Thomas Paine papers  1776-1811
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Biography

The "citizen of the world," Thomas Paine rose from a lower class Quaker home in England to become one of the most influential radical minds of the late 18th century. After working as a corset maker -- his father's trade -- and as a tax collector, Paine immigrated to Philadelphia in 1774, and quickly immersed himself in revolutionary agitation. A naturally persuasive writer, his pamphlet, Common Sense (Philadelphia, 1776), became a siren call for American independence. In eminently clear, straightforward language, it outlined an argument for the superiority of republican government over a monarchy and demanded legal and political equality for all citizens. Furthermore, Paine asserted that his argument extended beyond the narrow conditions of colonial America, envisioning an international struggle for civil and human rights. Common Sense sold as many as 150,000 copies in 1776, and within a year, had been translated into French.

Although clearly articulating a revolutionary position, Paine was not enamored of the violence spawned by the Revolution. "I joined in the defense of America," he wrote after the war, "on the ground that a Country invaded is in the condition of a house broke into, and on no other principles than this, can a reflective mind, at least such as mine, justify war to itself" (1787 September 21). Yet Paine never wavered from the radical cause, writing consistently in support of independence and, later, taking part in the movement that produced the highly democratic constitution of the state of Pennsylvania.

Returning to England in 1787, Paine enlisted his pen in the French Revolution, earning even greater renown with his essay, The Rights of Man. A more mature work than Common Sense, and even more popular, the Rights of Man was an effective counterweight to Edmund Burke's counter-revolutionary attacks, linking demands for political reform with a social program to ameliorate the conditions of the lower classes. In the political climate of the day, it ensured Paine's status as anathema in Britain, and after being charged with seditious libel for calling for an end to the monarchy, he took flight to France.

There, in the maelstrom of revolutionary France, Paine won election to the National Assembly, one of the few foreigners so honored, but he no longer found himself seated on the most radical pole of the political spectrum. Instead, after criticizing the Jacobin decision to execute the king, Paine found himself seated in prison. Released in 1794, he published both the Age of Reason, which defended Deism while attacking Christianity, and Agrarian Justice, calling for land reform.

Paine's return to America in 1802 completed his change of fortune. As the Rights of Man had made him infamous in Britain, so the Age of Reason made him infamous in the United States. Once adored by the American masses, the "taint" of Paine's "irreligion" (Deism) marked him for derision during the first phases of the American evangelical settlement. He died in 1809, nearly bereft of support, leaving only his powerful legacy of republican revolutionary tracts.