When Thomas Paine's
ship pulled into Baltimore harbor on October 30, 1802, a large gathering of
friends and admirers were waiting at dockside to welcome him back. Others
stood by as well, some filled with loathing, merely to observe a famous
figure. Since leaving the United States in 1787 to find a builder for his
iron bridge, Paine had authored some of the most incendiary tracts of the
18th century, had been imprisoned and narrowly escaped Robespierre's
guillotine, and was widely reported to be a drunk and an atheist.
journeyed to Federal City on November 5 to pay his respects to the country's
third president, he found that he needed an alias and help from a
presidential aide to get a room at Lovell's, the city's only hotel. As he
later wrote a friend and future biographer, Thomas Clio Rickman,
You can have no
idea of the agitation which my arrival occasioned. From New Hampshire to
Georgia (an extent of 1,500 miles), every newspaper was filled with applause
The source of
the abuse was the Federalist press, a collection of newspaper editors and
writers who were the big-government allies of Alexander Hamilton and his
Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson, the new president, had unseated
Federalist John Adams and many of his congressional cohorts in what Jefferson
called the "Revolution of 1800."
The party of
war, taxes, and privileges for the rich, coupled with a strong loyalty to
England — which it sought to emulate in all its corrupt glory —
had been thrown out in favor of one promising to be bound by the "chains
of the Constitution." The Democratic-Republicans (or simply the
Republicans, as Jefferson's party was called) sought to disentangle
government from people's lives, both within the country and abroad.
Paine had been
staying in France since his release from prison in late 1794 and had been
frustrated in his wish to return to America by the possibility of capture by
British warships. The English had convicted him in absentia of seditious
libel for Rights of Man, Part the Second and other political writings,
and they were determined to intercept and hang him if he ever set sail again.
When England and France signed the Treaty of Amiens on March 25, 1802,
inaugurating a year's respite from war, it was once again safe for Paine to
be at sea, and he left Le Havre on September 1.
Federalist rumors that Jefferson wanted Paine back in the states to help
defend his administration from Federalist attacks, Paine himself apparently
saw his return as a well-earned retirement opportunity.
He had turned 65 in 1802 and still suffered lingering bouts of pain and fever
from his ten-month incarceration under Robespierre. As
the 18th century's most influential political pamphleteer, Paine's reputation
was born with the American Revolution he was largely responsible for
creating, and he wanted to spend his last years among people with whom he
shared a passion for liberty.
But there was
never to be any lasting peace for a firebrand like Paine, whose immense
popularity with commoners made life uncomfortable for politicians, priests,
and pundits everywhere.
The Struggle to
Paine grew up
in mid-18th century England under "a criminal code that would hang a
ten-year-old boy for stealing a penknife or permit women to be stoned to death
in the pillory." The thatched cottage in Thetford,
where he was born in 1737, stood near one of the execution sites, a
wind-swept hill known locally as the Wilderness. There, each spring,
convicted peasants were hung with great ceremony under the direction of a
pompous hypocrite from Cambridge known as the Lord Chief Justice.
the poor was uncommon; the offenses usually involved crimes against property,
such as stealing a bushel of wheat or purchasing a stolen horse. The courts
viewed the well-to-do quite differently. Even in cases of homicide, they were
often acquitted or given nominal sentences. One of
Paine's first written works was a poem satirizing the decision of a Sussex
court to hang a dog named Porter because its owner had voted for a member of
Parliament the judges didn't like.
had long since driven small farmers off their land and into the cities, where
the more-adaptable ones became factory workers. Others
turned to begging, thievery, or worse, all of which Paine witnessed in the
first half of his life.
The son of a
Quaker father and an Anglican mother, Paine attended school until he was 12,
never learned Latin or any language other than English, worked at various odd
jobs in his youth, was married twice, and finally during a period of utter
despair met Benjamin Franklin in London, who was so impressed with Paine's
intellectual fire that he recommended Paine seek deliverance in the American
recently been dismissed as a tax collector, for leaving his post for three
months to petition Parliament for better pay for his fellow excise officers.
The loss of his job led to the breakup of his second marriage. At 37, with
little left to lose, Paine took Franklin's letter of recommendation to
Philadelphia in late 1774 and found work writing for and editing a new
published article, "The Magazine in America," appeared on January
24, 1775, and included a special tribute. Foreign vices, he wrote, engaging
his poetic flair, should they survive the voyage from Europe,
on their arrival, or linger away in an incurable consumption. There is a
happy something in the climate of America, which disarms them of all their
power both of infection and attraction.
biographer Jack Fruchtman, Jr. observes, "This was the beginning of
Paine's long love affair with America."
"Other than the Bible, The Rights of Man
outsold all other books in English history."
On March 8,
1775 Paine published "African Slavery in America," in which he not
only condemned slavery ("Certainly one may, with as much reason and
decency, plead for murder, robbery, lewdness, and barbarity, as for this
practice") but offered his thoughts on how to abolish it humanely. In a
much shorter piece ("A Serious Thought"), published on October 18,
Paine again expressed his hatred of slavery along with the manner in which
so-called Christians treated American Indians, and concluded that
When I reflect on
these [injustices], I hesitate not for a moment to believe that the Almighty
will finally separate America from Britain. Call it independence or what you
will, if it is the cause of God and humanity it will go on.
seeds of American independence were imported "with the troops from
Britain," as one contemporary writer observed, it was Paine's 77-page
pamphlet Common Sense, published anonymously on January 10, 1776, that
imparted passion and urgency to the movement. It argued persuasively that the
choice for Americans was independence or slavery, that King George, far from
deserving unconditional loyalty, was in truth "the Royal Brute of Great
Britain" and the one chiefly responsible for the oppressive measures
imposed on the colonists.
irreverent polemics made the pamphlet a huge success, with an estimated
120,000 copies sold in three months, reaching tradesmen and statesmen alike.
Later editions featured his name on the cover to dispel rumors that John
Adams had written it. He asked printers to sell it for an affordable two
shillings and, in a futile gesture, directed his share of the profits to the
American military cause. With the publication of Common Sense,
Rothbard tells us that
Tom Paine had,
at a single blow, become the voice of the American Revolution and the
greatest single force in propelling it to completion and independence.
whose hatred for Paine grew stronger with each passing year, later conceded
that "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of
Washington would have been raised in vain." He described the
pamphlet as "a poor, ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous
July 4, 1776, Paine joined the Continental Army and served as General
Nathaniel Greene's aide-de-camp. Shortly before Washington crossed the
Delaware on Christmas night for an early morning attack on a Hessian garrison
at Trenton, Paine penned the first of a series of essays known as "The
American Crisis." It is said that Washington ordered the essay read to
his demoralized and ill-clad troops during a sleet storm before making the
crossing. The essay, immortalized in American history with its opening words
— "These are the times that try men's souls" — may or
may not have inspired the men, but it did boost the spirits of patriot
civilians when they heard news of the Americans' decisive victory.
When the war
ended, Paine had time to pursue his interests in natural science and designed
a single-span iron bridge that he tried to get constructed. When no one in
Philadelphia would build it, he left the country on April 26, 1787, at age
50, to present a model of his design to the French Academy of Sciences. The
Academy liked it, but the country was too much in debt to build it, so Paine
took his model to Britain's Royal Society. Again, no one was interested in
Craig Nelson writes, over the following years Paine "would migrate
constantly between London and Paris, enjoying the company and admiration of
some of Europe's most charismatic figures," as he looked for someone to
build his bridge. In England he came to know such people as Whig leader
Charles James Fox, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, preacher Richard
Price, educator William Godwin, and author Mary Wollstonecraft.
surrounded by such illustrious figures, Paine had mixed feelings about
leaving America, as he explained in a letter to a newly married friend, Kitty
Nicholson Few, in January 1789:
Though I am in
as elegant style of acquaintance here as any American that ever came over, my
heart and myself are 3,000 miles apart; and I had rather see my horse Button
in his own stable … than see all the pomp and show of Europe.
years hence (for I must indulge in a few thoughts), perhaps in less, America
may be what England now is! The innocence of her character that won the
hearts of all nations in her favor may sound like a romance, and her
inimitable virtue as if it had never been. The ruins of that liberty which
thousands bled for, or suffered to obtain, may just furnish materials for a
village tale or extort a sigh from rustic sensibility, while the fashionable
of that day, enveloped in dissipation, shall deride the principle and deny
to get a 90-foot experimental version of his bridge erected across the Don
River in England, and one of the visitors to the site was the liberal Whig
and member of Parliament, Edmund Burke. Paine and Burke became friends, and
while living within a short stroll of each other in London found numerous
occasions to engage in lengthy political discussions.
Fever in France
London, Paine would receive letters from Jefferson in France telling him
how firmly the
American experiment [the French Revolution] was taking root in Paris ….
He shared each of Jefferson's letters with Edmund Burke, expecting that the Whig
deputy would also be pleased. Burke, however, was very much not pleased.
"The London Times editorialized that
Paine ought to go to France to join 'the regular confusion of democracy,' and
on September 13, 1792, after receiving word he was about to be murdered,
that's exactly what he did."
If France could
be become a republic, Paine reasoned, then any country in Europe could become
one, and the modern principles of liberty "would not begin and end in
the New World." In November 1789 he sailed to Paris to see this dream
evolve. He met with Lafayette and the new American emissary, Gouverneur
Morris, who concealed his low opinion of him. In his diary, Morris wrote,
"I tell [Lafayette] that Paine can do him no good, for that, although he
has an excellent pen to write, he has but an indifferent head to think."
returned to London, he brought with him the key to the Bastille Lafayette had
entrusted to his care to send to George Washington. In his cover letter to
Washington, Paine said
principles of America opened the Bastille is not to be doubted; and therefore
the key comes to the right place.
On January 17,
1790, Paine began drafting an essay on the principles embodied in the French
Revolution. Those very principles horrified Burke, who set about "to
expose them to the hatred, ridicule, and contempt of the whole world." Paine learned of Burke's forthcoming pamphlet from a
bookseller in Piccadilly, who also told him of how Burke was struggling to
finish it. Paine decided not to call on his friend until either it came out
or he gave it up.
ended on November 1, 1790, when Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in
France appeared at booksellers. It attacked the idea of republican
self-government, saying the people of England looked upon
hereditary succession of the crown as among their rights, not as among their
wrongs; as a benefit, not as a grievance; as a security for their liberty,
not as a badge of servitude.
"fear God," they "look up with awe to kings; with affection to
parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with
respect to nobility."
indeed a contract … [but] as the ends of such a partnership cannot be
obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those
who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and
those who are to be born.
state as often as there are floating fancies [would mean that] … no one
generation could link with the other. Men would be little better than the
flies of a summer.
major tenet of the Enlightenment, Reflections held that human reason
was weak, and custom, tradition, and religion gave life real meaning. The
"swinish multitude" of English workingmen had no business
conducting the complex affairs of state, which should be left in the hands of
their betters. The state should not oppress the workers, Burke said, but the
state would suffer oppression if "they, either individually or
collectively, are permitted to rule." Burke wanted neither tyrants nor
mobs. He correctly predicted the French Revolution would end in a military
Rights of Man
rebuttal, Rights of Man, Part the First, appeared on February 22,
1791, to coincide with the birthday of George Washington — to whom he
dedicated it — and the opening of Parliament. Joseph Johnson, the
publisher, became so frightened after a few unbound copies were printed that
he refused to continue publishing it. A second publisher, J.S. Jordan, soon
picked it up, a French translation was issued, and an American edition
included a letter of praise from Thomas Jefferson that Jefferson had never
intended for publication.
"While Paine, the world's most famous
antimonarchist, was defending the life of the king of France, he was being
tried in absentia for his own life in England."
I came out, the British population numbered ten million, with a 40
percent literacy rate. British novels typically sold 1,250 copies, and
nonfiction works sold 750 copies. In its first three months, Rights I
sold 50,000 copies in its official version alone. As with Common Sense,
Paine wanted the pamphlet sold at the cheapest possible price to reach the
widest possible audience. Yet, it initially sold for
three shillings — the same price as Burke's — a high price for
that day, which might explain why it was pirated so heavily. By contrast, Reflections
sold 5,500 copies in its first seventeen days and 19,000 within the first
year. It too was translated into other languages, including French, Italian,
Burke's position on inherited social contracts, Paine said that
Every age and
generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and
generation which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond
the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.
As Paine sees
it, Burke tells both his readers and
the world to
come, that a certain body of men, who existed a hundred years ago, made a
law; and that there does not now exist in the nation, nor ever will, nor ever
can, a power to alter it.
Paine argues that the idea of government originating as a social contract
between governors and governed fails the test of logic. He wrote,
It has been
thought a considerable advance toward establishing the principles of freedom,
to say, that government is a compact between those who govern and those who
are governed: but this cannot be true, because it is putting the effect
before the cause; for as a man must have existed before governments existed,
there necessarily was a time when governments did not exist, and consequently
there could originally exist no governors to form such a compact with.
therefore must be, that the individuals themselves, each in his own
personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other
to produce a government; and this is the only mode in which governments have
a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
Unable to find
a chargeable offense in Rights I, the government of William Pitt the
Younger instead paid a Scots lawyer and former Maryland resident, George Chalmers,
500 pounds sterling to write a hostile biography of Paine. Chalmers, a
biographer of Daniel Defoe, wrote under the pseudonym Francis Oldys.
also circulated a counterfeit letter alleged to have been written by Paine's
mother in which she complained of his debts, his mistreatment of his wife,
and his lack of respect for his parents. Another writer accused Paine of
having carnal relations with a cat. Dedicating Rights
I to Washington helped protect Paine from the British because of the
American president's international stature, and also because both governments
were at the time secretly engaged in negotiations that would end in the Jay
Treaty. Prosecuting the author might have disrupted their attempts at
securing an agreement.
Rights of Man,
Part the Second, dedicated to Lafayette, appeared in March 1792 as
an answer to some of the attacks Burke and others made on Rights I. This
time, both publishers Johnson and Jordan considered it too dangerous to
print. Thomas Chapman agreed to publish it but wanted to own the copyright
and offered Paine one thousand guineas for it. When Paine refused, Chapman
decided the book was too libelous to publish.
"His widely published 'Letter to Washington'
described the party of Hamilton as 'disguised traitors' who were 'rushing as
fast as they could venture, without awakening the jealousy of America, into
all the vices and corruptions of the British Government'."
an explicit indemnity in which he proclaimed himself as author and publisher
of the work, and would therefore answer to it if the government came calling,
Paine convinced Johnson and Jordan to undertake publication. Other than the
Bible, it outsold all other books in English history.
became the bible for numerous political clubs that arose across England
calling for a national assembly to draft a written constitution. At meetings,
many of those in attendance could neither read nor write, and a reader was
elected to read Paine's pamphlet to them. Thomas Hardy formed one of the
better-known clubs, which reached 2,000 members after six months.
Members had one
thing in common: none owned property, and thus according to English law could
not vote. Rights II, Hardy said, "seemed to electrify the nation,
and terrified the imbecile government of the day into the most desperate and
unjustifiable measures." Burke referred to the clubs as "loathsome
insects that might, if they were allowed, grow into giant spiders as large as
government, fearing their poor and wretched would catch the revolutionary
disease from across the channel, and seeing the widespread popularity of
Paine's Rights II among their destitute, launched an aggressive public
relations campaign and combined it with a series of draconian laws that came
to be known as "Pitt's reign of terror." The Federalist Adams
administration would copy the Pitt campaign almost point for point.
Concluding that civil war was imminent because of "the seditious
doctrines of Thomas Paine," the government issued a royal proclamation
in May, 1792 specifically targeting Paine. Rights II was considered
seditious because it was being ushered into the hands of the underclass
— "even children's sweetmeats [were] being wrapped in it."
On May 14,
publisher J.S. Jordan was ordered into court, and on May 21 a 41-page summons
for Paine was left at Clio Rickman's house, where he had been staying,
charging him with seditious libel for bringing "the constitution,
legislation, and government of [the English kingdom] into hatred and contempt
with his Majesty's subjects." Paine went to court
on June 8 and was ordered to return in December.
meantime, Pitt's agents continued their crackdown on Paine and his book. One
bookseller was sentenced to 18 months in jail for selling Rights II,
while another man received the same punishment for saying, "I am for
equality. Why, no kings!" in a coffeehouse. Paine had government spies
on his trail everywhere he went. Across England the government incited riots
and public protests against Rights II through a national society
called the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against
Republicans and Levellers. "Effigies of Paine were hanged and then
incinerated along with copies of his books to shouts of 'God Save the
King!'" All of this, and more, came before Paine's Age of Reason
entered the world.
truly feared prosecuting Paine because of his popularity with commoners.
Throwing him in jail or hanging him would almost certainly incite his growing
followers into open revolt. The London Times editorialized that Paine
ought to go to France to join "the regular confusion of democracy,"
and on September 13, 1792, after receiving word he was about to be murdered,
that's exactly what he did. Paine and two other radical writers left that
night for Dover, where they stayed at a hotel until the next boat sailed in
the morning. Paine had carried his papers and letters in a big trunk, and the
customs agents wasted no time reading them for incendiary offenses. A hostile
crowd had gathered outside to hurl insults at Paine and his friends as they
boarded the boat at daybreak. He was never again to return to his country of
King and a Firebrand
In France, he
arrived to a hero's welcome in Calais, and as their representative he took
his seat at the Convention in Paris on September 19, 1792. Two days later the
legislature formally abolished royalty in France. In the two months
following, the Convention discussed what to do about their former king, Louis
XVI. Paine rose to argue against executing him, saying the new French
republic had an opportunity to inspire the world with its noble republican
government. On January 15, Paine spoke again to the assembly, reminding them
of Robespierre's address two years earlier condemning capital punishment. He
recommended sending the king and family into exile, where they would
eventually be forgotten.
Two days later
the legislature voted narrowly in favor of death. Once again, Paine spoke to
condemn this decision. The guillotine, he said, rose "from a spirit of
revenge rather than from a spirit of justice." Paine's Convention
enemies were already shouting their disapproval, but he refused to back down,
If after my
return to America, I should employ myself in writing the history of the
French Revolution, I had rather record a thousand errors on the side of mercy
than be obliged to tell one act of severe justice.
the world's most famous antimonarchist, was defending the life of the king of
France, he was being tried in absentia for his own life in England. In
mid-December 1792, the charge against Paine of propagating "seditious
libel" was introduced to the court by the prosecuting attorney, Spencer
Perceval, who 17 years later would become Britain's Prime Minister. As
biographer John Keane writes,
The Crown had
handpicked a special jury — all wealthy, plump, and respectable men
filled with icy hostility toward Paine. The recent revolutionary events in
France had left them in a state of deep shock.
accused Paine of being a traitor to his country and a drunken roisterer who
had vilified Parliament and king. Defending Paine was Thomas Erskine,
attorney general to the Prince of Wales, a renowned criminal lawyer, and one
of Paine's associates. The prince had threatened to remove Erskine from his
royal sinecure if he defended Paine. He kept his promise.
began by showing how Rights II was scurrilous and seditious, then
presented the jury with a letter Paine had written to the attorney general,
Archibald MacDonald, on November 11, 1792. Paine told MacDonald that
If you obtain
[a guilty verdict], it cannot affect me either in person, property, or
reputation, otherwise than to increase the latter; and with respect to
yourself, it is as consistent that you obtain a verdict against the Man in
the Moon as against me. …
absence from your country affords the opportunity of knowing whether the
prosecution was intended against Thomas Paine, or against the right of the
people of England to investigate systems and principles of government; for as
I cannot now be the object of the prosecution, the going on with the
prosecution will show that something else was the object, and that something
else can be no other than the people of England, for it is against their
rights, and not against me, that a verdict or sentence can operate, if it can
operate at all. …
Government of England is as great, if not the greatest, perfection of fraud
and corruption that ever took place since governments began, is what you
cannot be a stranger to, unless the constant habit of seeing it has blinded
your senses; but though you may not choose to see it, the people are seeing
it very fast, and the progress is beyond what you may choose to believe.
Erskine spent four hours arguing that Paine was innocent by virtue of the
freedom of the press. He even quoted Paine in denying that freedom of
expression would lead to civil unrest. It was not civil disputes conducted in
the press that provoked armed rebellion, but the rapacious acts of
prosecution rose to reply, the jury foreman interrupted and told the court
not to bother. He and the other jurors had already reached a verdict: guilty.
Erskine's friends in court, fearing for his safety, hustled him outside,
where several thousand supporters cheered him and his missing client. Against
his wishes, his horses were unhitched from the carriage, and Erskine was
borne aloft in his carriage and shouldered through the streets to his home,
amid cries of support along the way.
Within days of
the trial, English aristocrats were entertaining themselves by wearing shoe
nails inscribed with the initials "TP," so they could crush Paine
and his ideas simply by putting a foot down.
himself to France, Paine had told a friend that "if the French kill their
king, it will be a signal for my departure, for I will not abide among such
sanguinary men." When his efforts to save the king ended with Louis
XVI's execution on January 21, 1793, Paine and others who had opposed the
death sentence began fearing for their own lives. The violence and pace of
events quickened in the following days, and French political leaders decided
to step up their war activities. On February 1, 1793, France declared war on
England, giving the Pitt government and its subjects a common enemy and
"As Jefferson's close friend of some 26 years,
Paine saw no reason to show him a sense of deference just because he was
Once again, war
came to the rescue of a state losing its grip on its citizens. Constitutional
reform and lower taxes could wait; of more immediate importance was preparing
for the planned invasion of the savages from across the channel. The British
navy began patrolling the Atlantic shipping lanes ready to board any French
or American ship they encountered. Any traitors they captured would be
slapped in chains and brought back to England for a swift hanging. Thus,
Paine had little choice but to remain among the "sanguinary men" he
could no longer abide.
Seeking a lower
political profile, he and six colleagues moved to a stately old house in the
village of Saint-Denis, about nine kilometers north of Paris. Though Paine
still attended the Convention, he was far more subdued. Saint-Denis provided
a much-needed haven for relaxation and recuperation.
evenings, he would go to White's Hotel and enjoy conversations with
like-minded expatriates. He spent the day at his wall-enclosed house, where
he had access to an acre of garden that was "stocked with excellent
fruit trees" and a farmyard that was "stocked with fowls, ducks,
turkeys, and geese." For amusement he and the others used to feed the
birds from the parlor window on the ground floor. As summer arrived, they
would pass the time in childish amusements, such as "marbles,
scotch-hops, battledores, etc., at which [they] were all pretty expert." At 56, Thomas Paine was still young enough to enjoy
however, was self-destructing. In addition to wars with Austria, Prussia, and
England, the central government found itself in a civil war with various
French départements over the economy and the draft. The
Girondists, once the leading faction in the legislature and Convention, lost
power to the Jacobins, who inaugurated a "spirit of denunciation"
in a move to eliminate all opposition. After June 2, 1793, when the Jacobin
takeover was complete, Paine no longer attended the Convention.
assassination of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat on July 13, terror became the
order of the day. Anyone who the magistrates deemed an "enemy of
liberty" was incarcerated, and during the 13-month Terror over 200,000
people suffered this fate. Roughly 10,000 of them died.
On October 3,
Paine's name was added to the official list of traitors to the republic. By the end of October nearly all of Paine's friends were
either in prison waiting to be guillotined or trying desperately to leave
France. The shattering of any hope for a republic in France or elsewhere in
Europe depressed Paine, and as he admitted to Clio Rickman, he was
"driven to excesses in Paris." This is the origin of Paine's
centuries-long reputation as a drunkard, with additional evidence coming near
the end of his life when he took alcohol to moderate his physical discomfort.
Feelings of helplessness pervaded his thoughts:
Pen and ink
were then of no use to me: no good could be done by writing, and no printer
dared to print; and whatever I might have written for my private amusement,
as anecdotes of the times, would have been continually exposed to be
examined, and tortured into any meaning that the rage of party might fix upon
it; and as to softer subjects, my heart was in distress at the fate of my
It was during
this period of utter despair — when Paine "expected, every day,
the same fate" as his friends — that he turned to God.
Specifically, he applied what he considered his God-given reason to a searing
critique of the popular views of God, taking special aim at the Bible.
Reflecting Kant's motto of the Enlightenment — "Sapere aude!"
[Dare to know!] — Paine titled his critique The Age of Reason.
Published in two parts, it would ruin his reputation among many admirers.
As Paine was
drafting his case for deism in the fall of 1793, the French government,
headed by Robespierre, was conducting a process of dechristianization.
"The true priest of the Supreme Being is Nature itself," he
René Hébert led the extreme anti-Christian attack. Church bells
were melted into artillery; the length of a week was changed from seven days
to ten; priests were murdered, cathedrals and cemeteries were looted and
vandalized. Hébert even had the Notre Dame Cathedral renamed to the
Temple of Reason. Robespierre eventually accused
Hébert of counterrevolutionary atheism and had him guillotined on
March 24, 1794.
Paine offered Age
of Reason in part as an antidote to the government's campaign. He feared
the French were in danger of losing their spiritual sense, that the carnage
wrought by Robespierre and his followers would cause them to "lose sight
of morality, of humanity, and of the theology that is true."
considered a radical work, Age was within the bounds of contemporary
intellectual discourse. John Adams, for example, had privately written that
the Bible was "full of whole cartloads of trumpery." James Madison
said the fruits of Christianity were
indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity.…
Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every
Jefferson had advised his nephew, Peter Carr, to "Question with boldness
even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the
homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear." Later in life,
Jefferson produced an edited version of the New Testament with the
supernatural elements removed, though he would not permit it to be published
in his lifetime. Some Unitarian ministers used Age as a basis for
sermons, and Unitarian ministers in England considered Age merely a
variation on ideas they had been writing about for decades.
When Paine was
arrested in the predawn hours of December 28, 1793, on the charge of being a
foreigner, Age was still unpublished. He managed to pass the
manuscript to his friend Joel Barlow, who handled its publication, before
being taken to his eight-by-ten cell at the Luxembourg prison. When Barlow's
efforts to get Paine released failed, Paine turned to American minister
Gouverneur Morris, who stonewalled, claiming to American officials that
pushing Paine's case might hasten his trial and bring about his execution.
negotiations with the British over the Jay Treaty were still ongoing, and it
is quite plausible Morris and the rest of the Washington administration
wanted to keep Pitt's foremost critic locked up. And shut up as well.
Sometime in late February, 1794 Luxembourg inmates were denied all
communication with the outside world.
Paine was struck with typhus and in June was moved to a larger cell with
three Belgians. At times his temperature would spike so high he couldn't
remain conscious for more than a few minutes. On July 24, a bureaucratic
blunder spared their lives when all four were scheduled for execution but
failed to get collected that night when the death squad cart rolled through,
picking up the condemned.
Two days later,
on July 26, Robespierre announced he had uncovered yet another group
conspiring to overthrow the republic, but by this time his deputies, feeling
the blade about to fall on their necks, decided to bring an end to the
Terror. Beginning on July 28, Robespierre and 108 of his followers were
In late August
Virginia senator James Monroe replaced Morris, and Paine wasted no time
getting a note to the new minister pleading for his release. Monroe was
startled to find the author in jail and promised Paine he would work for his
release. On November 6, 1794, after ten months in prison, Paine was freed.
incarceration, and his abandonment by the Washington administration, left
Paine physically and spiritually deteriorated. As biographer Nelson writes,
Enlightenment optimism and his boyish good-naturedness were now all but
extinguished into bitterness and parsimony, and to medicate his physical and
emotional suffering he started drinking again. … In many respects, the
great Thomas Paine of Common Sense and Rights of Man had been
done away with as effectively as if he had been guillotined.
with Monroe for 18 months while he recovered and wrote Age of Reason Part
II, Agrarian Justice, and The Decline and Fall of the English System
of Finance during this period. In the latter work he predicted England's
constant warmongering would push its national debt so high the Bank of
England would suspend gold payments. On February 26, 1797, his prediction
became reality and the government prohibited the bank from making payments in
gold until 1821.
July 30, 1796, after moving out of Monroe's home, Paine sent his "Letter
to Washington" to Benny Bache, who published it in Philadelphia on
October 17 to coincide with the national elections.
States of Great Britain
By the time
Paine arrived in the United States six years later, he had provoked too many
people to expect a comfortable retirement. His widely published "Letter
to Washington" described the party of Hamilton as "disguised
traitors" who were "rushing as fast as they could venture, without
awakening the jealousy of America, into all the vices and corruptions of the
British Government." As to Washington himself,
Paine said "the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an
apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or
whether you ever had any."
"But Paine was well aware of the eternal
hostility to liberty. His country of birth had corrupted it beyond
recognition, he had seen it collapse in France, and he feared that one or the
other would strike his adopted country."
eager to smear the Jeffersonians, Paine's outspoken attacks on Washington and
the Bible, combined with his reported drunkenness, relieved them of the need
for rationality. Why engage in civil debates with a debaucher who questions
the morality of the Redemption? As Paine wrote,
believe, that any system of religion that has any thing in it that shocks the
mind of a child, cannot be a true system.…
story of God the Father putting his son to death, or employing people to do
it … cannot be told by a parent to a child; and to tell him that it was
done to make mankind happier and better is making the story still worse, as
if mankind could be improved by the example of murder; and to tell him that
all this is a mystery, is only making an excuse for the incredibility of it.
for Paine the Word of God is not to be found in the Bible or any other
written work, but in nature, which he refers to as the Creation:
speaks a universal language, independently of human speech or human language,
multiplied and various as they be. It is an ever-existing original, which
every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it
cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not
depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it
publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other.
bleeding from their election defeats, what could be sweeter than having a
"monster" like Paine take up the banner of limited government?
press had a field day. The General Advertiser referred to him as
"that living opprobrium of humanity … the infamous scavenger of
all the filth which could be raked from the dirty paths which have been
hitherto trodden by all the revilers of Christianity." The Philadelphia Port
Folio called him "a drunken atheist, and the scavenger of
faction." Boston's Mercury and New England Palladium saw fit to
label him a "lying, drunken brutal infidel, who rejoiced in the
opportunity of basking and wallowing in the confusion, devastation,
bloodshed, rapine, and murder, in which his soul delights."
Meanwhile, the National
Intelligencer, a republican newspaper, quietly urged its readers to show
Paine "a sentiment of gratitude for his eminent revolutionary
showed great political courage by frequently inviting Paine to dine with him
at the presidential mansion, telling his devout Episcopalian daughters on one
occasion that Mr. Paine "is too well entitled to the hospitality of
every American, not to cheerfully receive mine." After spending an
evening listening to Paine regale them with worldly tales, his daughters
softened their opinion of him somewhat.
socializing with Paine only gave Federalists another fat target. As
Jefferson's close friend of some 26 years, Paine saw no reason to show him a
sense of deference just because he was president. William Plumer, a
Federalist senator from New Hampshire, recalled in jaw-dropping amazement a
dinner he attended at the presidential mansion in which Paine "seated
himself at the side of the President, and conversed and behaved towards him
with the familiarity of an intimate and an equal!"
Such an observation, of course, was also meant to implicate Jefferson for
failing to behave "presidentially."
Toms" were often seen together strolling the roads around the capital,
waving their arms in visibly animated conversation, prompting one Federalist
paper to say, "Our stomachs … nauseate at the sight of their
affectionate embraces, and we entertain no doubt that you, as well as we,
have become impatient to get out of such impious company."
slurs kept the public distracted. While the readers of such comments might
have nodded in agreement, left unaddressed was the question of what kind of
government they would have. It was clear to Paine, Jefferson, and other
republicans that there were two kinds of patriots. One took the words of the
Declaration of Independence to heart and fought to establish a new government
that would secure man's inalienable rights. The others regarded the
Declaration as convenient cover for an entirely different kind of government
and did everything in their power to create another England over here.
For the first 12
years of its existence, the federal government had been in control of the
Hamilton-led nationalists, who pushed hard to reinterpret the Constitution in
a way that imparted more "energy" to the government. In stark
contrast to Jefferson's view that the Constitution was a set of limitations,
Hamilton saw it as a grant of powers, both explicit and implied. Under
Hamilton's interpretation there would be virtually nothing the government
could undertake that would be considered unconstitutional.
"To Paine, America 'represented liberal Utopia,
the triumph of civil society over government,' and the Federalists were
attempting to reverse it."
In his "Report on Manufactures" of
December 5, 1791, for example, Hamilton wrote that "the power [granted
to Congress] to raise money is plenary, and indefinite;
and the objects to which it may be appropriated are no less
comprehensive." This, he argued, was the real meaning of the general welfare
clause. The phrase "General Welfare … necessarily embraces a vast
variety of particulars, which are susceptible neither of specification nor of
Commerce Clause, which was intended to regulate commerce between states to
promote free trade, became inclusive of all commerce
under Hamilton's interpretation. And as taxes need tax collectors, and none
are more effective than armed ones, he took the "war powers" clause
and extended it to mean a standing army in peacetime. Under the
constitutional power to "provide for the common Defence," Congress
has no restraints in providing resources to the military, or as he put it in Federalist No. 23,
ought to exist without limitation, because it is impossible to foresee or
define the extent and variety of national exigencies, or the correspondent
extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them.
But even the
argument from "exigencies" was deceitful. Hamilton
"justified" the Whiskey Act of March 3, 1791, as a means of
servicing the national debt, but then qualified his statement by saying the
tax would be more useful as "a measure of social discipline
than as a source of revenue." When citizens compared the hated tax to
the British Stamp Act of 1765 and began tarring and feathering tax
collectors, he personally accompanied a 13,000-man federal army of conscripts
to western Pennsylvania to show the rebellious small distillers, who bore a
disproportionate share of the tax, what he meant by "social
discipline." As Charles Adams notes, however, Hamilton's dreams of glory were
The rebels had
already capitulated before the army took to the field. Of the twenty rebels
who were brought back to Philadelphia to face treason charges, only two were
convicted, and they were pardoned by Washington.
invasion proved fruitful to land speculators. As Thomas P. Slaughter explains
in The Whiskey Rebellion,
spent huge sums in western Pennsylvania to supply the soldiers with food and
whiskey. This brought the largest injection of specie that the region had
ever experienced. Cash-poor farmers had money to spend, and they spent it on
One of those
speculators was the president himself, George Washington, who saw the value of
his properties rise by about 50 percent.
"energy" also brought about a quasi war with France, as well as the
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Alien Acts made it legal to ship aliens
out of the country without due process of law, while the Sedition Acts gave
the Federalists the power to arrest their critics, which they promptly did.
Among those convicted were numerous anti-Federalist newspaper editors and
Vermont congressman Matthew Lyon. Lyon won reelection while serving his
sentence and cast the deciding vote in favor of Jefferson after the election
of 1800 produced an electoral tie that was decided in the House of
government expanded the army and navy in anticipation of full-scale war with
France, it passed a $2 million tax on houses and slaves to fund the
additional expenses, prompting another armed tax revolt in Pennsylvania
called the Fries Rebellion. Even the Federalists' defeat at the polls in 1800
didn't stop their drive for a court-government: outgoing Federalist president
John Adams appointed hundreds of "midnight judges" during the last
days of his administration in an effort to subvert Jefferson's strict
construction of the Constitution. During his
presidency, Jefferson removed many of the midnight appointments, repealed
taxes, and pardoned all those who were imprisoned or accused under the
Sedition Act, which expired in 1801. He even located and repaid with interest
those who had been fined under the Act.
to US Citizens
it might appear that Paine had returned to the United States at just the
right time if his intention was to enjoy a quiet retirement among friends.
Jefferson was in office, and "Prime Minister"
Hamilton had managed to split the Federalist Party with his intriguing
against both Jefferson and Adams in the election of 1800.
But Paine was
well aware of the eternal hostility to liberty. His country of birth had
corrupted it beyond recognition, he had seen it collapse in France, and he
feared that one or the other would strike his adopted country. The
"happy something in the climate of America" had been polluted by
the Federalist program of war, debt, taxes, and lies. Could the author of Common
Sense and Rights of Man restore the values so boldly asserted in
the Declaration of Independence?
tried. He wrote a series of articles called To the Citizens of the United
States and Particularly to the Leaders of the Federal Faction, in which
he attacked the Federalist Party as "a nominal nothing without
principles." To Paine, America "represented
liberal Utopia, the triumph of civil society over government," and the
Federalists were attempting to reverse it. A new
generation of self-made men had grown up since the Revolution, and he needed
to connect to them.
It's true that
Paine, in 1783, was one of the first to call for a stronger central
government. But his idea of strengthening the Articles of Confederation was
to "add a Continental legislature to Congress, to be elected by the
several States." When he was asked to propose his suggestion in a
newspaper article, he declined, saying he "did not think the country
was quite wrong enough to be put right." It
would require a dexterous feat of magic to make Paine out as a friend of big
in a good deal of political bashing in his Citizen letters — for
example, when he refers to "the consummate vanity of John Adams, and the
shallowness of his judgment" in Letter II. He also augmented his
arguments with self-serving background material, such as the story of his
incarceration at the Luxembourg in Letter III. Interwoven with these
elements, though, were timeless political insights, perhaps none better than
the following from Letter VIII, published on June 7, 1805:
only a prudent and honest administration to preserve America always in peace.
Her distance from the European world frees her from its intrigues. …
independence of America would have added but little to her own happiness, and
been of no benefit to the world, if her government had been formed on the corrupt
models of the old world. It was the opportunity of beginning the world
anew, as it were; and of bringing forward a new system of
government in which the rights of all men should be preserved that
gave value to independence. …
It is by
keeping a country well informed upon its affairs, and discarding from its
councils every thing of mystery, that harmony is preserved or restored among
the people, and confidence reposed in the government.
Paine's health continued
to deteriorate, and he died in Greenwich Village, New York, on the morning of
June 8, 1809. The man who inspired the country to secede from a corrupt state
had six people in attendance at his funeral, none of whom were dignitaries.
Thomas Paine, "Letter to Thomas Clio Rickman" in Philip S. Foner
ed., The Complete Writings of Thomas
Paine in Two Volumes (New York: The Citadel Press, 1945),
p. 1,439. [Hereafter Complete Writings.]
John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life (New York: Grove Press, 1995),
Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of
Modern Nations (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006), p. 307.
Richard M. Ketchum, The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and
Princeton (New York: Owl Books, 1999), p. 4.
Keane, pp. 4–9.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics
(Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute 2008), pp. 615–16.
Writings, Vol. 2, p.
Jack Fruchtman, Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom (New York: Four Walls
Eight Windows, 1994), p. 44.
Writings, Vol. 2, p. 20.
Murray Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty, Volume IV:
The Revolutionary War, 1775–1784 (Auburn:
Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1999), p. 137.
George Smith, Eyes of Fire: Thomas Paine and the American
Revolution for a variation on the alleged reading of Paine's
Nelson, p. 176.
Writings, Vol. 2, p. 1,276.
Nelson, p. 189.
pp. 190, 191.
Keane., p. 294.
Nelson, p. 195.
Keane, p. 289.
Writings, Vol. 1, pp. 251, 252, 277–78.
Nelson, p. 203.
Keane, p. 309.
Nelson, pp. 219–220.
Keane, p. 346.
Nelson, p. 245.
Writings, Vol. 2, pp. 512–13.
Nelson, p. 246.
See also "Forgetfulness" in Complete Writings, p. 1,124.
Keane, p. 386.
"Forgetfulness" in Complete Writings, Vol. 2, p. 1,124.
Nelson, p. 263.
pp. 268, 269.
"Letter to George Washington," Complete Writings, Vol. 2, p.
"The Age of Reason, Part First," Complete Writings, Vol. 1,
Keane, p. 470.
Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the
American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 224.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo, Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy
Betrayed the American Revolution — and What It Means for America Today
(New York: Crown Forum, 2008), p. 27.
Thomas Woods and Kevin Gutzman, Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of
American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush (New York: Crown
Forum, 2008), p. 6.
Writings, Vol. 2, p. 949.
Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick eds., Thomas Paine Reader (New York:
Penguin Books, 1987), p. 25.
Writings, Vol. 2, p. 914.
George F. Smith
Read his book : The
Flight of the Barbarous Relic
Visit his website
Read his blog
George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of the Barbarous
Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman and the editor of Barbarous