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke's Attack on the French Revolution (1791–1792), defended republican government and its natural-rights foundation. His Age of Reason (1795–1796), a major statement of Enlightenment criticism of traditional Christian theology, tarnished him as an “infidel.” Returning to the United States in 1802, Paine died, impoverished, in New Rochelle, New York. A brilliant polemicist with an independent critical mind that personified the Enlightenment's international aspect, Paine during his first American stay played a crucial role in arguing the case for revolution and in sustaining support for the war once it began.


Jack Fruchtman Jr., Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom, 1994.Find this resource:

    John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life, 1995.Find this resource:

      Willi Paul Adams