Tom Paine

Tom Paine said :
‘When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them: my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness : when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.’

‘Thomas Paine was one of the very greatest figures in the history of popular struggle. Paine was committed to free thought, to human rights, to morality in public affairs, to democracy to internationalism, and the promotion of welfare, and it is for those very reasons that he is still hated and feared by the British Establishment because he still represents a direct threat to their power and influence.’

Tom Paine, the son of a Quaker corset maker, was born in Thetford in Norfolk on 29th January, 1737. After being educated at the local grammar school Paine became an apprentice corset maker in Kent. This was followed by work as an exciseman in Lincolnshire and a school teacher in London.

In 1768 Paine moved to Lewes where he was employed as an excise officer. Paine became involved in local politics, serving on the town council and establishing a debating club in a local inn. Paine upset his employers when he demanded a higher salary. Paine was dismissed and he responded by publishing a pamphlet The Case of the Officers of Excise. While in London Paine met Benjamin Franklin who encouraged him to emigrate to America.

Paine settled in Philadelphia where he became a journalist. Paine had several articles published in the Pennsylvania Magazine including one advocating the abolition of slavery. In 1776 he published Common Sense, a pamphlet that attacked the British Monarchy and argued for American independence. During the war with England Tom Paine wrote articles and pamphlets on the superiority of republican democracy over monarchical government and served with Washington's armies. Paine also travelled to France in 1781 to raise money for the American cause.

Paine played no role in American government after independence and in 1787 he returned to Britain. Paine continued to write on political issues and in 1791 published his most influential work, The Rights of Man. In the book Paine attacked hereditary government and argued for equal political rights. Paine suggested that all men over twenty-one in Britain should be given the vote and this would result in a House of Commons willing to pass laws favourable to the majority. The book also recommended progressive taxation, family allowances, old age pensions, maternity grants and the abolition of the House of Lords.

The British government was outraged by Paine's book and it was immediately banned. Paine was charged with seditious libel but he escaped to France before he could be arrested. Paine announced that he did not wish to make a profit from The Rights of Man and anyone had the right to reprint his book. It was printed in cheap editions so that it could achieve a working class readership. Although the book was banned, during the next two years over 200,000 people in Britain managed to buy a copy. One person who read the book was the shoemaker, Thomas Hardy. In 1792 Hardy founded the London Corresponding Society. The aim of the organisation was to achieve the vote for all adult males.

In 1792 Tom Paine became a French citizen and was elected to the National Convention. Paine upset French revolutionaries when he opposed the execution of Louis XVI. He was arrested and kept in prison under the threat of execution from 28th December 1793 and 4th November 1794. Paine was only released after the American minister, James Monroe, put pressure on the French government.

While in prison Tom Paine worked on book on the subject of religion. Age of Reason was published soon after his release and caused a tremendous impact because it questioned the truth of Christianity. Paine criticised the Old Testament for being untrue and immoral and claimed that the Gospels contained inaccuracies and contradictions.

In 1802 Paine moved back to America but the Age of Reason had upset a large number of people and he discovered that he had lost the popularity he had enjoyed during the War of Independence. Unable to return to Britain, Paine remained in America until his death in New York on 8th June 1809. By the time he had died, over 1,500,000 copies of The Rights of Man had been sold in Europe.