Paine’s life in England was marked by repeated failures. He had two brief marriages. He was unsuccessful or unhappy in every job he tried. He was dismissed from the excise office after he published a strong argument in 1772 for a raise in pay as the only way to end corruption in the service. Just when his situation appeared hopeless, he met Benjamin Franklin in London, who advised him to seek his fortune in America and gave him letters of introduction (including one to Franklin’s son-in-law, Richard Bache).
Paine arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774. Bache introduced him to Robert Aitkin, whose Pennsylvania Magazine Paine helped found and edit for 18 months. In addition Paine published numerous articles and some poetry, anonymously or under pseudonyms. One such article was “African Slavery in America,” a scathing denunciation of the African slave trade, which he signed “Justice and Humanity.”
Paine had arrived in America when the conflict between the colonists and England was reaching its height. After blood was spilled at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775, Paine argued that the cause of America should be not just a revolt against taxation but a demand for independence. He put this idea into Common Sense, which came off the press on January 10, 1776. The 50-page pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies within a few months. More than any other single publication, Common Sense paved the way for the Declaration of Independence, unanimously ratified on July 4, 1776.
During the war that followed, Paine served as volunteer aide-de-camp to Gen. Nathanael Greene. His great contribution to the patriot cause was the 16 “Crisis” papers issued between 1776 and 1783, each one signed Common Sense. “The American Crisis. Number I,” published on December 19, 1776, when George Washington’s army was on the verge of disintegration, so moved Washington that he ordered it read to all the troops at Valley Forge. Its opening is among the most stirring passages in the literature of the American Revolution:
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. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us—that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: It is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right not only to tax but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
This paper, combined with the subsequent victory of Washington’s army in the Battle of Trenton later in the month, had the probable effect of inspiring many soldiers, whose term of service would expire January 1, to reenlist.
In 1777 Congress appointed Paine secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. He held the post until early in 1779, when he became involved in a controversy with Silas Deane, a member of the Continental Congress, whom Paine accused of seeking to profit personally from French aid to the United States. But in revealing Deane’s machinations, Paine was forced to quote from secret documents to which he had access as secretary of the Committee for Foreign Affairs. As a result, despite the truth of his accusations, he was forced to resign his post.
Paine’s desperate need of employment was relieved when he was appointed clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania on November 2, 1779. In this capacity he had frequent opportunity to observe that American troops were at the end of their patience because of lack of pay and scarcity of supplies. Paine took $500 from his salary and started a subscription for the relief of the soldiers. In 1781, pursuing the same goal, he accompanied John Laurens to France. The money, clothing, and ammunition they brought back with them were important to the final success of the Revolution. Paine also appealed to the separate states to cooperate for the well-being of the entire nation. In “Public Good” (1780) he included a call for a national convention to remedy the ineffectual Articles of Confederation and establish a strong central government under “a continental constitution.”
At the end of the American Revolution, Paine again found himself poverty-stricken. His patriotic writings had sold by the hundreds of thousands, but he had refused to accept any profits in order that cheap editions might be widely circulated. In a petition to Congress endorsed by Washington, he pleaded for financial assistance. It was buried by Paine’s opponents in Congress, but Pennsylvania gave him £500 and New York a farm in New Rochelle. Here Paine devoted his time to inventions, concentrating on an iron bridge without piers and a smokeless candle.
What began as a defense of the French Revolution evolved into an analysis of the basic reasons for discontent in European society and a remedy for the evils of arbitrary government, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and war. Paine spoke out effectively in favour of republicanism as against monarchy and went on to outline a plan for popular education, relief of the poor, pensions for aged people, and public works for the unemployed, all to be financed by the levying of a progressive income tax. To the ruling class Paine’s proposals spelled “bloody revolution,” and the government ordered the book banned and the publisher jailed. Paine himself was indicted for treason, and an order went out for his arrest. But he was en route to France, having been elected to a seat in the National Convention, before the order for his arrest could be delivered. Paine was tried in absentia, found guilty of seditious libel, and declared an outlaw, and Rights of Man was ordered permanently suppressed.
The first years that he spent in France formed a curious episode in his life. He was enthusiastically received, but, because he knew little French, translations of his speeches had to be read for him. In France Paine hailed the abolition of the monarchy but deplored the terror against the royalists and fought unsuccessfully to save the life of King Louis XVI, favouring banishment rather than execution, which he argued would alienate American sympathy. He was to pay for his efforts to save the king’s life when the radicals under Maximilien Robespierretook power. Paine was imprisoned from December 28, 1793, to November 4, 1794, when, with the fall of Robespierre, he was released and, though seriously ill, readmitted to the National Convention.
While in prison, the first part of Paine’s Age of Reason was published (1794), and it was followed by Part II after his release (1796). Although Paine made it clear that he believed in a Supreme Being and, as a Deist, opposed only organized religion, the work won him a reputation as an atheist among the orthodox. The publication of his last great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice (1797), with its attack on inequalities in property ownership, added to his many enemies in establishment circles.
Paine remained in France until September 1, 1802, when he sailed for the United States. He quickly discovered that his services to the country had been all but forgotten and that he was widely regarded only as the world’s greatest infidel. Despite his poverty and his physical condition, worsened by occasional drunkenness, Paine continued his attacks on privilege and religious superstitions. He died in New York City in 1809 and was buried in New Rochelle on the farm given to him by the state of New York as a reward for his Revolutionary writings. Ten years later, William Cobbett, the political journalist, exhumed the bones and took them to England, where he hoped to give Paine a funeral worthy of his great contributions to humanity. But the plan backfired, and the bones were lost, never to be recovered.