Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, England on February 9, 1737. Paine emigrated to the British American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin, arriving just in time to participate in the American Revolution. He was a political activist, philosopher, political theorist, prolific writer, and revolutionary. Acknowledged as one of the Founders, he authored two influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, Common Sense and The American Crisis. His ideas were quintessentially of the Enlightenment—the notions of individual rights and reason.
Paine’s writings were instrumental in persuading the delegates to the Second Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. Common Sense was so influential that John Adams said, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Common Sense begins with the following paragraphs.
Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. WHEREFORE, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever FORM thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
The last two sentences express the same sentiments Thomas Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence.
Later in 1776, when the colonists, meagerly armed and equipped, were defying the world’s most powerful military, Paine wrote The American Crisis series to inspire the patriots. George Washington had it read to all of his troops.
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 their 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 every thing 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.
Several years after the American colonies won independence, Paine moved to back to Britain. During this time he wrote Rights of Man, in part a defense of the French Revolution against its critics. His attacks on British writer Edmund Burke led to a trial and Paine’s conviction in absentia in 1792 for the crime of seditious libel. Paine was never sentenced as he had moved to France, where he lived for most of the 1790s. He became involved in the French Revolution there. In 1792, even though he was not able to speak French, he was elected to the French revolutionary National Convention. While the more moderate revolutionaries regarded him as an ally, Robespierre and the radicals, regarded him as an enemy. Paine was arrested and condemned during the Reign of Terror, but narrowly escaped the guillotine after Robespierre and his radical faction fell. In 1794 and 1795 he wrote The Age of Reason, which he addressed “To My Fellow Citizens of the United States of America.”
I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinions, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right. Makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.
Paine returned to America in 1802. He died in Greenwich Village, New York City, in 1809.