One of our founding fathers, who was at the heart of the American Revolution, died alone and unnoticed in 1809. A paltry six mourners attended the funeral of the great thinker who had inspired millions of people to think in fresh, new ways about our world.
Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, England on January 29, 1737. His parents were impoverished working class people. The father, Joseph, was a corsetmaker. Young Thomas grew up among farmers and uneducated people. He seemed destined to the same fate when he had to leave school at age 13 to be apprenticed to his father.
Paine served a short stint as a merchant seaman during the Seven Years’ War between England and France. During his younger years he worked variously as an excise officer, and as a corsetmaker. Later he became a servant under two different employers. Paine also applied to be an ordained Church of England minister. At the same time, he began a private study of science.
In 1768, Paine moved to East Sussex and boarded in a room above the snuff and tobacco shop of Samuel Ollive. Ollive introduced Paine to the “Society of Twelve” a group who met twice a year to discuss issues of importance to the town. It was also where he met and married his landlord’s daughter, Elizabeth Ollive.
Paine’s first political work was a 1772 article titled, “The Case of the Officers of Excise”. His petition to Parliament for better pay and conditions for excisemen failed to pass in 1774 and he was dismissed from his job. He became impoverished again and his personal property was auctioned off to help pay his debts. He also separated from his wife. Later that year, he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, who invited Paine to emmigrate to the American colonies.
Paine arrived in Philadelphia in late 1774 with an introduction from Franklin, just as matters were heating up between England and the colonies. Following the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, Paine advocated that the struggle should go beyond a mere protest against unfair taxation, but continue as a fight for full independence.
In January of 1776, Paine anonymously printed his 50 page pamphlet, “Common Sense”, in which he argued for American independence. Perhaps, a quarter-of-a-million copies of “Common Sense” were quickly bought up by the colonists. The message, written in simple, everyday language, argued that a democratic republic was far superior to monarchy.
“Common Sense” stated that an American revolution would be of global importance. Paine wrote that the struggle of the rights of English people would be transformed into one with deep meaning for people everywhere. “America would be an asylum for mankind.”
Throughout the next ten years, Paine dedicated himself to the movement for American Independence. His famous “Crisis Papers started with the phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls”.
Paine boarded a ship back to Europe in 1787 and became part of the debate for democracy that was fired by the French Revolution. He authored “Rights of Man”, a work that defended the French Revolution. In it, Paine proposed his vision of a democratic republic as a protector of social wellbeing. “Rights of Man” advocated public employment, progressive taxation, and retirement pensions. In effect, Paine linked political reform with social reform.
Paine had to flee England after he was charged with seditious libel because of his advocacy of the end to monarchy. In France, Paine became one of only a few foreigners elected to the National Convention. Although Paine was anti-monarchial, he opposed the execution of the king. This stand angered the Jacobins, so when they rose to power, the Jacobins sentenced Paine to a prison term.
Following Paine’s release from imprisonment, he composed his last major pamphlet, “The Age of Reason”. In it, Paine championed land reform or “agrarian justice”. The pamphlet also explained his views and admiration of deism. In it, he also criticised Christianity. As a reaction to “The Age of Reason”, Paine came under attack by evangelical Christians after he returned to the United States in 1802.
In his later years, Paine was ridiculed by the general public. Paine’s friends betrayed and abandoned him due to religious opinions. Thomas Paine died on June 8, 1809 in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Ten years later, the English agrarian journalist William Corbit disintered Paine’s remains and ostensibly transported them back to England, intending to give Paine a fitting, honorable reburial. However, the bones were still in Corbit’s possession after his own death. Paine’s remains became lost, but there are numerous legends and claims about where they may have ended up.