"The neglected pioneer of one revolution,Thomas Paine was born in Thetford (just north of Cambridge) the son of a Quaker corset maker. His entire career, up to his age 37, had been a succession of failures and frustrations; he had from the beginning experienced extreme poverty, privation, and drudgery. With letters in hand from an American he had met in London, one, Benjamin Franklin, Paine set off for Philadelphia arriving there in December of 1774. Little did Paine know how fortunate he was to have a letter of introduction signed by Ben Franklin; he was soon employed as the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. He wrote, condemning it all: of Negro slavery, of the political condition of women, of the lack of copy right laws, of the cruelty to animals, of the custom of dueling, and of war as a means to settle international disputes. These particulars of the human condition meant little to anyone in those years. Another matter, however, was the question of American patriotism. In the spring of 1775 came the battles of Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. "[This country was] set on fire about my ears almost the moment I got into it." All along he was able to spread his views, as he was easily able to do in his journalistic position, -- that it was common sense to support the colonies in their fight with England and to this effect he put out a small pamphlet, Common Sense: it was to effect a powerful change in the minds of many men, and won, at a critical time, a number of American colonists over to the cause of independence. Within a few months after the appearance of Common Sense, most of the states had instructed their delegates to vote for independence, only Maryland hesitating and New York opposed. On July 4, 1776, less than six months from the date when Paine's famous pamphlet came off the press, the Continental Congress, meeting in the State House at Philadelphia, proclaimed the independence of the United States.2
the honoured victim of another,
brave to the point of folly ..."1
Directly the fighting broke out, Paine shouldered a musket and went off to join Washington's army as a private, though, he was soon promoted as an aid-de-camp to General Greene. All along Paine continued to write often at night after a long day's march by the light of a camp fire at times when all those around him were depressed by the many set backs which the colonial fighters were to experience. These writings were collected up and put out under the title, The American Crisis.3 We cannot help but put forward the first few lines of his first piece in The American Crisis, lines which go to the very soul of any freedom fighter, then or now:
"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 his country; but he that stands now, deserves the 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 everything 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."With the American Revolution, by 1787, having become an accomplished fact, Paine returned to England. In England, Paine brought out The Rights of Man (1792), a reply to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution (1790). Burke attacked the principles of the French Revolution, and the violence and excesses of its leaders. This work, The Rights of Man made Paine a wanted man and so he escaped to France. Never one to get along with too many at any one time, Paine soon ran afoul of the strong forces in France, and, the Robespiere faction, in 1794, saw to his imprisonment. In a French prison for ten months, Paine got down to the writing of The Age of Reason.
Though himself "a pious deist," in The Age of Reason Paine reflected the atheistic feeling that had swept France during these revolutionary times; The Age of Reason became known as the "Atheist's bible." On returning to America in 1802, Paine found himself, directly on account The Age of Reason, out of favour, ostracized by political leaders and churchgoers. After seven incredible years of abuse, hatred, neglect, poverty, and ill health, Paine died in 1809, at the age of 72; and was denied burial in a Quaker cemetery.
1 Brailsford, Shelley, Godwin, and Their Circle, 1913 (New York: Holt, nd) at p. 77.
2 To get into a military fight with England was not immediately embraced by all of the colonial leaders. Samuel Adams and John Hancock were strong for war; but George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were, at the first, still loyal to the crown.
3 Paine's works may be readily found on the 'net.