Born: January 29, 1737, in Thetford, Norfolk, England
Died: June 8, 1809, New York City, New York, United States
An Englishman who came to America, Paine was a political philosopher who promoted change through revolution rather than reform. He is renowned for his activities advocating democracy and considered one of the greatest political propagandists in history.
Paine was the son of a Quaker father, Joseph Paine, and an Anglican mother, Frances Cocke Paine. He had a meager formal education; just enough to allow him to master reading, writing, and arithmetic. At thirteen he was apprenticed in his father's trade as corset maker until he left home at nineteen.
He tried various other occupations without much success, finally becoming an officer of the excise. He was dismissed from the excise office for lobbying at Parliament for higher wages for excisemen.
He was twice married while in England, first to Mary Lambert, who died within a year of their marriage in 1759, and lastly to Elizabeth Ollive in 1771, from whom he was legally separated in 1774.
His situation seemed quite bleak when he met Benjamin Franklin in London, who advised him to seek his fortune in America and gave him letters of introduction. Taking the papers and advice, he arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774.
His first regular employment was helping to edit the Pennsylvania Magazine. In addition he published numerous articles and some poetry, anonymously or under pseudonyms. One such article was African Slavery in America, a scathing denunciation of the African slave trade, which he signed Justice and Humanity.
The publication of Common Sense in 1776 established his fame. He argued that the cause of America should not be just a revolt against taxation but a demand for independence from England. More than any other single publication, Common Sense paved the way for the Declaration of Independence, unanimously ratified July 4, 1776.
Enlisting in the Continental army in the same year, he began The Crisis essays, his great contribution to the patriot cause. The influence of the sixteen Crisis pamphlets did much to preserve morale during the winter at the Valley Forge.
Paine then served as secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs from 1777-1779 until controversy forced him to resign. He was not out of work for long. On November 2, 1779, he was appointed clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, a position he held until 1781 when he resigned to undertake a brief mission to France.
Poverty-stricken at the end of the Revolutionary War, New York gave him a farm at New Rochelle and Pennsylvania gave him 500£ for his services. Although his patriotic writings had sold by the hundreds of thousands, he had refused to accept any profits in order that cheap editions might be widely circulated. While living at his new farm in New Rochelle and at Bordentown, New Jersey, he continued writing between 1782-1787.
At this time, he also experimented in iron bridge construction, which led him to England in 1787. His iron bridge without piers was successful in all ways except financially. He was welcomed in England by Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke.
In reply to Burke's condemnation of the revolution of France, Paine published in 1791-1792 his Rights of Man, an immediate sensation which urged an English revolution and caused his banishment from Great Britain. When Burke replied, Paine came back with Rights of Man II, published on February 4, 1792.
Paine's beliefs proved to be too radical for the British government of the era. He stated that men have "natural rights" and urged individuals to free themselves from governmental tyranny. Although it was distributed widely, he was indicted for treason and fled for France.
He was welcomed to France by Condorcet. He took advantage of honorary French citizenship to gain election to the French Convention. In France he hailed the abolition of the monarchy but deplored the reign of terror against the royalists and fought unsuccessfully to save the life of King Louis XVI, suggesting banishment rather than execution. He was to pay for his efforts to save the king's life when the radicals under Robespierre took power. Paine was imprisoned from December 28, 1793, to November 4, 1794, when with the fall of Robespierre, he was released and, though seriously ill, readmitted to the National Convention.
While in prison the first part of his Age of Reason was published (1794), and it was followed by Part II in 1796. The work won him a reputation as an atheist among the orthodox. He also wrote the unjust Letter to Washington, accusing the president of conniving at his arrest in France.
These two last publications made Paine anathema to the Federalists and an embarrassment to the Republicans, whose cause he embraced upon his return to America in 1802.
His last years were spent as an ill, bohemian resident of New York and New Rochelle with inconsistent literary production. Cared for by Madame de Bonneville, he died at New Rochelle, and was buried on his farm because consecrated ground was denied him. In 1819, William Cobbett transferred his remains to England.