Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809) was an English born American activist, pamphleteer, and philosopher. He is primarily known for his Common Sense and American Crisis during the American Revolution, and Rights of Man and Age of Reason during the French Revolution.
Thomas Paine was born to a Quaker family on February 9th, 1737, in Thetford, Norfolk, England. Paine attended Thetford Grammar School, served as an apprentice to his father, sailed the seas as a young privateer, and established his store as a corset maker. He would eventually marry Mary Lambert, who tragically passed during childbirth. After losing his wife, child, and store, Paine moved on to work other jobs, some political, and marry Elizabeth Ollive. Like his past work and relationship, this did not last, and Paine and Elizabeth separated in 1774, pushing Paine to move to London. While in London, Paine would eventually meet Dr. Benjamin Franklin, who recommended moving to America to the young Paine.
Paine in America
With a letter of recommendation from Dr. Franklin, Thomas Paine moved to the colonies in 1774 and became a citizen of Pennsylvania the following year. In 1775, Paine was appointed the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine and occasionally wrote in the American Magazine. These papers became popular due to Paine’s pen and leadership, coinciding with the heated events occurring in America. These events tore the colonies apart, with many advocating for reconciliation with the mother country. However, Paine had other ideas he expressed in his famous Common Sense in 1776, and American Crisis from 1776 to 1783. These works advocated American Independence, becoming extraordinarily popular, and changing the national discourse.
Paine in France
After an American victory during the American War of Independence, Thomas Paine pursued work in the newly established America and England. During his time in England, the French had just begun their revolution in 1789 over extreme class disparities, heavy taxes, and unstable policies from the French Monarchy. Many in Britain were terrified of this revolution, fearing it would become transmittable to other older political orders. One such thinker was Edmund Burke. Burke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France as a response to the French Revolution, condemning the carelessness and violence of the radicals in France. Once again, Paine had other ideas that he expressed in his famous Rights of Man in 1791-92, and his Age of Reason in 1793. Rights of man defended the ideas of the French Revolution and the Republic it wanted to establish. Age of Reason on the other hand, defended a singular God from both atheistic French revolutionaries and the religious attacking the French project.
Later Life and Death
Paine’s stances on belief and religious freedom, opposing the execution of the King of France, wanting to adopt a solid constitution, and other controversial issues would anger the more radical members of the French revolution. Paine would be imprisoned in France, where he faced certain death for treason. While in prison, Paine finished his Age of Reason and wrote against U.S. President George Washington for doing little to free him. His freedom would eventually be secured in 1794 by the American Minister to France, James Monroe. Even though Paine had been freed, Paine’s Age of Reason sparked outrage around the world, and his attacks on Washington angered the Americans. Paine returned to the United States despised. He died in 1809 where only a handful of people attended his funeral. His body would be dug up, sent to Britain by journalist William Cobbett to try to memorialize him, and then lost for the rest of time. Paine is the only Founding Father not to be buried in the United States, where no one knows where his body is to this day.